TRAVERSE CITY — Richard Rizzio is haunted by thoughts of friends and comrades past, especially when Dec. 16 draws near.
What once were the ranks only of the 19,000 men killed during December 1944 and January 1945 have now been joined by many men he came to call his friends. They were the survivors, the lucky ones who came home from World War II’s bloodiest and coldest battle.
They are Michigan’s only chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, a group of men who 21 years ago decided to come together on Dec. 16 — the anniversary of the first day of the battle — each year to salute those who didn’t come home.
Rizzio had a “negative feeling” as he arrived at this year’s dinner. He was joined by only two other veterans of the battle.
“This may be our last one,” he said Monday as he entered Park Shore Restaurant along East Bay. “Our group is dwindling pretty fast. We’re a vanishing breed.”
The men already were old, many of them retired, when they gathered for the first time. And today few of them survive.
For those not here
Founded in 1992 by Maury Cole, the local chapter boasted some 30 to 35 members at its peak in the 1990s.
Today, there are four: Cole, 88, of Fife Lake; and Rizzio, 88, Roland Sayer, 90, and Jim Wibby, 89, all of Traverse City.
All of the veterans, except Wibby, attended the Monday dinner that also included 10 family members and friends. It’s a tradition the men and their families have preserved since the chapter was founded.
“We thank you Lord for this day and our being able to be here to celebrate this important date,” Rizzio said, his voice cracking as he prayed. “We do this for one reason — to remember those who did not make it.”