Collegiate Stories

98-year-old World War II veteran commemorates Battle of the Bulge alongside Collegiate fourth-graders

Courtesy of the The Lowell Sun 

LOWELL — Nearly 80 years ago, Joe Landry was drafted into the U.S. Army at Fort Devens at just 18 years old. Only a year later, he would fight in one of the largest battles of World War II.

The Shirley native, 98, visited fourth-graders at the Collegiate Charter School of Lowell on Wednesday morning, days before the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, which began on Dec. 16, 1944.

The classroom of 25 kids were eager to talk with Landry, asking him to reflect on his feelings toward his service, especially since he was drafted — or as one student put it, “forced.” Landry reassured them, “It’s an honor to serve your country,” and it’s important they did so.

“If we hadn’t done what we did,” Landry said, “most of you would be speaking German or Japanese.”

Dana Abbott, a U.S. Air Force veteran from Ayer, helped facilitate the students’ questions, since Landry said he is “hard of hearing because of the guns” they used.

Despite being only about 10 years old, a few students seemed concerned about the draft — one girl questioned why she, too, might have to serve alongside the boys.

In response to the young girl’s concerns, Abbott said he is proud to continue to serve his country outside of combat. Both he and Landry are involved with the American Legion.

“Technically, we’re still serving our country in different aspects,” Abbott said. “And we help veterans throughout the whole country, world, that have fought for our country… It’s an honor to be a soldier and still help veterans.”

After speaking with two different fourth-grade classrooms, Landry and Abbott accepted holiday cards, crafted by the students, which will be handed off to members of the Shirley American Legion George J. Morin Post 183 who might need some extra cheer.

Ashley Bailey-O’Keefe, the student life coordinator at the school, said the elementary-aged kids are always eager to participate in canned food and sock drives and card-writing activities. Because their end-of-term exams are coming up, the students couldn’t spend more time with the veterans, Bailey-O’Keefe, but they definitely “appreciated the time.”

“For our younger kids, they’re just happy to get that experience,” Bailey-O’Keefe said. “They pack a lot of empathy, and so if we give them an opportunity to do anything voluntary, they jump on it… So being able to see them in person and getting to ask them questions face to face, that’s an experience they’re not going to forget.”

Landry was one of seven siblings, and five of them served in World War II, he said. When asked if they had a relative in the military, some of the students raised their hands.

The first question one fourth-grader asked was how old Landry is, to which he responded, “I’m only 98! Two more years, I’ll be 100.” The room applauded.

While Landry was stationed in France in the fall of 1944, he spotted an Army Jeep driving in front of him. The number on the side of the vehicle indicated it belonged to his older brother’s outfit, and when Landry stopped the car to ask where they were stationed, he found his brother sitting there looking back at him.

“Unbelievable, just a miracle,” Landry said. “And we spent Thanksgiving together.”

Though it was far from a traditional Thanksgiving meal, Landry said they indulged in K-rations — breakfast, lunch and dinner served out of a “Cracker Jack box” — and even had turkey, ice cream and pie delivered from England.

The brothers departed a couple weekends later, and Landry was in Luxembourg before the Battle of the Bulge began. Landry drove trucks, troops and supplies up to the battlefront.

Given Landry’s extensive experience, and the fact he was involved in “six major campaigns” during the war, students wondered if he was ever injured. Landry told them he was one of the lucky ones and “never got a scratch.”

Since the war concluded, Landry said he’s returned to France and Belgium, where he lowered a flag at a cemetery and presented it to a Belgian family there.

After Landry’s visit, fourth-grade teacher Amy Ivas said her students were thrilled to have the veterans in the classroom, and she appreciated the conversation’s educational value.

“I think that they really enjoyed it, I believe that they learned a lot as well,” Ivas said. “Anything about history to enrich their lives is amazing.”

Landry also visited a high school history class later in the day, where students are currently learning about the Battle of the Bulge. Their teacher, Zach LaRose, is in the Air Force Reserves and, through his military connections, helped bring Landry to the school.

LaRose conducted a pen pal program last year, in which students could write letters to veterans overseas.

Many of LaRose’s students, especially his seniors, were “really interested” in meeting the veterans, he said — one was even “star-struck.”

“It’s great to bring somebody in who experienced it,” LaRose said, “because I could talk about it, I could show videos, but having that personal connection to D-Day, Battle of the Bulge, you can’t get past that.”

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