On his 18th birthday, Ramon I. Romero followed his father and older brother into the family business, making steel at the Bethlehem plant in Lackawanna.
“You could say I lived across the street from the plant and you couldn’t see Lake Erie because of the length of the plant,” Romero says. “I started as a laborer in the stockyard loading scrap into pans that were taken up to the furnaces. That’s one of the ingredients for making steel.”
Bethlehem was considered a defense plant in World War II, and its steel was used to build tanks, jeeps, trucks, casings for artillery shells and “anything else that the military wanted.”
And while Romero’s view of Lake Erie had been blocked by the sprawling plant, his horizons were soon broadened with a view of the world, thanks to a more distant relative – Uncle Sam, who sent him a draft notice.
After a nine-day trip across the Atlantic in November 1944, Romero and thousands of other troops landed in Scotland and headed overland to Wales. Ten days later, he and his outfit, the 75th Infantry Division, shipped out of Portsmouth, England, for France.
“Our whole division was ordered to the Battle of the Bulge. It was hell. You could say it was cold. They claim it was the coldest winter in 60 years,” he recalls. “Our first encounter with Germans, we lost three guys in my squad. They were my buddies.”
Romero, by then 19, says that having death close at hand caused him to age rapidly.
“If you were there five minutes, you were an old-timer.”
The pivotal Battle of the Bulge went on for weeks, and seeing the dead and the wounded became commonplace.
“The battle lasted six weeks and we didn’t take a bath that whole time,” Romero remembers. “Then they took us to a factory where there were showers. We stunk. After we showered, other soldiers came in, and they smelled just like us before we had showered.”
After the battle, the division moved to Colmar in the Alsace region, “the last piece of real estate the Germans had in southern France.”
Romero and his fellow combat engineers would emplace land mines in open areas to halt enemy tanks from penetrating the division’s stretched front lines.
“We called this maneuver an ‘expedient mine field’ because you placed the mines on top of the ground instead of burying them,” Romero says.
A more dangerous operation that he and his colleagues often conducted was the removal of enemy mines.
“One time when we were clearing mines, we were picking up what they called ‘Bouncing Betty’ mines. These were mines that if you tripped them, they’d shoot up about 2, 3 feet and explode and whoever was there got it,” Romero recalls. “You might not have been the one who tripped the mine, but you got it, too, killed or wounded.
“It was in Holland where we were picking up these mines, about 1,000 of them in the area the size of a baseball field.”
The Germans had fled, he says, but they left mines to make any pursuit of them a deadly endeavor.
Romero recalls that while in the Ruhr, an industrial region of Germany, he was walking down a street at night to an outpost, where he was assigned to guard duty in front of a building where it was so dark that he could barely see.
“They told me I’d be relieved in four hours, so a lot of stuff can go through your mind when you’re there alone,” he says. “Once in a while, you’d hear an explosion or a tank. My mind was working on me. I thought I heard voices upstairs in the building – German voices – so I moved closer to the door, and I thought I heard my father’s voice calling my name. He had a low voice, and I thought I heard him say, ‘Ramon.’
“I went and checked to see if someone was there, and just at that moment, a mortar shell landed where I had been standing guard. When they came to relieve me, the other soldiers were in a good mood. I was scared; I was shaking.
“As we walked away, they pointed out where I had been standing guard, and I looked, and there was no roof left on the building or an upstairs. The building had been bombed before; not that night. I thought I was going to snap,” he says of the voices he thought he had heard.
But he had not imagined the mortar shell, Romero adds. It had indeed exploded in the spot where he had been standing guard before he went to investigate those voices.
Had his father thousands of miles away back home in Lackawanna somehow saved him with the soft call of his name?
“When I was a boy and there was trouble, I knew everything would be OK if I heard my father’s voice. I was scared that night and I thought I heard my father’s voice and everything was all right. I moved from the spot where the mortar hit.”
After returning to civilian life, Romero says, he was welcomed home by his father, Urbano, who was very proud of his son’s war service.
And when Romero shared with his father the story of how he heard his voice in Ruhr, the father expressed compassion for his son.
“He told me he wished he could have gone to war instead,” the son says, “because I was young and he had already lived life.”
Romero returned to Bethlehem Steel and worked there for 36 years before retiring.
To this day, he still recalls hearing his dad’s voice and feels certain that something indeed happened that night so long ago that saved his life.
Call it paternal love.
Ramon I. Romero, 90
Rank: Private first class
War zone: Europe
Years of service: 1943-46
Most prominent honors: European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three battle stars, World War II Victory Medal, Certificate of Merit
Specialty: Combat engineer, .30-caliber machine gun operator