"The Bonnet of an American Jeep" [Special from the Operation Meatball Archives]

Ernie Covil 1.jpeg

[From the Operation Meatball archives: January 5. 2015]

My sister Faith recently received a letter from English veteran Ernie Covil whom we met while in Normandy three years ago (2011), and then again this past June (2014). Our delight at seeing Mr. Covil after three years was quite unbounded. After the trip, Faith wrote him and sent some of the pictures we had taken. The letter he wrote back was of such interest that we thought we would share some of it with you, as the timing of it is also perfect. 

As many of you may know, this past month has been the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most significant battles of WWII. There were tremendously high casualty rates on both sides, but in the end, the Battle of the Bulge was a decisive benchmark for the Allies as the push to Berlin and winning the war. Here is an excerpt of Mr. Covil’s letter telling a little of his time during the months of December '44 through the beginning of '45.

About my time in the Army, I was called upon on April 1, 1943, age 18. After six weeks infantry training I was then moved into my new regiment as a Lorry Driver into the R. A. S. C. (Royal Army Service Corps). My job was to supply ammunition, food, petrol from the beach to the front line or wherever it was wanted. When Antwerp was taken and the port made workable, the ships were able to bring supplies in, we were moving them from there. That saved the long journey back to Normandy (the roads had been shelled, bombed and it was hard going). Working out of Antwerp, this made things better and carried on back to parts of France through Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

While in Belgium, I was sent to an American transport unit in the Ardennes. It was snowing and cold. I enjoyed my Christmas Dinner on the bonnet of an American Jeep. On leaving the American Unit I went back to the British lines, moving along through to Lubeck, Hanover, Hamburg, and nearly into Berlin. A few miles this side of Berlin, the British and American lines stopped and let the Russians take Berlin. On my way through we were very lucky; we only lost three men, which was nothing to what some units lost. But three is three, to many it is someone’s life gone.

I loved all 40's songs. My most loved one at the time was Vera Lynn’s, "We’ll Meet Again." Of the best bands - must be Glenn Miller. There was no band better to dance to, not even today. When the war finished in Germany I was then sent to Egypt [and] Palestine. From there I came home and was demoted (discharged) September 1947."

The history of the Battle of the Bulge and the siege of Antwerp are both fascinating. If you are interested in reading more about it, I would recommend Mr. Federer's article as a very good summary. 

Fabulous Frank of the RAF


I'd like you to meet Frank, an RAF veteran of WW2. Frank is simply fabulous. When he was 93 three years old, he zip-lined off the Imperial War Museum's 95ft tall viewing tower (nearly as tall as his years were many) 1,000 feet across the canal to the opposite bank. Twice. He did this for a children's charity. A little earlier, Frank had walked 50 miles in 6 days (remember he was 93 at the time) to raise money for the local Church, St. Pauls. Now at 96, he's looking for new adventures to sign up for and new records to break. 


In 1940, Frank signed up with the Royal Air Force (RAF). He popped around for a bit, serving as ground gunner for a while, some pilot training, then he was shipped to Canada where he spent 6 weeks studying navigation in Toronto. Capable of any position on the bomber at this point, he was eventually assigned as Bombardier on a Lancaster with 625 Squadron, 1st Group Bomber Command RAF. It was rough going.

"In one 35-hour period alone, he flew back to back missions over Dresden and Chemnitz, with barely a moment’s sleep between 18 hours flying time and briefings. "Some others had it so rough," He said, "that they couldn’t go on. They should have been taken off and given six weeks leave to get them mentally fit. But if you finished you had your documents stamped ‘LMF’ – lack of moral fibre. No-one wanted that.”"*

All in all, he flew 22 missions during the war, and an additional 10 missions afterward, dropping food and supplies for Operation Manna before being discharged in 1946.


Like many veterans of World War Two, the memories of the war would come back to haunt him in later years, with questions of right and wrong. Each veteran has their own way of dealing with the conflict. As you read with Jerry Yellin, he found his answer in forgiveness. Another veteran I know goes to therapy with Iraq veterans. 

As for Frank, he turned to poetry. If not able find the answers, at least it gave him the opportunity to put into words some of his thoughts.

Fifty years after World War Two / My eldest grandson enquired of the / part I then played and what did I think / about killing people? / Replying to this I recalled  / 'In 1940 I joined the RAF / not for a laugh nor for fun / but because War had begun. / For one who dared, I was scared / up there in the sky - / hoped I would not die...'

Later in a Lancaster Bomer's nose / looking down for the Target Markers. / There! To Port, the Targets lit. / Skipper and Engineer see it too / And the aircraft's course is altered by /10 degrees. / I call, 'Open Bomb doors' and report. / 'Still too far to Starboard: Left - left / Left - left and again left - left. / Keep it steady now Steady Steady.'

With Target under Bomb Sigh's cross / So "pear-switch" pressed; / Bombs all go. / There! Below it's all aglow. / When I call 'Close Bomb doors' / All the crew seems more composed - / When Navigator directs Skipper, / Change course, compass 3-20 degrees.' / Now we're returning to Base. / Will a fight give chase? / Will there be more 'flak?' / All crew hope, maybe pray - / we will see Lincoln Cathedral / when night becomes day. / Not thought or prayer for those we've killed - UNTIL MUCH LATER / Only that another Operation has been fulfilled.

Then at last, the War is over. / And thankful feeling that life is now a "Bed of Clover" and / I am proud to have become a father. / But now for UNTIL MUCH LATER! / Thoughts return of targets bombed / and wondering how many children, / how many mothers did we kill? / In our participation to eliminate / the Nazi ill. 

Until Much Later

FS Tolley - 1995


Frank will turn 97 this summer. But who's counting years? He’s certainly not. He continues to pop around like the spry young thing he is, putting those much younger to shame.

When we were in Holland last year, we were so pleased to spend quite a bit of time with Frank.  Throughout the weekend, his enthusiasm and energy had us all running to keep up with him.

One particular evening, after a taxing day, he had been taken back to the lodge for an early night. Before we knew it, he had joined our party again with declarations of, "What do you think I am? A child? I'm not the least bit tired. I'm 96. I didn't come to Holland for an early bed!" His semi-irate manner had us all laughing in delight and wanting to be just like him when we are 96. Thanks for the example, Frank.  Though really? How can we ever match up to you?

*Excerpts taken from the excellent article: Lancaster Bomber memories or fundraising WW2 veteran

Henry Vaden and the Language of the Eyes

Three years ago this January, the girls and I were given a special gift. The gift of friendship with one of the kindest and gentlest of souls I've had the pleasure of knowing, Henry Vaden. It was a short-lived friendship, just shy of 3 months, but it remains in my memory as one of the most special and unique friendships. 


It all started in December of 2014, when we received note from a lady (who has since become a very dear friend) writing us to see if we would visit her father, a WWII Battle of the Bulge veteran who lived in a nursing home just a few miles from us. She lived many, many states away and was unable to make it down to Texas. Of course we were delighted to make a visit on her behalf, though we little knew at the time what an impact her father, Mr. Vaden, would have on our lives. 

I've never known the phrase, "The eyes are the window to the soul," to be more true than with Mr. Vaden. Until I met him, I'd never really noticed people's eyes. However since then, I've learned that one can attempt to lie through the mouth, but it's hard to deceive with the eyes. In an instant, before you can even utter words, your eyes have already spoken, giving away what happiness or sadness you may be feeling in your heart at the time. For Mr. Vaden, his smiling eyes spoke a language of their own, even while he did not speak. 

During our visits with Mr. Vaden, the girls and I quickly learned to communicate with him through his eyes. They showed optimism and contentedness. If he felt poorly, they never complained. The constant twinkle in his eyes kept us on our toes. How was he feeling that day? Did he like the song Faith sang? Lunch was better than yesterday? That's good news. 


One afternoon we brought him an old LIFE Magazine from early 1945.

During WWII, Mr. Vaden had served in the 106th Infantry, barely escaping capture by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Years had made the details of his war a little foggy and hard to remember, so I thought bringing this LIFE might bring back some forgotten memories. Flipping through the magazine, the girls and I gave him a chatty commentary on the photos and articles. We watched his eyes scan the pages with much interest, looking for what was familiar to him, laughing simultaneously at the way we rambled on.

Did he remember this General? 

His eyes said, "Not really."

Do you remember when the Germans advanced here? 

"Yes." His eyes said.

Oh, here are some photos from the Battle of the Bulge. Was it terribly cold there?

"Brr. Too cold," He conveyed. "Turn the page." 

My favorite part came when we arrived at a full-page advertising a new General Electric Radio with the fabulous Carmen Miranda, well known for her wacky hats, platform shoes, and tongue-twisting latin music. We didn't even have a chance to ask, "Do you remember Carmen Miranda?" before his face said it all.

"Of course I remember her!" His eyes seemed to say. "How can you forget her fruit-salad hats!?" 

His expressions were so hilarious, we all burst out laughing. Our follow up question was, did Mr. Vaden's wife ever wear one of the funny little hats like Carmen Miranda? Well... maybe not as crazy. 

"Oh did she ever!" He almost rolled his eyes. But it was followed by a genuine smile saying, "They might have been funny, but I loved them."

And that is how our weekly visits went. Some days Mr. Vaden felt well enough to say a few words. There was one morning I'll never forget. As we walked into his hospital room, he greeted us with a bright smile and a verbal, "Good morning girls!" We were so surprised that we just stood there for a moment astonished. "You look so much better!" We finally laughed.

"I feel better!" He answered back with real words.

He spoke with a twinkle in his eye as if to say, "Ha. I thought I would surprise you. You never know what to expect from me!"

And he laughed. The most wonderful laugh. We had heard from his daughter that he had the most wonderful sense of humor. Of course he did. 


You really can't underestimate this power of speechless conversation until you have tried it with someone. It is compelling. On days when he didn't feel so keen, and Faith would just sing him a song or two, we would watch his eyes as he sang along. Hymns, songs from the 40s, the 50s, 60s; he knew almost all of them. I remember clearly being often moved by the expressions on his face as he listened. That's another thing that should never be underestimated. The power of music to bring back memories long forgotten. Once when Faith sang, "White Cliffs of Dover," such a multitude of thoughts crossed his face, sweet memories mixed with some bitter ones, maybe from the war? I watched in awe wondering what a beautiful life this man must have lived and just what a blessing it was to know him.

As Mr. Vaden began to decline, it was harder and harder to say goodbye after each visit. We never knew when it would be the last time, and we had fallen in love with this dear man. My last visit with him was in early March, 2015. I was supposed to head out of town on a business trip in a day or two. He was sleeping peacefully, so I whispered goodbye to him and left. He passed away while I was gone.


It's been almost exactly 3 years since I first walked into his nursing home. But I can honestly say those weekly visits with him changed my life. In his quiet way, with his beautiful smile and twinkling eyes, he taught me so much. He taught me about Contentedness. I doubt he would have complained about anything, even given the opportunity. He was always Grateful. If it was a sunny day, he expressed gratitude. It was a rainy day, he expressed gratitude. Even when he felt most ill, there was still a twinkle of Humor about him.

He was Patriotic. The war was a long way back in his mind. Hard to remember things. But he was so proud of the service he gave his country in WWII. I often spoke with him about how the people of France and Belgium still remember his service. His face would beam with noble pride over it.

And how important was Family to him? You only had to mention a name and his face would fill with the deep love he had for his family. No matter the day, he always made an effort to pass a message along to his beloved daughters. 

He also opened my eyes to a different type of friendship. Not your regular friendship, but a very, very special one. A type of friendship that doesn't require many words because the kindness of heart is expressed through the eyes and smile. And what a smile! 

On that first visit, the girls and I hoped to bring a little joy to Mr. Vaden. But instead, he was the one who always brought joy to us!  I wouldn't trade anything for those weekly visits or his beautiful smile. 

I will always be grateful for my brief friendship with this precious, godly soul. I know I often thank the Lord for putting it into his daughter Angela's heart to contact us. And our continued friendship with her has only added to the wonderful blessing of knowing the man with the wonderful smile, Mr. Vaden.

The Flying Horsemen Come to San Antonio

The remarkable men of the 449th Bomb Group Reunion. Nearly all of the men pictured flew between 42 and 51 bombing missions during the war, several of them surviving crashes, and a few becoming POWs on the Eastern front. Brave men indeed.

The remarkable men of the 449th Bomb Group Reunion. Nearly all of the men pictured flew between 42 and 51 bombing missions during the war, several of them surviving crashes, and a few becoming POWs on the Eastern front. Brave men indeed.

In October, San Antonio was invaded by the extraordinary Flyboys and family members of the 449th Bomb Group Association, the Flying Horsemen. And what a terrific invasion it was! By the very kind invitation of the association, Faith and I spent 3 memorable evenings with them, getting a first-hand, crash course history lesson on the Flying Horsemen.

Between January 8, 1944 and April 26, 1945, the 449th Bomb Group flew over 250 combat missions out of their base in Italy. Their losses were great as their targets were often the most heavily defended ones in Europe. "From the time they arrived in Grottaglie until they departed at the end of the war, the 449th lost a total of 135 aircraft. Of those, 111 were lost in combat and 24 were non-combat related losses." (449th Bomb Group Association). But their indomitable spirit persisted, making them "one of the most distinguished and decorated combat units of World War II."


But this indomitable spirit went further than combat missions. Several of the veterans in attendance were ex-POWs. One in particular, a native Texan, Harvey Gann, was captured on January 30, 1944 and sent to Stalag Luft 4 near Grosstychow, Prussia. During his 15 months imprisonment, he attempted escape three times and finally on the fourth attempt, he was successful. However, by the time he arrived safely behind Russian lines, the war was within days of ending. "And to think I could have just waited," he laughingly told me. 

Each night there was something special planned for the reunion. The first night was a fun, "Get Acquainted Party." Folks dressed up in the smart styles of the WWII era, there was group singing and a special anniversary cake for Mr. & Mrs. Harvey Gann, who were celebrating 71 years that day.

A little snippet from Squadron Night at the 449th Bomb Group Reunion last evening. Lt. Ed West (B-24 Navigator) & Faith sing, "I left my heart at the Stage Door Canteen."

The next evening was Squadron Night, a personal favorite for me. This evening was all about celebrating the four squadrons of the 449th Bomb Group: 716th Squadron, 717th Squadron, 718th Squadron, and 719th Squadron. The veterans and family members sat at tables which represented their Squadron, and just like Texans, whenever an opportunity came up to applaud or cheer on the squadron, it was duly taken.


During the evening, there was a terrific panel where each veteran was given an opportunity to share some anecdotes from the war or (in one delightful instance) sing a few wartime songs. This was followed by a fascinating lecture on the Willow Run Factory, a B-24 Bomber manufacturer owned by Ford Motor Company and based out of Michigan during the war. At the peak of her operations in WWII, Willow Run was producing 1 B-24 Liberator per hour! I can honestly say I never thought I would be so interested in a factory, but the history of Willow Run and her current restoration projects blew my mind. 


Saturday night, the final banquet was held at the Tower of the Americas, a memorable location to close out the reunion.

As an outsider and onlooker, I have to say how much I loved seeing the enthusiasm and personal pride that was had for each Squadron and the 449th Bomb Group. This wasn't just an annual social get-together. It was a genuine and concerted effort to honor the men of the 449th BG and educate the younger generations on their sacrifices in WWII. Everyone I talked with at the reunion was so knowledgable about the 449th and spoke with such ardor about their relatives that I kept walking away from these conversations greatly moved and motivated to learn more. 

The amount of planning and coordination that went into the entire reunion was outstanding. I really must thank the organizers, specifically Denise Reigal, for including us in this special, special reunion. It was such an honor to meet your veterans, listen to their narratives, and even share a few songs with them.

Though the weekend was short, our hearts were quite captured by the Flyboys and family of the 449th Bomb Group.

Related Reading: Remembering a Statistic: The Crew of the B-24, "The Lady in the Dark"

If you are interested in learning more about the 449th Bomb Group Association, I highly recommend you check out their website. It is full of easily accessible information and content which will keep you reading for hours. I have greatly enjoyed pursuing the articles and documents they have on the website. https://449th.com

A Few Stories for Purple Heart Day

August 7th is recognized as Purple Heart Day. A day when we remember the military who were wounded in the service of our country. Over 1.8 million Purple Hearts have been given out over the years since this special decoration was instated, and it is estimated that over 1 million of them were given out during World War Two. This is an enormous number. 

A few years ago I wrote about two specific Purple Heart recipients… but today I thought instead of recounting one story, I’d highlight a couple of Purple Heart veterans we have had the honor of knowing. 


Fiske Hanley’s B-29 was shot down in March of 1945. He was captured by the Japanese and held as a “Special War Criminal," during which time he was brutally tortured by the Japanese secret police, otherwise known as the Kempei Tai.

Dan McBride received 3 Purple Heart's during WWII. The first one came not too long after D-Day. On patrol one night, a soldier came up to him speaking German. "I pulled up my rifle, and he pulled up his. We both shot, and we both hit — but I hit more." Mr. McBride escaped with a wounded arm. The next one would be in Holland after he was blown off a dyke by mortar shells, crushing his ankle. "The medic stuck a needle through my boot. I had to walk out of there, and I could hear the bones grinding." His third Purple Heart came in Bastogne when he was hit in the knees from tank shrapnel. He would take part in four of the major battles in Europe: Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, and Southern Germany.

USMC PFC, Jim Skinner, was wounded by a grenade while excavating a cave during the fighting on Guam in 1944. He recovered just in time to participate in the Battle of Iwo Jima. For years and years afterwords he suffered with great bitterness and anger towards the Japanese. In March of 2015, he returned to Iwo Jima for the first time since the fighting. During his trip there he was able to find forgiveness to his former enemies, even so far as shaking hands with one of them. He passed away a few months later. 

USMC Sgt. John Coltrane was wounded in the arm by a piece of shrapnel during the Battle of Midway. However he never received a Purple Heart for this as his senior officer and Corpsman were both wounded or killed. 


Birney "Chick" Havey served in the Army during the Battle of the Bulge. Besides a Purple Heart, he also received the Silver Star (3rd highest military award) and numerous Bronze Stars. A few months later he would be one of the first men to liberate the horrendous concentration Camp Dachau.

Darroll "Lefty" Lee (centre of picture) was wounded on February 28, 1945, during the battle of Iwo Jima “There were five of us in this group, a fire team, we were moving up… and we were running across an open area. I don’t know if it was a Jap rocket or if it was an artillery shell, never heard it of course. It landed and the thing that saved me was that sand — it landed and it buried itself… into the sand, and when it exploded it blew me up into the air. I think I was blown 20 to 30 feet — I don’t even remember. Of the five, three were killed and two of us were blown into the air. I remember I was bleeding from the nose, mouth, and ears and couldn’t hear, couldn’t hear a thing. When I came to I was just peppered with little slivers — like the corpsman said when we got back to Saipan, we thought they were freckles. Didn’t get it in the eyes, just amazing, but the concussion knocked out my hearing. When they hauled me back then I remembered the corpsman, what a guy, he crawled up there and pulled me back into a hole and all I can remember is his name, Harris, his name on his dungarees. I often wonder if he ever made it.”

Lee Cason nearly lost his life on Utah Beach, June 6, 1944, when his leg tangled in the landing craft's ramp chain. Then he nearly drowned as he waded to shore under heavy fire from the Germans. And again as he made his way up the beachhead. But it wasn't until a few months later that he received his first of two Purple Hearts during the Battle of the Bulge. 

Bataan Death March survivor and Japanese Prisoner of War, Col. Ben Skardon certainly has a lot of history behind his Purple Heart. During the Battle of Bataan he inspired his men greatly, and at 100 years old, he his still continuing to inspire. 

Charming Stanley Zemont tried to downplay his Purple Heart, "It's not much. Just a wound I received from shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge." 

Two magnificent Marines: Al Pagoaga and Bill Madden. Life-long friends, they came out of the fighting on Iwo Jima with indelible memories and permanent external scars. Bill Madden was buried alive by a grenade blast, only surviving when his friend, Al, dug him out just in time. Besides shrapnel wounds, he went completely deaf for 24 hours afterwords. A few days later, Al Pagoaga was hit by a mortar blast that killed three of his friends and left him missing part of a leg. 

All these men (and so many more that we have not mentioned), have paid a price to serve our country: for the rest of their lives they will carry personal scars - badges of honor - reminding them what it takes to keep a country free. We are deeply grateful to them. 

The Boy Who Drew Sunken Spanish Galleons

A few months ago we were driving through beautiful southern California, up and down winding roads, oohing and awing over the picturesque scene. Our GPS beeped and we slowed down, looking at the mailbox numbers for our destination (we've been known to knock on the wrong door before).Then we saw it - a hand-painted signpost of the 101st Screaming Eagle crowned by the word: Airborne. No mistaking... we were at the right spot. 

When Bill Galbraith was a young boy, he once got into trouble in art class for drawing a sunken Spanish Galleon surrounded by the vast ocean, instead of the modernist depiction of the ocean-life the teacher had expected. The teacher marked up his picture, and in return he called her a nasty name.

The years went on and this imaginative young boy grew up (as all children seem to), but he didn't lose any of his creative or resourceful characteristics - though there was certainly a good dash of mischievousness in the mix. All this would soon come to play an unexpected part in his life when he found himself lying in a hospital in England, his future in question, after being seriously wounded in the leg and shoulder during the fighting around Eindhoven, Netherlands. 

Paratrooper to the core, Bill had jumped with the 101st into Normandy during the wee hours of June 6, 1944. The fighting had been awful, but he made it out in one piece and was sent back to England with his unit for more training. When September 17th rolled around, he made his second combat jump into Holland for Operation Market-Garden. Unfortunately Market-Garden did not go as planned... but Bill wasn't around long enough to find out. On the 18th, during some street fighting near Eindhoven, he was hit in the leg by shrapnel from one of the infamous 88's. Crawling around the doorway of a house, he tried to see where the shooting was coming from, hoping to put a stop to it. At that moment he was hit again, this time in the shoulder. Falling back, helpless, he hit against the door of the house. The door suddenly opened, and a pair of strong Dutch hands dragged him in to safety. 

Bill's wounds were nearly fatal for him. If it wasn't for a recent medical discovery, he would have lost his leg and been an invalid for life. Even with this blessing, however, it still took three years of intensive operations and rehabilitation treatments to fully heal his wounds. The process was long and painful, and at times no doubt seemed hopeless. But this is where the tenacious spirit of the little boy who drew sunken Spanish Galleons for school played a part.

A few months ago when we were in California for the Iwo Jima Reunion, we realized we were only a few short hours away from our dear and lovely friend, Mr. Galbraith. After calling him up with short, short notice, we stopped by for a visit. His drive-in was unmistakable with the Screaming Eagle he had painted on a post by the mailbox. It made us smile. He had told us about the wonderful eagle that protected his home, but it was something else to see it in person. His last combat jump might have been in 1944, but he was still a Paratrooper!

During our visit, he talked with us about his life over the years, the bonny Scotch/Irish war-bride he brought home to America, his magnificent paintings and drawings (it was no surprise to see countless paintings of ships sailing in fierce gales, surrounded by brilliant Screaming Eagles!), and walked us down memory lane as we poured through a scrapbook of photos and stories from WWII to his paratrooper reunions in later years. I'll tell you this, there is nothing quite like going through an old scrapbook and listening to the stories about each person, place, or event in the photos. We laughed at the funny stories, awed over the sweet stories, and got misty eyed as he showed us the pictures of his best friends who were lost. A lifetime of stories collected so neatly into one book. 

Of all his fantastic stories, one that continues to stick out is what happened while he was in the hospital. Determined not to be overcome and unwilling to live in a constant foggy state from pain-relieving drugs, this imaginative boy turned United State Paratrooper decided to focus his mental energy on learning poetry. Line by line, day by day, month by month. Replacing pain with verse. Poetry of all sorts, but specifically the works of Robert Service, "Bard of the Yukon." And it worked! Between drawing wonderful pictures and memorizing glorious poems, these mental exercises did not leave much time to dwell on the pain. In mid-1947, he was released from the hospital, and the wounds became a thing of the past. However, 73 years later, he can still recite those verses he learned, whiling the hours away with his hospital chums. Recite *perfectly* I should add. As we sat in his living room, listening to him repeat from memory such classics as Dangerous Dan McGrew, The Cremation of Sam McGee, and The Sourdough Story, we couldn't but pick our jaws off the floor at his impeccable memory for verse. 

There are so many lessons to learn from our dear friend Mr. Galbraith. His devotion to his fellow paratroopers was unquestionable. Never once was it "me" or "I." It was always, "we" or "they." "They were the brave ones." "We were like brothers." The camaraderie and loyalty between these men is surely one-of-a-kind.  

His love for his wife is another lesson for us. An Irish girl, living in Scotland, he persuaded her to come to the unknowns of America and be his wife. Married 65 years with 10 beautiful children (he beat our family by 2!), it's a beautiful story for another time. 

But I think the lesson from this story - the story of Spanish Galleons and Poetry - is that the little boy whose imagination ran away with him in art class later had the impetus to stretch his mental strength and put his mind to work, rather than take an easy way out with pain-medications. The pain went away, but the treasures he has stored in his memory have lasted for close to 75 years. How important is this mental battle! And the rewards reaped afterward are ever so wonderful.

Toccoa Currahee Military Weekend

Toccoa, Toccoa... one of the sweetest and most darling places in America.

The last several months have been pretty busy with life in general. After looking at the blog and realizing it had been nearly 2 months since the last post, we figured it was time to do some catch-up work. So, instead of going too far back, I'll just start with Currahee Military Weekend. 

In the beginning of October, the town of Toccoa, Georgia hosts their annual Currahee Military Weekend in honor of the men who trained at Camp Toccoa in WWII. These men were United States Paratroopers. One paratrooper we talked to once said, "We were the baddest of the bad, and the biggest troublemakers." That is for sure. It seems that most of the stories they tell end up with fistfights or an attempt to capture a town single handedly (encouraged not a little by the belief that one paratrooper was more than equal to at least half a dozen regular Army men). But paratroopers are also known for their fierce camaraderie. You may be a stranger, but if you wear the jump wings, you are family, and they'll stick to you through thick or thin. This bond is something almost unexplainable to an outsider. 

Part of the unique history of Toccoa is Currahee Mountain. It was originally used as a significant element of the paratrooper's training (running up and down in full gear), but since then has grown in legend, especially after it was immortalized in the TV mini-series "Band of Brothers." Since we first visited Toccoa in 2014, we have tried to make it a point of running the mountain each time. Now, I've run several half-marathons over the years and found them to be in varying forms of difficulty. But nothing compares to Currahee. The famous quote, "3 miles up, 3 miles down," pretty much summarizes the intensity of the mountain. It is no cakewalk. However, putting all difficulty aside, it has to be one of the most inspiring places I've ever run. To know that every step you take is in the exact footsteps of the paratroopers. The paratroopers who dropped into Normandy in the early hours of June 6, 1944. The paratroopers who earned their name bravely defending Bastogne. And the same paratroopers who eventually stormed Hitler's elite getaway -the Eagles Nest. It is a pretty awe-inspiring thought, and definitely the only thing that gets me to make it to the top of the mountain and back. 

Singing old love songs with sweet paratroopers and listening to riotous stories of hospital escapades is pretty much the best. Besides, who doesn't love a paratrooper?!

Singing old love songs with sweet paratroopers and listening to riotous stories of hospital escapades is pretty much the best. Besides, who doesn't love a paratrooper?!

Over the course of the weekend, veterans who trained at Camp Toccoa in WWII come back (some for the first time since they trained in 1943!), and there are book signings, chatting, music, parades, and everything possible to make the time fabulous. Toccoa is a small town, but it has a heart as big as Texas. We knew after the first day there that we had quite lost our hearts to this darling place. 

One of the best parts is reconnecting with old friends. And one of the best surprises for us was in the form of these two WW2 vet cousins. We had met them the first year we attended, and had just the best time with them, chatting about Gene Autry and Tank Destroyers (a great combination, don't you think?). 

L-R: Liberty, Garnett, Jubilee, DeWitt, and Faith at Toccoa's Currahee Military Weekend

L-R: Liberty, Garnett, Jubilee, DeWitt, and Faith at Toccoa's Currahee Military Weekend

Garnett (left) was on a Tank Destroyer and had his fair share of experiences over in Europe. His descriptions of tank battles and coming upon German concentration camps ("you could smell them miles and miles away") were remarkable. Interestingly, one of the men in his crew had been born and raised in Germany before coming to America. One day they were going through a small German town and this buddy pointed out, "This is the town where I grew up. That window is where my Aunt lives."

His cousin DeWitt (right) was with the Engineers in Italy. However before going overseas, when he was 16, he had hitchhiked 300 miles from Demorest to Brunswick, Georgia to work with his uncle at the shipyard there. They are quite the pair of cousins!

On Sunday morning, a memorial service is held at the Camp Toccoa Currahee Memorial. It is a beautiful ceremony complete with honor guards and taps. Following this comes a highlight of the week, breakfast at the local diner with the veterans. One of the lovely veterans we met was paratrooper Bill Galbraith. Mr. Galbraith jumped with the 101st into Normandy on D-Day, and then again into Holland for Operation Market Garden. On September the 18th, 1944, the day after landing in Holland, he was severely wounded and shipped off for treatment. His recovery ended up being a long, tedious, and painful process. To combat the pain, he concentrated on memorizing poetry, good hearty poetry though, the likes of Robert Service and others similar. Well, as Robert Service is a favorite in our house, we talked at great length about this, Mr. Galbraith reciting numerous poems perfectly from memory. It was absolutely fabulous. There are more stories from Mr. Galbraith, but that's for another time.

Currahee Military Weekend 2016 left us with many wonderful memories. We listened to stories that made us cry, as well as stories that made us hold our sides with laughter. We sang old love songs with 90 year-old paratroopers who are still young at heart; and we talked about their war-time buddies -some who came home, and a few who didn't. Last but not least, we remembered the 6,000 soldiers who trained at Camp Toccoa and forever became "Toccoa Men." 

Maurice Brookes: US Army Air Corps

We were sitting down, stuffing our faces with some delicious Dairy Queen dilly bars, the perfect addition to a hot day at D-Day Ohio (more on that later), and I saw this darling fly boy watching us. So I popped over and introduced myself. He said "I was wondering when you were going to come over." So I laughed and asked him where he was from. He said,

"Have you ever heard of Shakespeare? Stratford on Avon? I'm from Stratford."

Turns out Mr. Brookes was born and raised to with his English parents in the hometown of the beloved writer of all things remarkable, William Shakespeare. In 1931, when he was 9 years old, his parents immigrated to Pittsburgh for a "better life." When the war came he joined the Air Corps and trained as a flight engineer in Texas, and then was stationed in New Mexico training new airmen. Towards the end of the war he was sent to Guam to get ready for the big move on Japan but thankfully it all ended before things came to that. He also mentioned he had a brother who was a flame-thrower in Saipan.

While we were talking, he opened his wallet and pulled out an old picture of an adorable gal with fluffy blonde hair. Very proudly he introduced me to his wife. "I met her on a furlough, and married her on the next one a year later. " he pulled another picture out and said "This is from the day we met!" I can think of few things more precious and loving than a 95 year old gentleman, 70+ years later still carrying with him for all the world to see and admire a picture of not only his life long sweetheart, but the day he met her!

The whole time we talked, I couldn't help imagining him as a darling rosy-cheeked 9 year old, English boy coming to our country, learning the American way, fighting for both our countries, and now, our Mr. Brookes, a lovely gentleman of 95 relating these stories. 

36th Infantry "T-Patch" Reunion: San Antonio

Spiffy dinner dates, and a fabulous time at the 36th Infantry Division "T-Patchers" Reunion this weekend... On the bus yesterday at Ft. Sam, our friend Mr. Dietrick pointed out the places he grew up, hunted rabbits, and took training. Other vets shared stories of meeting famous Generals in Africa, the Italian campaign, POW status, and lots more. So happy to have been with these great men. Below are some of the highlights we shared on Instagram.

We're at Fort Sam Houston today with the 36th Infantry Division Reunion for commemoration of the Invasion of Salerno in 1944! Interesting note: The chapel the service was held in is the same chapel where Mr. Dietrick's brother's funeral service was held in 1940. His brother was accidentally killed when his gun misfired as he was coming off guard duty. That was 76 years ago.
Just found this one from the 36th Infantry Division Reunion last week... Meet the Scarborough brothers. We mistook them for twins (as everyone else did) but they're actually 6 years apart! John, the younger (left), doesn't like this so much but he's a good sport. Both served in the 36th, one in WWII, the other during the Korea War. Together they make a pretty cute set of brothers who kept us in stitches of laughter the whole time.
Exploring the museum at Fort Sam Houston. Mr. D. is explaining how the weapons worked.
A fabulous dinner banquet celebrating and remembering the men of the 36th Infantry Division.

June 6, 1944

On this day every year our thoughts and hearts are full as we think of the brave lads who took part in the invasion of Normandy. We have many friends who landed on the beaches, scaled the cliffs, or were dropped in by C-47 all in the early hours of June 6, 1944 and are now here to tell the tales of bravery and sacrifice of their comrades. 

But we also have many friends who did not make it. Some of them went through months of hard training only to be killed moments after landing. They are now buried in the beautiful yet somber cemetery off of Omaha Beach. This may seem strange to say since we are separated by 72 years, a full lifetime. But reading of their stories, learning about their lives growing up on the farms out west or in the emigrant-crammed cities of the east we feel like we know them; that they are our friends. When we talk to the men that were right beside them as they took the bullet that would put a gold star in a mother's window, we feel like we have lost a childhood friend. 

Tears come to our eyes as we realize the only son of an emigrant family won't come back to carry on the family name in the land of opportunity that his parents dreamed about all their lives. Handsome Frank Draper, brothers Bedford and Raymond Hoback, and 17 other friends from the same small town in Virginia, all killed in the early hours of DDay. They never knew us, but we know them. They were our friends, and we will never forget them because their names are etched in our minds. 

D-DAY is a solemn day, but also a joyous day. Because of the sacrifices made that day, giving the allies a foothold in France, the hope and freedom of all of Europe was secured.

Frederick Kroese: Dutch Resistance Fighter

In 1940, it would have been a very hard time to be living in Europe, especially if you lived in one of the many little countries that were being invaded by the Nazis. The Netherlands was one of those. At first, it wasn't so bad. The Netherlanders could live with them, but when the Germans went to fight in Russia, they needed more men and more weapons. So, they started taking men out of the factories and sending them to fight the Russians. But of course they had to have someone to fill the places of all the men who were being sent to the front, so the Germans started taking the men and boys from the countries that were under the Nazi thumb.

In mid 1943, Frederick Kroese, got a message telling him to get a few belongings and report so that he could be moved to Germany to work in the factories. As a 19 year old young man, he wasn't going to be bossed around by some government that wasn't even his own, telling him that he had to drop everything he was doing and go to work to help the very people who had invaded his country. So he just said, "I won't do that!"

There were then only two options left to him: he could either wait for the Nazi police to come get him, or he could go into hiding. Well, he wasn't going to wait around for the police, so he found a place to hide himself! And then, since he wasn't going to just wait in hiding, he decided to join the Resistance. 

When I first met Mr. Kroese, he described to me in great detail the perils of joining the Resistance. It was a very real and dangerous thing to undertake. He knew that at any time he could be shot, put in prison, or tortured for information and addresses, but it gave him a way to "really do something against the Germans..." In a lovely Dutch accent, he told me, "You took part in an organization which did things you shouldn't do to survive it. In common clothes - you don't have a uniform, but we were the enemy of the Germans." He wore a band on his arm that said he was in food distribution so that the Germans wouldn't bother him or take away his bicycle. If you remember from Corrie Ten Boom's stories, bicycles were very important to the success of their plans. 

One day, however, as he was coming out of the woods, he found a German stealing his bike. He really needed his wheels to get where he was going, so he tried to talk him out of it  -but without success. He finally asked if the German would at least give him a ride into town on the back of it (oh the gall!), but he wouldn't take up his offer... And he lost the bike. Just another day in the life of Frederikus Wilhelmus Kroese.

During the war American planes would drop supplies to the Dutch resistance, especially weapons, explosive equipment, and booklets on how to use them most effectively. This booklet is explaining how to blow up a bridge. Mr. Kroese obtained it from one of the cylinders that were dropped.

When American or English pilots were downed, he was there to help them. "I was in the group that saved flying people who were shot down..." The pilots would call in to the Dutch Resistance saying, "Save us, save us, we're crashing!" and Mr. Kroese would organize the farmers to go to the location where they were falling, destroy the evidence, bury the parachutes, etc... Then find them a place where they could stay, forge false identification papers and ration cards, and finally get them new clothing! Isn't that just too rich...part of the Dutch Resistance, forging papers, and saving downed English and American pilots!!!

Mr. Kroese's false identification papers.

Although it was no doubt thrilling to their impetuous spirits, these Tommies and Johnnies were practically still boys, and didn't seem to grasp the danger of the situation or the tremendous sacrifice that these Dutch people were embracing, risking their lives, and giving them a large portion of their own scarce supply of food. "They would stay there for a few weeks, or as long as needed and they would stay in the house where I was aided. We gave them food, and some night I came upstairs after they had dinner, and I came and I saw that the soup was in the washing table," -(that was in the year that food was especially difficult to come by)- "So I said, 'Are you mad? If you don't like it, tell it to us, and we can have it, but don't spoil it!'"  

At other times, the Americans struggled to grasp the precariousness of their situation. "Sometime in the following months, there came a German car stopping just before our house... but what did he (the American flyer)? He moved to the window, pushed the curtains away, and I said; 'Are you mad?!'" 'No, but I've never seen my enemy. I want to see my enemy.' As they are young boys, they don't realize, and they don't know. They didn't know that we had few food, and he didn't realize that he, ya, was in danger of bringing us in danger by showing himself at the window. It was remarkable." 

Finally, after 5 longs years of being under Nazi oppression, after 3 years of working every moment against his country's oppressors, rescuing Allied pilots, burying parachutes, hiding radios, stealing bicycles, blowing up bridges, forging papers, scraping together food, organizing the farmers, - and every moment living in the realization that they could die any time, the Netherlands were finally liberated.

"It was happiness to be liberated." 

In all the times that I've come in contact with people from the Netherlands, I've found them to be some of the nicest people in the world. So kind, and with such a full history of their own, and between our two countries, dating all the way back to 1608 when they welcomed our Pilgrim Fathers into their land, and gave us a place where we could live in peace and worship God in freedom for over ten years, until our forefathers sailed to America. Mr Kroese is certainly no exception! Thank you, dear sir, for your gallantry and your kindness to our boys who got in a tough spot in the air over there.

"You can't tell a man's bravery by just looking at him"

"You cannot look at someone and decide if they are brave or not. You can only find out if someone is brave by looking backwards, seeing how they have responded."

This is something Lt. Lynden Benshoof often thought about when he was aboard his LST in WWII. He told us he was concerned and worried about his own actions. Would he be brave? Or would he be like his Captain, who after fierce fighting during the Africa and Italy Campaigns, finally couldn't handle any more. One day, Mr. Benshoof had found the Captain of the ship, curled up like a child, grasping tightly to a radio and pretending to be talk into it. Benshoof suggested he go to his cabin for rest. The Captain did, locking himself in and not coming out again.

But if Africa, Sicily, and Salerno were tough, it wasn't the end. On June 6, 1944, Lt. Benshoof's LST took part in the D-Day Operations landing troops onto Omaha Beach. It was horrible work. "We saw all the guys stacked like cardboard on the beach and we could see all the trouble happening... There was so many bodies in the water they couldn't dodge them all." His LST would make 57 trips between England and France carrying causalities and prisoners. "One thing I learned is you can't tell a man's bravery by just looking at him." Only by looking backwards. Looking back on his life, Lt. Benshoof's greatest fear, the fear of failure to do his duty, never became a reality. He served his country well and proudly. But it is a good lesson for all of us to consider: how will *we* respond, when the trouble in our lives becomes too difficult to bear. Quit, like the poor Captain? Or persevere a little longer. Only the future will tell us how we responded to the present crisis. So let's take the example of Lt. Benshoof, and fight a little harder and stick in there a little longer. 

Paratroopers are a Special Lot

Sainte Mere Eglise, Normandy, this past June for the D-Day anniversary events. 

Paratroopers are a special lot. They are known for an unusual delight in death defying antics and absurd feats. Mr. Dan McBride is no exception. Just surviving jump school (the first time he jumped his chute didn't open and he pulled the emergency as he reached tree level. A little stunned, he assumed that was normal), his first combat jump was into Normandy, on June 6, 1944. 

“I was loaded down with eight grenades, two antitank mines, ammunition, a full field pack, four blocks of TNT, an entrenching tool, a bayonet and a carbine. I weighed 300 to 400 pounds. We had to have someone help us climb into the plane. The formation began to break apart as pilots tried to avoid the AA fire. They were banking and diving and turning. Well, on one particularly steep banking turn, being closest to the open door waiting to get the signal to jump, I fell out the door."

Tangling himself in the parachute lines, he landed on his head, which knocked him out for a good while. The adventures that followed were numerous; and told in his dry-wit style, become quite hilarious. Not too long after D-Day, on a night patrol, a soldier came up and spoke to him. It was a German."I pulled up my rifle, and he pulled up his. We both shot, and we both hit — but I hit more." Wounded in his arm, it would be the first of 3 purple hearts he would receive in 1944. The next one would be in Holland after he was blown off a dyke by mortar shells, crushing his ankle. "The medic stuck a needle through my boot. I had to walk out of there, and I could hear the bones grinding." His third Purple Heart came in Bastogne when he was hit in the knees from tank shrapnel. He would take part in four of the major battles in Europe: Normandy, Holland, Bastogne, and Southern Germany. Today, at 91 Mr. McBride is still one tough hombre with plenty of chutzpah. "I live in New Mexico close to the border. One time I was in the parking lot of Walmart and this guy came up to me with a pocket knife and said, 'give me your money'. I pulled out my [handgun] and told him, 'you can either leave now, or in a body bag. I don't care which.' Boy did that guy go running... (he laughs) yup, that was about two months ago."

Dachau Liberator

When we first met Mr. Birney "Chick" Havey at an airshow last fall, we asked him where the "Chick" came from in his name. "In the army, everyone got a nickname," he said, "they were all 'Bud' or 'Tom" or something like that, so I went by "Chick."' We talked with Mr. Havey for a while; he showed us his "artifacts" collected during the war. A German dagger, German medals (including an iron cross), German patches, and numerous other fascinating objects. Later in the day a lady came up to us and said, "Did you know Birney Havey was one of the first men into the gates of Dachau?" Goodness! This had not even been brought up. We went back to Mr. Havey and he willingly obliged our questions, even pulling out some photos he had taken. 

Arriving in Europe just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Havey had seen plenty of fighting and death by the time he reached  Dachau; but despite the natural hardness that come with combat, the sight he saw that day, April 25, 1945, was enough to turn the strongest man's stomach sick. His anti-tank unit came in through the back, discovering around 300 train car-loads of dead and rotting bodies. He said of all those prisoners, they only found one alive. From there they went into the camp, and the horror did not abate much. He saw "people living inside post office-like slots, three or four in each hole. They were alive, but some were dying in there, others were too weak to get out." Rounding up several of the SS still in the camp, they lined them up and shot them. Mr. Havey only stayed in the area a day and a half before his unit moved forward, but that day left permanent mark in his mind, and no doubt brought renewed meaning to the reason he was fighting. 

Combat Medic and Paratrooper

Leon Jedziniak was a replacement medic for A Company, 501st PIR, 101st Airborne Division. On December 18, 1944, he arrived in Bastogne, Belgium and dug in. The requirements for being a medic were not strict and you didn't have to know much. "There’s only one thing you need to remember," he was told, "Never put the tourniquet around the neck." His first day of action, after going to retrieve a wounded man and nearly getting killed himself, the priest who had accompanied him offered to put him in for the Silver Star. The next day the priest was captured by the Germans and didn't see him again for 31 years. No Silver Star, but he would receive multiple Bronze Stars for his courageous actions, as well as a purple heart. The role of the combat medic in WWII was vital. So many veterans have told us that for them, the true heroes were the medics. Without their bravery and total disregarded of self, many many lives would have been unnecessarily lost. It is always a great honor to meet one of these brave men who served their country and fellow soldiers so well.

Invasion of Salerno Anniversary

In the early morning of September 9, 1943, the 36th infantry division landed on the shores of Salerno, in a move to entirely push the Germans out of Italy. Last week commemorated the 72nd anniversary of this invasion. On a corner of one of the main streets in downtown San Antonio, by the 141st Infantry regiment monument (36th div), two veterans of this significant campaign were joined by their families and a few friends to remember the day, and the friends who never made it home. We were greatly moved as they recounted stories of the invasion as if it happened yesterday. Their comrades in arms may have been at rest for 72 years, but their names and faces will never be forgotten by these two 36th Div. men.

Two Purple Hearts

In honor of Purple Heart Day, we wanted to recognize two gentlemen whose Purple Heart’s were received at a very great cost. 

Mr. Vince Losada (below photo) was a bombardier on a B-17 Flying Fortress called the “Big Drip Jr.”. He was returning from his 25th mission over Germany when his flight was attacked by “intense and very accurate” flack. One burst of flack hit Losada, severing his right arm above the elbow and cutting up his back. A tourniquet was applied and morphine pumped into him, but it didn’t look good.

Mr. Vincent Losada, Purple Heart recipient. 

The “Big Drip Jr.’s” pilot later wrote, “The underside of the plane from the cockpit to the tail was covered with Vince’s blood from this wound. The flight surgeon told us that another fifteen minutes would have been fatal.” They considered flying to Russia, but decided to pull through to England. Boyd Smith, the waist gunner, wrote the next day, “I think he will pull through. He has a lot of grit and Thank God for letting us get him back.... Sure a rough mission for us today.” 

Mr. Frank Pontisso, Purple Heart recipient. 

Mr. Frank Pontisso, Purple Heart recipient. 

Mr. Frank Pontisso served in the 5th Marine Division and was in the first wave to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima. On the 12th day of battle, he heard a marine call out “hit the deck.” Pontisso and two other Marines were struck by a mortar blast, but survived, despite being seriously injured. The last he remembers was receiving a shot of brandy from a corpsman after diving into his foxhole. Pontisso’s right arm was packed in ice, transported to a hospital ship, then Guam. A month later, gangrene set in, and his arm had to be amputated. 

Mr. Losada and Mr. Pontisso both lost their right arms in 1945. Their only reward for this: a Purple Heart and certificate from the government. But that doesn’t matter. “The guys that deserve a Purple Heart are the ones that are buried there, you know.” said Mr. Pontisso

"To D-Day and Back"

When I met Mr. Robert Bearden for the first time at the Reagan International Airport in the D.C. airport last September, I found out that he had been a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, a POW, and Head Yell Leader at The University of Texas. All these things were enough to leave me in awe, but little did I know about the truly amazing life he has led. 

Mr. Bearden joined the paratroops in 1942 after serving in the Texas National Guard since 1940. Becoming a paratrooper was not simply a routine decision for Bob Bearden; it was a proof of manhood.  He was not as big as the other guys and as a result he felt he needed to prove himself. The paratroops had a reputation for being the toughest of the tough. People stood in awe of them. That was a very desirable image for a guy whose stature had not been what he would have hoped; and there was no sneezing at the extra $50 a month for jumping out of an airplane. 

In 1943, the life of a paratrooper was far from ordinary. People say fact is stranger than fiction, and in Mr. Bearden’s case, I am inclined to agree. One day, he and a buddy came across a baboon tied with a chain in the middle of someone’s junkyard. It was customary for the units to have a mascot. One 507th unit had a jumping German Shepherd and another had a goat. If their company, Company H of the 507th, had a big baboon as their mascot, that would surpass everyone else’s. So they got the idea to bag it and take it back to barracks. After a valiant attempt to commandeer the furious monkey, they were forced to leave it, but not without a great number of scratches and cuts.

Mr. Bearden certainly did not live a dull life during his training and got into a good deal of mischief, but his war had hardly begun by June of 1944. On the evening of June 5th, after rigorous training in the U.S. and in England, Sergeant Robert Bearden was put on a plane and sent across the English Channel to be dropped over Normandy with the rest of the 82nd Airborne. Like so many of the Airborne units dropped over Normandy, he was separated from the rest of his men. After a more than intense few days on the ground in France, which included the battle for Fresville, an ear injury resulting in his first Purple Heart, and a recommendation for a DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) for saving a Lieutenant’s life, Sergeant Bearden was captured by the Germans and his experience as a POW began. 

Mr. Bearden, after multiple transfers, ended up in Stalag IIIC in Keustrin, Germany. In June of 1944, he weighed in at 163 pounds; just 90 days later he was officially registered with the Red Cross as a POW and was weighed in at a grand total of 98 pounds. 

Finally on January 31 1945, (a date which Mr. Bearden has never forgotten) he was liberated by the Russians. This was an ordeal in and of itself. The Russians had a signifiant hatred for the Germans, and as a result, he had to witness a great deal of brutality from his own liberators. Initially Sergeant Bearden’s plan was to travel and fight with the Russians, cross the Oder River, and then go through Berlin to ultimately end up with the American Forces. After seeing the way the Russians fought and the amount of Vodka they consumed, resulting in “freak” accidents that kept killing liberated GIs, he finally decided a Plan B was necessary or else he would end up in one of the “accidents” himself.  So on February 2, 1945, Plan B took affect. About 20 ex-POWS traveled along the Russian supply lines and hopefully, if they traveled far enough and long enough east, they would arrive back home. For Bob Bearden, that meant TEXAS! 

For a GI who has lost more than a third of his body weight and survived the brutality of the Germans as a POW to walk across Europe is no easy task. His journey took him through Germany, Russia, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and Italy where he finally met up with the U.S. Army in Naples. Along the way, he had traveled by boxcar, horseback, buggy, farm wagon, bicycle, and many other forms of transport, but mainly he traveled, as he put it, by “the good old ‘Ankle Express.’” Having witnessed the travesties of war which had mostly been inflicted by the Russians, enough was enough, and the strain was too much. Several of the other GIs had had too much and lost it. Their breakdowns were really wearing on him and the others. He decided if it kept on like that, he would crack, too. He didn’t want to add to their strain, so he set out alone. In Poland he came across an abandoned department store where he not only found some sorely needed fur coats, but 60 pairs of silk stockings. These he stuffed down his newly acquired fur coats and used them as trading all the way home. “They were better than any coin of the realm.” 

He made it to Naples by way of Athens and Greece on a British ship, and from there took the U.S.S. West Point (a Coast Guard ship) arriving in Boston in April, 1945. When Sergeant Robert Bearden finally reached Texas, he was only 22 years old.  

Back in Texas, Mr. Bearden went on to be Head Yell Leader at The University of Texas. Amazingly enough, when we visited Mr. Bearden earlier this year, it occurred to us that his years at UT crossed over with our grandmother’s. He pulled out his year books, and low and behold, there she was! His response was, “I must have known her!”

Now 70 years after his service, Mr. Bearden has lived a full life. After giving his early years fighting to protect our country and seeing the very ugly face of war, he spent two very difficult years coming to terms with all he had seen, and ultimately found peace in Christ in the 1960s. Filled with compassion for others who struggled with heavy burdens, Mr. Bearden founded Christian Farms Treehouse, a work study program for men, expanded in 1978 to include women, who had made tragic mistakes but who could be given hope and new life through the help and guidance of people who truly cared about them and more importantly about their souls. Every time we have had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Bearden, hardly a word comes out of his mouth that is not full of gratitude and thankfulness to the Lord. 

Everything I have written has only given a slight glimpse into the life of Mr. Bearden and his service during the war. I have highlighted just a few events. But it is always wonderful when we can read the account from the man himself! And if you want to read his full story in his own words, I highly recommend his book To D-Day and Back from his website: www.boblbearden.com. It is really worth reading! 

For Mr. Bearden, his life can be put down to that of a giving one. In World War Two, he offered his life and service to his country: he performed his duties well. Then, he gave his life to the Lord, a willing sacrifice for whatever would be required. Following this, he devoted his life to giving and caring for those who had no hope, and he gave them a hope greater than any other: hope in the Lord.

Boy of Utah Beach: Lee B. Cason

"I'll hold the rose over my mouth to cover my missing teeth!"

There once was a boy. He grew up and went to war. He didn’t know much about the world outside where he lived, but he went to war to protect his homeland. He trained hard to be a soldier, and one day he boarded a ship, crossed the English Channel, and landed on a beach code named Utah. It was June 6, 1944, D-Day. Weighed down by equipment, the soldier struggled to shore; bullets and machine gun fire striking everywhere. Within moments, war had become a reality. Continuing to fight on through the French countryside, he triumphantly marched into Paris, then up through Belgium and the Battle of the Bulge, finally Germany and home, carrying with him two purple hearts. He had started out the war as a boy, and finished as a man and a soldier. 

This is the story of hundreds of thousands of American boys who landed on D-Day. They differ accordingly: some from the countryside, some from the packed city; first generation Americans or those whose family had been firmly planted in the soil since the landing of the Pilgrims in 1620. Some of these stories finish on the beaches of Normandy, while others have still not been completed. But today, this is the story of Lee B. Cason.

Like so many other boys who had grown up in the Depression, Mr. Cason joined the army at 18 to protect his country from the tyranny that was threatening all of western civilization. He believed it was a duty not to be questioned and was fiercely patriotic. Many times he told us his service during WWII was one of the greatest honors of his life. 

After training state-side, he was shipped overseas to England with the 4th Infantry Division. Training was brutal, but imperative to the success of the war. One evening while on ship off the coast of England, Mr. Cason was asleep in his bunk awaiting orders. He was awakened by a large thump to the side of his ship and heard a terrible grating. There was an initial alarm, but soon things became quiet again. Getting back to camp the next day, he was sworn to complete secrecy. It was only years later that he learned how close he nearly came to being one of the many casualties of the infamous Exercise Tiger on Slapton Sands. When I first asked him about this, for a brief moment, his face was crossed with the deepest sadness. He may not have known the names of all the lads that perished that day, but he had trained with them, and they were all his buddies; and their war never even started. 

Then came D-Day. As Mr. Cason climbed from his ship into the landing craft that would take him to that fated shore, a man grasped his arm and helped him over with, “Good luck, son.” The guy next to him said, “Do you know who that was?” Disinterestedly, Mr. Cason said no. “That was General Theodore Roosevelt!” 

As the beach drew closer, the small craft began to be riddled with bullets. It was a frightening moment. And then the ramp went down. 

A few months ago, I received a letter from Mr. Cason which included the cover of a book. The picture on the cover was of a landing craft on D-Day.

Marked in red ink was an X in the centre. On the back of the cover, Mr. Cason had written:

"Liberty, my position was on the front of the landing craft (where someone is standing). This was not the landing craft I was on, but this is what it looks like. There was/is a ramp chain (out of sight) that part of my right boot caught and almost cost me my life. It eventually broke with tremendous effort. We were weighed down with about 80 lbs of equipment (40 lb mortar piece, ammunition belts (2), 4 8lb mortar rounds) and weighed down, of course, with water up to my chest (also a steel helmet and combat boots that were water-logged). "

After finally disengaging himself from the dangerous chain, he slogged forward to the beach. In one of the ludicrous moments that happens during times of intense pressure, Mr. Cason yelled out, “A guy could get killed out here!” It was an absurd statement, but as he explained to us, “In training they used real bullets, but never with the intention to harm. Suddenly, people were trying to kill us, and it was the first thing that popped into my head.”

The weather was terrible,” he wrote, “as you probably know. BUT I made it though and now for combat on the beach and beyond. Whoopee? Not really! The whoopee part."

Mr. Cason’s war continued: fighting the Germans, battling the cold, liberating a Nazi concentration camp. There were moments of great sadness -- when he returned from hospital to find his best friend killed; and moments of great joy and happiness -- when Victory in Europe was declared. He was eventually sent home and took with him many medals including 2 Bronze stars, 2 Purple Hearts, and the ETO Campaign medal with 5 battle stars. He remained on active duty in the army for 22 years and was proud of his service to his country. However, with all his medals and glory, there was one deed in his life which he considered “the most compassionate thing I ever did in my life.” 

“I lost my best friend during WWII. He was killed in action on or about July 10, 1944, in Normandy, France. I was in the hospital in England at the time and didn’t know he died until I rejoined my unit... He had a daughter, Sue... She was about 3 years old when her father, Raymond, was drafted in the army and she never saw him again. For 60 long years, Sue tried to find out what happened to him or if anyone knew him. I responded to a notice in an army (military) magazine that had her name... and called her right away. When she answered the phone, I told her who I was and that I was a good friend of her dad. I identified his physical features such as height, weight, color of hair, and a slight gap between his two front teeth. She let out a yell and told her granddaughter, who was nearby, that there is someone on the phone who knew him. After 60 long years she finally found someone who knew him. Liberty, I am telling you this because from the bottom of my heart it was (still is) one of the most compassionate things I ever did in my life.”

My family and a very close friend met Mr. Cason last fall and just fell in love with this dear man. He delighted everyone with his harmonica playing (simply the best), and he told us stories of his war which were unlike any we had heard in description, detail, and even sound effect. A few weeks ago, my family and I were very heavy hearted to learn that this dear and precious man had passed into eternity. It came somewhat as a surprise to us, for no matter how frail he was, the life and vitality in him seemed unbounded. The friendship my family and my dear friend had with Mr. Cason could be considered somewhat unusual as we met him but once, and after that our only communication was through letters. But it was a beautiful friendship that sprung out of an unlikely conversation on a blustery day.

The history that Mr. Cason held from his experiences was rich. It is terribly sad to realize that now we have only memories and the letters he left behind. Sometimes people ask us why we want to do what we do. Even the dear veterans ask. The answer is really summed up in the life story of Mr. Cason, a life so full and rich, committed to county, replete with duty and sacrifice, that we feel an obligation to know and tell his story. He worried that the young people today would not know what men like him went through. It troubled him that many “high school kids have never heard of D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge.” 

And there are so many more men like Mr. Cason out there. Lives full and rich, but whose stories will never be told because they are living out their last years quietly at home or in care facilities. We want to make sure that men like him are not forgotten. Their stories are so important for us to hear and remember. Not just for the stories’ sake, but because from them we learn more than we could ever learn from any textbook. There is a quote regarding this that I have read hundreds of times:

"The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient; the work of progress is so immense and our means of aiding it so feeble; the life of humanity is so long, that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope." - General Robert E. Lee

I began by telling the story of one of thousands of American boys who landed in Normandy in June, 1944. One of thousands. It is easy to forget when reading history books that the massive numbers recorded are made up of individual human beings; each with a unique story, an entire life and soul. But it is true. And that day on Utah Beach, Mr. Cason was just one of the thousands, without a name as far as the Commander in Chief knew. But to us, he is now an individual with a story, representing all the other boys of Utah Beach and what they endured. His story and his life will never be forgotten. 

"The Bonnet of an American Jeep"

Ernie Covil 1.jpeg

My sister Faith recently received a letter from English veteran Ernie Covil whom we met while in Normandy three years ago (2011), and then again this past June (2014). Our delight at seeing Mr. Covil after three years was quite unbounded. After the trip, Faith wrote him and sent some of the pictures we had taken. The letter he wrote back was of such interest that we thought we would share some of it with you, as the timing of it is also perfect. 

As many of you may know, this past month has been the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most significant battles of WWII. There were tremendously high casualty rates on both sides, but in the end, the Battle of the Bulge was a decisive benchmark for the Allies as the push to Berlin and winning the war. Here is an excerpt of Mr. Covil’s letter telling a little of his time during the months of December '44 through the beginning of '45.

About my time in the Army, I was called upon on April 1, 1943, age 18. After six weeks infantry training I was then moved into my new regiment as a Lorry Driver into the R. A. S. C. (Royal Army Service Corps). My job was to supply ammunition, food, petrol from the beach to the front line or wherever it was wanted. When Antwerp was taken and the port made workable, the ships were able to bring supplies in, we were moving them from there. That saved the long journey back to Normandy (the roads had been shelled, bombed and it was hard going). Working out of Antwerp, this made things better and carried on back to parts of France through Belgium, Holland, and Germany.

While in Belgium, I was sent to an American transport unit in the Ardennes. It was snowing and cold. I enjoyed my Christmas Dinner on the bonnet of an American Jeep. On leaving the American Unit I went back to the British lines, moving along through to Lubeck, Hanover, Hamburg, and nearly into Berlin. A few miles this side of Berlin, the British and American lines stopped and let the Russians take Berlin. On my way through we were very lucky; we only lost three men, which was nothing to what some units lost. But three is three, to many it is someone’s life gone.

I loved all 40's songs. My most loved one at the time was Vera Lynn’s, "We’ll Meet Again." Of the best bands - must be Glenn Miller. There was no band better to dance to, not even today. When the war finished in Germany I was then sent to Egypt [and] Palestine. From there I came home and was demoted (discharged) September 1947."

The history of the Battle of the Bulge and the siege of Antwerp are both fascinating. If you are interested in reading more about it, I would recommend Mr. Federer's article as a very good summary.