SIOUX CITY | Seventy-one years ago Friday, the Allied invasion of North Africa under Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower began.
Three Sioux City men, now in their 90s, took part. On Wednesday, they joined forces again. Rather than drive a tank or command a platoon, they sat in the comfort of the Morningside Branch Library, reminiscing about their fear, their lack of supplies and what their work did in paving the way for ultimate victory in Europe.
"I remember seeing the person I saw get killed," said Mel Fox, who made an amphibious landing in his tank. Fox was 17 at the time, having lied about his age when entering the U.S. Army. When he was sent home, his parents signed for him.
The landing, one plagued with shallow water, set the stage for the D-Day Invasion in France, which wouldn't come for another 19 months.
England, according to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, wasn't strong enough at that time to wage war with Germany through France. Joining with the United States in North Africa could ultimately lead to gains in Sicily and Italy and then into other parts of Europe. It would also divide German forces who were occupied with Russia to the east.
A victory would also seal the Mediterranean Sea for the Allies and make shipping much for problematic, if not impossible, for the Axis powers.
The strategy didn't mean much to Leonard Brown, now 95.
"I was just taking orders," said Brown, a U.S. Army Captain by war's end. "You weren't fighting World War II. You took your orders and you fought your little battles. Maybe I was numb to it."
"You didn't have a hell of a lot of choice," added Bob Burdick, who retired as a colonel at the age of 60 some 34 years ago. "We new that if we would have invaded France at the time, the Germans would have been much stronger."
Burdick recalled losing the first man in his company during the attack. It was a bugler.
Burdick, who was a member of the U.S. Army before World War II, believes the victories that ensued from Operation Torch represented the first time U.S. forces -- or the Allies -- took ground from the German Army.
Seeing the Germans retreat through Sicily into Italy was a shot in the arm for a U.S. Army that, in some respects, may have been questioning the mission. Such misgivings are understandable, given the fact that Burdick and thousands of others were shipped from the United States to Ireland, as close as they could get to England, the country believed to be next in line for a German invasion.
"We went to Ireland and we were so unprepared," Burdick said. "We waited for guns for three months. When they finally did come, the ones we got were outdated. Our technology hadn't started to roll."
The 37-millimeter guns, Burdick said with astonishment, hit their targets and bounced. What was good enough for battles in previous years wouldn't work in World War II.
"We eventually got our .57s," he said.
A Purple Heart went to Burdick for a wound in one of his legs. The pain paled in comparison to a hand injury he later suffered while training back in the United States.
Burdick, Fox and Brown all spent years overseas. For Burdick alone, tours of duty on various European battlefields lasted 39 months.
"I don't know when I got home," Brown said, shaking his head, recalling that a portion of his tour took place in Chicago as there were no boats available to shuttle him back to the fighting following a stateside break.
Brown helped run a Skelly Service station in Morningside upon his return. Burdick remained in the military and served the U.S. Postal Service in various capacities.
Fox, now 90, earned enough "points" to get out before Victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945. He was 20 when he came home, already a veteran with three years of overseas duty. He declined the Army's suggested he attend Officer Candidates School.
"The gave me the choice of OCS or my discharge and I'd have enough of combat," said Fox, who went into sales for an office equipment company. "I wanted to be a civilian."
From his perch inside and atop a tank in Europe, the point from which Fox watched the streets of Rome open. While the view may have been memorable, getting to that point was something a part of him would like to forget.
"You may hear guys who say they're not bothered when someone is killed next to you," Fox said. "Not true. It affects you."
"I prayed every day to see another day."