By Sherrie Norris
At 97, World War II veteran H.C. Moretz Jr. of Boone has a lot of memories tucked away in his heart and mind. He’s spent many hours through the years sharing them with others as a reminder of things past and as an encouragement for things to come.
As one of the High Country’s few surviving veterans of World War II, and in particular, the Battle of the Bulge, Moretz has always taken great pride in having served his country in such a historically-rich era. Even amid times of uncertainty and unrest, he has remained a positive force among those who know him best.
He is also a man who has contributed much to the history and advancement of his hometown and surrounding areas, but he is a quiet man who has never demanded public acclaim.
We are proud to honor Moretz on this Veterans Day, November 11, 2021 — for what he has done on and off the battlefield.
Few people know that he came home a decorated war hero, or that he played an important role in developing Boone’s modern public transportation system. Or, that that many years ago, as Executive Director of WAMY Community Action (still serving the counties of Watauga, Avery, Mitchell and Yancey), he also worked hard to improve life for many mountain families through various programs that encouraged independence and enhanced opportunities for local residents.
How It all Began
Born in Watauga County on March 4, 1924, Moretz completed his formal education, served his country with dignity and pride, and later, in 1950, he returned to school at Appalachian State Teacher’s College where he received a bachelor’s degree in business education and social studies. He spent 15 years teaching business education courses at West Yadkin High School and managed Elkin Business College.
In 1966, he came back to Boone to serve as director of the Neighborhood Youth Corps Program under W.A.M.Y., and became the organization’s Executive Director two years later. Despite plans to return to school once again for a counseling degree and work in the local school system, he led WAMY through years of growth before retiring in December 1994.
He began helping local residents with their income tax from his home, something he continues to do today.
With a successful career behind him — and evidence of his forethought and innovation still very present in the High Country — it’s those early days of his life as an American soldier during World War 11, that still resonate, setting a tone for a life of leadership beyond the challenges.
Off To War at 19
At 19, Herbert C. “Junior” Moretz, was drafted in July 1944, returning home a decorated veteran two years later — but not without scars.
“When I went in, I thought I was going to be in the Navy. I reported for duty, but they didn’t need sailors. They needed marines, paratroopers and infantry,” Moretz said. “So I wound up in infantry.
After 17 weeks of infantry training at Fort McClellan, Ala., he came home on a 10-day leave before reporting to Fort Mead, Md., and then to Camp Miles Standish in Boston, from where he shipped out to Europe with the 78 Lightning Division, landing in Liverpool, England and riding a train to Southhampton before crossing the channel to France. His arrival coincided with the onset of the infamous Battle of the Bulge.
He will never forget a very cold Christmas Eve in 1944, in a tent camp in LeHarve, France, across the English Channel from England.
“The following day, Christmas Day, packed into freight cars, we rode the train near Paris. From there, traveling in open cattle trucks, we headed to the front lines.”
Within days, he was in combat action, assigned to Company A, 309th Regiment.
“When I reported to my company commander, I was carrying a World War I rifle and bayonet. He said, ‘Oh boy, we have a sniper.’ I replied, ‘Oh boy, we don’t, this is all they had to give me.’ A few days later I had an M-1 rifle and a modern bayonet.”
Moretz said he went through training with a new M-1 rifle, and into combat with World War I equipment.
His combat introduction was defending a “pill box,” a concrete bunker, six-feet thick, in Belgium along the Siegfried Line.
“The fog was so thick, we could hardly see,” Moretz said. “My first sergeant said, ‘Get up here where you can see and start shooting. You’ll want to be able to tell your grandchildren about this.'”
Moretz was “scared to death,” he said. “Artillery fire was so close that dirt was blown in the trench on us. We held the pill box and spent weeks patrolling in the Hertigan Forest to keep Germans from fortifying the area.”
Also battling snow and cold, Moretz was among those soldiers whose feet literally froze in the trenches as they tried to sleep.
“When the snow began to thaw, we launched a drive through the plains of Germany, taking small towns and villages,” Moretz said.
His unit received the Presidential Unit Medal for taking and holding the Schwammenauel Dam.
While gathered at the top of a long, steep hill to start the night attack on the dam, Moretz recalled, “Our mess sergeant brought us hot food, including fried chicken. But, we only got the smell, there was no time to eat.”
They were in a horizontal line heading down the wooded hill toward the dam, Moretz said. “It was so dark that each man to the right was responsible for keeping contact with the person on his left. I was near the end of the line. Somehow, six to eight of us got disconnected. As we approached a ridge, all hell broke loose below us. In the dark, we didn’t know which side to join.
Hand-to-hand fighting began. A number of Americans were lost. We were able to join our company the next morning. The urgency of this action was to take the dam before the Germans blew it up and flooded the area as a defense.”
His unit received its second Presidential Unit Medal for Crossing the Ludendorf Bridge on the Rhine River near Remegan. “This was a railroad bridge, and the German Air force was trying to bomb the bridge as we crossed,” he said.
The width of the Rhine River found Moretz thinking, as he crossed, that it was too wide for him to swim back.
“I knew there wasn’t much equipment on the other side,” he said. “The Germans also had the bridge wired to blow, but the combat engineers were able to cut the wires. We were forced to march for two straight days to get across before they could destroy the bridge from the air.”
Within the week, the railway bridge collapsed.
Two days after crossing the Rhine, German machine gun fire separated Moretz and five of his buddies from their company. “We were hiding behind small pine trees, lying on the ground — a German machine gun in front of us and one in the back of us. If we moved, they fired and bark flew off the trees.
“This continued for some time with everything looking rather hopeless,” he said. “Finally, a tank rescued us.”
Soon afterward, the soldiers were lined up in the woods, again down behind trees.
“We were told to move up hill, 20 to 30 feet,” Moretz said. “The soldier below me moved to the same tree I had just moved from. As we hit the ground, a German 88 artillery shell landed right where I had been. The concussion from the shell blew me off the ground, my helmet and rifle both flew into the woods. Shrapnel from the shell bent the bolt on my rifle; it no longer worked. A piece of shrapnel tore out the seat of my pants and stuck to my buttocks. The Good Lord was looking out for me.”
But he was not out of danger. “The war was winding down; our company was cleaning out pockets that had been bypassed. A tank had sprayed a wooded area with 50-caliber machine gun fire; about a dozen of us were told to go into the area and clean it out. ‘Hitler Youth’ were waiting and began firing. Another wounded soldier and I ran behind a small bank. Dirt was flying all around our feet, but we made it. I didn’t know until then that I could outrun bullets.”
When first entering combat, Moretz was among strangers.
“You make friends quickly and easily in these situations,” he said. ” But, it really does something to you to see a comrade get killed, knowing you have to go on.”
On the ship enroute to Europe, Moretz met up with George Winebarger, a neighbor from back home, but other faces were unfamiliar, at first.
Moretz returned home with memories and medals. Today, he looks solemnly at the little box that holds his Purple Heart, as well as a Good Conduct Medal and his Infantry Combat badge and others.
“I feel this was a war for which a man felt it was his duty to serve,” he surmised.
And he did live to tell his grandchildren all about it.
Moretz still remembers his days as a young soldier, serving in the military at the same time with three of his brothers. At some point during World War 11, however, all six boys in his family were in service. What a time that must’ve been for their parents back on the family farm during those times of uncertainty, with no modern technology like we have today to keep them informed of their actions and well-being.
Just seconds from becoming a statistic, Moretz has often referred to himself as “one of the lucky ones” who came home after World War II, discharged in May of 1946.
Among the highlights of his life, both as a veteran and as a civilian, include his trip to Washington DC as part of the Honor Flights in 2011, sponsored by the Sunrise Rotary Club of Boone. He was also a part of the WWII Symposium held several years ago at Appalachian State University and was one of 30 local World War II veterans featured in the Veterans Voice, a collection of recorded interviews — both opportunities made possible by The Appalachian High Country World War II Roundtable.
Moretz joined his friend Ken Wiley, noted WWII Veteran, author and public speaker (now deceased) on several occasions at speaking engagements around the region, including those “at least twice a year to Elizabethton, Tenn.,” said his daughter Dorinda, who often drove the men to their destination. She also accompanied them to Fredericksburg, Texas in late October 2018, where the two men were honored guests at the National Museum of the Pacific War; they also spoke with ROTC classes at Fredericksburg High School.
“Dad still loves to talk to anyone, especially younger people, about the war and how America came together to do what needed to be done.”
On June 10, 2012, Moretz received the Order Of The Long Leaf Pine Award, which he considers a great honor for the work he did in and for the High Country community.
He suffered a great loss on April 17, 2017, with the passing of Phyllis Wilson Moretz, his dear wife of 66 years. They had a wonderful life together and he still likes to talk about how they were married on Dec. 23, 1951, after a Christmas play, in which he was a wise man.
Following a bout with Covid in January of this year, Moretz slowly recovered and is doing well at this time, still helping others, preparing income taxes and enjoying time with his children and grandchildren.
And, according to his family, he’s still willing to talk to school and civic groups about the war — hero that he is.