Sunday, November 7, 2010

More War Stories

Later this week is Veteran's day, so I thought it only fitting to record a few more of the war stories I've heard for posterity. These tales are centered around my Granddad Ethridge and my Great Uncle Grover. Each of them had his own outlook on military service. My Great Uncle said he didn't want to be eaten by sharks, so he joined the Army. My Granddad said he wasn't going to die face down in the mud, so he joined the Navy. This difference led to very different war histories for each of them.

We'll start with my Granddad because I only have one war story for him actually. As I mentioned, he had joined the Navy. He had been made cook on the ship he was on and so was in charge of all the comestibles. He and the first officer didn't get along at all. Now, knowing my Dad as I do I would have known never to provoke my Granddad, even though I never met him. The first officer had never met my Dad, partly because he hadn't been born, and so didn't have the advantage I would have had in dealing with cook Ethridge.

The first officer continually annoyed my Granddad without thinking about the fact that this was the man that prepared his food. Now, my Grandfather was not the kind of man that would spit in someone's food or give him something he was allergic to, so in that way the first officer was safe. However, Granddad also liked vengeance and a bit of the old eye for an eye. In this case of course it was annoyance for annoyance.

A very special night arrived. An admiral was coming on board and the first officer wanted to make a good impression. He ordered that a side of beef be prepared and served for dinner. The time arrived and the food came in. Hamburgers were set on each plate and the servers withdrew. Needless to say the first officer was furious.

He stormed into the kitchen and demanded to know what had happened to the side of beef. My Granddad explained that it had been tainted and that, as a result, he had to throw it overboard. The first officer had a conniption fit, but there was nothing he could do. As ship's cook my Grandfather had the first, last and only word on whether or not food was fit for human consumption. The side of beef was gone and the testimony of the ship's cook was unassailable.

Now, we'll never know whether that side of beef was really tainted or not. I like to believe that it was and that it wasn't my Granddad taking revenge, but rather one of those ironic twists of fate. Whatever the truth was behind it we know what the results were. Cook Ethridge was transferred off the ship and out of the Navy. He was put in what amounted to the coast guard for the remainder of the war. I, for one, thank God for that. As I said, my Dad hadn't been born until after the war.

My Great Uncle Grover's history was a bit different. After having joined the Army he became a career soldier. He went from the Army to the Army Air Corps to the Air Force as that branch of the service was evolving. He ended up in both the European and Pacific campaigns and was awarded more medals than his chest would hold. As one could imagine my Dad was fascinated by Great Uncle Grover's war record and, like most young men, amazed by all his medals.

Of course, my Great Uncle wasn't a huge braggart and was more than willing to explain away his medals. He said that all he had done to become a “war hero” was to try to stay alive so he could come home. To him those medals represented times he had to run or fight for his life and that was all. From his point of view he had done no more than any man would have under the circumstances. If he had been right about his fellow men the world would be a better place.

Of course, in truth, he was a survivor. He wasn't particularly interested in medals, but posthumous medals absolutely put him off. Most of his stories were about his avoiding death and being given a medal for it. One such example took place after he had gotten separated from his unit and had been wandering around alone for a while. This actually happened several times. Great Uncle Grover said it was hard to stick together in a group during a war. Soldiers would be going this way and that and before you knew it you were all alone.

Having gotten lost or having lost his unit, depending on how you look at it, he would always join up with the next group of US soldiers he ran into. In this particular case he wound up in a group led by lieutenant who hadn't been in Europe long enough for his last US haircut to grow out. While marching from one place to another the lieutenant decided it would be best if they took shelter in the upper room of an old church building for a bit of a rest.

There were probably only around twenty of them and the church building had ample space. The upper room had a window looking directly out over the road at the front of the church and another overlooking a section of woods out the back. After they had been resting there for a while someone spotted a group of Germans heading down the road that went right past the church.

The lieutenant took a quick look and decided it would be suicide to fight. They were overwhelmingly outnumbered. I suppose it never occurred to him that the Germans didn't know they were there. It's possible that the idea of hiding out until they were gone completely escaped him. For all I know he was already tired of war and wanted to give it up. Whatever his motivations were, and before anyone could stop him, he was waving a white flag out the the front window as a sign of surrender.

Great Uncle Grover didn't say anything to him, he didn't hesitate a moment, in fact, I'm not even sure he took the time to blink. As soon as he saw that white flag poked out of the window he started running. Within a second he had crossed the room they were in a made a mad jump for the back window. He busted through and fell from the second story to the ground. As soon as he hit the dirt he was up and running through the woods surrounded by machine gun fire.

By the grace of God he wasn't hit as he serpentined into the woods and over the hills and far away. The Germans quickly gave up perusing him. It wasn't worth the effort to try to catch or kill one US soldier. My Dad asked Great Uncle Grover what had happened to the other men in the church. Uncle Grover replied quite honestly that he didn't know, but that they were probably taken prisoner. None of the others jumped out of the window and the white flag is a sign of surrender.

So, he used his instincts to avoid capture and live to fight another day. The same instincts served him throughout the war and allowed him to keep serving his country. My Dad asked him once if he had ever killed a man during all the fighting. He said that he didn't know that he had. Uncle Grover claimed that he did a lot of shooting, but that he never went to check to see what he had hit. Dad asked for a story about one of the times he might have gotten close. (Keep in mind that Dad was young and most boys go through a phase where they are fascinated by war before they understand what it means to take another man's life.)

Finally Great Uncle Grover decided to tell him about the closest he has ever gotten to knowing he had killed a man. It was near the end of the war in Europe and the group he was with at the time was very low on weapons and ammunition. They got into a situation where they needed to search a town for any remaining German soldiers, but they simply didn't have enough weapons to go around. So, they did the only thing they could. They drew straws. Uncle Grover said that he had been very fortunate when he got a flare gun, because it still had one flare left and a lot of guys ended up with nothing but a knife.

He took his flare gun in hand and started searching a section of the town with the rest of his fellows. He would kick the door in and call out for anyone inside to surrender and then make a quick search of the house. Door after door led to nothing. Still, he knew he couldn't let his guard down. If only one house in the town was occupied it could be deadly. He kicked another door in and cried out for surrender and again was greeted by silence. He stepped through the door to begin his inspection of the house and as soon as he was inside the door slammed behind him.

A German soldier jumped from behind the door armed with a bayonet. In a flash Great Uncle Grover raised his weapon and shot the German in the face with a flare. At this point in the story my Great Uncle grew silent for a moment. My Dad asked “Did it kill him?” Great Uncle Grover replied “Well, I don't really know. I ran for it. As far as I could tell he still had that bayonet and by my count I had only had one flare...”

So, yet again Great Uncle Grover lived to fight another day. He was a brave man, but not a fool. Having survived in Europe he made his way into the Pacific and was there during the storming of several islands right near the end of things. Once more he survived to do duty to his country and was rewarded with an every growing number of medals. However, as I said at the beginning he felt he wasn't a hero, he had just done what he needed to do to come home. That was what he felt every good soldier should do.

Our family was very blessed in the war. Both my Grandfathers and my Great Uncle went and came back again. Not all families are so lucky. It's not just the soldiers who sacrifice their lives for our freedoms that we need to remember. It's the families of those people who never come home. It is important to always remember what others have given up so we don't have to go without. We should be thankful to them for being willing to make that sacrifice. We should be thankful to God that their sacrifices haven't been in vain.

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