Kenny's short story about the death of his wife's father in WWII....
Have you ever imagined yourself walking in the shoes of a youngster who lost a father in combat? How would you react if you were a five year old girl at the time your father was killed in World War Two and during the next 59 years you have little or no memory of his physical appearance, or his personality?
Imagine….For all those years, the daughter only has two pictures of her father. One is a small and grainy head shot and the second is of him in an army uniform just prior to his death at age thirty. She has little to provide her memory about his physical appearance and she has even less memory about his personality. She was too young at the time of his death to have stored many memories of him so she had to go through life telling others that she didn’t really know her dad. “My father was killed during the war.”
For 59 years….Father’s Day came around every year and she helped her husband pick out cards and gifts for his father but her father was never honored or mentioned by others. Memorial Day celebrations came and passed and she couldn’t even place a wreath on her father’s grave because of one simple reason. “I can’t... My father is buried in Europe."
The young girl I’m writing about is my wife, Shirley Garrett Fields from Russell County, Virginia, and no one, including me, knows what emotions she had on those holidays because she never initiated a discussion about her father and I, and others, seldom asked. I don’t believe I, or anyone else, ever tried to comfort the pain of her loss because it occurred so long ago---seemingly to us. So…This story is my belated attempt to make up for my personal lack of compassion in regard to my wife’s unfortunate loss, and to recant how suddenly…out of the blue…59 years after his death…my wife was able to meet and talk with her father’s combat “foxhole buddy” and finally get answers to all her pent-up questions.
My wife’s father, Army Private Ewal Garrett, was killed in combat in 1944 while his unit was struggling to advance in Germany and the family received no details about the circumstances surrounding his death. “Red”, as he was called, left behind a 27 year old wife, Jean Francisco Garrett, and her oldest child, my wife Shirley, was five years old, her sister was age three and her brother was age one. Over the years, Shirley retained a faint memory of her father’s physical traits but hardly any of his personality traits and her sister and brother retained even less.
Fifty-nine years after her father’s death though, Shirley’s sister, Joyce, and her husband, Gene, attended a reunion of vets from her father’s 29th Infantry Division. At that reunion, they made inquiries as to surviving members of the 29th Division, 116th Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company I, 2nd Platoon, and 1st Squad. To their surprise, a list of survivors and known addresses was quickly provided.
Shortly afterward, Joyce and Gene sent a letter from Tennessee to each of the vets and enclosed a picture of her father in his army uniform. The letter asked that the vets contact Joyce if they had any information about her father’s experience during the war.
Within a few days, former Private Clyde Gorum received the letter in Louisiana and emotion swelled inside him when he recognized the name and face of Ewal Garrett. To his wife he exclaimed,“I was Red’s foxhole buddy during the 30-40 days preceding his death.”
Clyde was ecstatic. He had made a promise to himself that he would contact Red’s family after the war but the years had just slipped by and, as he aged, he thought that he had missed the chance to do so. He immediately phoned Joyce and was barely able to contain himself as he excitedly related all the information he retained about his time with Red. Joyce quickly phoned her sister, Shirley, and both were ecstatic that they now had contact with an individual who probably knew their father better than them and they reveled with the information Clyde had provided over the phone.
Joyce and Gene had a western trip planned prior to her initial talk with Clyde and their route was such that Clyde and his wife Mary’s home was nearby so they visited with them not too long after Clyde first phoned Joyce. Details of Clyde’s second batch of stories were quickly relayed by Joyce to Shirley and I could tell that my wife regretted she had not been with Joyce to hear him recount her father’s death. We talked about making a future trip to visit Clyde and vowed that we would do it on our next western trip.
Before that came to fruition, we learned that Clyde and Mary would be making an eastern trip and would be staying several nights with Joyce. She and Shirley then coordinated a lunch meeting and we met all of them at a restaurant on the “Blue Ridge Parkway” in October 2003---nearly 59 years after Red was killed. We spent about four hours together that day.
Shirley and I had been married for 42 years prior to meeting Clyde and I must admit that during all of those years the subject of her father’s death had seldom entered our conversation. In fact, in reply to my infrequent questions, I had only learned that her father had been killed during World War Two and was buried in the Netherlands. I seldom pressed her for details about him and, when I did, Shirley couldn’t paint much of a verbal picture.
Her mother didn’t tend to discuss him either and, during most of those years, I don’t recall a picture of him prominently displayed in any of the family’s homes. Maybe I should have asked why, or pressed the discussion of him more? But, in later years, I, at times, did ask if she knew the specific combat actions, awards, etc. but she couldn’t tell me much. In fact, she seldom mentioned the word father, and over the years I felt it was as if she had blanked out the event. I always thought that she must know more but just didn’t want to talk about his death. It was even stranger once I became active duty military and you would think that we would have talked freely about the subject then. Maybe it was because I didn’t show enough concern, or maybe it was just that she didn’t want to discuss bad memories?
My first inkling that Shirley had mental scars about her father occurred shortly after our marriage engagement during my senior year of college. I decided that I would become a Marine officer after graduation and I was scheduled to take the qualification test the next day for Platoon Leader Corp School. When I informed her about my plans, Shirley started to weep and said she didn’t want me to be a Marine. Upon questioning why, she told me for the first time that her father had been killed during the war and she was afraid the same fate would happen to me... if I too carried a rifle in combat. But, after discussion, she agreed she could emotionally handle being a naval aviator’s wife. Seven years later, she perhaps regreted that decision as I'll explain shortly.
The luncheon with Clyde, the “foxhole buddy”, was traumatic for Shirley. As I sat quietly next to her, I could tell that she was having trouble containing her emotions as she asked and received Clyde’s replies to her questions. At times, I observed solitary tears flowing softly down her smooth cheeks. But, Shirley is a strong person and she diligently pressed Clyde for specific details of his and her father’s training, combat experience…and moment of death.
The discussion gave the two sisters their first glimpse of Ewal, the man, as described by Clyde, his foxhole buddy, and the sisters gained an irreplaceable personal description of their father from a close friend’s viewpoint.
Anyone who has been in combat knows that many of the memories are ingrained in your brain, never to be replaced with more trivial matters. Clyde’s memory of that time was excellent.
First, we learned that Clyde didn’t actually know Red until they teamed up as “foxhole buddies” in Holland (the Netherlands) in October 1944, and it was agreed that neither Clyde nor Red’s family knows the route or manner that Red took from basic training at Fort McClelland in Alabama to Holland. But, we now assume it was probably the same path that Clyde took.
After basic training, Clyde was transported by ship to England. There, ships transported him across the English Channel for an uneventful landing on Omaha Beach in France during September 1944 and during the next few weeks he walked, or rode trucks and trains to Paris while encountering little German resistance.
In late October 1944, Clyde arrived in Holland and was soon paired up with Red as foxhole buddies and for several weeks their unit was in a training status before being moved forward to a “reserve unit” position just behind the combat front line. There, Clyde and Red were in a foxhole much of the time---under fairly constant artillery shelling---so Clyde says that they had a lot of time to get to know each other during the final 30-40 day period before Red’s death. The foxhole was their home and they shared meals, clothing and stories of each other’s life.
Clyde learned that said Red was older than most of the guys in the unit, which was true. Red was thirty at the time of his service and had missed the earlier part of the war because of a deferment due to his wife and three small children. His father was a tenant farmer and Red was one of 13 children, with eight brothers and four sisters. Red had also been a farmer, a “saw mill “employee, and at times had worked on road construction. He was a plain country man from south-western Virginia. However, he finally could no longer accept his non-participation and he waived his next offered deferment and enlisted. He and two of his brothers served during the war.
Then, Clyde described Shirley’s father as a man. “When I met Red, he was five feet, ten inches tall, sandy or red headed, blue eyes, and a man of few words. He was reserved, thoughtful, serious, soft-spoken, and possessed a quick smile and he didn’t smoke which was very unusual in that time period. Red talked about his wife and children quite often and always said he would do anything the Army asked of him as long as he could get home to his family.”
Suddenly, I saw a direct parallel between Shirley and her mother and my mind wondered back to 1968. While a Navy A-7 pilot, I was shot down in Laos during the Viet Nam War and I had to eject from my jet at a very low altitude and I still recall that my first, immediate thought after my parachute blossomed concerned my wife. “I’m going to be killed or at least captured and Shirley will have to take care of our three kids all by herself.” In a dire situation, my first momentary thought was about family and it was a terribly sad feeling. It appears Red and I had similar thoughts about family during combat.
It also was ironic that I was shot down when I had two children, and Shirley was pregnant with a third since Shirley’s mother had been in a similar family situation. Shirley was 29 when I went down…her mother was 27 in 1944. Our oldest child was age five, the next age three, and Shirley and Joyce were the same age when their father was killed. If I were not rescued, my five year old son would be facing the same situation his mother had encountered when she was five years old. And, Shirley would be left to raise three children without a father…just like her mother.
Shirley was quickly informed of my status and suffered through an agonizing three days herself as I evaded enemy troops---waiting to see if she incurred the same fate as her mother 24 years earlier. God was more gracious the second time around because I was rescued.
After my short reflective period, I again listened as Clyde told stories that were both sad and funny. He recanted stories of house to house fighting…artillery barrages filling their foxholes with dirt and having to re-dig them…digging the foxholes so deep they could not see out and then having to re-fill them…the lack of hot meals…using newspapers as blankets for warmth…sleeping on top of each other for warmth…confiscating hay stacks under enemy fire to use for warmth in the foxhole, etc,. At one point, we chuckled as Clyde summarized his and Red’s first month together. “Sitting in a foxhole was a lot of trouble for twenty-one dollars a month pay after expenses”.
In mid-November, their unit and others began an attempted assault into Germany and subsequent push to Berlin. The combat action intensified. It occurred more often. It became fierce. Finally, their company was nearly in position to advance over the Rohr River between Koslar and Julich, Germany but enemy troops were entrenched in defense.
Clyde and Red’s unit fought fiercely to capture the final remaining ground between them and the river but at one point they had to cross a heavily mined section with German machine guns on the far side. Red’s company attempted several advances through the mine field during day light but had to withdraw due to the intense enemy gun fire and mine explosions. Afterward, new orders were received. "Make another attempt but this time do it at night…."
During the night of December 3rd, 1944, Clyde and Red advanced forward to the middle of the mine field while mines exploded around them and while in the midst of constant enemy machine gun fire. Suddenly, to his left, Clyde saw an explosion in Red’s direction and watched as Red either jumped or was blown into a trench. Clyde shouted, “Ewal”. No response….With no time to hesitate further, Clyde heroically pressed the attack through the mine field with the rest of his unit.
Red’s body was found at daybreak. The family initially received notification in early December that their husband and father was missing in action but four months later he was declared “killed in action.” He had heroically performed his “duty to country”, and suffered the same deadly fate as over 500,000 other Americans in that war.
But, it is true that Red had his family in his thoughts and heart just prior to the battle. Prior to his death, at some time…some way…Red bought and mailed a small and inexpensive Christmas gift to each of his three children. Those gifts were received by my wife, her sister and brother in time for Christmas, but after their father’s death. Shirley’s gift of four small candles is still in its original box in a safe place and she fondly cherishes the last Christmas gift she received from her father some 64 years ago.
Army Private Ewal Garrett is buried in the U.S. owned “Netherlands American Military Cemetery” in Margraten, Netherlands and his grave rests amidst 8,300 fellow warriors. And the walls surrounding the cemetery contain the names of another 1,722 missing soldiers.
Time flies by, but on May 20, 2004 the two sisters were finally able to pay a visit to their father’s grave site in the Netherlands. They learned that the Margraten cemetery is impeccably maintained and the 8,300 white marble headstones that stand in perfect rolls from all angles are an unbelievably striking sight and appropriate homage for our fallen heroes. Although the setting was beautiful, it was a painful act for me to witness as the sisters, for the first time, placed flowers on their father’s grave…reminisced …and shed tears. Before leaving the graveside, the cemetery Superintendent gave each a handful of dirt from their father’s grave.
Reluctant to leave, we were still there when an emotionally stirring “Taps” was played near sunset and even I shed a tear at that moment for the loss of Shirley’s father, plus the many others. At that moment, as we held each other tightly, Shirley’s final comment was made in the midst of sobbing tears.
“How could anyone ever start another war if they viewed such a hallowed, sad sight?”
With that, I believe closure was finally, painfully achieved by two sisters.
Writing this story filled me with remorse. I think of the many American children who lost a father during our wars and grew up not knowing him. I, along with others, failed to honor their fathers often enough in our conversations and celebrations. I deeply regret my callousness…my lack of sensitivity…my lack of appreciation for those who gave their all in prior wars. I pray that those children understand how and why their father died, that they obtained closure, and that they recognize that their father was a valiant man, and realize that he truly wanted to be with them, but answered a greater call---“God, country, family.”
Because of Clyde Gorum, the “foxhole buddy” of her father, my wife now has a better knowledge of her father’s traits which she can carry for the rest of her life and pass on to younger family members. And on each Memorial Day, I pledge to help honor our “fallen warriors”…applaud their sacrifice “for country”…and say “Thank you” to their family.
l-r, Joyce Cox, Kenny's youngest son,Todd Fields, and Kenny's wife,Shirley Fields... They are standing in the Margraten Cemetery in the Netherlands behind their father's tombstone.