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Clinging to life at 19 on a Nazi battlefield

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By Greg Summers

Aaron Flynn took his last pain-free steps on a secluded path near Worms, Germany, on the afternoon of Feb. 21, 1945.
He was a 19-year-old private first class from Lancaster, a machine gunner with the U.S. Army’s 6th Armored Division, 44th Armored Infantry Battalion.
Flynn had been a late entry into World War II. His enlistment was rejected several times because of bad eyesight. But after his older brother was killed in action on Christmas Eve 1943, Flynn got into the Army.
He shipped out to Europe in December 1944, just in time to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest U.S. battle of the war.
Flynn remembers waking up in his foxhole on one below-zero morning.
“It was some kind of cold,” he said. “Me and a buddy woke up… covered in a blanket of snow.”
After winning that campaign in late January 1945, the American forces kept advancing into Germany. On Feb. 21, Flynn and his platoon were clearing a section of the 18,000 concrete bunkers along the Siegfried Line.
“I had told the fellas… we were gonna take tomorrow off because it was Washington’s Birthday,” he said. “I took it off, but it wasn’t my idea.”
Flynn can’t recall exactly what happened, but he was hit by hot shrapnel and his right leg was almost torn from his body. Now at 90, Flynn still has hunks of shrapnel in his hip and right calf.
“I had a buddy who went around me, and I was back about 25 feet from him when we were hit and it killed him,” Flynn said. “I don’t know if he stepped on something or it was something else. I wasn’t able to recall what really happened.”
Flynn’s sergeant, William Follis of Eastport, Maine, carried him into one of the bunkers for safety. Follows died several years ago, Flynn said, “but we always stayed in touch.”
A medic arrived after dark, treated Flynn and put him on a Jeep headed to the rear.
“I don’t want it to sound like a brag… but I tell the truth when I tell things,” Flynn said. “One of the officers told my sergeant I was one of the bravest little fellas he had ever seen.”

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A long recovery
Once stabilized, Flynn was flown to the 93rd General Hospital in England to recover. He tried to convince doctors to amputate his damaged leg, but they refused and didn’t want him to see the gaping wound.
“It took a long time to heal in my hip,” he said.
Flynn eventually returned to the states by ship and was able to stand for the first time on crutches on the deck of the hospital ship. He was sent to Halloran General Hospital in Staten Island to recover.
“We came in by the Statue of Liberty, and they kept me there for a while,” he said.
From there Flynn was placed on a train bound for Finney General Hospital in Thomasville, Ga. He vividly recalls going through Charlotte in the middle of the night, yearning to get off the train.
“Here I was, right here, almost home, and couldn’t get off,” he said.
After a stint at Finney, Flynn was sent to Camp Butner, N.C., and was discharged in October 1945.

Family and career
He came home to Lancaster and returned to work at the Dixie Home Store (Winn Dixie).
“They had built a new store near Belk’s and a little store down in Midway,” he said. “They sent me down there as the produce manager, but I checked out, stocked shelves and pretty much did everything but the meat.”
He married Ruth Shute in 1948. They had two children, a boy and a girl, who died when they were young. Ruth passed away in May 1993.
“We had 44 wonderful years together,” he said.
Flynn started using crutches in 2006 after having trouble keeping his balance.
He attributes the crutches to his age and war injuries, but doesn’t dwell on the past.
Though Flynn appreciates Veterans Day, he said it can be a difficult and depressing time for servicemen and women who have suffered loss.
But freedom, he said, is worth the cost.
“If I could and they’d let me, I’d go back over there,” he said. “I was on the front lines about 50 days, but I wanted to go all the way. I just didn’t get to.”
Flynn keeps a photo of his brother, James Bradford Carnes, on his desk. On the wall hangs a photo of the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial at Carthage, Tunisia, where Carnes and another 2,840 U.S. military casualties are interred.
“After he got killed, I kept dreaming he walked up in our yard,” Flynn said. “I even dreamed I went over there looking for him.”  

Contact Greg Summers at (803) 283-1156

‘The Super Sixth’
Army Pfc. Aaron Flynn was a machine gunner with the 6th Armored Division’s 44th Armored Infantry Battalion during World War II.  
Attached to Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army, the “Super Sixth” was ordered north of Metz to take part in the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, and took over a sector along the south bank of the Sauer River. The 6th was heavily engaged in the battle for Bastogne, finally driving enemy troops back across the Our River into Germany by late January 1945.
After a short R&R, the division resumed its offensive, penetrated the Siegfried Line, crossed the Prum River and reached the west bank of Rhine River at Worms, Germany, on March 21, 1945, setting up counter-reconnaissance.
The German High Command signed an unconditional surrender with Allied troops 48 days later on May 7, 1945, ending the war in Europe.

– Compiled by Gregory A. Summers