War seeped into Don Lytle’s world the day after Pearl Harbor. A teenager then, he gathered with classmates in the library at Nyssa High School in eastern Oregon to hear President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech asking Congress to declare war.
World War II changed the lives of countless young men and women like Lytle. Three years later, not even graduated from high school, wrenched from work on the small family farm, Lytle found himself in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge in the European theater.
The battle, from mid-December through late January 1945, was German dictator Adolf Hitler’s last offensive and a major turning point in the war. It was significant to Lytle, too. He was wounded, which got him off the front line — alive. Events that followed led him to Paris — to her.
She was Janine Mangin, a pretty young French woman. She kissed Don on New Year’s Eve 1945, six months after the war ended, in Versailles, 200 miles to the east of the battle site. They married seven months later. On Aug. 12, 2017, they celebrated their 71st anniversary.
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And to honor Lytle’s service, France just inducted him into its Légion d’honneur, or Legion of Honor, the highest decoration the country bestows.
Fleeing the Dust Bowl
Don was born in the Dust Bowl of South Dakota, though ironically, his family was flooded out in a storm.
“They auctioned off what was left ... Dad built us seats over the chicken cage in the back of the truck ... and that’s what we came out on.”
The family headed to Nyssa, on the Snake River at the Idaho border. His father’s college roommate told them that there, at least you could eat. His father built a couple of shacks — chicken coops, actually, according to family lore — where the family lived and farmed wheat and other crops on 40 acres.
“You know, you might say we were poor, but we didn’t know it. You accept where you are.”
He arrived in Oregon as a sophomore in high school; he was drafted his junior year. After basic training, his unit shipped out. Without him.
“They said, ‘Those who are not yet 19 fall out’ ... Otherwise, I’d have been there much earlier.”
D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, was June 6, 1944, and Lytle’s age — he was still 18 — kept him from that.
In December 1944, his unit in the 75th Infantry arrived in the port of Le Havre, France, where they boarded an eastbound train.
“I bet you haven’t heard of the 40-and-eight. That’s the way the military moved over there. A railroad car, about the size of a modern truck, that (hauls) 40 people or eight horses, literally. We had 40 people, bag and baggage, food, the whole schmear.”
That got them to the border of Belgium.
“From then on, we were moving, mostly at night. ... Winter weather. It was cold.
“The night before we got on the line, I dug a hole out in a farm field, a foxhole. A buddy and I slept that one through. The next night, I stayed up all night kicking a tree to keep my feet from freezing. I was numb to the waist.”
Lytle had little idea where he was and knew even less about what was going on.
“I think we knew we were in France. My folks, during this whole period, didn’t know which continent I was on. ... There was a lot of secrecy that they could pull off in those days.”
Much of what Lytle knows today about the Battle of the Bulge he learned later from research and reunions with his unit. His platoon was sent to Manhay, a little town in Belgium, and all they knew then was what they were supposed to do.
“We crawled a quarter mile up to the woods and that’s where we were pinned down. My instructions were — I remember clearly what it was: We were to go with marching fire, which means you stand up, just keep shooting, to keep them down. To clear out these woods that had been bypassed by the advancing troops.”
It was Christmas Eve. A machine gun peppered the trees around Lytle’s platoon.
“The (German), he was very accurate with it, and I think now ... they suckered me. I was looking around the other side of the tree and I spied a helmet out there.
“My training — you try and get him.”
Lytle carried a Browning automatic rifle. He was shifting to a better firing position when the German soldier fired; the bullet skipped through his hand and buried itself in his sleeve.
“I lost a knuckle. ... If he’d a waited a half a second, he would have gotten me.”
It wasn’t until after Lytle was evacuated and able to read newspapers that the battle’s significance began to sink in.
“I wasn’t terrified, no. I’d been shot at enough in basic (training), what the heck. ... It wasn’t until I ... found out where we were. Oh boy. Then I was terrified. ... The Battle of the Bulge was the last battle that could have determined our freedom.”
Two jeeps full of wounded soldiers headed toward the hospital that night.
“Only one of them got out. That’s me.”
After a couple of months in the hospital in England, Lytle returned to light duty in Paris, where he repaired tanks and equipment. It’s work at which he excelled and work that he’s most proud of: maintaining the Red Ball Express, a famed truck convey system that supplied Allied forces throughout Europe. Later he worked at a base near Versailles.
“Probably my biggest contribution to the war effort was getting that equipment serviced and back on the line.”
And then there was Janine. Visiting family, she and her “double cousin” (a brother’s married sister) attended a New Year’s Eve party — chaperoned by their respective mothers — at the base. American GIs, says Janine, were far sexier than their French counterparts.
“At midnight, here I am, a farm boy, sitting behind a round table minding my own business. At midnight, she comes around the table. She was kissing them all — but anyhow, she got my attention.”
It was some kiss.
“She steamed up my glasses even though I wasn’t wearing any at the time ...”
Their first date was not until April. They dated (“hot and heavy,” Lytle said) until he got notice that he had to return to the United States in May. He filed for an extension, then another, then a third.
She assumed and he assumed that they would marry — because Lytle claims he never actually proposed. Nevertheless, they started filling out paperwork. (Their daughter, Gina Lytle Hassan, notes with amusement: “Her English was just so-so, so maybe there was something lost in translation.”)
They married in France; Lytle was shipped back to Oregon and Janine followed. She arrived in Nyssa in a fancy fur coat and high heels.
Theirs was a marriage that lasted despite extraordinary differences. He was a poor farm boy. She was a gentile Frenchwoman. He is practically minded, knows how to do everything with his hands. She is intellectual, educated.
They had six children. He worked, driving heavy equipment, working campaigns at the sugar beet factory, doing maintenance and driving a bus at Northwest Nazarene College. She raised the kids, went to graduate school and taught French at the college for 26 years.
Today they live in Nampa. Janine Lytle had two strokes this spring. Her husband is her full-time caregiver, helped by their family.
Honored for his wartime work
For years, Don Lytle didn’t even talk about his wartime experience. He thought nobody would be interested.
Their daughter, Gina, who now teaches at the University of Paris, shakes her head. “We weren’t interested? We didn’t know. I remember when I was teaching at Northwest Nazarene College and I brought my dad in because I was doing a chapter on World War II — and he started talking, talking, talking. And I thought, ‘How come we didn’t know about all this?’ ”
Gabrielle Applequist, the honorary French consul in Idaho, encouraged Lytle to apply for his medal and helped fill out paperwork. She presented it to him in a ceremony two months ago.
“For years, I didn’t consider what I’d done over there as significant.”
“This (medal) isn’t for me as an individual. It is as a name, but my feeling is this is our whole group that saved (France) over there.”
But Applequist said Lytle deserves the recognition for helping France. “There are many more, and they deserve it, too. He lost many of his friends. But he says, ‘This is what is important. Look what I gained from that.’ He got his wife and family.”
Like her parents
Gina Lytle Hassan, 62, is the third of Don and Janine Lytle’s six children. She lives and teaches in Paris.
“I kind of reproduced the same pattern (as my parents),” she says. She went to France after she graduated and, not quite proficient in French, met her future husband. He had grown up in Algeria, a French colony in Africa, and was Jewish.
“He and his family had to leave (Algiers) in 1962 during the war of independence — so here we go, another war. If there had not been that war, then he would not have been in France, either. …
“Not only were my parents very different from each other, I was very, very different from him and his upbringing. We were able — there were screams sometimes — to conciliate a lot … So I think my parents (were) a good example. I was hopeful it would work out — because if my parents could do it, why couldn’t I?”
Gina’s husband, Pierre-Jean Hassan, died in 2016. They were married 31 years.
“From Breckinridge to Braunlauf: the First Battalion, 289th Regiment, 75th Infantry Division,” by Tim Leamon. Don Lytle was in the 290th Regiment, but his experience is similar up until he was wounded Dec. 24, 1944.
“MOS 1542: Some reminiscences of an Infantry platoon leader in World War 2,” by Joe Colcord, who was Don Lytle’s commanding lieutenant. Pages 20-25 and 75 are parallel to Don’s experiences.
The French Legion of Honor
If you are a veteran or family member of a veteran who fought in France during World War II in one of four main campaigns — Normandy, Southern France, Northern France and the Ardennes (the Battle of the Bulge) — the French government wants to express its gratitude. (Search for sanfrancisco.consulfrance.org / Useful information / Living WWII veteran.)