Each Veterans Day, I reflect on those in my own family members who put on a uniform and went away to fight. My Dad, Eugene Wise, enlisted at 17 years old in 1942 and spent three years in the South Pacific fighting on Guadalcanal, Guam and Bouganville.
I think of my brother Chuck, who did a tour in Vietnam and of my brother-in-law Lonnie, and his tour of duty in Korea both in the 1960’s. Both of them saw things and did things that are not in any books. I was a Marine in the early 1960’s, but I certainly was no hero and I never saw combat, but I am so very appreciative of those who did.
There is one old combat veteran who stands out more in my mind than most, and of the terrible battles he fought long after the war was over. He was a stranger. It was not that he was any more heroic than any others because he was not. He was a black man, a private, who fought with the 25th Infantry in World War One.
When I was at the University of Wyoming in 1986, I was writing a major research paper on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), comparing cases from America’s early wars up to the present. My search for older veterans led me to the Fort Lyon VA hospital near Las Animas, Colorado and it was there I met Charlie who has been suffering from severe PTSD since 1918.
When the time came that I was provided with the opportunity to interview Charlie, we were in a smaller conference room along with a nurse’s aide. The aide was a big man over six feet tall and at least 230 pounds. I thought that to be a bit of overkill as Charlie sitting was 96 years old, short, snow-white hair, walked with two canes, and had withered skin that reminded me of an aerial photograph of the Andes Mountains. The aide sat, read a magazine, and paid scant attention to us. I doubt Charlie weighed 120 pounds with a wet coat on and he was certainly no physical threat.
However, Charlie’s story held me riveted and I listened to every word. I was thankful I was recording the session instead of trying to jot down notes. He spoke evenly and quietly with a heavy drawl.
“Do you know what a trench mortar is?” Charlie began in his quiet voice, “It fires a 9.5 pound shell and is God-awful loud. But I wasn’t a mortarman when I firs’ go to France, I was a machine gunner. They make me a machine gunner ‘cause I shoot it more accurately than mos’ others.
“The first time I saw combat was jus’ after a heavy rain quit. I think it was in the fall, ‘cause it was a little colder. My assistant gunner and I wait behin’ the sandbags when we see the Germans comin’ ‘cross the muddy field. They git closer an’ closer, but still, the officers tell us, ‘hol’ yo fire! Let ‘em git closer!’ They git close ‘nough to where I see their faces, mebbe fifty yards, then they give the order to fire.
“Every time I press the trigger, I spray out bullets, hundreds of ‘em, an’ I could see them hittin’ those young boys coming at us, tearin’ ‘em to pieces. Dozens at a time, they went down, and I kept shootin’, shootin’. The soldiers on either side of me kept shootin’ fas’ as they could pull triggers. Finally, after what seemed like days, an’ months an’ years, they tol’ us to cease fire. The Germans were retreatin’ back to they own trenches, but they left hundreds and hundreds of dead and wounded behind them. A lot of their dead were in front of my machine gun.
“The Germans attacked two mo’ times that day, an’ each time, I know I was responsible fo’ killin’ so many of ‘em. I could see their faces, and the fear in their faces. I thought, ‘they are boys jus’ like us, they have mamas an’ daddies an’ girl frien’s an’ wives and I was killin’ so many of ‘em. It was makin’ me sick at night. ‘Bout a week later, I went to see the captain. He was a white man, y’see. I tol’ him I couldn’t stan’ no mo’ killin’ of them young boys ‘cause I could see their faces an’ it was makin’ me sick watchin’ my bullets tearin’ those boys to pieces. I as’ him to please put me someplace else, anyplace else, just not on machine guns.
“That white captain say I’m a ‘Goddamn nigger coward’ an’ that I was no good fo’ nuthin’. But he did transfer me to trench mortars. That was a lot better fo’ me. All I had to do was drop a 9.5 inch shell in the tube an’ ploonk! out it go. I know I was still killin’ those young men, but I didn’t have to see their faces when I dropped them shells down the tube.
“This all happen almos’ 70 years ago an’ I still see they faces at night in my dreams an’ even when I’m awake. That’s why I’m still coming here to Fort Lyon all the time. The faces of them German boys will never leave me alone. They are with me night an’ day.”
When the interview concluded, I thanked Charlie, shook his hand and left. I had to give this interview a lot of thought before putting it onto paper. Here was a veteran who not only battled his ghosts of combat, but the harshness of severe racial bias as well. What could I write that could put Charlie in the honorable light he so truly, richly deserves?
However, I have to strongly disagree with his captain; Charlie was most certainly not a coward in any sense of the term. In fact, I truly wonder how he ever did it. Charlie was a real man and a very real veteran.
And the truth is, there are so many out there just like him.
About the Author: Jack quit high school in 1963 and enlisted in the Marine Corps at the tender age of 17. When asked about his service in the Corps, Jack is quick to say, “I enlisted, I served, I was honorably discharged. I was never any hero, a Chesty Puller I was not.” Upon his discharge, Jack finished high school and went on to earn an MS degree in natural resource management and foreign languages the University of Wyoming. Jack’s computer is stuffed with book-length manuscripts and short stories and writes three to five hours a day. Today, working as a home health care nurse, Jack and his Colombian wife live quietly in Colorado.