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Sight of WWII death lost its sting for Williamsville vet

The military shot down Clay W. Bihl's dream of being a pilot.

Bihl was so excited about learning to fly that he spent his free hours as a boy building model airplanes. When Uncle Sam drafted him for World War II, Bihl's job was to become an anti-aircraft gunner. He and other soldiers practiced at Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina, firing the guns at targets above the Atlantic Ocean.

"It didn't suit me. I took the test to become a pilot and was reassigned to pilot training in San Marcos, Texas. There was a sudden change in plans. The camp was filled with young men from college and the Army Air Force, and we were unceremoniously transferred to the infantry. There was a compelling need for manpower because of the upcoming  Battle of the Bulge," Bihl said.

After sailing across  the Atlantic, he and thousands of other soldiers took their turns clambering down rope ladders tossed over the side of the troop ship and hopping into landing crafts that ferried them to the port at Marseille, France.

"The staging area was windswept, rocky and rain sogged. Our equipment was scattered everywhere on the back of the wharves," the 93-year-old recalled of the arrival.

Bihl then quickly encountered the devastation of war when he and other members of the 103rd Infantry Division marched into St. Die, a town in the Vosges Mountains that had been set ablaze by the retreating Germans.

And for the first of what would be many times, he took in the sight of a dead enemy.

"The dead German  was lying beside the road. I couldn't help but wonder if at that moment someone at his home may be writing a letter to him."

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Clay W. Bihl, 93
Hometown: Buffalo
Residence: Williamsville
Branch: Army
Rank: 1st  sergeant
War zone: World War II, European Theater
Years of service: drafted, 1943 - 1946
Most prominent honors: Combat Infantry Badge, European Theater Medal, World War II Victory Medal
Specialty: infantry platoon leader

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There wasn't much time to reflect. Bihl said he was busy  stringing communication cables and, at the same time, coming to  grips with the reality that someone was trying to kill him.

"I couldn't believe that someone was shooting at me and trying to kill me," he said.

As the battle progressed through the mountains,  Bihl observed that the enemy often had the advantage of the high ground "and we were like sitting ducks."

Death became almost meaningless and "just one of those things" that comes with war, he said.

The fight progressed to Climbach, France, where the 103rd experienced brutal winter conditions and stiff resistance, but the infantry persevered and attacked the heavily fortified Maginot Line, breaching it in mid-December 1944. Yet the war was far from over.

After the Allies won the Battle of the Bulge, the 103rd moved deeper into enemy territory and with other divisions in March 1945 attacked the Siegfried Line, another heavily fortified enemy barrier. They pushed through and made their way into Germany.

Clay Bihl in his uniform in the 1940s during WWII. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Clay Bihl in his uniform in the 1940s during WWII. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

And though he thought he had seen it all, Bihl was not prepared for what he witnessed in liberating the concentration camp known as Kaufering, a sub camp of Dachau.

"We found many dead and dying Jews, Poles, Russians and French naked on the ground. I can't say it was just one of those things. It's something that you can't forget," Bihl said.

Soon after, the 103rd made its way south through the Brenner Pass and became part of the Army of Occupation at Innsbruck, Austria, taking up residence in luxury hotels.

"We could live it up a little by taking showers and having decent food and beds."

And while he had come to accept death,  he returned home with a heavy heart. The 103rd, he said, had lost 848 soldiers, most of them killed in the Vosges Mountains and Alsace Lorraine region.

But life went on, and after being discharged, he married the former Dorothea Utz and attended Canisius College, earning both  bachelor's and master's degrees in math. He taught at Bennett High School, and Dorothea  worked as a secretary at local businesses. They raised three children and were happily married 62 years before death took her three years ago.

In his long retirement, Bihl stayed busy. He helped his dad, Edward, at the family automotive parts business - Cycle and Auto Supply on Buffalo's East Side. He also filled his time  as a volunteer at a local nursing home. Bu these days he says it is enough to maintain his Williamsville home and his summer place at Rushford Lake.

Of his war service, he says he does his best to put it out of his mind.

"Better not to reflect on it, really."

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