War & Remembrance
Alex Motes won't be attending local ceremonies honoring veterans on Memorial Day.
"I'm too old for that now," says the retired minister. "I won't be around much longer on this old ball of mud."
But Motes, 95, of Medford, will be at the events in spirit. The World War II veteran who survived the Battle of Normandy and was wounded in Belgium hasn't forgotten those distant days of combat.
"This time of year I always think about the war," says Motes, who earned a Purple Heart medal for being wounded and a Bronze Star for valor during his three months in combat nearly 70 years ago.
"We were replacements told to hold the line," he says. "They don't tell you much when you are fighting a war. They just say, 'Do it.' And you do it."
Pfc. Motes was a .30-caliber machine gunner and assistant driver in a Sherman tank assigned to the Army's 746th Tank Battalion, Company A. His was one of five tanks charged with providing mobile firepower for an infantry unit fighting its way through Normandy following the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944.
In his comfortable Medford home are memories of the war: his medals, photographs of him on a Sherman tank, a newspaper clipping announcing his being wounded, "invasion money" the American soldiers used during the campaign, his World War II garrison cap, even an old silver pocket watch.
"I took that watch from a German POW," says Motes, who stands 5 feet, 6 inches tall.
"The war had a huge impact on his life," says his daughter, Sally Motes Rowse, 69, of Lynden, Wash. "He doesn't talk about it very often, but it was a horror show. After he was wounded, he had a nervous breakdown and was in the hospital for six months for what they now call PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)."
"It was really, really hard for him to talk about it when we were kids," adds her brother, Cliff Motes, 66, of Central Point. "Unless he was picking shrapnel out with a little knife he had, he wouldn't talk about it. He talks about it more now."
Although his discharge papers indicate he received a Bronze Star citation for bravery, the medal itself was never awarded to him, his son notes.
"I got one for him five years ago — he cried when I gave it to him," Cliff Motes says, adding, "We are really proud of him. He is a treasure."
Born Jan. 16, 1917, in Florida, Alex Motes would have been considered an "old man" at 27 in 1944, given the fact many soldiers were in their late teens. Indeed, it was his second tour in a military uniform.
"Good night! I joined the Army the first time when I was 15," he says.
How did he manage that?
"Lied," he replies.
During the Great Depression, he was homeless as a hungry youngster in Palatka, Fla. His mother died when he was 10.
"I got tired of relatives saying, 'This is my home — not yours,'" Motes says. "So I struck out on my own."
That first night alone was spent under a big oak tree, he recalls.
"There was Spanish moss hanging from that oak all the way to the ground," he says. "I slept fine. And I've been on my own ever since."
During his first hitch in the Army beginning in 1932, he was assigned to a light tank division, spending his three-year hitch stateside.
"These were World War I tanks," he says. "This was when they still had horse-drawn artillery."
He emerged as a private and went on with his life. On May 20, 1941, he married the love of his life, Amy Houser, in Las Vegas. They would be married for 68 years until she died in 2010 at age 92 in Medford.
Although he was married and had a 3-month-old daughter, Sally, in Pasadena, Calif., Motes was drafted into the Army in 1943.
A few short months from working as a cashier in a store, he was working a machine gun inside a Sherman tank. His unit arrived at the Normandy beach a week after the initial D-Day invasion.
"We waded ashore and waited there until they called on us to move forward," he says.
He didn't have to wait long. His tank led the way when his unit plowed through hedge rows barring their path.
"You either had to go through the hedge rows or on the roads which were mined," he says. "They had sense enough not to go through the mines."
Fortunately, the tank's driver was a young logger from Montana who had worked as a cat skinner. A dozer blade was attached to the front of the tank and the former cat skinner went to work, clearing the hedge rows.
"We were the lead tank," Motes says. "We'd break through, then the other tanks would follow us."
Night was spent wherever they felt safest. Comfort came second, he said.
"We slept in foxholes," he said. "You can't imagine what the place looked like when we got there. It was a mess."
There was mangled wreckage of gliders used in bringing in the infantry.
"The Germans had put fence posts into the fields. The gliders wrecked when they landed," he says.
The ground was littered with parachutes left from American airborne troops who had jumped in early in the battle. Motes and the tank crew lined their foxholes with the parachutes.
But it wasn't merely enemy artillery they had to dodge.
"One morning we got up — about 6 o'clock — and our dive bombers were going in on the German lines," he says. "Then came the big bombers with 20 or so in a flight. There must have been a thousand. They flew from about 11 o'clock to about 1 o'clock."
The German lines were carpet bombed. Motes and his buddies hunkered down in foxholes during the bombing, which fell all around them.
Most of them were lucky. Others were not in what was known as Operation Cobra during the Battle of Normandy.
Not far from Motes' location, Lt. Gen. Lesley McNair was also seeking protection in a foxhole near the village of Saint-Lô. A bomb dropped on July 25, 1944, by the U.S. Army Air Corps' Eighth Air Force struck his foxhole. McNair was one of four American lieutenant generals killed in the war. He was promoted posthumously to general.
For the battle-weary troops, relief was where they could snatch it. After their infantry unit fought its way into the town of Cherbourg, a celebration was in order.
"They took all the booze out of the hotel, got drunk and one shot the other in the foot," he recalls of his fellow young soldiers letting off a little steam.
Any relief, however small, from the constant pressure cooker of war was cherished, he says.
"The guys back at headquarters, they were taking all the goodies out of our rations — cigarettes and other items," he says. "One day we told 'em, 'You quit that or we are going to turn our machine guns around.'"
The goodies arrived intact after that, he adds with a chuckle.
Like most combat veterans, he lost friends in the war.
"Of course, you didn't see it from inside the tank," he says of other tanks that were blown up. "Our job was to support the infantry. Whenever they got into a bind and needed some heavy fire, they called us."
From Normandy, they moved farther into France.
"We were always in a foxhole, or under a tank or in it while we were fighting," he says. "After we broke out of the valley there, we were in France. We were going to take Paris but the Germans retreated out of Paris so we didn't have to fight for Paris."
When they arrived in Belgium, the Germans fought back with a vengeance.
"We were up there holding the line," Motes says. "We were like the floodgate to keep them from flooding over."
The Germans threw everything they had to stop the advancing Americans. The latter fought to hold their ground.
The old soldier doesn't remember the exact day he was wounded, although his wife indicated in the 1944 news clipping that it was on Sept. 5 of that year.
"I remember we came to an opening," he says. "There was a ditch over there. Do you know what a bazooka was? Well, I kept firing to keep a German with a bazooka from getting up out of that ditch and getting us."
A bazooka was the anti-tank weapon of its time.
Instead of letting his weapon cool off as he would ordinarily do, Motes continued firing without let-up to provide suppression fire for their tank and U.S. infantrymen counting on him.
"The machine gun got hot and blew up," he says. "That was our first day in Belgium. I don't know the name of the town now. I know it was just across the French line into Belgium."
He does know most of the shrapnel struck his left hand, shredding it.
"I do remember it was raining, and they put me in an ambulance," he says. "The army was moving forward, hospitals, everything.
"Well, when we finally got to a hospital, there were all these German prisoners around outside," he adds. "But they were taking care of Americans first."
After being patched up in the field hospital, he was sent back to England to a hospital near Oxford. From there he boarded a troop ship bound for Boston, then took a train to Memphis, where he spent the next six months in a hospital.
"They used to call it battle fatigue. I had that," he says. "I never knew I had it but that's what they tell me."
He was referring to what is now known as PTSD. His discharge papers show that he was honorably discharged as private first class on March 14, 1945, in Kennedy General Hospital in Memphis.
Motes and his wife first moved to the Rogue Valley in 1947, but moved away again when he became a minister for various churches of the Christian and Missionary Alliance throughout the Pacific Northwest. They returned for good about 40 years ago.
As for his Bronze Star citation for putting himself in jeopardy to protect others, he says he was just doing his job.
"That was many years ago — it's all healed now," he says as he looks down at his left hand.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.