Monday, May 28, 2007

A Memorial Day tribute

Bruce, Cal, and Tommy
This is the story of three brothers who grew up hunting the riverbottoms and creekbeds around Dallas. Some of their fondest memories are of running through the woods, that have since disappeared, on the trail of a squirrel or rabbit. They would take whatever they got home to add to the pot of a family that was struggling through the Depression.

The brothers were all grown up - 18, 20, and 22 - when they heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. Like all the young men of that time, they wanted to join the military and serve their country. The oldest, Bruce, had just graduated from college at SMU, so he decided to join the Army Air Corps to become a pilot. The middle brother, Cal, joined the Marines because......well......he was the adventurous one and those dress uniforms looked great. The youngest, Tommy, wanted to enlist in the Army, but Bruce and Cal convinced him that he should go to college first so he could become an officer. Plus, it would save their parents the heartache of watching all three of their sons march off to war at the same time.

In less than two years, they were spread across the world. Tommy was at a college in Oklahoma, Cal was fighting his way across Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, and Bruce was flying B-17s out of England. Cal had it tough on the islands, living in tents if he was lucky, or more often, sleeping in foxholes full of water, while Bruce was housed in a small English town with all the amenities. But anyone who knows anything about the daylight bombing missions over Germany, knows that it wasn't all that easy...there were no fighters that could escort the bombers that far early on in the war. In October of 1943, on what is known as Black Thursday, the day of the now-infamous second bombing raid on Schweinfurt, Germany, Bruce's plane was one of the many planes that didn't make it back to England. His plane was hit and blew up in mid air over France. He was lucky, though, he survived, and when he parachuted to the ground, he was taken in by French farmers and hidden from the Germans. He was shuffled from one place to another by the French Underground for six months before he was finally captured by the Germans and whisked off to a POW camp in Germany.

During his time with the underground and before he was allowed any contact as a prisoner, the family didn't know whether he was alive or dead. They were only told that he was MIA. As Cal slogged through the swamps of Bougainville and up the beaches of Guam, he figured his brother was dead. He had seen the bodies of too many Marines who could never be identified and knew that their families had been told they were MIA. He didn't ever expect to see his brother again, and he wasn't sure he would ever see home again himself.
News from home was pretty non-existant on the islands...the mail moved slowly in those it was quite some time before Cal found out that his brother was alive and in a POW camp somewhere in Germany. But there was other news in that letter from home…his little brother, Tommy, had dropped out of college, enlisted in the Army, and told his family that he was going to go find Bruce.
Tommy somehow managed to get himself assigned to General Patton’s group before they started their march across Europe. As a forward scout for the artillery, he was ahead of the main force most of the time and made sure he was one of the first men to enter each POW camp they encountered…...always with the hope that he would find Bruce in one of them.

One day in early 1945, they came across a POW camp where the Germans had locked the prisoners inside the huts and left them there. Tommy was walking among the huts trying to find a way inside when he yelled out to the prisoners asking them where the door was. A voice yelled back, "it's on the other side, stupid." When Tommy walked around to the other side and went in to see what idiot was calling him names, there stood the culprit......Bruce. Needless to say, it was a grand reunion......Tommy had done exactly what he set out to do.

As it turns out, Cal was wounded at Iwo Jima in February of 1945 and was sent back to the states to recuperate, so he was already in Dallas when Bruce arrived wearing a mis-matched English uniform of some sort and looking pretty skinny and shabby, but extremely happy to be home. It was Memorial Day 1945......and another grand reunion ensued. Tommy didn't make it home for a while longer, but when he did, it was definitely celebration time for those three brothers.

You may think this is the storyline for a movie or a book......and it probably could be......but it's actually the story of my dad and his brothers. Why did I decide to write about this today? It’s Memorial Day. What better day is there to tell this story? But also, today, Bruce passed from this realm to that better place where we all strive to go when our days on Earth are done. It somehow seems very fitting that he left us on Memorial Day. Tommy waits for him there, in that better place, having been the good scout and gone on ahead of his brothers, and dad looks forward to the day he'll see them both again and go hunting with his brothers once more.

Me?? I'm going to miss my uncle, I'm saddened at the loss of yet another WWII vet, and I thank God for men like my dad and his brothers, and for all those who have served or are now serving our country. My dad will be the first to tell you that they were not heroes. They were just men who did what they had to do......their jobs......just like our troops do today......but they will always be heroes to me......every one of them.

God's speed, Uncle Bruce......