Robert Milton Preston, 83, who died September 12, 2006, of arrhythmia at his daughter's home in Monrovia, Maryland, spent most of his life as an electrician working for construction and electrical firms on numerous government buildings in Washington. But before that, he was a reluctant hero in World War II's fierce Battle of the Bulge and a prisoner of war for five months in Germany.
After being drafted into the Army at 20, Corporal Preston landed in England on October 13, 1944. He stayed there for three weeks before being posted across the channel in Butgenbach, Belgium.
Assigned to the Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Division, the young soldier ran “sneak and peak” missions along the Ardennes front.
“It was on one such mission that Preston and Sergeant George Redmond observed German movement from his observation post along the Ardennes forest,” the Montgomery Journal said in a 1981 article. “The two soldiers reported seeing the troops — the beginning of the German buildup for the battle.”
For their discovery, Corporal Preston and the Sergeant received the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Days later, Corporal Preston and the other members of his platoon positioned themselves in well-dug foxholes on the front near Lanzerath, Belgium, although the intelligence-gathering platoon was not supposed to be directly involved in the fighting.
However, it was. Corporal Preston recalled in the Journal article the early-morning start of the fighting. “The whole valley lit up,” he said. “I've never seen anything like it.”
Ordered to “hold at all costs,” the platoon held off German troops after three attacks lasting 18 hours. In the end, two American soldiers were killed, and the others, including Corporal Preston, were captured.
Corporal Preston was detained in a German prison camp for five months. Food was scarce, the weather was bitterly old and living conditions were unsanitary. He suffered frostbite and many indignities, said his daughter, Pamela Richter of Pasadena, who said her father rarely spoke of his imprisonment and didn't consider himself a hero, as some had called him and the others.
“If you'd been there, you'd have done the same thing,” Corporal Preston said in 1981. “You'd have no choice. But I'd tell you one thing, they'll never get me again. The indignities . . . no way.”
Recognition for the small platoon came in October 1981, nearly 37 years after the start of the largest land battle in the Army's history. It followed the 1969 publication of a book, “The Bitter Woods,” written by John S.D. Eisenhower, a participant in the campaign and the son of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. More interest came from Congress and the White House in the late 1970s.
The platoon received the Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism, and Corporal Preston and nine other soldiers were awarded the Bronze Star for valor.
Corporal Preston was born in Denton, Maryland, and attended Woodrow Wilson High School in the District. After World War II, he returned to Washington and joined an apprenticeship program in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 26.
A lifetime member of the union, he worked for 24 years with the Walter C. Doe Corp. He applied his skills to numerous government building projects, including the Library of Congress, L'Enfant Plaza, the Smithsonian Institution and Blair House.
He worked at R.M. Thornton Controls before retiring in 1987 from Venture Associates Inc., an electrical firm.
A former resident of Silver Spring, Corporal Preston had lived in Monrovia since January.
He enjoyed reading history and was a Civil War buff. Crossword puzzles also held his interest, as well as watching the Washington Redskins, win or lose.
A man with a tremendous sense of humor, Corporal Preston loved “Seinfeld” reruns. He also enjoyed quoting William Shakespeare, saying often, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
His wife, Margery Washabau Preston, whom he married in 1950, died in 1991.
Besides his daughter, survivors include four other children, Paula Preston of Monrovia, Priscilla Preston-Shoap of Taneytown, Maryland, Robert Preston of Owings and Rebecca Preston of Germantown; a sister; eight grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.
On Tuesday September 12, 2006 ROBERT M. PRESTON of Monrovia, Maryland.
Beloved husband of the late Margery Washabau Preston; father of Paula Preston and husband Kevin Walsh of Monrovia, Maryland, Pamela Preston of Pasadena, Maryland, Priscilla Preston-Shoap and husband Steve of Taneytown, Maryland, Robert Preston and wife Donna of Owings, Maryland, and Rebecca Preston of Germantown, MD; eight grandchildren, Michelle Smith, Megan Richter, Glenn North, Patrick North, Christine Bell, Chris Preston, Mark Preston, and Valerie Preston; seven great-grandchildren, Caroline and Grayson Smith, Hayden Richardson, Thomas, Michael and Emily North and Ashley Bell.
Interment with military honors will be held 11 a.m. Tuesday, September 26 in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. Family members and friends should assemble at the Cemetery Administration Building by 10:30 a.m. The family suggest that expressions of sympathy be in the form of memorial contributions to the American Diabetes Association, 1211 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 501, Washington, D.C.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard