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Soldiers’ stories show their humanity

My dad could kick your dad’s butt. Well, make that, my dad’s story could kick your dad’s story’s butt.

My dad wasn’t a big guy, so kicking someone’s butt may have been a challenge.

But he was a big guy in my eyes and still is today. His story, always there in the background, pushed forward last week when I read the stories of three local men who survived the horrors of World War II. They, like my dad, not only served in combat, but wound up as prisoners of war.

Since we now think a 10-minute wait for a latte is a great inconvenience, it’s hard for us to imagine what these men, and millions of others, went through in that war. Or, for that matter, what the millions upon millions of soldiers have gone through in the all-too-many wars humanity has inflicted upon itself.

We now at least recognize that, while war is a terrible thing, the soldiers who serve are not. That recognition will be reinforced at 1 p.m. today at the Eagle Point National Cemetery in an observance for veterans that will include a pinning ceremony for Vietnam-era veterans, a group that was particularly maligned. Then, at 2 p.m. Friday, Jackson County will recognize veterans with the dedication of three new flag poles in the plaza between the Jackson County Circuit Court building and the jail. One of those poles will hold a POW/MIA flag.

While we honor the men, the notion that war is a glorious adventure has long since faded. Few of the soldiers who found themselves in combat ever held that notion.

My dad, now long gone, had some great stories to tell, not many of them involving the war. He grew up in logging camps in northern Idaho, joined a passing circus after losing his summer’s earnings in a railroad station slot machine and being afraid to face his mother, picked cotton in the Great Depression, worked in Hollywood as a radio and TV director and finished his working career as a weekly newspaper editor-publisher, back in Idaho.

He was less forthcoming about the war, at least about the fighting, but he did have a few stories. In one, he and his squad, who came ashore at Normandy, bedded down for the night in a bombed-out building and, finding a safe, did what any young men with a bunch of explosives would do — they blew the door off. Inside was a mountain of money, which they promptly stuffed in a duffel bag. A few days later, a French family gave them a roof over their heads and the next morning — probably in a mix of gratitude and fear at being court-martialed as bank robbers — they gave the money to the family. He said the look in the family’s eyes was memorable. I can imagine.

The other memories were not so good. His squad was ambushed in a minefield at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge and he was the lone survivor — only because he was blown into a ditch. He came to in the sidecar of a motorcycle driven by an SS officer and was taken to a POW camp. The only story he ever told about that was his memory of a German guard who slipped them turnips through the fence so they would have something to eat.

Perhaps that kindness was karma, a repayment for the time he and a fellow G.I. took aim at a German soldier somewhere in the frozen woods of France, only to lower their rifles when the German leaned his weapon up against a tree and began to relieve himself. “We looked at each other and shrugged,” my dad recalled. “He was some poor guy freezing out in the woods, like us. We just couldn’t do it.”

He always imagined there was a “burgermeister” somewhere in Germany who never knew that his full bladder saved his life.

Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and for all sorts of reasons.

Bob Hunter is associate editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach him at bhunter@mailtribune.com.