By Katherine Knott, Fort Knox Contributing WriterJune 23, 2017
World War II veteran John Reitz stood up, took a deep breath, put his trumpet to his lips and played the national anthem to start the 66th Infantry Division's annual memorial ceremony in Fort Knox's Patton Museum's Abrams Auditorium June 15.
Reitz is one of the 15 surviving members of the 66th ID who gathered for the group's annual reunion last week, which was held in Louisville. On June 15, they journeyed to the installation for a tour and their ceremony.
Nicknamed the Black Panther Division, the 66th ID helped liberate France from the Nazis at the end of World War II. On Christmas Eve 1944, the division was on its way to reinforce troops at the Battle of the Bulge when its troopship, The Leopoldville, was hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat. The Leopoldville sunk, killing 800 service members.
Reitz worked with radio and wire communications in the war and was one deck above where the torpedo hit. Reitz said he survived because he was a good swimmer and was able to get away quickly.
The reunions started in 1969, and Reitz has been attending since 1977. He said he's only missed one.
"The traditions and the friendships," he said of why he attends. "There are very few of us left who are survivors of the Leopoldville."
Reitz, who lives in Tucson, Arizona, played the anthem and taps at the ceremony. He said he's been playing the trumpet since the third grade.
The group has historically met every two years, but a few years ago, they decided to change it to an annual reunion to spend as much time together as possible.
Harold Gibbens, who is from Emporia, Kansas, said the group decided that they were getting old enough to meet every year.
"I like the people," Gibbens said.
"They almost become family--the guys you go into combat with are really important."
Each reunion, they hold a ceremony to honor their service and those Soldiers who didn't make it Caution-home.
Lenore Angelo is the CEO of the Panther Veteran Organization and coordinates the annual reunion.
Her father was in the 66th ID.
Angelo said the memorial service isn't always held at a military base, but they always find a way to have it "somewhere, somehow."
"It's a distinct honor to have this many World War II veterans in one place," she said.
Command Sgt. Maj. for U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox Kenneth Kraus delivered opening remarks at the ceremony.
"It's not every day we get to recognize World War II veterans," he said.
Kraus said such reunions are key to teaching younger generations about the country's history. He said many of today's youth don't know facts about World War II, such as why the U.S. entered the war.
"That tells me that we need to have more events like this one," Kraus said. "Events that allow folks like you to gather, talk, share stories, and more importantly, pass on our histories, our traditions and our legacy."
Each veteran was accompanied by family and friends. Angelo said there are four generations represented at this year's reunion from 97 years old to 4 months old.
Before the ceremony, the veterans and their families toured the installation.
Reitz said he was impressed by Fort Knox and the amenities the Soldiers have, especially the housing options.
"My idea of the Army was 24 guys in double bunks," he said.
As part of the ceremony, each veteran received a hat and coin from Fort Knox Brig. Gen. Robert Bennett, the deputy commanding general of U.S. Army Cadet Command.
"Listening to what you veterans have done during your time is just remarkable," Bennett said. "I want to thank you for your service."
Before the service began, Bennett walked down the line of veterans, shaking their hands and talking with each of them.
He said in his remarks to the group that when he received a phone call that morning to fill in at the event, he jumped at the chance.
"I said, 'Absolutely, I'm more than happy to shake these fine gentlemen's hands,'" he said.