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Sheridan's globe-spanning service continues at 91

Roger Sheridan and his wife Shirley on their wedding day on June 12, 1944.

Roger Sheridan and his wife Shirley on their wedding day on June 12, 1944.

Quaint, peaceful and undeniably Southern, visitors can witness scenes in the one-caution-light town of Newborn long forgotten by big city folks. For instance, a scene like town clerk Elisa Rowe scrambling from behind her desk to chase down a neighbor's wandering puppy in the middle of Main Street. In Newborn, neighbors know their neighbors, plus their dogs and cats. Learning the name of a mule or nanny goat is optional.

Roger Sheridan is their mayor. His construction career took him to 32 countries and twice earned him recognition in the Guinness Book of World Records for structures: the world's largest artificial lake, Lake Volta in Ghana, and as project manager over the world's deepest cofferdam, Akosombo Dam. A combat veteran of WWII, he fought and served with three fused disks in his back, still shows his combat helmet with the bullet hole that nearly took his life, authored the book "Reminiscences of a Hard Hat," and at 91 years young Sheridan is believed to be the oldest active mayor in America.

His father, Lawrence Sheridan, earned his commission in WWI and lived to serve with his five sons in WWII. The youngest son was killed in the battle for Guam.

A Texas native, Sheridan and his family eventually moved to Ft. Harrison, Ind., where he attended Purdue University after high school. As a walk-on for the freshman basketball team, he explained, "Colleges once had freshmen teams, but WWII changed that for good." A teacher from a nearby school often scrimmaged with Purdue's freshman team -- legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

Sheridan left Purdue upon receiving an appointment to West Point.

"That didn't last too long," he admitted. "I fell going down a flight of stairs with a full field pack and broke my back."

With two fused vertebrae, West Point closed its doors. But the fall only broke Sheridan's back, not his spirit.

After West Point he moved to Salt Lake City, lived with his parents, attended the University of Utah and joined the ROTC program. Sheridan's mother arranged a blind date for him with "the girl next door," Shirley Parsons. When asked later by his mother if he'd enjoyed the date, Sheridan replied, "Sure did. I'm going to marry her." Married on June 12, 1944, the couple has been together for 68 years.

Alas, duty called. Sent to Camp Roberts, Calif., for artillery training, his request for transfer to the Corps of Engineers came through quickly. With the world at war, America needed her best. Officer Candidate School first, then a six-week crash course at Harvard graduate school to study soil mechanics.

"Soils were sent in from around the world. That way we learned the possibilities for runway construction, beach landings and different building projects," he explained.

His first assignment: the top secret 1st Petroleum Production Depot at Santa Anita, Calif.

"We worked alongside Union Oil and Standard Oil," Sheridan said. "Dutch officers from the Dutch East Indies trained with us."

The mission: drilling oil behind Japanese lines to fuel MacArthur's island-hopping campaign in the Pacific. Their mission was abruptly canceled when MacArthur out-ran his supply chain. Sheridan's war would be fought in Europe.

Assigned to the 8th Armored Division in Camp Polk, La.,, after further training he sailed for England and arrived just in time to cross the English Channel to help turn back the massive German offensive known as The Battle of the Bulge.

November 1944: While fighting on the southern flank of the Bulge, a half-track armored vehicle slid on a frozen road and pinned Sheridan against another half-track. His back is broken, again. Paralyzed for days, a third vertebra is fused. The unstoppable Sheridan is back in combat within a week with Patton's 3rd Army.

January 1945: He's ordered from Le Menil, France, to Luxembourg to pick up classified maps with standing orders to shoot anyone that interferes with his mission. With a crew and driver, they proceed in a 2 -1/2 ton truck only to be stopped at a roadblock by a nervous Army private. Tensions remained high: German SS troops wearing American uniforms had recently been caught and shot.

"The password was 'tiger,' with the counter-sign 'leopard,'" Sherian said. "The private asked for the password, I said, 'tiger,' and he said, 'proceed.' No counter-sign. I cocked my .45 automatic just in case; the private heard it and acted real anxious, then I demanded, 'What is the counter-sign?' He swallowed real hard then said, 'Damned if I remember, but it's got spots all over it!'"

In another incident, after crossing the Rhine to encircle the Ruhr pocket, Sheridan met a German commanding general among over 150,000 captured Germans. Egotistical to a fault, the German general only wanted to surrender his saber to another commanding general. Sheridan told him he'd take care of it. Sheridan's son has the saber to this day.

Sent to spot for artillery in a small Piper Cub, Sheridan and his pilot flew over the German lines.

"We didn't see a thing and decided to head back," he said. "As soon as we dipped a wing to turn all hell broke loose. I thought the entire German army was firing at us. I heard bullets hit the plane. The pilot put us at treetop level and I kept wondering if we were going to dodge the trees or go under them! We made it back, but the plane was riddled with holes. The pilot said, 'This isn't as bad as the other day.' I gave my report to headquarters and told them next time I'd take a Jeep!"

In an ambush 20 miles behind German lines, a bullet struck Sheridan's helmet and knocked him cold.

"I fell behind a tiny stone wall," he said. "It probably saved my life."

Eventually his squad took cover in the first house in the German town of Bad Lippstadt. Sheridan ordered his men to put the couple that owned the house into the cellar for their own safety while the battle raged on. Years later while working on a construction project in Iran, Sheridan met their son, Hans Wagner. Wagner thanked Sheridan for treating his parents with respect.April 1945: Sheridan and the U.S. Army enter the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

"We didn't know what it was. We smelled it a mile away, so you can image our shock," he said. "The furnaces were still warm. Bodies stacked six to a layer, almost 6 feet high. Some of the inmates still alive were so thin you could see through their skin. Later, they told us the wife of the camp commandant had lamp shades made of human skin. Nobody can deny the Holocaust; too many of us saw it."

Like most warriors of The Greatest Generation, Sheridan was hesitant to recall the valor he and others called upon for survival. Perhaps a few excerpts from his citation for bravery can explain the humility: " ... for heroic service against the enemy in Germany on 2 April 1945, although stunned by a bullet which pierced his helmet, Lt. Sheridan manned a machine gun and forced the crew of an enemy anti-aircraft gun to abandon their weapon. He knocked out a truck loaded with enemy personnel and pinned down infantrymen who were attempting to infiltrate our lines. He engaged an enemy tank and was endeavoring to blind it when ordered to withdraw. He then withdrew his section without loss."

His Purple Heart was awarded for wounds received as a result of enemy action during the Ardennes Campaign on Jan. 23, 1945.

From Alaska, working with the Navajos in Arizona, surveying mining claims in Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming and Idaho, meeting an African American dentist in Ghana named Robert E. Lee, construction projects in China, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Peru, building top secret installations while under rocket attack near Danang, Vietnam, in 1967-68, or building roads in Kazakhstan, Roger W. Sheridan served with honor and continues to serve.

When Sheridan was asked what the future holds after his term expires as mayor of Newborn, he replied, "Run again."

Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist, and free-lance writer. He can be reached at: aveteransstory.com .