It was a chance encounter. I was grabbing a burger at Hardees, and the older gentleman (named James) at the table beside me, (like myself dining alone), began our conversation by asking the location of the nearest stores. He explained that he had come to town to visit the local Veterans' Hospital for some treatments, realized that the town had changed and needed to kill time before his appointment.
Intrigued (and knowing about this availability here) I pursued the veterans' topic with him and found out a lot of interesting but little known facts about WWII. He had a buddy who survived the Bataan Death March and ended up becoming a slave-type worker in the Japanese auto industry manufacturing subcompact cars later sold in the US, another one who survived D-Day by lying under another soldier who had sacrificed his life, a younger brother who died in Vietnam, among others. I mentioned my late father, who was in the medical corps in both WWII and Korea, and was in Japan during the post-war time under General MacArthur aiding in the rebuilding of Japan and by the grace of God came home uninjured and not emotionally scarred by the experience.
James' best tale came last-about how he learned the proper set of values that would serve him later in life as a man, father, husband and American. It is this story that I share here.
James' father was a policeman locally in Newnan, Georgia, but had served in WWI and been wounded. HIS father had been in several earlier wars, including the Spanish American War with Theodore Roosevelt. Coming from a military family, James experienced the strict discipline of his father growing up and two months before his 17th birthday decided to enlist in the Army-mainly "to shut Dad up". His original intent was to desert once the opportunity arose and live his own life elsewhere, thus getting away from his father's stern ways. James emphasized that while his father was strict, he was NOT abusive, just organized and structured. His mother presented a united front with his father, and James felt in order to "get his freedom" he had to leave home and devised the enlistment as a way to do that.
It backfired. Yes, James DID manage to go AWOL, but mistakenly called upon relatives in Chickasaw, Alabama to give him a room and place to live. He figured that Chickasaw, Alabama was far enough away from Newnan, Georgia so that no one could find him. Unfortunately, these Alabama relatives were ALSO both militarily and police connected, and so made the proper contacts, found out James had gone AWOL and after conversations with his father, turned James in to the nearest Army base for desertion "to teach me a lesson".
The Army promptly court martialed the young teen, and as per standard military procedure, put him in the "brig" on the "bread and water" wing for 15 days. James described this in some detail, which I have paraphrased.
When a soldier was in the "brig" for desertion, not only was the soldier limited to bread and water, but at 5AM daily
his mattress was removed from the cell so that he couldn't lie on it during the day. There was no TV, no radio, no video games, no air conditioning, and no soft rugs-just a cement floor, and one window with bars so that the soldier could watch the outside world go by. Upon request, the soldier could read the daily newspaper, but had to return it when done. The soldier was allowed a full meal once every three days and a bath once a week. Each meal was one slice of bread and a cup of water. He noted that "if you got the end crust of bread, that didn't count-you got another piece of bread. I tried to trade off with other deserters for their end pieces, but it didn't work". Clothes were washed once a week.
After the 15 day sentence, the soldier was released into his regular unit, and the court martial was of course recorded to his military records. James recalls that the day before his release, his father obtained special permission to visit his son and asked him a question similar to this:
"Well son, what have you learned out of all this?" James recalled that at first he was still angry with his father for "doing this to me" and tried to act tough but as usual it did not work. By the end of the visit James' bravado had broken and he became the scared teen age boy who only wanted to go home. His father then softened his toughness and the two began bonding as father and son. James relented his attitude and told his father that he understood that "God, country, family and freedom" are the four reasons he should serve his country and make it a safer place to live and that a boy couldn't be a true American male without realizing that fact. He also understood that Americans who get captured in other countries often get treated worse than he did and that these Americans endured these hardships willingly so that others could stay free. He ended by saying:
"I left home and joined the Army to get away from my father's rules and to have my freedom. I learned the hard way that freedom isn't free and that it must be protected. I also learned that if I don't do my part to protect our freedoms that I shouldn't complain about what happens to me or my family . I also learned that I can't be a man without being willing to fight for these things and that if I don't, then others may suffer because of my lack of concern."
At that point, James paused, He then said,"People today don't understand how much we went through so that they can have their video games and TVs and fancy houses and good meals on the table and football games and such.
I just wish more people like you could appreciate our sacrifices".
I just smiled and softly said "Well I can't speak for others, sir, but I can assure you I heard similar stories from my father, and he instilled a strong sense of patriotism and gratitude in me, and I DO appreciate what you guys did and I'm not ashamed to say thank you".
Before I left James at the restaurant, I asked if I could tell his story here, and explained this project. He gave his permission.
On this Veterans' Day, let us all thank James and those we know for protecting this country like they did and may we never take them for granted.
Thanks to Taylor for giving me the opportunity to tell this soldier's story here. God Bless America!