Friday, June 8, 2007

My D-Day Story - An Unsung Hero

I knew I had a good story for D-Day, but I wanted to wait to post it until I got all of my facts straight. I just talked to my father and got all the information I think I need to give a brief rundown of my grandfather's involvement in the invasion and the war in general. It's amazing. I don't generally think fighting is amazing, and war doesn't impress me...I share my late grandfather's viewpoint that someone who runs to retrieve a dead body from the line of fire is probably an idiot, and doesn't deserve the title "hero" or a medal.

However, I wouldn't hesitate at all to call my grandfather, Bud, a hero. That means a lot, because I'm generally not impressed with people, even my own family and friends. It takes a lot to make my jaw drop in awe rather than disgust.

D-Day is part of a bigger story, and I'm going to tell as much of it as I know, which isn't much in the grand scheme of things, but it's enough that many of you won't finish this in one sitting. Grab a beer and some nachos (or tofu and water...whatever) and settle in. If it's half as amazing as I think it is, it will probably amaze you, too, to some degree - if not the actions, then the consequences (or lack thereof, in this case).

Bud was in his 20s when Pearl Harbor was bombed. He joined the Army, and was somehow assigned the task of Demolition Specialist/Engineer for General Patton (yes, THAT one). During his tour of duty, he started in North Africa, participated in D-Day, went through the Philippines and parts of Asia, and ended up on a ship headed for Japan when the first bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945.

As a DS (not the correct terminology, but bear with me here - I'm going on secondhand information by someone who heard the stories when he was less than 10 years old), his job was relatively simple in theory, tough in practice, and nearly impossible in combat: He and his fellow DS's were to sneak under bridges that were occupied by the enemy, set up demolition equipment (i.e. attach bombs to them), get away safely, blow up the bridges, take care of the enemies still hanging around (obviously the rest of their group helped with this), re-build enough of a bridge to support their troops safely across, then blow THAT bridge up, as well. In this way, they made their way around.

As you may well know, Patton was famous for his attitude during wartime, which was essentially to shoot first and think about it later. In battle, he was ruthless, and while his troops had a high mortality rate, they were also fiercely loyal and had more success than most of rest of the Army.

Imagine, if you will, being in a wooded area near a bridge. Standing at each end of the bridge is one or more soldiers, with guns, grenades, and orders to not let anyone cross for any reason. These men have been ordered to die for that bridge, and they are prepared to do so.

You and your partner saddle up in your "frog" gear and go a little ways down the river, entering downstream. You swim slowly upstream, careful to keep attention off of yourselves, until you reach the bridge. With any luck, the soldiers at the ends won't see you - but they usually do, as splashing below in an otherwise quiet area tends to catch attention. They begin firing as you attach explosives to the bridge, all the while dodging bullets, and sometimes dodging grenades. Your buddy might get shot, but you both finish the job and swim away as quickly as possible. You detonate the charges, and your group comes out to make sure the area is clear of enemy troops as the bridge crumbles.

As they cover you, you and some other soldiers find as many supplies as possible and build a new bridge so that you may cross. If there are only soldiers on foot, it could be as easy as laying a strip of metal on some supports for them to run across. If you have tanks, it is decidedly more time-consuming.

Somehow you finish the bridge with most of the troops having come through safely. They cross. On the side that was just vacated are enemy vehicles making a beeline for your new bridge, trying to cross close behind you.

As they come, you're back in the water, attaching explosives, likely being shot at again. You're still scrambling out of the water when the bridge explodes, and pieces of the metal that you'd slapped together go whizzing past your head.

Minutes, hours, days...any amount of time may pass, and you'll have to do this again. And again. And Bud did, for most of the time he was in the Army.

During a field battle, people were assigned wherever a soldier was needed. In Bud's case, the machine gun nest on top of a tank was vacant, so he was ordered to take it.

In battle, when you're on the ground, a tank is, well, a tank. It has no real weak spots. You're not going to damage the machinery with a mere gun, especially back in the 1940s. The only thing to do to stop the tank from doing any more damage that it does by merely rolling around is to get rid of the firepower, which involves killing the guy manning the machine gun. So, as you can imagine, it's a pretty stressful position. I believe at that point the life expectancy of the person manning the tank's gun in battle was a whopping 10 minutes. And Bud survived. Not only did he survive, the only bullet that hit him merely grazed the side of his helmet. It gave him a scare, but he was unscathed. He apparently took down quite a few people while up there, too - he grew up hunting for food for his family, so he was a great marksman.

At another point, he and some of his fellow veterans (I call them that because they were in for quite a while at this point...they weren't n00bs by any stretch of the imagination) were under the command of a Lieutenant. This officer was straight out of West Point, and was very full of himself. Education, to him, trumped experience, and he had a habit of telling them what they needed to do without actually planning out how they would accomplish it strategically.

They were in a trench, being shot at from all sides by machine guns. They were waiting to be able to move, but they weren't sure where yet. The Lieutenant told them that they needed to cross a street close to them, and that they needed to do it NOW.

Bud was in the front of the line...the closest soldier to him. Therefore, he was the one who should have led the pack. He sat there, counting machine gun rounds, and didn't move.

The Lieutenant yelled at him and asked him what he was doing, and repeated the order. Bud told him to hold on a second. The Lieutenant pulled his gun out and pointed it at Bud's head.

"Either you cross that street RIGHT NOW, or I will shoot you, do you understand?"

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Bud sat there trying to weigh the benefits of being shot by your commanding officer vs. being massacred by enemy fire. Before too much time had passed, another soldier came up and put HIS gun against the Lieutenant's head.

"If you shoot him, I'll shoot you."

The Lieutenant was bewildered. "What's going ON here?"

The soldier explained. The Lieutenant said, "Okay".

They all made it safely across.

It's a classic example of why authority isn't always right, and why book learning doesn't always yield the "smartest" results.

I don't have many details about D-Day. That's apparently a story that was too massacre-happy for my grandfather to talk about very much. I do know that he stormed with Patton, and that he may not have entered on June 6, but that he came early, because he was a key player in their advancement across the countryside (still a DS).

After that little slice of history, they advanced through the Philippines and parts of Asia. And then, as I mentioned before, they boarded a ship and began a journey to Japan to invade. Then the bombs dropped, the war ended, and he came home.

Remember me mentioning the bullet grazing his helmet while he was manning that machine gun? That's the ONLY bullet that hit any part of him. He came out of that war completely unscathed physically.

Given what he'd been through, THAT is amazing.

He was always able to keep a level head during times of crisis. He was a boxer, and would often settle bar fights by sitting and calmly nodding and smiling at the person trying to start something, and then out of nowhere, he would smack them a good one and knock them down. People usually only tried to mess with him once. My grandmother (his widow) said it was creepy how you could never tell when he was going to snap, because he looked so calm and happy until his fist had already made contact with one of his fellow barflies. I think it was this ability to hold out on retaliation until necessary (and until it was actually a surprise) that allowed him to survive. It also took a certain element of anarchy to be able to do what he did - he couldn't always follow orders if he expected to live. So...he didn't always follow orders. And he did well, though he only made it up to Corporal as a result of his disobedience. He never did like being in charge of a group of people, anyway.

After he got out, he married my grandmother and then my father was born, 13 years after the war ended.

In 1969, he turned 49. My dad would walk home from the bus stop in the afternoons (he was 10), past the tavern, and would check to see if Bud was parked there. Often, he was. So Dad would go in there and say hi.

One day, Dad went in, said hi, and then asked what Bud wanted for his birthday. "Oh, you don't have to get me anything."

"No, I want to. What do you want?" Obviously my father didn't have much money, but he felt it was important to give gifts for someone's birthday, particularly a parent's.

"Oh, haha, well, why don't you buy me a beer?" Bud laughed.

My dad thought about it for a minute, went into the bathroom, and emptied his pockets. He found 35 cents, which just happened to be exactly the amount a frosty mug of beer cost in those days. He approached the bar, away from his father, and asked the bartender to please take his money and use it to buy a beer for Bud. The bartender said he couldn't, because Dad was a minor - this went on for a few minutes, and finally my dad asks what they could do.

They both headed over to Bud, my dad handing him the change and telling him to give it to the bartender. "What the hell for?" "Just do it."

The bartender took the money and set a mug of beer in front of my grandfather. He was amused.

That was the last birthday present my dad would buy for him.

After the stress of the war, Bud settled into family life without actually "settling"...he always had to do things for himself, and considered it a sign of weakness to change any part of his routine, even those parts with were obviously bad for him, such as the excessive drinking and smoking.

He had 3 heart attacks in his 40s. All that excess, and all the work he wouldn't allow anyone else to do...things like yardwork, and preparing to move to another part of their land, away from the main road. He did it all himself, even when he was wheezing and having problems.

On August 21, 1970, Bud, my grandmother, and my dad were eating dinner. They usually watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but that night Bud said he just wanted things to be quiet, and to just leave the television off. This had never happened before.

Shortly after dinner, he said he was tired, said goodnight, and went to bed. He never woke up. His 4th heart attack killed him in his sleep.

He was never regaled for his acts in war. He was never given any medals, and no speeches were made about him. He lived his life after the war doing what he had during the war: what he had to.

1 comment:

BobG said...

Sounds like he may have crossed paths with my Uncle Leonard, my mom's oldest brother. He was with Patton at all of those places, only he was stationed in Japan after the war (he brought home an Okinowan wife), and he stayed in the army as a career master sergeant (he was in the Korean War also) until he retired.