“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather, we should thank God that they lived.” George C. Patton, Jr.
Robert was fifteen years old when Germany invaded Poland in 1939. The handsome, dark-haired, blue-eyed boy was one of eight siblings, living on a family farm in a tiny town near Amish country, in the northern Midwest, about an hour’s car ride from one of the Great Lakes. He was educated in a one-room schoolhouse, learning his “Three Rs” alongside about thirty or so other students, many of whom were related to him in some way. He dreamed of attending the United States Military Academy, commonly known as West Point, and seeing the world.
He was impatient to get to the war before it was over, so he bypassed West Point and in 1943, at the age of eighteen, he packed his bags and volunteered to join the Army. His father Frank, a WWI veteran, gave him a word of advice on the eve of his departure, saying with a devilish twinkle in his steel gray eyes, “Be careful over there in France — some of those girls may be your sister.” It was a good piece of advice, as Robert had come by his movie-star good looks and his love of “the ladies” honestly.
About a year later, in the half-dark hours of an early summer morning, the slender, 5’9″ tall young man hauled seventy pounds of equipment and himself out the side door of an airplane and onto the beaches of Normandy, France.
Robert found his calling that day, somewhere in the middle of the smoke, blood, and chaos. The military always remained his life’s passion. In later years, though, as he perched on various kitchen stools, with an unending cup of coffee on the counter and ever-present cigarette in hand, he recounted stories, not of combat, but of how the French girls, after years of wartime deprivations and lacking even basic undergarments, rushed the beaches, almost before the fighting was over, and collected the discarded silk parachutes. He would comment, with a wry smile, that French girls were quite skilled seamstresses in making their silky “parachute pants.”
Robert had plenty of stories about the swathe he cut through the ladies of Europe, but never spoke about the killing that occurred on D-Day, nor any day of the war. His generation never does.
He became a career Army man, going on to serve in the Korean conflict, then teaching jump school for a time to young men in green berets, and completing two tours in Vietnam. Always restless, he obtained multiple college degrees while serving at bases all over the world, before eventually retiring as a Major. Robert couldn’t stand to play golf, a pastime he had been forced into during his officer days, and so went to work again immediately upon his retirement, eventually earning a pension with a lumber company in Arkansas, in addition to running his own ranch in Montana, teaching teenagers how to barrel race Quarter horses in California, and traveling the country in his motor home.
Now, at eighty-six years of age and with bad knees, home is back in that same small, Midwestern town, about a mile and a half from where he was born. Silver-haired Robert shares a small house with his younger sister and sits at the kitchen table, playing solitaire, drinking coffee, and telling amazing stories to anyone lucky enough to spend an afternoon with him. His father’s “dough boy” uniform hangs in a place of honor in a case on the living-room wall and the “stars and bars” are lifted and lowered every day with full ceremony on the flagpole at the front of the house.
On this Fourth of July, we celebrate the birth of our country, our independence, and our continuing freedoms. Every day, let us also honor all those who have fought throughout the years and centuries to keep those freedoms possible.
Thank you for everything, Grandpa. I salute you.