Today is Veterans’ Day. Not to be confused with Memorial Day. Memorial Day honors those who died fighting for our country while Veterans’ Day honors all those who fought and survived those wars, returning to fight the unending rigors of everyday life. Certainly, all of these brave, fresh-faced young men who for generations have gone off to fight for wars, just and unjust, are all heroes who should be honored and celebrated.
I’m sure that most everybody has a Veteran in their family or knows one personally. My Dad was a Naval Officer, as was Mr. D’s, Dad. And then, there were my two uncles, my Mother’s brothers. In December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States jumped with both feet into WWII, Harris was 17 and younger brother, “Bud”, was 15. Their baby sister — my Mother — was 10.
The brothers were close in age but miles apart in personality. Of course, in a small Cajun town, everyone knew them (as everyone knows everybody and their business, as well). Harris, being the oldest, was the one with all the expectations. A congenial fella who enjoyed a good laugh and a good time. He fancied himself smarter than most but in truth was “canaille”, which in Cajun French means sly, sneaky. His younger brother, Bud, was actually named Adam but everybody knew him as Bud, short for Buddy — a name bestowed upon the youngster by his Father.
Now, Bud was whole ‘nutha story. A classic “middle child”, he was stubborn, headstrong, and independent with a penchant for trouble. So, after a year of rubber and aluminum drives, rationing and hearing daily reports of the needs of the nation coming from the radio, Bud and two of his friends decided that it was time to do their part and sign up to fight the original Evil Axis. Small problem. They were all just sixteen and too young to join without parental consent. Not to be deterred, young Bud marched right up to his parents and made his bold request. My grandmother vehemently denied such a ludicrous request. However, my grandfather, in the ways of fathers of that generation, agreed. His thoughts were that if Bud felt he was man enough to go and try his luck out in the world, albeit the dangerous world of war, then he wasn’t going to stand in his way. He signed the papers and in early 1943, the freshly turned 16-year-old Bud, set off for basic training in the Navy.
As for Harris — he was not near as noble. Having just graduated from high school, he entered the local University to pursue a degree in Education and anxiously hoped his number would not be called. However, shortly after Bud joined up, Harris was drafted. Being 5’ 8″ and weighing in at 120 lbs., he was found to be a perfect fit for the Infantry. Unlike his little brother who volunteered and had a choice of service, Harris was at the mercy of the draft board and where troops were needed. He was sent to basic training in Texas in the sweltering July heat of 1943. He was 19 years old.
Curiously, both brothers were fluent in French, having spoken it since infancy. No government authority ever asked the question of their language skills, therefore instead of being sent to Europe where their unique skills could have been utilized, both were sent to the South Pacific. Mercifully, the young Bud was attached to support unit and became a Baker, 1st Class. Evidently, the recruiter (with perhaps a word from my grandfather) ensured that the young 16 year old would be somewhat protected away from any kind of combat. He always boasted that he made the best biscuits around.
Harris, on the other hand, would not be so lucky.
After completing Infantry training, Harris was attached to the 37th Division of the 129th Infantry, known as the “Fighting Buckeyes”. Yes, it was an Ohio Company of the National Guard that he joined as a replacement for troops lost. Now, in 1943 Louisiana was like a foreign country to Ohio residents, so I can’t imagine the difficulty my young uncle encountered when he left his small, ethnic village for the first time to go thousands of miles from home with the daily threat of never returning looming. But he did it. Just like his naive younger brother and just like millions of others across this country.
His first stop was New Caledonia for deployment to The Solomon Islands. A French Colony, he actually got to use some of that french with the Polynesian natives and Island inhabitants. Then, on to first-hand combat at Bouganville and with MacArthur, “back to Bataan”. My Uncle Harris was part of the first wave to walk onto the Philippines at the Linguyen Gulf when MacArthur returned. In the ensuing months, MacArthur’s Infantry marched the island of Luzon re-capturing towns and liberating POW camps, all the way to Manila. At one point, he was a scant 30 miles from his brother, Bud, somewhere in the South Pacific, but they didn’t see each other until the war’s end in 1945, over three years since they had both been in the comfort of their modest small town home.
And, come home they did. Bud first. A little worse for the ware, he returned home to rural Louisiana, a 19 year old man of the world. An accomplished first baseman, he was shortly drafted by the NY Yankees AAA farm club, but declined feeling that he had been far away long enough and truth be known, missed the familiarity and comfort of the easy-going, Cajun lifestyle. He ended up going to work for Bell Telephone, where he worked for over 45 years and became the resident expert in PBX installation. He eventually married and had two sons. His wife died suddenly a few years after he retired and within three years, he died of lung cancer at the age of 68.
At the end of 1945, Harris also returned to his hometown, although not as smoothly as his brother. Having contracted malaria from the jungles of the South Pacific, he was barely 100 lbs. and suffered terribly with fevers for quite a while. Within the year, he married his sweetheart and continued his studies at the University to become a teacher. By 1947, he was teaching back in his hometown at the very elementary and high school that he, and everyone he knew, attended. Although he loved children and has a special way with them, he never had children — the malaria is a suspect. However, he spent over 35 years in the public school system as a teacher and principal…all in that same little town where he born and raised.
To this day, he is stopped in the grocery store by former students and complimented about how good a teacher and administrator he was and how much they appreciated his commitment to their education. Having taught multiple generations of students, he’s positively affected thousands of lives.
For many years, I never even knew that my uncles were in “the war”, until one spirited Christmas when they had a singing debate pitting Anchors Away against The Caissons Go Rolling Along. As my avid interest in World War II and my curiosity regarding my own relatives’ service increased, my Mother cautioned me that my uncles never talked about their service and it was better not to pry. Eventually, my Uncle Harris retired from his second career at a hardware store and shortly thereafter, found out that the wife of his youth had dementia. For more than 20 years he cared for her, first at home and then daily in an assisted living facility. Though painfully slow, she passed away nearly five years ago.
The real point of this story is that the “hero” part of Uncle Harris and Uncle Bud, like most veterans, isn’t limited to the two to three year stint fighting foreign wars but more in the fact that they returned, got an education and became an integral part of society and helping to move America along. My uncle is more of a hero for his 35 years of service in education than those three years in the Army. The dedication and commitment shown to his diminished spouse was paramount to that demonstrated in The Philippines. The comradarie and good humor he’s had within our family has been more significant than all of those old Army buddy relationships.
He was an inspiration to me long before he sat down with me a couple of years ago and told me all about his service in World War II, but that service was a defining part of his life and deserves recognition. This past fall, the people of Lafayette, LA put together a program called “HonorAir”. Through donations, they flew five separate planeloads of WWII veterans up to Washington, D.C. to visit the new WWII Memorial and other landmarks. Uncle Harris was on the last flight, a few weeks ago. He thoroughly enjoyed the trip and even had his picture taken with Bob Dole. He was awestruck by people’s kindness and attention…and their appreciation. When they returned to the Lafayette airport, the veterans — retired teachers, doctors, lawyers, farmers — descended the escalators one at a time, to the symphony playing patriotic music in their honor.
A Hero’s Welcome.
Hero, Mariah Carey