FARGO — It was mid-December 1944, and bit by bit, everything in 18-year-old Maurice Bonemeyer’s life was being stripped away.
After a tenuous trans-Atlantic trek in which nearby ships in his fleet were being hit by torpedoes, then fighting for his life in a surprise attack in the Ardennes Hills of Europe — one of the bloodiest of World War II — the young soldier from North Dakota, with the German-sounding surname, was alive but in German hands.
Toby Sticka recalls a poignant moment in the earliest hours of his friend’s confinement in the prisoner-of-war camp, as Bonemeyer relayed it one day after daily Mass here.
“When they put him in the camp, (the soldiers) had to pull everything out of their pockets. The guard went through it all and threw his rosary to the ground — the one his mother had given him — and it broke into pieces,” Sticka says.
Despite everything he’d just lived through, and all that was still at stake, Bonemeyer’s resolve remained.
“He picked up the beads, one by one, and kept them with him (all those months) in the POW camp,” Sticka recounts. “Things like that tell you how strong his faith is, despite what was happening all around him. He’s said, many times, his faith is what kept him alive.”
Now 95, Bonemeyer sometimes struggles to finish sentences as memories reignite — not because of his age, but, it seems, the unspeakable details.
“The killing, you can’t believe it,” he begins. “It was winter, so there was snow. It’s wasn’t cold like here, maybe in the mid-20s, but there were bodies all over, and the snow was blood red.”
Bonemeyer was in the 99th Infantry Division, comprising about 15,000 soldiers. “Eighty percent of my division was either killed or captured — about 11,000 to 12,000,” he says.
“There were so many (German soldiers), and they were young kids,” he continues. “They didn’t even wear helmets — just caps with skulls and crossbones. They were nuts.”
The Americans were surrounded, outnumbered and outgunned.
“They came at us with these big German Tiger tanks. They were new and so much bigger than ours,” he says. “But before it was all over, we’d taken an awful toll on them, too.”
It’s only been recently, according to his oldest daughter, Mary, that her father has spoken of this past.
“I think it was back in 1999, when he reconnected with his foxhole buddy — there were some stories in the paper,” she says.
That’s how she learned about her father’s war days. Now, he’ll share when asked; distance helps. And in the telling, it becomes clear Bonemeyer has been spared many times over.
His first brush with death happened well before his journey across the English Channel when, at age 5, an infection of the ear nearly claimed him. Instead, his little brother, a toddler also suffering from mastoiditis, passed away.
Later, that condition, which never dissipated completely and resulted in permanent hearing loss, became a grace, he says. They’d been brought to a camp in Nuremberg, Germany, tasked with digging graves, among other things. Food and health care were scarce, but a German doctor showed up occasionally. Bonemeyer had befriended a Serbian colonel who, learning of his ailment, wrapped his head with a bandage. This evoked sympathy in critical moments.
“I’m sure that saved my life,” he says.
In another instance, during the actual Battle of the Bulge, Bonemeyer and his buddy crouched frighteningly near a searching Nazi solider. Somehow, they evaded discovery.
Then there was the time, just after their capture, that a group of fellow soldiers, about 140, were shot in a nearby field.
“They just mowed them down, and that’s what they were going to do to us,” Bonemeyer says. “But this one corporal prevented it,” rerouting them. Years later, a photo emerged showing Bonemeyer in a line with that corporal leading them away.
Freed by fellow Americans a little over four months later, in April 1944, after delousing and regaining strength for six weeks at Camp Lucky Strike near LeHavre, France, Bonemeyer returned home and enrolled at Marquette University to study dentistry, living out the rest of his life with intention and gratitude.
Jerry Cossette, 92, a longtime friend, says he’s always eager to help others, but never boastfully.
“He shuns that sort of thing,” he says.
Several times, Cossette says, he accompanied Bonemeyer to Wahpeton, N.D., to visit the Carmel of Mary monastery. Before leaving, they’d stop at the store to “fill up the cart with groceries” for the nuns, buying “nice cuts of meat, and lots of it. He was very conscientious in that respect.”
Mary, who cares for her father with her younger sister, Gina, says time spent with him is a privilege.
“People have said, ‘You sacrifice so much and work so hard,’ but we always say, ‘It’s not a sacrifice; it’s not even work. We feel blessed beyond comprehension to do this.’”
While he didn’t bring up his war experiences during their childhood, the effects were later seen, she indicates.
“If something didn’t work out, he always said, ‘God has something else planned for you, and it’s going to be something really good.’ I’ve always tried to remember that,” Mary says.
And not a day went by that he didn’t let his children know they were loved.
“Every day still, when we come home from daily Mass and pull into the garage, he takes my hand and says, ‘Oh, thank you so much,’” Mary says. “It’s a highlight of my day to spend this hour with him, and all the other times, too.”
She says the strength her father receives from his faith and the Eucharist have kept him uplifted. This includes those gentler years of his three-decade dental career. Bonemeyer’s practice began in Gackle, N.D., his hometown, after a banker there lent him money for equipment. It cost him around $8,000 or $9,000.
“Now, it would be $80,000 to $90,000,” Bonemeyer says.
He later relocated to Fargo, keeping mouths shiny for 32 more years on the sixth floor of the Black Building downtown. Those cherished times were spent alongside his “beautiful Italian girl.”
“Oh, she was wonderful!” Bonemeyer says of his wife, Mary Jean, who died in 2012 at 86 after a battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. She’s buried just down the road from their home at Riverside Cemetery, where he visits nearly every day.
Ninety-five years is a lot of time to live, to love, and though friends say wartime memories still keep him from sleeping soundly at times, Bonemeyer will only say good things about his life.
His three sons, who live elsewhere, call him almost every day; his daughters are his “daily chauffeurs”; and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren are thriving.
“How could I ask for anything more?” he asks, adding with a gleam, “Well, I wish I could run a little faster, and maybe even get in trouble every once in a while.”
Beyond that, he says, “I am without a doubt the richest person in the world — except for money, but I have enough to buy groceries.”
His 95th birthday this week, along with the 75th anniversary of his capture on Dec. 17, 1944, and Jesus’ birth this month, all remind him anew how blessed he is. Without a doubt, God saved him for a purpose, he says, though he’s not sure what.
Sticka, however, says he knows.
“It’s because he’s such a positive person, his influence on other people, his attitude. Most people know what he’s gone through, and for that reason alone he’s an inspiration,” he says. “Whenever he comes to daily Mass, he always has a smile on his face.”
“There are many instances when Maurice could have died. He came out of that (imprisonment) at 125 pounds (from 180), and death was all around him,” Sticka continues. “It’s something else, that he’s been able to live with and fight those memories, and yet he’s still thankful every day, to God and for his faith. To have gone through what he went through, it’s amazing.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Dec. 27, 2019.]