Friday, November 10, 2006

The Vet

He wasn't much different than any other young man. Drafted at the tender age of nineteen, he was taught how to fix and maintain airplanes. Then he and nine companions were shipped to England and were formed into a crew of a B-17 bomber. The missions they were given were incredibly risky, but thirty times they set out and thirty times they returned. Then came mission number 31.

Dale remembers most of what happened on that August afternoon, and considering it happened 62 years ago, that's quite a memory. But it's not a happy memory. These men he called his brothers were with him over Nazi Germany as they made one more bombing run. Catching enemy anti-aircraft fire was nothing new for them. Dale told me that the plane once returned with 256 holes in it, but not one scratch was found on any of the crew. On mission number 31, they weren't so lucky.

Something struck the plane's gas tank at 30,000 feet. Although there was extra protection around the tank, somehow a shell made it through. A wing was blown off the plane, and the crew began to bail out. Two men didn't make it out in time.

Dale and the navigator ended up coming down near one another, and as Dale looked down he could see that his close friend was being attacked by German civilians. When he landed, he tried to run, but Dale was beaten also. The navigator was killed before Nazi soldiers broke up the melee. Dale lay unconscious with a broken skull.

Dale spent almost a year in Nazi POW camps. He saw horrible things, but worse yet, Dale also lived through some horrible things. Sixty men were loaded on a small boxcar to be shipped from one POW camp to another, but Allied shelling forced the train to stop. The Nazis ran for cover, but the POWs were left, locked in the boxcar, hoping that a bomb wouldn't fall on them. They survived the shelling, but remained locked in the dark car for fourteen days with one one bucket of dehydrated cabbage soup to eat, and another bucket to use as a toilet. Two of the sixty didn't make it out of the boxcar alive.

On another transfer from camp to camp, the Nazis forced the prisoners to march for twelve days through woods, again with almost nothing to eat. Guard dogs nipped at the heels of those who couldn't go fast enough. Dale slipped away on one occasion, only to be tracked down by German police dogs the next morning, while hiding in a haystack. One other time, Dale took two others along also, but the dogs tracked them down again.

Since the Germans had little food for themselves near the end of the war, that meant there was next to nothing to give the prisoners to eat. More dehydrated cabbage soup. Dale was down to 100 pounds by the time General Patton came riding into camp, liberating the prisoners. Just down the road was Dachau, the concentration camp, where Dale saw just how brutal the Nazi regime really was.

Dale kept track of the six other crew members who made it through the war. One man died only a year after the German surrender, likely from complications of disease contracted in a POW camp. The rest died one at a time, the final two within the past year. That leaves Dale as the last member of the crew.

For more than sixty years, Dale was been affected by post-traumatic stress syndrome. Only lately has he had the opportunity for counseling which has helped him greatly. "Now the tears roll, but I don't mind talking about it," he said.

At age 83, Dale is one of a number of young men and women who suffered greatly in service to their country. When I talked to Dale today, tears were plentiful. I didn't want him to cry, but that was the only way he could talk. It was as if pure emotion kept leaping from his body, even when the words were quiet and few.

I have to admit that I admire Dale for the courage he showed back in 1944 and the courage he shows in 2006. He knows his time remaining is short, but he's coming to terms with it all.

Although he was drafted, Dale was proud to serve his country. For all his efforts, he has twelve medals, including a couple of purple hearts. He doesn't wear them, or even get them out to look at them. He told me, "If I'd put 'em all on, I'd look like Eisenhower!"

I don't have the courage to stand up for my country like Dale did. Luckily at my age I really don't have to. Mostly it's because I wonder if democracy is worth dying for, especially when I have spent the last month or two watching how incredibly ugly the American political system can get.

I have no real desire to give my life for Lord either, but if asked to do so, I surely would. I'm not going to go out and volunteer for the Martyr Squad, but being a pastor, if God becomes forbidden, I know I'll have a bullseye on my forehead. That's OK.

To all those who have served your country, I offer congratulations. For all those who have served my country, I offer my thanks.

Happy Veterans Day.


Kathi said...

What a great story. I tried for years to get information out of my grandfather about his experience in the 101st Airborne. It was just too painful for him to talk about and the memories were still vivid in his mind. I hold the men and women who have served our country in high esteem - they deserve to be honored.

Claire Joy said...

My grandfather wouldn't talk either. Funny you should mention dying for the Lord if Christianity is ever declared a forbidden religion... I think about that all the time.

Kim said...

Thanks for this, Ed.

Pat Kirk said...

There are so many of the new young men that will be changed forever through this current war - and the lives of their parents if they don't return. I'm glad your elderly friend will finally find peace about this.