Bill Busier remained stoic for much of his surprise birthday party last Saturday.
Sitting at the Winooski VFW, he listened to a family friend recount his time as a soldier in the U.S. military, a tale spanning his early days on a sinking ship in Espiritu Santo to a four-day harrowing march through the snow toward a German prison camp.
Speakers commended his longevity and showered him with resolutions and gifts, including a flag flown over the U.S. capitol in honor of his birthday today.
But eventually, the hour-long ceremony revealed a prize worthy of Busier’s 100 years of life.
“I never believed as a young man down in Shelburne that I would accrue so many dearest friends,” Busier said, wiping a few tears from his face. “I really appreciate everybody here, and God bless you.”
Busier has lived in Essex nearly all his life. At 16, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps and six years later joined the National Guard, in which he trained as a medic and boarded the troop ship USS Coolidge as it sailed toward a military base in the Pacific.
But the Coolidge, drifting as it entered the canal, struck two American mines. As troops fled, Busier stayed behind to help other soldiers get to safety. He would later earn the soldier’s medal for his actions.
From there, Busier went back to the states and underwent infantry training. He transferred to the 106th Division and became sergeant of the second platoon K Company, Third Battalion 423rd Infantry Regiment.
After overcoming a bout of malaria during training maneuvers in Tennessee, he was off to England aboard the Queen Elizabeth. After a month of training there, his division sailed to Belgium.
Soon after, the German offensive began in what is now known as the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans broke through the Allied defenses and surrounded Busier’s division, which had run out of food and ammo, capturing them.
Busier and fellow prisoners of war were led on a four-day march to Germany through knee-deep snow. They slept outside, huddling together for warmth, and many, including Busier, suffered frostbite.
The Americans arrived at a railway station and were packed into cars filled with cattle and horse manure. When they arrived at the prison camp Stalag IX, the Germans separated Jewish soldiers from the rest of the division.
Busier was imprisoned there for four months. He and the soldiers received little food or water, and Busier again battled malaria, recovering only after one of his friends found some sulfa.
Fearing the Allied advance toward the camp, German officers attempted to move the prisoners to another location. But the prisoners lay down and refused to move.
Busier then felt a bayonet in his back and feared the guard would make an example of him.
But with the Allies moving in, the German soldiers instead fled. Shortly after, the camp was liberated, and Busier was free.
The memories come easy to Busier. Before the ceremony began, he launched into the tale, starting out with his time on the Coolidge. Occasionally, his daughter, Holly Lynn, tugged at his blue sweater and whispered, “Dad, that’s the speech!”
Still, attendees were happy to oblige in a first-hand telling and listened just as intently the second time around.
Some people stopped over at Busier’s table after the ceremony for a handshake or a pat on the back. One man lowered down to the sitting honoree and said, “Welcome home.”
But perhaps the most unique gift came from Mary Picard, who helped plan the surprise gathering with Essex resident Asiat Ali.
Picard found a moment to sneak away from cooking the day’s feast to address the crowd and held up a pair of wishbones salvaged from two of four turkeys she’d prepared. They were for Busier to make a wish, she said, also holding up one of her own.
“My wish for you Bill, is that you’re here for a long time,” Picard said. “I love you. You’ve got a wonderful family, and I am so proud and honored to have known you.”