Special to the Tribune-Star
TERRE HAUTE —
Late in the year 1944, the great Hoosier war correspondent Ernie Pyle, mentally and physically exhausted from his months reporting from the battlefields of Europe, came home for the last time. He was scrawny and gray.
“I am leaving [the war] for just one reason … because I have just got to stop,” he confided to his readers. “I have had all I can take for a while.”
A few months later, already restless with four walls around him, Pyle decided to return to the front. Reporting the war from the Pacific, he landed with the Marines at Okinawa.
“I’m going simply because there’s a war on and I’m part of it, and I’ve known all the time I was going back. I’m going simply because I’ve got to — and I hate it,” he wrote.
On April 18, 1945, Pyle was killed by a Japanese sniper’s bullet on Ie Shima Island. In his pocket was the draft for a column he intended to complete when the war was finally over.
“In the joyousness of high spirits,” Pyle mused, “it is easy for us to forget the dead. Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be the millstones of gloom around our necks. But there are many of the living who have burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered across the hillsides and in the ditches along the rows of hedge throughout the world. Dead men by mass production — in one country after another — month after month and year after year. …”
I have thought about Pyle’s words these past few days before today — Veterans Day — arrived on my doorstep. I have never fought in anything bloodier than a grade school recess scrap, have never worn a uniform, was happy that I had to worry only a short time while my Marine Corps nephew served a brief stretch in Iraq. Like many of us, I suppose, I have been buffered from the real fear of war, and I know that I can’t possibly understand those who wake up to it every morning and go to sleep with it every night.
That wasn’t so of my great-grandparents, Jim and Clara Lunsford. They had a large brood — 10 children — that came in two volumes, the first that included my grandfather, and a second that brought my still-living great uncle, Tom, over a dozen years later.
They said goodbyes to four of their sons, Will and Bob and Albert and Tom, as the boys left fresh-faced for military service during World War II, and in one tragic case, never saw one of them again. Albert, a private in the 314th Infantry, 79th Division, died near Hagenau, France, on Jan. 23, 1945; he wasn’t yet 26.
Jim and Clara were told that he had been killed by a bomb from a German jet-propelled airplane, and that he was buried in the military cemetery near Epinal. Albert is still there, in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains with 5,254 others; his grave is marked by a white marble cross; his serial number was 37744181.
On the night before he was killed, Albert wrote his last letter home. Ironically, he mentioned in that note that he had been able to see his brother, Bob, and that he was happy that they had been able to spend a night and a day together. Bob wrote a few lines in the letter, too.
I found Albert’s picture in a book that commemorates the servicemen of Parke County; he is listed among the surprisingly large number of “Gold Star Boys” who also died for their country. I studied the photo a good while, and although I know I couldn’t have met him, I see that same face in my cousin, Gene, Albert’s son, who came to live with my grandfather and grandmother after his dad was killed. I see that face in Gene’s children, too.
Ernie Pyle was right when he wrote in those final notes, “To you at home they [the dead] are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back.”
Today, I’ll remember Albert. He is buried in France, in B Plot, Row 17, Grave 20.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his updated website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” has recently been released. He’ll be speaking and signing at the Rockville Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.