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94-year-old Twin Falls veteran remembers the Battle of the Bulge

TWIN FALLS — Lincoln Mahaffey remembers landing at the beaches of Normandy one month after D-Day.

“The smell was bad,” Mahaffey said Friday. “The casualties had been cleaned up,” but rotting bodies of dead animals remained.

More than 9,000 Allied soldiers — mostly Americans — were wounded or killed on D-Day in a hard, bloody battle along that 50-mile stretch of northern coastline in France. Allied forces, in what is described as the largest seaborne invasion ever launched, broke through heavily fortified enemy lines in June 1944, a turning point in World War II.

Mahaffey’s outfit shipped out shortly after D-Day. The ship zigzagged across the Atlantic for 18 days, keeping its location in the Atlantic secret. His ship, carrying more armored vehicles than troops, first landed in Wales.

It was nighttime when he landed at Normandy.

“It was my mother’s birthday,” he said, as tears welled up in his eyes 73 years later.

Mahaffey is 94 years old, but doesn’t look a day over 75. He was 18 when he was drafted in 1942, just months after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

“Were you excited to go?” asked Mahaffey’s son-in-law, Steven Hansen.

Mahaffey, a native of Kennewick, Wash., hung his head in thought, and answered slowly.

“Yes,” he said. “And no.

“I was the only boy in the family. I wasn’t supposed to be drafted.”

A man of few words

Mahaffey never talked about the war, said his daughter, Kathy Hansen. He started to open up, however, when his grandchildren started asking him about the Battle of the Bulge.

“That’s how we learned much of his story,” she said.

The Hansens moved Mahaffey recently from his home in Kennewick into their home in Twin Falls after her mother died. Mahaffey’s construction business in Washington is now in his grandchildren’s hands.

He considers himself lucky to have served in an armored infantry.

“We were a special — secret — unit,” Mahaffey said. He is also a superior marksman.

He said the secret he couldn’t talk about back then was the armored half-track vehicle he drove into nighttime battle. Special lights on the unit would illuminate the night like day, blinding anyone in its tracks. The vehicle was armed with a 50-caliber machine gun.

“The half-track had a roller on the front of it that would run over almost anything,” he said. “We practiced by driving over cactus when I was training in Phoenix.”

Mahaffey remains elusive about the role he played in the war.

“So you were a spy,” his son-in-law said.

Mahaffey’s eyes twinkled.

“There were people who depended on me,” was all he would say.

In December 1944, Nazi Germany launched its last major attack on Allied forces in what is known as the Ardennes Offensive. For a week, the Germans aggressively pushed into Belgium, creating a 60-mile “bulge” in their front line.

But Allied forces battled that bulge, in what was called the greatest land battle ever fought. American troops were led by U.S. Army Gen. George Patton.

Mahaffey’s half-track vehicle — part truck, part tank — and others like it pushed ahead of the Allied troops, taking out the enemy as they scouted.

Of the 13 aboard the half-track, only three came out of the war unscathed. Mahaffey was one of them.

“I’ve always looked up to him,” Kathy Hansen said. “He taught us how lucky we are for the freedoms we have.”

The silent soldier

NAMPA — Ten years ago, Bill Hamilton would not have sat down for a newspaper interview to discuss his military service.

Even now his daughter, Christa Pomtier, and wife, Susan Hamilton, said they were surprised he would tell a reporter about his experiences in Vietnam for publication.

Pomtier doesn’t remember her father to be someone who willingly spoke about his Army experiences. He would talk of helicopter crashes, the sounds of gunfire or how he lost his hearing, when asked by his children. He would look through memorabilia with pride in his eyes. But he rarely spoke about the war unprompted.

When Pomtier — who is now 46 — was still a child, the Vietnam War was still a controversial subject in the U.S., so while Hamilton never hid from his history, he didn’t make a big deal about it, either.

Hamilton enlisted in the Army a year after graduating high school on his 19th birthday. He served three years, completing three tours in Vietnam.

During the weeks he spent in Alabama for basic training, Hamilton learned to fly helicopters, which he referred to as “ships.” He said flying turned him into an adrenaline junky, and missions gave him a drug-like high that he sought out. The worst parts of the war, he recalled, were when he returned to camp and had nothing to do.

Hamilton doesn’t shy away from the fact that he killed people in Vietnam. He is open in admitting that the killing didn’t bother him — in fact, he said he enjoyed it.

“For every person that I killed, or we killed, that was one more person that couldn’t kill a brother,” Hamilton said.

Purple Heart

Hamilton’s Purple Heart story started on a flight mission in support of the 11th Armored Cavalry. It was his first mission as a part of a 24-hour alert team, and he said he didn’t even know he was up to fly it at first.

He’d been called in to replace a soldier who was out with a foot injury, but he didn’t know when the soldier was officially leaving. He was making his bunk one morning when sirens went off — sounding like the blare of a fire truck — and suddenly people were shouting at him to get to his ship. His platoon leader was glaring at him when he arrived.

The mission was a low-level flight with the Vietnamese jungle bracketing their ship from either side, and it led them straight into an ambush. Their ship was shot up by enemy soldiers, and Hamilton and the pilot were hit in the line of fire.

Half a bullet went into his elbow while shrapnel hit his neck and nearly tore one of his fingers clean off. It hung on by a thin strip of skin. But Hamilton said he didn’t feel any fear or pain in the rush of adrenaline he experienced as his unit completed a forced landing.

“I didn’t know I was injured,” he said.

He also didn’t realize that that mission would lead to the Purple Heart. He said he found out a day or two before the awards ceremony, but if he had known earlier he would have refused it.

“What happened to me was nothing, absolutely nothing that compared to other people,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton said the awards he received for his service were “idiotic,” because he didn’t do anything to deserve them, and he knows other soldiers who did more and didn’t receive anything. In his opinion, that deteriorates the value of those awards.

Pomtier said she didn’t realize her father was a Purple Heart recipient until after she moved out of the house. Hamilton’s wife, Susan, said they never displayed it. Within the last 10 years, Pomtier said, she has finally started to appreciate what Hamilton’s Purple Heart means, but she knows her father would never seek out recognition for his actions.

“It’s not about him, it’s about everybody else,” Pomtier said.

The Vietnam War was controversial and heavily protested, but Hamilton said he didn’t experience much of it first-hand, other than the groups of people who yelled at him as he arrived home at the airport. He said as long as they didn’t get in his face, it wasn’t a big deal.

Hamilton met Susan while on leave in the Army, and they were married shortly after he returned home in 1970. Dead broke, Susan said they honeymooned in their apartment together for three days, and he went back to work on Monday.

Susan said she didn’t pay attention to the Vietnam protests and never pressed Hamilton for information about the war. Though she said Hamilton didn’t let the war define him, she could see that it affected him. Early in their marriage he had a reoccurring nightmare about a helicopter crash, and it didn’t go away until he told her about it.

But she said she let him come to her when he wanted to talk about Vietnam. She didn’t ask questions because she knew she couldn’t understand what he went through.

“You can’t be married for 47 years and not give him some space,” she said.

Their family moved to Nampa in 1984, and following his retirement in 2011, Hamilton said he spends his time helping other veterans. Susan said it’s only been in recent years that he’s reached out to other veterans and started being more open about his experiences, and she thinks it’s great.

Hamilton was forced to retire due to medical reasons caused by Agent Orange — a powerful herbicide used by the U.S. military in Vietnam to destroy forest cover for enemy troops. It was later shown to cause serious health consequences for Vietnamese people as well as veterans and their families.

Hamilton said the most disappointing part of the war for him was not the negative response of the public toward veterans, but how the government responded in the aftermath of Agent Orange. It took years for U.S. officials to admit to the problems the herbicide caused, he said, and he knows there are veterans dealing with the side effects without treatment today.

“Vietnam is killing veterans now,” Hamilton said.

Despite it all, Hamilton still has pride for his country. He serves as the commander of the Idaho chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, as well as the welfare officer. And he knows one thing with conviction.

“I would go again,” Hamilton said.

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: Missoula Children’s Theatre presents “Aladdin” at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Sligar Auditorium at Twin Falls Center for the Arts, 195 River Vista Place. Tickets: $10 adults and $5 children, available at the Magic Valley Arts Council box office.

Talking tough on trade, Trump pushes 'America first' in Asia

DANANG, Vietnam — President Donald Trump stood before a summit of Asian leaders keen on regional trade pacts and delivered a roaring “America first” message Friday, denouncing China for unfair trade practices just a day after he had heaped praise on President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

“We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore,” Trump told CEOs on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference. “I am always going to put America first, the same way that I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.”

The president — who pulled the United States out of the Pacific Rim trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership — said the U.S. would no longer join “large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible.”

Instead, he said, the U.S. will pursue one-on-one trade deals with other nations that pledge fair and reciprocal trade.

In a major breakthrough, trade ministers from 11 nations remaining in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — representing roughly 13.5 percent of the global economy — said today they had reached a deal to proceed with the free-trade pact after it was thrown into doubt when Trump abandoned it. However, an immediate formal endorsement by the countries’ leaders meeting in Vietnam appeared unlikely.

A statement issued in the early hours today said an accord was reached on “core elements” of the 11-member pact. The compromise was delayed by last-minute disagreements that prevented the TPP leaders from meeting to endorse a plan on Friday.

“Ministers are pleased to announce that they have agreed on the core elements of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership,” the 11 nations said in a statement.

Separately, a 16-member region-wide pact called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was also under negotiation. It encompasses China and India but also does not include the U.S.

Regarding China, Trump said he’d spoken “openly and directly” with Xi about the nation’s abusive trade practices and “the enormous trade deficits they have produces with the United States.”

It was a stark change in tone from the day before, when Trump was Xi’s guest of honor during a state visit in Beijing. There, Trump opted for flattering Xi and blaming past U.S. presidents for the trade deficit.

Trump said China’s trade surplus, which stood at $223 billion for the first 10 months of the year, was unacceptable. He repeated his language from Thursday, when he said he did “not blame China” or any other country “for taking advantage of the United States on trade.”

But Trump added forceful complaints about “the audacious theft of intellectual property,” ‘’massive subsidizing of industries through colossal state-owned enterprises,” and American companies being targeted by “state-affiliated actors for economic gain.”

U.S. officials have raised similar concerns in the past about China, especially with regard to intellectual property.

Today, Trump opened a day of meetings with leaders of the 21-member APEC countries. Later in the day, he was to fly to Hanoi, the capital, to attend a state banquet before formal meetings Sunday with Vietnam’s president and prime minister.

Behind the scenes, White House officials quietly negotiated with the Kremlin over whether Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin would hold a formal meeting on the sidelines in Danang, with the Russians raising expectations for such a session.

As speculation built, the two sides tried to craft the framework of a deal that Trump and Putin could announce in a formal bilateral meeting, according to two administration officials not authorized to speak publicly about private discussions.

Though North Korea and the Ukraine had been discussed, the two sides focused on trying to strike an agreement about a path to resolve Syria’s civil war once the Islamic State group is defeated, according to officials. But the talks stalled and, just minutes before Air Force One touched down in Vietnam, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the meeting was off.

When asked about the outcome, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later snapped at reporters: “Why are you asking me? Ask the Americans.”

Trump and Putin crossed paths Friday night during the summit’s welcome gala: The two men, each wearing traditional Vietnamese shifts, shook hands and greeted each other as they stood side-by-side for the group photo of world leaders.