Reunion comes 60 years after rescue
Sixty years ago, one Illinois boy rescued another from machine-gunners in a Nazi prison camp.
Sixty years later, Gene Metcalfe thought Elmer Melchi was dead, and vice versa.
But Melchi, a Champaign native, was able to track down his rescuer this year, and just in time for Memorial Day, the two met up at Melchi's Colorado retirement home.
In 1944, both were privates, both were just out of their teens, both were paratroopers and both were dropped behind enemy lines in the disastrous Operation Market Garden, dramatized in the movie "A Bridge Too Far."
DeKalb native Metcalfe is now retired in Arizona after working for Walt Disney and as a teacher. Melchi, 81, spent 40 years at Tile Specialists in Champaign.
Melchi had four bullet wounds in him when Metcalfe last saw him, in October 1944. He was out in the open in Stalag 12A when U.S. bombers flew over the camp, and pointed out where the machine-gun towers were.
"That was a dumb thing to do, nobody in his right mind would do that," says Metcalfe, 82. "We were young, cocky and dumb, with more courage than brains."
Metcalfe carried Melchi on his shoulders to safety, despite shouts from his German guards to stay down.
He got the bloody private into a building, had him taken care of as best he could, and soon was transferred to another prison camp, from which he escaped and was recaptured. He was to spend the next eight months in a uniform spattered with Melchi's blood.
Still, Melchi healed up well enough that when the Russians liberated Stalag 12A, he was able to stumble back to U.S. lines – continuing to walk two days after World War II ended in Europe, unaware that Hitler's lieutenants had surrendered.
He married his English sweetheart and brought her back to Champaign. An article from the now-defunct Courier tells the story of his wartime romance with Red Cross worker June Lloyd, and how he was eventually able to bring her back to his Vine Street home.
The war stayed with him, as well as extensive injuries.
"When I was younger I had problems. I'd be walking and talking, and people would think I was drunk," Melchi says now. "I was pretty shot up."
Melchi's odyssey began not long after he graduated from Urbana High School. Like two of his brothers, he enlisted, graduating from paratroopers school in 1943, while his family moved to Champaign.
For 10 months, he was stationed in England, romancing his future wife at USO clubs toward the end of his stay.
Then came D-Day, June 6, 1944. He landed behind German lines on the first day of the Allied invasion.
"That was hell," he says simply.
Melchi's unit overran a German position. A few days later, the Courier ran a photo of unidentified U.S. dogfaces holding a captured German flag. A brother, Fred Melchi, wandered into Courier offices and asked to look at the wire photo – informing the newspaper staff that a local boy had made good.
As hard as D-Day was, Market Garden was worse.
The brainchild of British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, it entailed dropping British and American paratroopers at bridges in Holland near the German border. The paratroopers were supposed to secure the bridges while an armored column sped through Holland to link with them.
On Sunday, Sept. 17, at 2 p.m., Melchi dropped into Holland near Nijmegen.
His comrades didn't have much confidence in Montgomery's plan.
"When you're only 19, 20, and you're told to do it, you do it," Melchi says.
Metcalfe was in the same mission for the same bridge.
"They all thought the war was going to be over by Christmas (1944)," he recalls. "We'd just cross the river (Rhine) and go right through to Berlin."
As German flak punctured his parachute canopy, Metcalfe had a bone to pick with Monty.
"When we parachuted in 48 miles behind the lines, they were ready for us. We bailed out over 20-millimeter guns and got shot up pretty bad," he says.
British and American paratroopers had landed near a Panzer tank division they hadn't been warned about. Heavily outgunned, many were killed or wounded.
"I was captured the day (after landing) about a mile from Germany. There were 20 of us going against those tanks and three truckloads of Germans. I'll never forget the bullets whizzing through that grass," Metcalfe recalls.
Melchi lasted three days after the drop before he was captured.
He and a few others captured some Germans and were attempting to bring them into custody on bicycles when they were discovered.
The two Illinoisans had never met before they were assigned to the prison camp in northern Germany.
During an air raid, Melchi made the brave, foolhardy decision to direct bombers from the ground.
"I went out and pointed to the aircraft, then pointed to the guard tower, then to the fence," Melchi recalls. "All hell broke loose. The machine guns were firing at me. I guess I fell on (Metcalfe). He carried me to safety."
"I thought, every step, here it comes, the bullet to my brain," Metcalfe says of the rescue.
Melchi bears no ill will against the German guards for putting four bullets in him.
"They were doing their job, I guess," he says now.
Metcalfe was shipped out two days later, Melchi's fate still uncertain.
The DeKalb man escaped once and was captured about a month before the end of the war.
One day, Gen. George Patton's tanks rolled up to the camp.
"He blew off the front gate," Metcalfe says.
The private hot-wired a German Opal sedan and drove back to American lines, borrowing gas in jerry cans from tank troops. In Paris, he sold the Opal for $500 to a colonel; a few minutes later, it was requisitioned from the officer, but Metcalfe was already scrambling away with his money.
For his part, Melchi was helped by a British doctor "who didn't have much more on hand than toilet paper."
Shortly before the German surrender, Russians came through from the east.
"They told me which way to head for the American lines, and I started walking," he says.
He returned to England in search of his English girlfriend.
"It took me a while to find her. June was 18, and she had met another fella, and she had to decide if she was going to marry me," he says.
June Melchi was "the first war bride to come through the Champaign train station," says Melchi's sister, Norma Ohlsson of Champaign.
Metcalfe worked as an artist after the war, including a stint as a Walt Disney animator.
"But I didn't want to draw circles all my life, so I went back to college and went into teaching," he says.
Melchi found Metcalfe through Static Lines, a newsletter for former paratroopers. When Metcalfe was in Denver on business, he took a side trip to Melchi's Colorado home.
"I didn't recognize him at first, but when Elmer started talking, it all came back to me," Metcalfe said. "I felt chills. We were crying like babies."
Melchi had been told that Metcalfe had passed away.
"But there he was, big as life."