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Monroe County loses an amazing man

On Friday I heard some news that I had been dreading in the back of my mind for a long time. Herman “Zerg” Zerger Jr. — a man I considered a friend and a hero — had died that morning.

Zerg had reached the impressive age of 97 years old and had entered a facility that provides senior care. Although I had always known him to be in good health, that is why I frequently worried that he wouldn’t be around for much longer.

I first met Zerg many years ago. He had agreed to allow me to interview him about his military service during World War II. The stories he shared with me were incredible.

We got together many more times over the years. Sometimes we talked about his experiences as a soldier in Europe. Other times, we talked about politics and his important roles with the Monroe County and Ohio Democrat parties. Every once in a while I would connect with him to report on some project or initiative he was working on, such as making improvements to the local VFW.

Usually, we would meet at a restaurant in Barnesville or Woodsfield. Each and every time we got together, Zerg was a kind and generous gentleman. He always insisted on treating me to something — a cheeseburger, a cup of coffee or an ice cream cone — to enjoy while we talked.

Zerg was always full of interesting information, and he had a way of making his listener feel like they were in those places he was remembering when he recounted his wartime experiences. He also expressed genuine care and concern for other area residents, especially other veterans. In fact, he worried for weeks about arranging for my dad — the late Jim Compston, who also served in Europe during WWII — to take an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., to visit the National World War II Memorial. Unfortunately, Dad became ill and died before we could make that happen.

Zerg was born Jan. 5, 1924, in Woodsfield, where he graduated from high school in 1942. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army, traveling overseas to fight on the front lines before being captured by the Germans.

His accomplishments and affiliations are far too numerous for me to list here. To learn some of those details, you can read his obituary on page B2 of today’s edition of The Times Leader.

Whenever I chatted with Zerg about his time in the Army, he didn’t list his achievements. Instead, he talked about the cold, hard realities of war. It was Zerg who first told me about “grass soup” — a dish he and his fellow prisoners of war concocted from the greens growing around them in an effort to supplement their diets and help fend off starvation. He told me about death, torture and bombings as well as the fleas, rats and lice that affected him and his fellow POWs.

But he also recalled the friendships he formed with those he was with in captivity. He shared many of those same tales with the world in a book he wrote at age 90 — “Courage and Beyond.” As far as I know, he never sold the copies of that book. Instead, he gave them to family and friends, and to facilities such as the Monroe County Public Library.

“Combat was hell, and you may have many terrible memories of death and destruction but the memories of total camaraderie with men who shared that hell will forever be embedded in your heart,” Zerger wrote. “There is no friendship like that of combat buddies. It is something that lasts forever.”

Zerger was part of the 36th Division that landed on the Anzio beachhead in Italy, where the Germans were waiting in January 1944.

He and his unit went on from Anzio to liberate Rome. At times they marched in the darkness, holding onto each other’s packs or belts to stay together.

From Italy, they made their way into France. Zerg was captured by Hitler’s SS troops in February 1945, at Herrlisheim, France.

After he was freed and returned home, he was honored in several ways for his service. He received the Knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest honor for a foreigner, and induction into the Ohio Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

In spite of the atrocities he witnessed and went through himself, Zerger always maintained a positive and grateful attitude.

“I am fortunate that I lived through the war and to tell a story of so many who perished so young,” he told The Times Leader in 2014. “They are the heroes, the ones to whom our country owes a debt of immeasurable gratitude.”

Zerger also was very active in politics, having cast his first vote for president for Franklin Delano Roosevelt from a foxhole. After his many decades of involvement, the Ohio Democratic Party named an award to be given to the Democratic Veteran of the Year in Ohio as the “Herman Zerger Award.” for a man who first voted while crouched in a foxhole. He is a Lifetime Honorary Chairman of the Ohio Democratic Veterans Caucus.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have known Zerg.

In the words of my colleague, Joselyn King of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register who also knew Zerger, “He did live a long life in which he made a difference to many.”

∫ ∫ ∫

We all know that Halloween is right around the corner. Trick-or-treaters will take to the streets this coming weekend, and plenty of other holiday festivities are planned.

But reflecting on Zerg’s life reminds me that another holiday is coming up soon — Veterans Day on Nov. 11. It is a time to honor all military veterans who have served our country at home or abroad.

There will be observances and ceremonies, and some communities such as Belmont will provide special gifts for their veterans. In many cases, though, we forget or overlook the opportunity to show our appreciation to the men and women who put their lives on the line for the rest of us.

With that in mind, remember to mark Veterans Day and to thank the veterans you know.

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