WALPOLE — Robert Ware Foster lifts his left leg and, with his cane, taps the sole of his double-buckle brown leather boot.
It is worn, but still in good shape. Not bad for a pair of 70-year-old combat boots that trekked through the Tunisian desert in North Africa, endured freezing temperatures in Colmar, France, and survived parts of Italy, Germany, and Austria for three years during World War II.
Foster wears the boots with pride, along with his heavily decorated wool Army uniform. He makes his way around his East Walpole home, showing off awards, memorabilia, photographs.
Among those: a framed photo of four middle-aged guys hanging out at the beach.
“These guys, this was down at Myrtle Beach when we had a reunion,” Foster said, never taking his eyes off the snapshot. “That’s John Gregory, he was our first sergeant; he’s dead. That’s me. [Lomer] Pothier, he’s dead, and he was the head of our battalion, and [Colonel] John Fuller Jr. . . . They’re all dead, except me.”
Foster, 93, is among the 1.5 million World War II veterans in the United States, a population rapidly dwindling. In the last year, more than 248,000 World War II veterans died, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Massachusetts lost about 6,000 in that time, bringing the number of surviving World War II veterans to just under 35,000.
“At one point, they were the largest population of veterans,” said Matt McKenna, spokesman for the state Department of Veterans’ Services. The state welcomed home just under 1 million veterans at the end of World War II. Roughly 20 percent of the state’s population had served.
‘You cry sometimes. It’s very difficult when you get to be my ageand all your friends are gone, and all the buddies. It’s really rough.’
Foster had been in touch with one last member of his company, but that man died in April in Waterbury, Conn. Another friend, who served in the war and also lived in East Walpole, died earlier this year.
“There were 125 of us in the company at full strength,” Foster said. “I don’t know of anybody who’s still alive. There must be some of them, but I don’t know where they are.”
Time was, they would gather for reunions on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The last gathering was three years ago in Niagara Falls, attended by three of the men.
“You cry sometimes,” Foster said. “It’s very difficult when you get to be my age and all your friends are gone, and all the buddies. It’s really rough.”
Foster, who served on the Walpole Board of Selectmen in the 1970s, is a fixture in town. Whenever he wears his uniform or a World War II hat, which he does for events on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day, Foster is often approached by strangers wanting to know more about his service. It has earned him free meals from strangers and an impromptu greeting from the former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who made a beeline to Foster at a Memorial Day event at Arlington National Cemetery in 2006.
It was while wearing his hat that Foster met Ed McGonagle, who has been fascinated with World War II since he was a boy. The 54-year-old noticed Foster’s hat while they were both in a Norwood bank. McGonagle thanked Foster for his service, and quickly the two got to talking. Some lunches later, they became friends.
“Bob represents what it is to be a member of the Greatest Generation,” McGonagle said. “We all have to open our eyes a little when we walk down the street [and] see somebody that’s older than us, somebody that has a hat on, whether it be World War II, Vietnam, or anything like that. We wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t have people like Bob and people before him.”
Foster decided to enlist in the Army at 22 when, while working for his uncle in Connecticut, he heard a broadcast about the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Before he could enlist, Foster broke his leg.
It wasn’t until the following July that Foster and a friend hitchhiked to Hartford and volunteered to serve. Three days later, they were sent to Fort Devens.
By October, Foster was a member of the 168th Chemical Smoke Generator Company, a specialized unit that made smoke screens to camouflage allied troops’ movement and hide areas targeted by German bombers. His company was attached to several units, participating in the liberations of North Africa, Italy, and France.
In January 1945, fighting alongside the French First Army, Foster took part in the liberation of the Colmar Pocket, laying down telephone lines in the snow and biting air.
It was there that Foster, a corporal, was handpicked to place more than a mile of telephone line in German territory. It was a lifeline to French soldiers who were stuck in German tanks they had captured behind enemy lines — with no way to communicate.
To carry out his mission, Foster had to don the military garb of his foes.
“The guy says to me in French, ‘We have a beautiful black helmet for you,’ and he took out a German helmet and changed my helmet and said, ‘Now you’re a German,’ ” Foster said.
Disguised in German helmet, side arm, and holster, Foster managed to cross enemy lines. He found the French soldiers.
Two Frenchmen jumped from the tanks, one yelling at him in German, the other in French, guns pointed. They assumed Foster was the enemy.
“I threw out my right hand and I threw out my [field] telephone, and I’m trying to pull out my dog tags, but I got gloves on,” Foster said. He approached one of the French soldiers. “He pushed me around and disarmed me, and I said to them, ‘See the telephone there in the snow, and speak to your captain.’ ”
The French soldiers allowed him to hook up the phone, but warned that if a German picked up on the other end of the line, they would kill him. They cranked the phone. A voice appeared. In French. An escape strategy was devised. They made it, losing only one man to enemy fire.
For his bravery, Foster was awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme a few days later. The award recognizes heroism in the face of combat with the enemy. In 2010, the French government gave him the Legion of Honor, that country’s highest decoration.
Injured twice, while in North Africa and then France, Foster received two Purple Hearts.
He returned home to East Walpole after leaving the military on Nov. 2, 1945. He would marry and have a daughter, Melody, who joined the Air Force after college. Foster has three grandsons.
After his first wife died in 1993, Foster married his high school sweetheart. She died in 2009.
When he puts on a suit, he wears a black tie in memory of his wives, and a red handkerchief for the war.
“I’m from the old school, kid,” he said.
For the past three years, Foster has attended annual reunions with the Society of the 3rd Infantry Division in Arlington, Va., where his daughter lives.
“When I go down there, I would see a few guys from World War II who are still left,” Foster said. “About 150 people go. But World War II veterans, it’s not many, maybe 10.”
On Sunday morning, at 11, Walpole marks Veterans Day with a ceremony at the town center. Foster plans to be there, in uniform and boots.
“I guess I do feel a lot of pride about it,” he said.