March 8, 2010

"Fredneck's" Military History

Two articles in this weekend's Frederick News-Post detail the long and honored history of miltiary service in our bucolic valley.

29th Division Association celebrates proud history
Originally published March 07, 2010

By Megan Eckstein - News-Post Staff

The Maryland National Guard has a long and proud history in Frederick , with some of its companies tracing their lineage back to the Revolutionary War.

Frederick 's Company A, 1st Battalion, 175th Infantry Regiment is officially credited with serving in World War I, World War II and the current conflicts in the Middle East. The company was formerly in the 115th Infantry Regiment but was moved in 2006; however, it has remained in the 29th Division.

The 29th Division Association, composed of current and former soldiers in the division,

helps preserve the history of the division's guard units along the mid-Atlantic.

"There's a lot of lineage that goes with the 29th, they date back all the way back to the Revolutionary War," said John Wilcox Jr., national executive director of the association. "During the Civil War É it was the only military unit where men from the same state fought on both sides. There was a 1st Maryland Regiment that fought for the U.S.A., and there was a 1st Maryland regiment that fought for the Confederate group. This is the only time that this has ever happened like this. And it is quite interesting, they fought in the Battle of Front Royal -- unfortunately the feds lost that one."

Wilcox and Charles Lockard, national senior vice commander for the association, both joined Company A in February 1954 and made careers of their military service. Wilcox served 28 years, and Lockard served 41 years.

During their years with the Maryland Army National Guard, a primary role was responding to riots in the 1960s, particularly out on the Eastern Shore. They were federalized in 1968 to respond to riots in Baltimore after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Company A also went to the University of Maryland three times to respond to riots, including protests of the Vietnam War.

"I always said if I went back one more time I could graduate," Wilcox said.

The 29th Division Association has 2,500 members nationwide, with Frederick Post 78 being one of the most active chapters, organizing successful collection drives and participating in events to honor veterans.

Membership is down from a peak of about 3,500, in part because older veterans are dying off so quickly, Wilcox and Lockard said.

"Even though we're recruiting new men every day, we're losing many more," Wilcox said. "But the association sort of keeps us all together."


Called to arms
Veteran recalls Frederick company's WWII involvement
Originally published March 07, 2010

By Megan Eckstein - News-Post Staff

Henry “Pete” Ponton Jr. began training with the local Maryland National Guard company before turning 18. He served 21 years, including a tour in World War II that put him right in the middle of the Battle of Normandy. Photo by Graham Cullen

Henry “Pete” Ponton Jr. began training with the local Maryland National Guard company before turning 18. He served 21 years, including a tour in World War II that put him right in the middle of the Battle of Normandy.

Sixty-nine years ago, Henry "Pete" Ponton Jr. was adjusting to life as an activated member of the Maryland National Guard. He had been called into service on Feb. 3, 1941, and expected to train and work full time for a year before resuming his normal schedule.
But everything changed when Pearl Harbor was attacked 10 months later and the U.S. officially joined World War II. Ponton served nonstop until October 1945, with his Frederick -based company fighting in the Battle of Normandy.

Ponton's unit -- Company A, 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment -- arrived in Europe in September 1942.

"We were in England 20 months before the invasion," Ponton said. "We were there so long, they started calling us the British homeguard."

Some of his time in England was stress-free as far as wars go. Stationed near Oxford University, Company A was safe from German bombs, thanks to an agreement not to attack schools.

"We were there six months before they moved us, and they had an aircraft factory right outside, but they didn't get bombed," Ponton said.

By the summer of 1944, when plans for the D-Day invasion were coming to fruition, Ponton and Company A prepared to embark on a deadly mission.

"We got on the ship in Camp Raleigh, which is in Plymouth, England. We got on a ship there and went to a town called Poole, which is where we rendezvoused for the trip across the (English) Channel," Ponton said. After two days of waiting, the time to invade France and expel the Nazi troops finally arrived.

"I remember going off the side of the ship, and once I got on shore I got behind a tank that had been knocked out," he said. "Of course then everybody started yelling 'get off the beach, get off the beach,' so we went up through a path in the minefield that the engineers had cleared."

"We stopped and I looked back, and it was the most horrifying sight I ever saw," Ponton said. "All these ships were coming in and landing. You could see the obstacles on the beach ... every once in a while you'd see a body fly up in the air where someone had stepped on a mine. And there were a lot of soldiers laying on the beach."

The 29th Infantry Division, which included Ponton's company, was ordered to leave the beach and get to St. Lo within nine days. It took about a month.

Ponton, 87, said he doesn't usually talk about D-Day or the rest of his time in World War II, even though he loved serving in the National Guard. He started training on Monday nights at the old armory on Bentz Street when he was a teenager, tagging along with his brother, Grover, 10 years his senior. Ponton enlisted in Company A in June 1940, when he turned 18.

Ponton served as his company's armorer, "taking care of the weapons, making sure they were put back in the hands of the troops," he said. During the war, he and other armorers were pulled to create a single work unit to care for the entire regiment's weapons. They'd typically work between the front line and the artillery, and Ponton said he loved the work.

After the war, he rejoined the Guard in 1947 and transferred to the Army Reserve in 1950. He was once again called into active duty in 1961 during the Berlin Crisis, but his reserve unit went only as far as Fort Meade and Fort A.P. Hill, Va. He retired as a sergeant first class soon afterward, focusing on his full-time job as a federal protective officer and on his family.

Ponton was married to wife Mida for 65 years before her death in 2008. They have two sons, Henry III and Michael, as well as seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Ponton has lived in Frederick since he was born in 1922 and said he plans to stay here.

Of the 170 men who deployed in Company A in 1941, he is one of about six or seven who are still alive.

"We used to have a reunion every year after the war, but it got so bad that a lot of our guys were dying off and we had to discontinue that," Ponton said. "I think it's been about 10 years since we had one."

Ponton is the only Company A veteran left in the 29th Division Association, a group for current and former members of the division that includes the 115th Infantry Regiment.

"You're the only one left. We ought to give you a gold star, Pete," said John Wilcox Jr., Ponton's friend and national executive director for the association.

"I'm surprised myself, I never thought I would live this long," Ponton replied.

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