CSUS Prof Returns Long-Lost Canteen Cup to WWII Veteran
Local author Robert Humphrey, a CSUS journalism instructor, is nearing completion of his book about the 99th Infantry Division that fought at the Battle of the Bulge. —Spectrum photo by Daniel Dullum
Spectrum staff writer
World War II historian Robert Humphrey of Sacramento has long been intrigued by the story of the 99th Infantry Division that fought at the Battle of the Bulge. So intrigued, that he’s now writing a book on the Division and recently traveled across the Atlantic to the battlefield at Elsenborn Ridge in Belgium to research the soldiers’ experience.
Humphrey explored the area along with a civilian group of Belgian military archivists known as “The Diggers,” who look for souvenirs or soldiers still listed as missing in action.
“This area is a military camp for the Belgian Army to this day. We went out there illegally both times and wore camouflage to get out there,” Humphrey, a journalism instructor at California State University—Sacramento, explained.
“The Diggers found a couple of MIAs last year — this is unique, because when you go to Europe, you won’t see hardly any trace of World War II,” Humphrey said. “Because this remained an active military camp, and it’s not overgrown with forest or anything, this battlefield is preserved.”
Humphrey obtained a roster of the 99th Division and has attended three of their reunions. Last year, during his second visit to Elsenborn Ridge — located 10 miles from the German border —Humphrey spent several hours walking around the battlefield with The Diggers when an obviously aged metal object caught his attention. The curious artifact turned out to be a canteen cup inscribed with the name, “Cpl Samuel Oliverio 35744758.”
“When we looked at [the cup], it was really badly damaged. We thought, ‘Whoever was wearing that, is dead.’”
Humphrey traced Oliverio’s service record and soon discovered that the soldier was very much alive. The Diggers met with Humphrey at a reunion in Biloxi, Miss., and gave him the cup, which he offered to Oliverio, a retiree who now lives in his home town of Fairmont, W.Va.
The cup, said Oliverio, brought back the memory of a close call during the Battle of the Bulge. Sometime between Dec. 16 and Dec. 17, 1944, Oliverio’s division had just stopped the Germans after they broke through at Elsenborn Ridge. A few days later, the 99th Division was still there performing defensive duties, and Oliverio himself had another duty to perform – a call from nature.
“I took my cartridge belt off — the canteen is hooked onto that — and I laid it down,” Oliverio said. “I walked back maybe 40 or 50 yards to do my business, and when I came back, my stuff was gone.
“I asked my foxhole buddy, ‘Where the hell is my belt and stuff?’ He said a shell hit it and blown it up!,” he continued. “That’s the last I’d seen of it.”
But 60 years later, Humphrey called to verify whether or not he was talking to the original owner of the cup.
“The cup had all kinds of holes in it where shrapnel went through it. [Humphrey] asked if I wanted it,” Oliverio said. “I told him I would love to have it.”
Humphrey got something in return for his efforts – another story for his book on the 99th Infantry Division. After writing an article for The Checkerboard — the 99th’s bi-monthly newspaper — the CSUS professor expanded his article into a book manuscript, which he wrote while interviewing soldiers in person, by telephone and at periodic reunions.
“My point of view is what the ordinary soldier experienced and how he coped with the conditions at the time,” Humphrey said. “Most of the people were riflemen, rather than support groups. The division had 15,000 men and had a replacement rate of 86 percent. It was a revolving door.”
In his book, Humphrey follows the journey of the 99th Division from it’s beginnings in 1942 on through its role in defeating the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge, taking the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen on March 11, 1945, and liberating three labor camps and one concentration camp in May 1945. He tells the battle’s history through the personal stories of the 300 GIs he has interviewed over the last four and one-half years.
“I have some very moving passages from people, what they did and who was killed, and how they reacted. They told of people sitting up on the ridge on Christmas Eve looking down on the village of Krinkelt and there was music coming from it. The Germans didn’t attack on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.”
One of Humphrey’s visits to Germany took him not only to Elsenborn Ridge, but on the 99th’s trail to Remagen and Mühldorf, where the POW camps were located. He has no family connection to the 99th Division, just a historian’s interest and passion.
“I like the guys,” Humphrey said. “When I met them, they were just very friendly gentlemen and were happy that someone was interested in their story.”
Humphrey opined that the 99th “feels neglected” and has “an inferiority complex.”
“That’s because 1) they were overrun by the Germans, and 2) the 101st Division gets most of the credit,” he said. “These were guys who didn’t want to be there. They weren’t hard-nosed Marine-types. They were just ordinary guys. The fact that they were responsive and friendly to me and wanted to talk propelled me along. I thought I’d better tell their stories because no one else is.”
Humphrey hopes his manuscript finds a publisher within the next year because, as he states, “These guys are dying by the hundreds every day.”
“I’m not doing a lot of battles and strategy, though I have to do some of that,” he said. “Mostly it’s about these guys and how they reacted — sometimes, not so good.”
And sometimes, an old soldier gets his canteen cup back.