Written About My Papa
As August 2014 winds to a humid close, the lid to my heart’s cedar chest of memories hearkens back to another August, one distant and cloaked in a recollection inherited from an old soldier of "The Greatest Generation" that I once called Grandpa.
In August 1944, he boarded a ship and I am sure as he gazed on the land of America until it passed out of his vision, he wondered if he would see home again. Home was a twice-widowed mother, nine brothers and sisters, and a church he loved. Home was a piece of land to farm, a crop of corn, a few head of cattle to take to market or pigs to fatten for winter. Home was church on the Lord’s Day and a fast car to drive on the winding and hilly country roads.
And it all passed out of his sight one August day in 1944. As the ship tossed beneath him and the waves crashed around this Kentucky plowboy, he did not know what of, if any, of that home he would see again. He did not know the length of his days or what they would be filled with.
He did know the M4-A8 tank from one end of the other. He could repair its engine and mechanics, drive it in mud, ice or snow. He could replace its treads, load and fire its guns and accelerate it to 55mph cruising speed as needed. He knew the .45 caliber pistol on his hip and the carbine he had at arm’s length. And from the two years he had known them, he knew he had a core of brothers with him that had his back as he had theirs.
After a month on the water, he did see the isles of Britain off the port side of his transport. He passed through the English Channel in late September and off loaded, organized and, as a tank driver in the 10th Armored Division, joined the breakout of General Patton’s 3rd Army. Next stop: Germany!
He didn’t know what that eighth-month journey ahead of him would bring to his senses. How many of his friends—those he had chummed with for two years already—would not be at his side when he reached Germany? He did not know that the treads of his tanks would ford rivers, freeze solid in subzero temperatures or halt on roads flooded with starving concentration camp refugees. His eyes had never taken in the cruel and gruesome sights they would behold or the stomach churning smells that his nostrils would inhale. He could not fathom the loudness of the pitch of battle or the screams of the wounded that would reach him and ring in his sleep.
He didn’t know that on a Christmas Eve 1944, he would be in eleven feet of snow, in a bed scraped beneath the humming engine of his tank where he could keep warm. He did not know that a sneak attack by the Germans would put him in the largest tank battle on the Western Front or that a General’s prayer would clear the skies for Allied air support to win the day.
He didn’t know that out of the five lead tanks in every engagement, three of them would not make it through or that of the two out of every five, he would ALWAYS be one of the two.
He didn’t know that during the Bulge, his driving would SAVE the lives of his brothers-in-arms and earn him a Bronze Star. Had his 79th birthday not been his last, he would tell you many things he did not know as he off loaded a ship in the English Channel in late September of 1944. He would tell you the two things that would keep him alive on the drive toward Germany.
He would tell you about Faith. He would say America—Kentucky—his home—his mother—his farm—his family—his church—was worth all those harsh winter days, cold nights, and all the sights, smells, and sounds that would haunt him for the rest of his life. He would tell you he was ready to be offered up as a sacrifice for the good of those things he loved and that due to the sacrifice of a Heavenly Father, his heart was fixed for a place above.
He might share with you—as he did with me—that he was proud to be one of General Patton’s tank drivers but less sure why he—while so many perished—was chosen to survive.
And he might tell you that on the day the war ended, he wept for all that he had witnessed and felt. He cried for the mothers, the fathers, the sweethearts and the families that wouldn’t have a soldier come home. He shed tears for the men that left limbs, eyes and pieces of their hearts at places like Bastogne, Trier and in the Saar River triangle.
On these things the end of August 2014, my heart ponders when SEVENTY years ago this 5’6 Kentucky boy, twenty-three years old, weighing 124 lbs left his homeland to fight a battle to keep our land free. And I am not ashamed to also weep tears of gratitude for his devotion and celebrate my proximity and friendship with such men of valor, courage and honor.
If Papa had known on this August day in 1944, what he knew in his last August in 2000, or had he lived to this August in 2014, I am confident that he would not cower, would not cringe but would straighten his back, square his shoulders and look East to the menace again just as your dad, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, husbands and sweethearts would also.