Just a Man

Just a Man

1997: 6.2  summer

by David Martin

“Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations” (George Bernard Shaw, 1856-1950)

My father died July 3, 1994. He refused surgery and chemotherapy treatment for his lung cancer. After his quadruple by-pass heart surgery a few years ago, he swore he would never go to another hospital for an operation, and he didn’t. He chose to “ride the bug out.”

My father’s life was one battle after another, and I feel his World War II experience captured the rest of his life. Even though he lived to be 76 years old, his army combat in the European Theater from 1939 to 1945 changed him forever. His work, marriage, family, and children revolved around the memories he brought home of that war violence. For the rest of his life, he endured its physical and emotional scars.

Dad was not a great man by society’s standards. He was just a man like so many others who risked their lives to make the world a better place for all of us by ensuring our freedom from tyranny. Usually, he kept his emotions and memories locked up inside himself, but once in awhile, I could dislodge some information he kept from the rest of the family. He would begin telling me a small story of his experiences, but before he finished, he always caught himself, remembered that he was talking to a child, got embarrassed, and walked out of the house emotionally upset. I was a kid then, and he felt I wouldn’t understand what he went through during those times.

The most significant events of his life were those horrible days during the war. I remember Dad telling me the story of General Miltonberger, the commanding officer of the WWII Nebraska Division, feeding him and other soldiers a nice meal then talking all of them out of trying to join the paratroopers because he said they were good soldiers, and he needed them in his ranks, so they stayed in the 134th Infantry Division until the end of the war. He and his buddies were good soldiers and did their duty.

Dad told me about meeting Jack Dempsey in the fighter’s New York City restaurant the night before the troops sailed for England. Dempsey was surprised that he and a friend, two small-town Nebraska boys, went so far out of their way to find his restaurant and meet him that the ex-boxer bought them dinner. Because of this late night adventure, Dad was officially AWOL, but the Company Commander was glad to see him when he returned in time to sail on the troop ship that all was forgiven.

In World War II, the soldier death ratio was 1 in 48 US soldiers; in Vietnam, 1 in 1,113; in the Gulf War, 1 in 2,667. The basic difference in these ratios was the advanced medical help and rescue methods that transported the injured from the battlefield to medical hospitals. General Eisenhower had 91 Allied divisions to defeat the Germans, 60 of them American. Of the 4,454,061 US soldiers who embarked for Europe and Africa, 3,604 were lost at sea. In the first four months after the Normandy Invasion, Germany suffered 800,000 casualties. 

Dad received half a dozen different combat wounds. He returned to the states carrying half a dozen pieces of shrapnel the doctors could not remove, but the worst injury took place in liberating St. Lo, France. He was struck by shrapnel fire and was so wounded he couldn’t move. Medics placed him on a stretcher and tried to get him off the battlefield. He thought he wouldn’t make it to safety, because there were so many bullets flying through the air.

He was removed to England where he was hospitalized. Soon, the Army thought he was healed enough to return to duty. He became a company runner delivering messages to units up and down the frontline, and German snipers shot at him. One day, while returning to headquarters, he saw three soldiers kneeling beside a wounded, screaming, American writhing on the side of the road. A doctor amputated the wounded man’s leg to save his life. There was no morphine present to aid the soldier.

“The Battle of Bulge” in the Ardennes Forest was a desperate thrust Hitler threw at the Allies. Of the 600,000 Americans involved 80,987 became causalities. About 19,000 were killed and 15,000 were captured. Some 47,000 were wounded. Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army rescued them. Dad was attached to Patton’s group, and he told me many stories about fighting during the winter there.

Louis Rhodd, a Native American friend from Rulo, one night crouched in an artillery shell crater. Dad jumped in the same crater for safety. There was so much noise at the time Rhodd didn’t know Dad joined him in that dark hole. He could see Rhodd but didn’t know how to let his friend know he was in there without scaring him. Rhodd might shoot him thinking that he was another German soldier, so he talked like a white man imitating and Indian: “Ugh, Indians heap big warriors. They make it hard on German pale-faces.” Rhodd was startled to hear someone talking in the night so close to him, but he laughed so hard at the ethnic references, Dad knew he was safe.

The stories flowed at times, and so many of them remained unfinished:

  • Two German soldiers came out of the forest dressed like GI’s and walked into the American’s chow line. They soon realized they made a mistake and tried to escape.
  • Dad swam the Rhine River three times in the winter to scout the enemy even though there was no way to get warm in the cold except to drip dry.
  • His unit broke through the German frontline in a surprise night attack and found prostitutes with the German soldiers in the fox holes to keep them from deserting.
  • “Lah We Lah His” (“All Hell Can’t Stop Us!”) was on one insignia of his uniform. This Pawnee Indian saying symbolized much of his attitude towards life.

Now the green fields of corn are laid by. The farmers prepare their machinery for fall harvest. I remember Dad working the corn harvest each year. Often, he would get only 3-4 hours of sleep at night. He had a tremendous capacity for physical work for such a small man: 5’ 10” and 140 lbs. His Army field jacket was a size 34. How he carried full combat gear that exceeded 100 pounds, ran, and fought still amazes me.

Dad loved his horses and Nebraska; he never wanted to move elsewhere after the war. He was a good cowboy, contrary, stubborn, and fiercely loyal to this country.

His last meal before going to the hospital was sweet corn, mashed potatoes, gravy, steak, green beans, and black coffee. He ate more than I did. I saw him eat that same meal a thousand times, and I was raised on it, too.

Only something alive can die, and Dad lived every day. He may not have been very organized, forward looking, or reflective, but he never let a joke pass him by. His sense of place was Richardson Country.

A few years ago, Bette Davis was on David Letterman’s show. He asked her flippantly, “How is it, getting older?” She coolly answered, “It ain’t for sissies.” Living is tough, and for Dad dying wasn’t easy either. He heart was strong until the end, but both lungs were cancerous and filled with fluid.

When I walked into his room at 9 AM, it was a beautiful, summer, morning. His eyes looked brighter than the day before. He joked and called Erin a “runt.” He looked around the room to see who was there, but he faded in and out of awareness. At 10 AM, things started to change. He panted.  His eyes rolled back a little; he became unconscious and was not awake after that.

His room, number 101, signified new lessons to learn on a different journey. His blue, finger tips foreshadowed the end. The blueness marched toward his face. Starting with the feet, it climbed to his knees, then to his waist. His biological systems shut down one at a time. His kidneys stopped.  Muscles twitched. I could hear pneumonia fill his lungs as he drowned from inside. Two oxygen tanks were not enough.

I stood at the foot of his bed. He took one slow, long gulp of air, then a second, and held it. His face turned scarlet, and his head slowly fell to his lower right side. He did not breath again. 

I looked out the window of his room and saw the earth as he knew it: grass, trees, and sky. His van faced the window. The American flag flew in a strong, summer breeze. A cottonwood stood tall. This trinity marked my father: a van to roam (a modern cowboy), the US flag (nothing made him more proud), and the tree (Nebraska’s state symbol).

Going through his military records after the funeral, I found a telegram to Mother from the US War Department saying her husband was released from the hospital and returned to active service on July 31, 1944. Fifty years later to the day, he died and was released from life. The curtain fell for the last time. He wore out, but he didn’t rust out. He never quit. He fought for life, every breath, to the end. He was just a man, but he was my father.

“The grave itself is but a covered bridge leading from light to light, through a brief darkness” (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1807-1882).

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