By Dyke Hendrickson
---- — NEWBURYPORT — It’s been almost 70 years since Blake Hughes was part of the U.S. Army that fought through France as part of the victorious drive to liberate Europe, but here is one soldier who hasn’t forgotten.
He’s about to turn 90 now, but Memorial Day will always mean something to him.
“I take part in Memorial Day activities because I want younger Americans to remember their history and know what happened,” said Hughes recently.
“Older Americans are finding a greater appreciation of what soldiers did in World War II but not younger ones. The efforts of American soldiers shouldn’t be forgotten.”
Hughes is a native of Stamford, Conn., who came to this area after the war. He and his wife, Ruth, ran the Newburyport Printmaker shop on Inn Street for four decades before closing in 2010. With their son and daughter-in-law, they still sell artwork online.
Memorial Day weekend is special to Hughes, in part because he did so much during the war. And he possesses a fine memory that permits him to reflect on some remarkable events.
He was a sergeant in the combat engineers, and had the harrowing job of clearing mines and booby traps from rivers and roadways.
“I landed on Omaha Beach (in France) in (summer) 1944, and our unit was under fire by planes strafing and German tanks that were still fighting,” he recalled.
“We Americans had confidence but there was still a lot of opposition. When we arrived at rivers, I was sometimes sent forth to clear mines so we could get across.
“Once we were clearing fallen trees from an important road, and a loose packet of TNT fell out of a branch and between my feet. If it had gone off, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Hughes said that his best friend was killed by an explosive device known as a “bouncing Betty.” He was so upset that he requested a transfer.
“You have to go on, of course, but after the death of my good friend, I was really down. I did transfer — but it was worse in the new unit.”
The Army’s summer drive across France was halted in December, 1944, when the Germans counterattacked in the “Battle of the Bulge” in the Ardennes region covering parts of Belgium, Luxembourg and France.
It was December, and bitter cold.
Sometimes, his unit was in reserve, and on other occasions, they were in the middle of the fight.
“One time, we took refuge in a two-story house, and soldiers upstairs were hit, and the blood was dripping down through the floor onto my bedroll on the first floor.
“There many times when we were miserable. The best thing that happened to us in France was the arrival of galoshes. It saved our feet.”
Hughes, injured but not seriously, was eventually brought down by yellow jaundice, as were many of soldiers whose units had outdistanced their supply trucks.
Hughes, who had entered the service in early 1943, left the Army in October 1945. He earned a bronze star, and a half-dozen other honors.
The voluble vet went to company reunions but he noted that in recent years, the gatherings have stopped.
“So few of our guys are left,” he said. “Out of a unit of perhaps 1,000, there might be 50.”
Blake and Ruth, married since 1946, live independently in Newburyport. He attends Memorial Day gatherings (”but not the marching”), in large part to honor onetime friends — and to let others know the stories of courage and gallantry from seven decades ago.
“If veterans don’t tell their stories, the memories of all those good soldiers will disappear,” he said. “And I don’t want that to happen.”