Sgt. Calvin Thornberry and his 78th Infantry Division, nicknamed "Lightning," crossed the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at Remagen during the invasion of Germany in World War II.
Deploying aircraft, artillery barrages, V2 missiles and underwater demolition teams, the Germans ultimately blew the bridge up, trapping the American soldiers in the heart of Nazi Germany.
"There was no place for us to go but toward the Germans," Thornberry said. "We couldn't go back over the bridge."
Thornberry, now a 94-year-old Cedar Lake resident, joked at the time if the Germans came streaming over the hill he was headed back toward the water. He already had survived the Battle of the Bulge, the deadliest battle Americans endured during the war.
"I was fortunate I was on the flank. I wasn't hit by the main stream," he said. "We made it through."
Surrounded by family and friends at his Cedar Lake home, Thornberry was honored Sunday for his wartime service in France and Germany by Quilts of Valor, which provided him with a hand-sewn quilt, and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, who gave him a flag that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol.
Visclosky, D-Merrillville, thanked the World War II veteran and retired steelworker for his mility service.
"I appreciate you coming out here," Thornberry said. "I appreciate you taking time out from a busy life."
"Government job," Visclosky joked, to much laughter in the crowded living room.
Thornberry is a Kentucky native who found work after the war in Northwest Indiana's steel mills and moved south to Cedar Lake because he "couldn't live in town" and was "an old country boy from the country."
"I had a brother who worked up here at Inland. People ask me how I settled here," he joked. "I tell them I was driving from Kentucky to Detroit and my car broke down here. Then I met this little farm girl."
Thornberry has been married to his wife Sarah for more than six decades. They had four children: Dwayne, Ronna, Becky and Scott. Dwayne followed in his father's footsteps, serving in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War era.
"I felt pride in my father today," Dwayne Thornberry said. "He never talked about the war. It was like pulling teeth to find out what it was like."
Thornberry's son-in-law Wayne Wesley, a Navy veteran who lives in Dyer, said the honor was long overdue.
"It means everything," he said. "Look how many people are here."
Wesley arranged for the ceremony after reconnecting on Facebook with former classmate Colleen Kreiger, of Hebron, a volunteer for Quilts of Valor, a national nonprofit founded in 2003 by a woman whose son had just deployed to Iraq.
"To keep herself busy during the stressful time while he was deployed, Catherine Roberts came up with the idea of comforting veterans with quilts," she said. "It became a nationwide grassroots community service effort connecting the homefront with our combat warriors, veterans of all armed conflicts and others who were in some way touched by war. The Quilt of Valor is a generous nap-sized quilt quilted together by the appreciative hands of thousands of volunteers who spent countless hours on each one to make it very special."
The quilts are meant to honor veterans for their service and keep them warm, Kreiger said.
"Our quilters know that freedom isn't free," she said. "The cost of our freedom is the dedication of the men and women who serve in our military. This quilt is meant to offer you comfort and remind you that you're forever in our thoughts and hearts."
Thornberry also was recently interviewed twice by retired U.S. Army Col. Alistair Dyer, who's sending the recordings to the planned National Museum of the United States Army at Fort Belvoir in Virginia to preserve his story for posterity.
"It's still under construction," Dyer said. "It'll probably be another three years before it opens up. It's the history of the Army all the way through. A lot of World War II veterans never talked about their service, so it's important to get their experiences down."