It was about 1:30 p.m. in Janesville, December 7, 1941. and Mr. And Mrs. Fletcher were just finishing their Sunday dinner. The radio, which had been playing music, was abruptly interrupted by a news flash announcing that the naval forces of the Empire of Japan had launched an unprovoked attack on a place called Pearl Harbor.
In its memorial issue of December 15, Life magazine published the first U.S. Army casualty list of the war, showing the pictures of 30 American soldiers. Among these was a photo of a very young Private First Class, John R. Fletcher, Army Air Corps. His sacrifice and those of his comrades marked the entry of the United States into World War II.
William “Bill” Horvath had just turned 21. He came from a family that had a history of service to their country. His older brothers both earned their wings in the Army Air Corps — Louis in 1933 and Edward in 1940. Louis was killed in an accident prior to the outbreak of the war, and Edward would go on to fly the P-40 Warhawk in the Pacific Theater, until his death in 1943.
Williams Bay High School could claim each of these men as alumni.
Bill joined the elite 101st Airborne Division, called the “Screaming Eagles,” known by their motto, “Rendezvous with Destiny.” It was a good fit for the young man. He was an imposing figure, standing over 6-foot-5 and weighing in at a strapping 250 pounds. Bill was a born leader, and would go on to earn the respect of his fellow paratroopers.
Two years later, at about 8:30 p.m. on the evening of June 5, 1944, the small village of Williams Bay was quiet and war-weary.
Lawrence Hollister thought about his son Gene, a sailor stationed somewhere in the Pacific. Robert Horvath hoped his brother-in-law was safe. Gordon Ammon had been in the invasion of Sicily, and was now engaged in the liberation of Rome.
At this same moment, it was H-Hour for Bill Horvath, as he stood in the door of his C-47 SkyTrain, preparing to jump into occupied France, on the Cotentin Peninsula. At a place called Ste Marie du Mont. It was 1:30 a.m. in the gray dawn of June 6, signaling the onset of Operation Overlord: D-Day — the long-anticipated attack on Adolph Hitler’s vaunted “Fortress Europe.”
The 101st Airborne’s mission was to secure bridges and to disrupt communication and transportation objectives that could be used against the invasion forces now approaching the five landing beaches at Normandy, designated Gold, Sword, Juneau, Omaha and Utah.
The invasion armada consisted of 4,000 ships, 13,000 aircraft and some 180,000 American, British and Canadian soldiers — the largest strike force ever assembled. Going ashore with his troops on Utah Beach, against the wishes of his commanding officer, was Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt III, who urged his men forward with only a cane and a painful case of arthritis. Teddy would earn the medal of honor for his selfless and courageous leadership.
Bill continued to fight, from Normandy to the liberation of Paris. And just before Christmas, he and his comrades entered a place called Bastogne, on the Belgian frontier. It was here that the 101st soon found themselves encircled by Whermacht General Hasso von Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army. The Germans called this last desperate offensive in Europe “Unterehmen Wacht am Rhein” or Watch-on-the-Rhein. The American press, however, gave it the name that stuck: The Battle of the Bulge, fought from December 14, 1944, to January 25, 1945.
Bill was attached to the 506th Regiment, under the command of General Anthony McAuliffe. When General Manteuffel demanded McAullife’s surrender, he uttered this now famous reply: “Nuts!” It was at Bastogne that Bill was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds he received in the fighting. This was the largest and bloodiest battle fought by American troops in World War II. The 101st would be relieved by General George S. Patton’s 3rd Armored Corps, after a 100-mile forced march through swirling snow and biting cold.
Bill Horvath survived the war, returned home to marry the love of his life, Betty, and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Wisconsin on the GI Bill.
When war broke out in Korea, Bill did not hesitate to answer his country’s call. He entered the Air Force’s pilot training program and proceeded to fly bombing missions in that embattled country until the Armistice was signed in 1953.
Bill remained in the Air Force until his declining eyesight disqualified him from flying duties, at which time he resigned his commission and was detached from service with the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Today only 1 percent of the eligible population sees fit to wear the uniform. Bill Horvath served with both honor and distinction, in not one, but two wars. Both of which he volunteered for.
At D-Day plus 75 years, it is more than fitting that we remember Bill Horvath, his family and all those who earned the right to be called the “Greatest Generation.”
Ammon, a longtime lakes area resident, has written a book entitled “State of the Union: Observations on American Life.”