This month, most of us will celebrate the Fourth of July with friends and family. We’ll check out our neighborhood parade, attend a barbecue or two, set sparklers ablaze for the kids, and ooh and ahh at firework displays.
We’ve good reason to celebrate. This year marks the 228th year of our nation’s independence. But consider this: While you’re whooping it up, why not take a minute to thank the veterans in your life, and maybe even seek out one or two you don’t know?
It shouldn’t be too hard — of the more than 26 million veterans in the United States, more than 6,000 live right here in our neighborhood. Chances are, someone living on your street has served our country.
In the spirit of the holiday, we sought out a few of them to sit down and talk with. Here are the stories of four neighborhood veterans who served in three different wars:
Louis D. Wittkower, Jr., is 85 years old. Sixty years ago, he landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy June 7, one day after D-Day.
“I was aboard an Army transport,” Wittkower says. “I think standing on that deck of the ship and watching the landings take place was quite an exciting thing.
“I wouldn’t say I was frightened,” he says. “I’d say I was just anticipating.”
Wittkower commanded a rifle company of 245 men. “It’s what’s called an over-strength company,” he says, “because of anticipated casualties.” For a 25-year-old journalism major not long out of college, it was quite a burden. “And you feel that responsibility,” he says.
Wittkower’s situation was exacerbated by the fact that his company had only rifles and pistols with which to defend themselves — “no machine guns or mortars,” he says. After finally making its way inland, his division was instructed to take the town of Trevieres and hold the nearby bridge across the L’Aure River until the rest of their battalion could pass through.
“When we got about 1,000 yards from town, we were fired upon,” Wittkower says. It was a battle that would earn him a Purple Heart and eventually send him home.
“During that operation, I was endeavoring to move forward, and I got caught in machine gun crossfire,” he says. “One burst hit me in the left leg. One in the abdomen.”
He spent three months in an English hospital, and then was sent home to Texas, where he continued to recuperate for about three more months. The memories of that time still bring strong emotions.
“I don’t know why I made it and so many others didn’t,” he says with tears in his eyes.
After recovering, Wittkower remained in the Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1961. During that time, he worked with the military police in Dallas, served in the Japanese occupation following WWII, and as a military advisor in Korea. In addition to his Purple Heart, Wittkower received numerous other commendations, including a Bronze Star, a combat infantry badge, two Army commendation medals and many more service medals.
After retiring, he served as a high school ROTC instructor for 19 years. “My wife says I never left the Army,” he says with a laugh.
Today, Wittkower is finally fully retired. He spends time with his wife of 62 years, Pauline, and his extended family, including eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“I like to think that I have told my grandkids that they’re living in a land that’s great. And I ask them what other country could you go to where you would have more freedom and more golden opportunity than you have in this country,” he says.
“I just feel very fortunate to have lived my life here,” he says. “And it’s been a great honor to serve my country.”
Jesse Naul, known as J.W. to friends and family, went to WWII about nine months after Wittkower. He’d enlisted in the Navy in 1941, he says, because he “wanted to fly.”
Made a Naval aviator in the fall of 1942, Naul served as an instructor until early 1945, when he went to the Pacific aboard the U.S.S. Bennington. There, he flew torpedo bombers.
He was a natural-born flyer, he says, piloting 32 or 33 combat missions in five months. For one mission, he received the Navy’s highest honor, the Navy Cross.
“I put a torpedo in a Japanese cruiser,” he says. “I left her sinking. It was April of ’45, I believe.”
He also received two Distinguished Flying crosses and four air medals. But with the highs, he says, came lows.
“Oh yes, we lost men on my first flight,” he says. “We lost our skipper — I watched him go down. I guess it must have been four or five pilots we lost [total].”
And he had his own near misses. “I got my plane shot up twice,” he says, “but I always got it back.”
Naul’s Navy Cross earned him a slightly early release from the Navy, and he went home in September of 1945, just in time for the birth of his first son. He helped his father run a general store in Louisiana, and later on went on the road selling building materials.
At 83, he is still active. He hits the road as a manufacturing rep a few days a week, teaches Sunday school and hangs out with his military buddies (he belongs to the Legion of Valor, an organization for those who have earned the military’s highest combat medals). He and wife Sara Ellen have two sons, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
His service to his country, he says, taught him a thing or two about living.
“It gives you a full appreciation of life,” he says. “You realize after you’ve been shot at that you’re left here, in all probability, for a purpose. Of course, you hope you find that purpose … find what you’re supposed to do.”
And what was he supposed to do? “Be a good citizen, a good family man and to work in my church,” he says
His experiences, he says, also gave him a pretty firm opinion about war: “I think you fight a war when that’s the only recourse.”
Harold Smith served in both WWII and the Korean War. Those two experiences could not have been more different.
Smith enlisted in the Marines when he was 17 years old, 15 days after he graduated from high school.
“Everybody was going into the military, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he says.
It was February 1943, nearing the height of WWII, but Smith was not sent to war. Instead, he was stationed at the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station as a brig officer.
After the war, he was discharged, but remained in the reserves program. When the Korean War broke out, he was recalled to active duty.
“Fifteen days later, I was aboard a ship,” he says.
It was July 1950, and Betty, his wife, was six months pregnant with the couple’s first child. He was on patrol in a North Korean seaport when an important call came in.
“They radioed in one night, telling me that Diane had been born,” he says.
But it would be nine months before he’d meet his daughter. In some ways, he was lucky to meet her at all. From where he was stationed when he received news of Diane’s birth, Smith was sent up to the Chosin Reservoir.
There, in temperatures dozens of degrees below zero, Smith says he and about 15,000 other Marines, with less than 2,000 Army troops as support, were trapped and surrounded by about 120,000 Chinese troops, with some half a million North Korean troops immediately across the Yalu River. It would be nearly two weeks before the soldiers fought their way out of the trap, covering between 60-80 miles from the reservoir to the coast, where they were evacuated.
“It was very strenuous fighting,” Smith says. “Including frostbite, I would imagine the Marines took at least 12,000 casualties.” Three thousand of those men died, Smith says.
Smith says he was rattled by the incident but physically unhurt. That was in December. By February, he was back in the lines, fighting, and this time he wasn’t so lucky. He was wounded in May 1951 and again in July. He declines to discuss the nature of his injuries, but he was sent home after the second one.
Betty met him at the dock in Treasure Island, Calif., and about a month and a half later, he met his daughter at Love Field.
“It was quite a feeling,” he says, smiling. “It was good to be home.” Smith received the Purple Heart, in addition to many other citations, for service to his country.
These days, he keeps busy with two grandkids, and he makes Western-themed sculptures out of barbed wire, horseshoe nails and other materials.
He also belongs to the Dallas chapter of the Chosin Few, a fraternity of men who were also trapped near the Chosin Reservoir in 1950. The battle, during which Smith and his comrades faced seemingly insurmountable odds, is known today as one of the bloodiest and deadliest of modern warfare,
Grady Allen Wilcox enlisted in the Air Force in 1969.
“At the time, I didn’t feel like getting drafted by the Army and being sent to Vietnam,” he says.
Aiming to have as civilian-like a life as possible, Wilcox, a budding picture-taker at the time, took a test that would have enabled him to be a photographer for the Air Force, an assignment that most likely would have kept him out of harm’s way.
“There was this flip chart, with all these little dots, that they had you look at,” he says. “You could miss four and be normal. I missed five.”
That one dot, he says now, changed his life forever.
“Turns out I was borderline colorblind. I didn’t realize that.”
Shortly after, Wilcox was sent to Vietnam as an air cargo specialist. Still unable to fathom the turn of events, Wilcox was at least relieved to be stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base.
“It’s the biggest air base in Vietnam,” he says. “I figured there were lots grunts between me and them [the Viet Cong]. So yeah, I felt relatively safe.”
His feeling of invulnerability wouldn’t last long. He was transferred to Dau Tieng, the headquarters of the Army’s 1st infantry. A much smaller air base, Dau Tieng faced a Viet Cong village, and experienced regular sniper fire and mortar rounds. From there, things only became worse for Wilcox. He was transferred again to Phouc Vinh Army Base, where, he says, “let’s just say we had bunkers built into the side of our barracks.”
The base, he says, was riddled with the discontent of an unpopular war.
“There were more times we dove for our bunkers, thinking we had incoming, when it turned out to be some Army guy trying to ‘frag’ his officers — that’s where you get some guy who’s so mad at his superiors that he will pull the pin on a hand grenade and roll it in on them,” he says. “At that time, morale was not real good. All the protesters back in the States were wearing black armbands, and it was really surprising how many draftees were wearing black armbands in support while in Vietnam.”
He remembers one time at Phouc Vinh in particular, when the incoming rounds were enemy fire.
“I was facing a little desk to write letters on,” he says. “There were some close incoming rounds, and apparently something a little further down in my conscience said, ‘We don’t have time for you to think about this.’ So I was in my room, and the next thing I knew I was in the bunker, with no recollection of having moved from point A to point B.
“That was strange,” he says. “I have never forgotten that.”
Wilcox returned to the States after his yearlong tour in Vietnam and served out his remaining three years at Travis Air Force Base in California.
He says serving in a controversial war has forever “colored his outlook on a lot of things.”
“There’s not a whole lot in my life that it doesn’t affect somehow or another,” he adds, including his feelings about the war in Iraq. “I thought it was bad in ’Nam, but these poor guys — my heart goes out to them.”
Whatever his feelings about our current war or war in general, he says, he always keeps one thing in mind: “Support the troops. Those guys are there for us.”
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