Scarcities and Sudden Death

By Randy Fitzgerald | February 15th, 2015


When Barb and I moved to Ginter Park in 1986, we were the youngest residents on our block. Our kids were 4 and 5, with the only other youngster on the block being a pre-teen next door. She turned out to be a marvelous babysitter, by the way … until the night our two put a tray of ice cubes down her back.

Over the decades we helped out our neighbors as they aged. Now we’re the oldest on the block, and new neighbors help us.

Funny how that happens.

‘SHOOT ANYTHING THAT MOVES’

On our street until a few years ago lived John Lewis, a member of the Greatest Generation, a WWII vet who always had interesting stories to tell about wartime experiences and people he met. So when he lost most of his sight to macular degeneration and moved to the Imperial Plaza retirement community, it was a loss.

These rapidly dwindling numbers of WWII vets are our country’s national memory. John Lewis’ father fought in WWI, even landing in Europe at the exact harbor, Le Havre, France, where John would land in WWII. John arrived at war just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, the largest and bloodiest battle that the U.S. would fight. With his 93rd birthday approaching, John still has a clear memory of standing guard his first night after arriving in the thickly forested Ardennes of Belgium. There was snow on the ground, it was freezing cold, and he was told to stand guard and “shoot anything that moves.”

Standing in the total darkness of a church doorway, gun poised, knowing Germans were in the woods all around, John heard a crunching approach on the snow.

He strained to listen, but it was too dark to see or shoot — and yet it came. John was frozen, in both senses of the word. Finally, the intruder stepped into the clearing.

It was a cow. John suspects that his whole military career might have been different if he had succeeded in shooting a cow on his first day at war. (He was so keyed up then, however, it did cross his mind that it might have been a Trojan cow, its belly loaded with German soldiers about to jump out and fight.)

BIVOUACKED IN A BUTCHER’S ATTIC

After the Battle of the Bulge, in which 19,000 U.S. troops were killed and 89,000 injured — the highest U.S. casualties of WWII — John and five buddies were bivouacked in a small Belgium village in the attic of the local butcher’s family. Food was scarce, so the U.S. soldiers shared their K-rations, and the butcher’s family added what they could. John recalls a happy day when a horse fell victim to the war, and the butcher, being a butcher, butchered it. John says horsemeat was welcomed, but “it would have been better had I not known what I was eating.”

John and his attic-mates soon moved on to the Rhineland offensive. (The 70th anniversary of the end of that campaign, designed to put an end to the war, comes up in a few weeks.) Their role was to transport a heavy mortar (John’s part weighed 81 pounds) and take measurements before firing to be sure it was in the right place and at the right distance to reach the target.

One day as they were about to fire, a lieutenant came past and told them to move it a bit, and though John told him it was accurately placed, they proceeded to obey. Just then the friend at his side was hit by German fire and killed. Seven decades later, that scene is still vivid to John.

PRICELESS STORIES BEFORE THEY’RE GONE

John saw USO entertainers like Betty Grable, Marlene Dietrich, Jeannette MacDonald and Bob Hope. When Barb asked if German-born Dietrich had been well received by the U.S. soldiers, he said she got thunderous applause. “She came out in a union suit like the soldiers wore, but with that little flap down in back.” That may have had something to do with the thunderous applause.

But John adds that this was near the end of the war and everyone knew it. At that point, sometimes our troops and the Germans would actually wave to each other, then go back to firing.

If you know someone in their 80s or 90s, ask them to tell you a story. They’ll have lots of them, and quite often their personal memories are priceless.

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