COLUMBIA — George Hage has a collection of medals and badges framed above his desk from his service in World War II.
One badge with a rifle reflects his duty as a combat infantryman, and a medal with three stars represents his European Theater of Operations campaigns — the Ardennes, the Rhineland and Central Europe.
Hage, 87, fought in the 84th Infantry Division. He was one of an estimated 16,000 soldiers who call themselves the Railsplitters — taking their name from the division's insignia of an ax splitting a rail.
With the Railsplitters, Hage fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate 3,000 women from the Salzwedel concentration camp in Germany.
Nearly every year since 1988, Hage has traveled to a different U.S. city for annual Railsplitter reunions. Though their numbers have dwindled over the years, 74 members reunited Aug. 23 to 25 at the Marriott Hotel near the St. Louis airport for their 66th — and final — gathering.
“I wasn’t going to miss it,” Hage said. “You would have had to put me in chains to stop me from going.”
Hage was drafted when he was 19 and living in his native Fort Plain, N.Y. He can still remember the date the letter arrived: Jan. 4, 1943.
“In October of ’42 they had lowered the draft age from 20 to 18," he said. "It wasn’t any big surprise.”
Fourteen months later, Hage learned he was headed to battle as an anti-tank gunner in the infantry.
“We were all put into understaffed infantry divisions, which didn’t make us very happy,” Hage said. “They’re the people that are at the front. They’re the ones that take the brunt.”
Hage sailed to Europe in September 1944 as part of the 2nd Battalion Headquarters of the 334th Infantry Regiment of the 84th Division. The camaraderie that has developed among the 84th Division over the last 66 years started within individual platoons.
“We didn’t have much contact with people outside of our own platoon,” Hage said. “We were independent units that were operating under the battalion headquarters.”
Hage lost one of his closest friends soon after arriving in Germany.
“I want to tell you, the first experience I had was when me and my foxhole buddy were getting out of the foxhole,” Hage said.
A shell hit Warren Rieger, a native of Staten Island, who was next to Hage.
“He actually shielded me,” Hage said. "He took the brunt of it, and he was killed. I would say that I probably aged more that day than any day in my life.”
As Hage’s group continued to advance across Germany, they spent many nights together in foxholes, or small trenches.
“It was a team,” Hage said, “Everybody had to take care of their end, and we relied on each other.”
The 84th moved on to the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes Mountains. Hage clearly recalls Christmas Day of 1944.
"The skies were clear and a lot of our bombers were going over," Hage said. “We just sat and cheered."
Hage lost many friends and counts himself as fortunate.
“I always believe in my guardian angels,” Hage said. “They took care of me.”
Hage is also humble as he recalls liberating female prisoners from Salzwedel concentration camp in Germany.
“I’d like to take credit for liberating them,” Hage said, “But there was just a handful of guards left there, and the rest had all fled.”
Hage’s friendships have extended beyond the 84th Division. Over the years, he reconnected with two of the women he helped to free. One of the women had been imprisoned for her activity in the Dutch resistance and happened to be the aunt of Hage's neighbor when he lived in St. Louis.
In 1994, Hage, his wife, Nell, and other Railsplitters and their families — about 150 in total — went to Europe and revisited some of the 84th Division’s battle sites, mostly those in Belgium.
That group went to all the reunions, Hage said, and many attended the recent reunion.
The Railsplitter Society plans the reunions and decided to make the one in St. Louis its last. The decision came down to the age and health of its members.
"The membership of the Railsplitter Society is gradually getting smaller by the year," said Forrest Lothrop, 87, the group's executive secretary-treasurer. "Our youngest member is 84.”
At the final reunion, many members brought their families along. Hage brought his daughter, son-in-law and grandson.
His daughter, De Minner of Columbia, was particularly touched by veterans examining the display of photographs from their days in combat.
“I was really proud of my dad," Minner said. "You realize that these men were all heroes because of what they did putting their lives on the line to fight for the U.S. and what it stood for.”
For Hage, the final reunion was not about retelling war stories.
"I was just happy to see some old friends," Hage said. "We understood each other; we knew what it was like."