News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

June 16, 2013

A Fathers Day Tribute: Transition — from child to father

TERRE HAUTE — Transition seems like a big word to use as his story unfolds. Transition was probably never used in conjunction with speech, his speech, but it demonstrates his life, as it does in many lives lived in his generation.

Carbon, Indiana, was a robust community in 1924, the year of his birth. People, then as now, lived from paycheck to paycheck and subsidized their livelihood by gardening, canning, fishing and hunting. It would have not have been incongruent to have the Sunday meal, after Church, with rabbit and chicken served on the same platter. Bathing was done in a wash tub on Saturday, whether you needed it or not. For some reason while listening to him, you were beckoned to believe that Huck Finn was real and was embodied in him. The things talked about and the images brought by his words were simple and yet brought forth in a world unknown to his listener.

If you can, picture a “Huck” in bib overalls, no shirt or shoes, tending a garden on a hot summer day, at the request of his father. The potato patch is near the alley and three or four blocks from “Sixteen Nails,” a strip pit where he and his friends built a raft capable of floating the Mississippi River; using 16 nails, thus the name. Perhaps a whistle or call caused the garden to wait and “King of the Mountain” to begin. His many experiences like these were digested during a summer breeze or in a wet sleeping bag waiting for the rain to stop, but the transition yet to be explored awaits.

It’s 1942, he has graduated high school and is working for his dad as a hand driller. A hand driller does as the name implies, uses hand tools to drill for coal or clay and is paid by the foot by a coal or a clay company. He also is a roller rink master and in his mind’s eye a “smooth operator.” He wore a “zoot suit” and a banana hat. He described his look which cannot be repeated. One day the mail arrives and he is invited to join a select group to go to a far-away country, places unheard of by a man-child from Carbon. He catches a bus and complies with all instructions. He comes home on leave, marries his 16-year-old legally blind sweetheart, and then leaves again for his brave new world. The heroic transition looms.

It’s 1943, training complete, location New Guinea, gliders won’t fly because the glue holding the gliders together melts in the tropic heat: Thus, the glider infantry become paratroopers. The adage “hurry up and wait” replaces the concept of war’s quick resolution. New names and places begin to creep into consciousness of anyone with one stripe or two on their sleeves. First, Lahti or Lahti Gulf, then Luzon, next Manila, Okinawa, and finally mainland Japan.

He’s 19-years-old or young, depending on your leaning, carrying a 50 caliber machine gun with two others. He’s the shooter and they are the tripod and ammunition carriers. The U.S. forces control one side of an air strip and the Japanese control the opposite side. The U.S. soldiers are ordered to charge and they make it to the middle, retreat is signaled and he keeps firing and moving forward allowing the others to make their retreat. He’s given his first of four bronze stars. The air strip is taken and the U.S. has a foothold on land for its planes.

Wet feet and cold rations rule the day. Dingy fever causes him to lose five days of life never to be recaptured, but he volunteers. The mission is to capture a pill box which prevents the U.S. troops from moving forward. He and the tripod and ammunition carriers take position and place the machine gun above their heads and fire. Every fifth shot is a tracer with blue smoke tracing the bullet to delivery.

He finally gets a round channeled into the pill box slot and pulls the trigger, fully automatic, and fills the pill box with 50 caliber slugs. The box becomes quiet, all inside are dead. On his far left is a Japanese rifleman with a hand-grenade equipped rifle, he fires and the hand-grenade explodes on the barrel of the 50 caliber gun.

The impact of the shell blows his helmet off and blood covers his face. He’s awarded his first of two purple hearts. Bandaged, he and his platoon move on through the muck, rain, and war.

He’s been made a “buck sergeant”, platoon leader, not bad for a twenty year old from a town of 600 hundred in rural Indiana. Three stripes, a pay increase, yet greater duty. He’s lost friends known by days and months, not years. His wife has given birth to a child that he won’t touch until after surrender by the Japanese and occupation of their country. His emotional dreams of home and family are mired mile after mile as he is embedded in island muck far away.

A bamboo trail, another mission, he volunteers again. Two souvenir hunters want to go along with him and 11 Filipinos to check whether the area is safe for his platoon to follow and the souvenir hunters to find Japanese artifacts to send home. They start up the trail which is at best a yard wide. Climbing ever-so-slightly and slowly, they reach an ambush point where a Japanese soldier is hunkered down next to the trail. A shot rings out, the buck sergeant is hit in the upper leg, the bullet continues through into one of the souvenir hunter’s knee caps and finally into the stomach of the other hunter. The Filipinos scatter, like a covey of jumped quail.

He kills the Japanese soldier; places the gut-shot soldier on his shoulder and runs approximately a half mile to the others waiting his return. Both are placed on litters and are taken to the field hospital, his boot is removed full of blood. Troops are sent to retrieve the knee-shot soldier, he is dead. More medals fill his chest, but the damp jungle is his destiny.

The war rages, bombs are dropped, men are killed and yet within a few months the end is near. After a stint in Okinawa and mainland Japan, a troop ship carries him home. A rail car takes him from the west coast to Atterbury. Discharge in hand, the 12--year-old has seen many of the Pacific Islands, killed men, been wounded, saved or helped save American lives, commanded others (his age or about his age), and after 33 months he is asked to start over from where he left off in the summer of 1943.

He did, from platoon leader to scout master, from a 50 caliber to a 12 gauge, from a helmet to a fishing hat, from one who was forced to take life, to a giver of life not just in a genetic sense, but with friendship and love. He’s gone and yet he will never be truly gone because he lives within me and still I miss him. His son. …

— G. Michael Loveall

Terre Haute


 

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