LAKE PARK, Iowa -- If Cecil Zahren had been given the option to choose his assignment in World War II, he would have been a paratrooper. Instead, the 19-year-old was assigned to the Army -- the 116th Infantry Battalion of the 29th Division, Ninth Army, to be more specific.
His assigned job was to care for the injured in the field. He carried no weapon, just a small bag filled with a supply of bandages, morphine, plasma and sulfa (later switched out for penicillin), and wore a Red Cross patch on his arm.
Now, at 87, the Lake Park man considers himself lucky that his wish to join the paratroopers wasn't granted.
That's not to say his job as a medic wasn't dangerous, because it was. Two medals in Zahren's collection show just how dangerous it was to care for the injured American troops -- he was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
Zahren entered the Army on Sept. 18, 1943, just months after graduating from Lake Park High School. A year earlier, he had been visited by a recruiter.
"They came around and I signed up," he said. "I knew it was to defend the country, but that was it."
He reported to Camp Dodge, Iowa, in September 1943, and was transferred to Camp Barkeley, Texas, for medical training to be an "aid man."
"I got to come home for a few days and then left for Europe," said Zahren.
He boarded the Queen Mary for a four-day journey to Scotland, and was then sent to Clerk School at the University of Oxford. Shortly after his schooling was completed, Zahren's battalion was sent to Normandy, France, as replacement troops. They arrived on the beach less than a week after D-Day -- June 6, 1944.
"We had 30 men in our (unit) who went in on a landing barge," Zahren said. "I was one of the first replacements."
As the door of the barge opened up, Zahren and his fellow soldiers stepped off board and into the water. All around him on the shore, he could see the lifeless bodies of soldiers killed in battle. The D-Day battle left more than 9,000 allied soldiers either dead or wounded as they stormed the beach.
When Zahren landed on June 11, 1944, his division was sent to St. Lo, where a battle ensued against the Nazi German soldiers. The battle continued there for more than a month, but eventually the 29th Division claimed victory over the city.
Throughout the battle, Zahren served alongside his fellow soldiers, rescuing the injured and getting them prepped to go to a first aid station for treatment.
"We mostly got them ready to be taken back," he said. "We were the first aid.
"We were right in the line of fire."
Without a weapon for protection, Zahren had to trust and rely on his fellow soldiers.
"They protected us and we took care of all casualties," he said.
From improvising splints for broken limbs or binding them for transport to administering morphine for pain, Zahren saw his share of injuries.
"We saved lives and probably didn't do a good enough job saving (our men)," he said. "We lost a lot of them -- we suffered a lot of casualties (in the war). The main thing was to get to them before they lost a lot of blood."
In all, there were about 20 medics to serve the men of the 29th Division. After St. Lo, they headed to Brest, France, and another battle -- this one would last about three weeks.
"It was real hard when we went to Brest," said Zahren, adding that they were able to free some American soldiers in the village.
At one point, he had to go into the German line to rescue one of the captains as fighting waged on around him.
"I had a 2-foot-square Red Cross flag and as long as I wore that flag, they would not fire at me," shared Zahren. "The Germans really respected, in our area, the Red Cross.
"I carried no weapon and if I'd a had a soldier with me with a weapon, then I would have been fair game," he added.
Zahren said the American soldiers showed the same respect for the German medics.
"They thought they were fighting for what was right," he said.
By November 1944, Zahren and his fellow soldiers had begun their journey through Belgium and Holland as they made their way toward the Roer River in northern Germany.
One of the scariest events of that journey for Zahren was rescuing the wounded from a small area as snipers fired rounds in their direction. Eighteen of his fellow soldiers were killed in the attack, and Zahren and other medics had to run right through the line of fire to get medical supplies for the injured.
"This sniper was shooting right alongside me every step I took," said Zahren, adding that he'd never run so fast. "You run on adrenaline. You might say you fought for your life."
It was those actions on Nov. 21, 1944, that led to his being awarded the Bronze Star. A framed certificate in his home details his heroics: "In medical support of a battalion attacking enemy positions, (Zahren) displayed outstanding courage and devotion to duty in the execution of his assignment. When the other members of his squad became casualties, he continued his work in areas exposed to heavy enemy fire and by his skill, initiative and determination saved the lives of many seriously wounded men. His exemplary conduct reflects great credit upon himself in the military service."
It was after Zahren made it to Germany that he suffered his first -- and only -- visible wound of the war. Like many of his fellow soldiers, it wasn't a bullet fired from a pistol, but rather shrapnel from an artillery shell that caused an 8-inch-long gash in his leg.
Zahren still has the scar to show for his military service -- as well as the Purple Heart.
"It was not so severe that I couldn't stay and do my duty," he said.
For more than two months, Zahren and his fellow soldiers waited at the Roer River, and then in February 1945, the 29th Division forged ahead. The battle was fierce at the crossing, however, and soldiers were in danger as they crossed a makeshift, floating pontoon footbridge.
Zahren made it successfully across the river and on to the Rhine River, eventually meeting up with the Russians on the Elbe River at the end of the war.
When victory was declared, he said the Allied troops celebrated with drinking.
"Some went into wine cellars and some looted homes," he said. Europe had been liberated and there was much to celebrate.
After the war ended, Zahren stayed in Germany to await his next assignment.
"In September or October, they were talking about sending us to the Pacific, but we didn't go," he said.
Instead, on Christmas Eve 1945, he boarded the USS LeJeune at Bremerhaven, Germany, and on Christmas Day they set out for New York Harbor.
"That was a good thing to see the Statue of Liberty," said Zahren, who then traveled to Fort McCoy, Wis., for his honorable discharge. The entire journey took about two weeks.
Zahren boarded the Rock Island train at Fort McCoy, bound for the depot in Spirit Lake, Iowa, where his parents met him and took him back home to Lake Park. He soon bought a truck and began hauling gravel, but in 1947, after marrying his wife Ellen, they started farming. They moved into Lake Park following his retirement in 1979.
The Zahrens raised six children -- two boys and four girls. The family has since grown to include nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Ellen died in May 2007.
Over the years, Zahren has shared his war stories with his family -- it's a part of his past.
"Our war was nothing like what these boys are going through now," he said. "The war that we fought, we knew who the enemy was -- they weren't behind us ... and they all had uniforms."