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A journey back in time: Manatee veteran retraces WWII steps

BRADENTON BEACH - The European terrain had changed, but Nick Engler’s memories remained.

The warmth of war weary farm people.

The midnight river crossing under fire.

The apple orchard where he was left for dead.

“It all came back,” said Engler, an 87-year-old widower. “I cried like a baby.”

Two weeks ago, on the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the spry great-grandfather retraced his poignant journey as a 22-year-old private with the 377th Infantry.

Engler did not reach Utah Beach until October 1944, and his World War II action only lasted 19 days, but it left an indelible mark on his soul.

“It was something I had done a lifetime ago and you live with this,” said the Bronze Star and Purple Heart recipient, maps and notes scattered before him. “So three, four months ago I decided I’m going back. I’m glad I did. It closed the book.”

A revealing book to those who thought they knew the retired University of Dayton physics professor best.

Like his older sister, Rosemary Cooke, who along with her son, Kelly, accompanied Engler.

“I heard more about things that happened to him he had never discussed before or written in his letters,” she said from Boulder, Colo. “It was powerful, enlightening.”

His daughter, Susie Rutkowski, didn’t go, but knows her aunt’s meaning.

“It was special when we were allowed to open the drawer to look at his Purple Heart as children,” she said from Cincinnati, Ohio. “Reflecting back, it makes us appreciate what he did. I’m excited he was able to go on this journey.”

Although Engler came ashore at Utah Beach four months after the Normandy invasion, it made no difference to the French people on the hallowed recent anniversary.

Officials awarded him a medallion.

Children wanted his autograph.

“It was overwhelming, just overwhelming,” said Engler, who was born in Akron, Ohio. “The French treated me like I was a king. I was still an American soldier who helped save their country. I was proud of that.

“I never backed down. I never ran. I did everything I was supposed to do — even though I was absolutely petrified!”

They hired a car, drove across France, Luxembourg and Germany, listening to Engler with amazement.

“Day after day, he kept dropping vignettes of what happened to him,” said nephew Kelly Cooke, 62, in Boulder, Colo. “It was intense, but he’d talk about it like, yeah, we did this here. Or we did this here.

“It validated what I always thought about him. He was part of an extraordinary generation. A citizen soldier who went, fought his butt off until the job was done and came home.”

Their journey together ended in an apple orchard in Rammelfangen, in Germany’s southwest.

Engler’s war had ended there, too, in late November 1944.

The orchard has grown considerably since then, but it was an everlasting touchstone for him.

“It was cold, foggy and you couldn’t see anything,” said Engler, recalling the fateful day. “The lieutenant says. ‘We’re lead battalion, Engler. Start walking and when you see something, stop.’ I start off walking. After awhile I turn around. There’s nobody behind me.”

Suddenly, a mortar round struck nearby, then another.

Engler dove, but was hit by shrapnel in his left side.

“Sergeant came, says, ‘You hit?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’m hit bad.’ He says, ‘I’ll send somebody for you.’”

Nobody came.

Engler lie there for three days, subsisting on apples he pulled off a tree with his right arm.

“I finally said, ‘You’re going to die.’ It was so peaceful,” he said.

“Just then I felt a toe prodding me. A voice says, ‘He’s dead.’ ‘No! no!’ I said. ‘I’m not dead!’ ”

Engler was hospitalized, rehabilitated and returned to duty four days before war’s end in April 1945.

A lifetime ago, indeed.

“I did it. I fought. I’m here. I’m still alive,” he said, smiling. “I might even last another year.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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