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Column: Running to hell and heaven

Hats off to Alex Graham (“Running for her hometown,” April 30).

A “normal” marathon brings great camaraderie from thousands of fellow runners and spectators from start to end.

Those diversions are increasingly important as the miles fade slowly by. Alex must have had moments of hell that likely disappeared at the finish line when the heaven of small things — stopping, a dry towel and a warm shower — blot those memories.

There are other races where finishing is only the beginning of hell, such as New York City’s finest at the World Trade Center on 911.

As we are engaged in COVID-19, we need to recognize those on the front lines who continue to return to those front lines day after day. History provides ample education to remember such sacrifices, when, as Churchill said: ““Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Running to hell is what happened for two million Americans in June 1944.

During that spring, Americans in uniform assembled in England to be part of the invasion of France to defeat Germany. Nineteen-year-old Marshall Numark, a long-term Shelter Island resident, was there.

His biggest fear was that the war would be over before he got there. That fear, like most fears, did not materialize. On June 6, 1944, the Allied Armies launched the armada.

The Battle of France was on. Marshall’s artillery unit crossed the English Channel to add the essential anti-aircraft and infantry support.

Marshall had excelled in quickly performing the tricky math to aim 90 millimeter guns. Trigonometry finally had become practical, indeed, essential.

Marshall’s units were often 5 miles from the front and yet he made decisions where a small error would result in disaster to the people you’re trying to protect or miss the people you were trying to kill.

Precision was critical under continuous enemy fire.

The Allies moved off the beaches to open the ports to the full invasion forces. After the Normandy victory, Marshall’s unit became part of General George Patton’s Third Army. In the late summer through the early fall of 1944, Americans were moving through France at an incredible pace.

By November, Germany was reeling under serious attacks from both the Russians on the east and the Allies on the west. Victory was in the air. It was obvious to all how this campaign was going to end.

Then, in late December, unexpectedly, the Germans launched a new major offensive through the Ardennes Forest into Belgium. It was a huge military risk, but the success of this gamble could have changed the course of the war. The American lines opposing the attack were the thinnest on the broad American offensive and were quickly in trouble.

To counter the Germans, the Third Army immediately moved north. They traveled a hundred miles in the intense cold to be in fighting position by New Year’s Day. The Battle of the Bulge was on. Marshall’s unit’s race successfully intercepted and stopped the Germans at Bastogne, Belgium.

The winter weather that lasted through January 1945 was among the coldest ever recorded. Sleeping in the snow was not the only problem. The real problem was surviving 16 continuous days of German bombardment. There was a victory at Bastogne and then Marshall moved on to the battle of Germany’s Rhineland — another race.

After the war, Marshall’s unit was decorated with these words: “During the 281 days of incessant and victorious combat, your penetrations have advanced farther in less time than any army in history. You have liberated 82,000 square miles of territory, including 1,500 cities and towns in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Signed General G. S. Patton Jr. (Third United States Army).”

Germany surrendered on May 9, 1945. I know Marshall well enough to know revenge is not in his system. Since Marshall is Jewish, he must have especially enjoyed receiving news of the surrender in the town of Braunau, Austria — Adolf Hitler’s birthplace. You see, races do move from hell to heaven.­