Kenny's short story about the death of his wife's father in WWII...
Have you ever imagined yourself in the shoes of a youngster who lost a father in combat? How would you have reacted if you were five years old at the time your father was killed in World War Two? How would you feel after spending the next 59 years with little or no memory of your father's physical appearance, or his personality?
Imagine….For all those years, the daughter I'm writing about had only two pictures of her father. One is a very small and grainy head shot of him as a young adult and the other is of him from the waist up in an army uniform just prior to his death at age thirty. She doesn't have enough to show 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, because "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 dad, 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. 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. 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, 59 years after her father's death, my wife was able to meet and talk with her father's combat "foxhole buddy". She finally got answers to all her pent-up questions.
My wife's father, Army Private Ewal Garrett, was killed in combat in 1944, when 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 his oldest child, 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. Her younger sister and brother retained even less.
Fifty-nine years after her father's death, 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 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 the phone call with Clyde and their route was such that Clyde and his wife Mary's home would not be out of the way, 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 spend 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; 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 on prominent display in any of the family homes. Maybe I should have asked why, or pressed the discussion of him more? In later years, I, at times, did ask if Shirley knew Red's 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 told her 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. 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. After discussion, she agreed she could emotionally handle being a naval aviator's wife, and, seven years later, she would perhaps regret that decision.
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.
Everyone 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 in October 1944. It was agreed that neither Clyde nor Red's family knew 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, and, in September 1944, ships transported him across the English Channel, for an uneventful landing on Omaha Beach in France. During the next few weeks, Clyde walked, or rode trucks and trains to Paris and encountered little German resistance.
In late October 1944, Clyde arrived in Holland and was paired up with Red as foxhole buddies. For several weeks, their unit was in a training status and then moved forward to be a "reserve unit" position just behind the combat front line. Clyde and Red were in a foxhole much of that time, under fairly constant artillery shelling, and had a lot of time to get to know each other during the 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 Red was older than most of the guys in the unit. He was thirty then 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 who could no longer accept his non-participation, so he waived his next offered deferment and enlisted. Two of his brothers also served during the war.
Clyde described Shirley's father as a man. "Red 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."
As Clyde spoke, my mind wondered back to 1968, and that made me realize that my wife, Shirley and her mother had one thing in common. 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. I still recall that my first 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, because Shirley's mother had been in a similar family situation. Shirley was 29 when I went down…her mother was 27 when Red was killed. Our oldest child was age five, the next age three, and Shirley and her sister were the same age when their father was killed. If I was 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 endured through three long, agonizing days as I evaded enemy troops, waiting to see if she would suffer 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,. Finally, 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", he said.
In mid-November '44, Red and Clyde's unit joined with other ones for 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, and 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, with mines exploding around them 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, and four months later he was declared "Killed in action." Red heroically performed his "duty to country", and suffered the same deadly fate as 500,000 or so other Americans in that war.
Still, it is true that Red had his family in his thoughts and heart just prior to his death. Some time before, Red some how bought and mailed a small and inexpensive Christmas gift to each of his three children, and those gifts were received by my wife, her sister and brother in time for Christmas...after their father's death. Shirley's gift, four small candles in a paper box, are in a safe place in our home still, and she fondly cherishes the last Christmas gift she received from her father some 71 years ago.
Army Private Ewal Garrett is buried in the U.S. owned 'Netherlands American Military Cemetery' in Margraten, Netherlands. His grave rests amidst 8,300 fellow American warriors, and the walls surrounding the cemetery contain the names of another 1,722 missing soldiers.
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...that the 8,300 white marble crosses on each gravesite sit in perfect rolls from all angles...and that each gravesite has been adopted by a Dutch family who places flowers on it annually. It's an unbelievably striking sight and appropriate homage for our fallen heroes. Although the setting was beautiful, it was a painful to witness the sisters, for their first time, place flowers on their father's grave, reminisce about him and shed tears. Before leaving the graveside, the cemetery Superintendent gave each sister a handful of dirt from their father's grave.
Reluctant to leave, we were still in the cemetery when an emotionally stirring "Taps" was played at sunset, and even I shed a tear then for the loss of Shirley's father and the many others. As I hugged Shirley tightly, she spoke between sobbing. "How could anyone ever start another war if they viewed such a hallowed, sad sight?" Closure was finally, painfully achieved by two sisters.
While writing this story, I was filled with sorrow...for 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, and that they eventually obtained closure. My prayer is 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, for "God, country, family".
Because of Clyde Gorum, Red's old 'foxhole buddy', my wife has a better knowledge of her father's traits, and now she can pass that on to younger family members.
Henceforth, pledge with me... Each Memorial Day, I will honor our fallen warriors…applaud their sacrifice for country…and say "Thank you" to their family.