38: Good Soldiers

38: Good Soldiers

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Good Soldiers

What are the values of a Good Soldier? Freedom and courage. Freedom is what makes us fight, and courage is what keeps us from running away.

~Roger Nye, The Challenge of Command

“I’ve lost track of how many people around town have stopped me or phoned after they read that story — my story — in the newspaper. I have even received thank you cards. All this attention is a little overwhelming,” confided the ninety-year-old World War II Navy veteran.

In the Pacific Theater, he had participated in ten invasions on board a big battleship, the USS Colorado. However, to the community, Charlie Ripper had been regarded as our retired barber and former councilman, just another well-respected senior citizen.

Summing up the surprise of his Central Texas friends and neighbors when they learned of Charlie’s story, Lou Ann Adcox said, “Who knew?” She was right. Before the article appeared, who indeed knew about Charlie’s wartime exploits?

“You know what I wish?” Charlie said. “I wish all the boys in this county could tell you their war stories. You could write them down and share them just like you did mine.”

I had read that 500 U.S. World War II veterans are dying every day, so Charlie’s suggestion was compelling. All too soon, there would be no veterans left to interview. When I discussed the idea with others, they cautioned me that World War II veterans were reluctant to talk, plus many were in poor health.

Nevertheless, The Fayette County Record’s publisher Regina Keilers and editor Jeff Wick were enthusiastic about the opportunity. We agreed that I would listen to as many war stories as possible and put them on paper. Then I would go back to each veteran and read him his story to ensure its accuracy. Our goal was to publish a special insert to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

I listened to Dennis Rudloff, an Army Air Force sergeant, who was a crewmember onboard a B-24 bomber stationed in England. On his first mission to Germany in 1944, one of the aircraft’s bomb bay doors was damaged by enemy shrapnel, leaving a 500-pound bomb stuck half in and half out. As the bomber headed back to England, Dennis and the bombardier crept out on a six-inch ledge to release it. They were thousands of feet above the ground without parachutes. When Dennis dropped his screwdriver somewhere over Germany, he resorted to beating the crimped metal of the bomb door with the barrel from a 50-caliber machine gun. Finally, over the English Channel, the bomb dislodged, hitting the water with a spectacular splash. Had they not been able to release the device, the crew would have had no recourse but to parachute out of the plane and ditch it.

Ted Wolfram, an Army Air Force second lieutenant, fretted at having to serve as a flight instructor in West Texas before finally being assigned to fly a C-46 transport, the largest two-engine aircraft of its kind at the time. For one year, he flew The Hump, an aviation route over the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains between India and China, transporting diverse cargo such as bombs, food, Jeeps, spare parts, engines, gasoline and tents. Although his aircraft was high above the fog and clouds and the dreaded updrafts and downdrafts, Ted was all too aware that below was the Aluminum Trail, a string of C-46s that had crashed during missions just like the ones he was flying.

Frank Stastny, a ninety-seven-year-old who had been a private first class in the 339th Ordnance Depot Company, vividly remembered the events of his first German air raid on New Year’s Eve 1942 in Casablanca, Morocco. There was so much gunfire that the American soldiers could see their shadows, but Frank couldn’t desert his post as a guard to take refuge in an air raid shelter. He recalled seeing fire and smoke coming from the tail of a German plane and watching it spiral down into the sea.

Charles Mazoch vividly reminisced about spending 119 days on the island of Luzon in the Philippines where his unit traded shells with the enemy every day. The Americans had been pulled off the front line for a rest in mid-August 1945 when they received the good news that the war had ended. On the day Charles arrived home in November 1945, he accompanied his sisters to a dance down the road. Later that evening, he marveled at how little the world had changed for his family while he had been fighting for his life in the jungle half a world away. He gave thanks to God that they had been spared.

A technical sergeant in the Third Army, Eugene Hollas recollected not only the hand-to-hand combat in battles during his wartime service in France and Germany but the noise, the destruction and the stench of dead men and rotting livestock. As the Americans pushed toward Germany in battle after battle, Eugene was wounded three times and awarded three Purple Heart medals. A lesson he learned from firsthand experience is how much abuse a human body can withstand. Eugene will never be sure whether he was just lucky to come home or if a guardian angel was looking out for him.

When he was drafted, Johnny Kobersky was forced to sell the cattle and poultry on the family farm, as well as find somewhere for his invalid widowed, adoptive mother to live. When Johnny was inducted in 1942, he left behind his eighteen-year-old wife of five days, Hazel, with her family. Johnny was assigned to the operation of a howitzer gun that fired shells measuring five inches in diameter. It was a very accurate but deafening piece of equipment that he frequently blasted as the Army’s 84th Infantry Division moved across France, Holland and Germany.

*  *  *

These veterans — and others I listened to — were articulate, yet humble. Several shed a few tears as they talked, but talk they did. Some stories were poignant. Others were upsetting. Still others were amusing. The bottom line was that each man still believed in the freedom that his country had called upon him to defend. It was a privilege to spend time with them and save their stories, which otherwise might have been lost.

Charlie’s wish to see his buddies’ war stories in print came to fruition when “Veterans’ Voices” was published in The Fayette County Record. The special newspaper section featured forty World War II veterans and more than 100 photos, as well as clever, nostalgic advertising purchased by area businesses and organizations.

The community reacted with unbridled excitement. Overnight, the World War II veterans were regarded as heroes, although they scoffed at the description. Their phones rang, they received countless hugs and handshakes and notes arrived in the mail as family members, friends and neighbors — and even strangers — thanked them for their service.

“It was fascinating to learn what each of these small-town boys did in World War II that has produced such a tremendous legacy for our country,” said Erin Wied, who has known some of the veterans all her life. “By finally sharing their war stories, they always will be remembered.”

For a veteran of any war, there is no greater honor.

~Elaine Thomas

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