My Grandpa—my mom’s dad—Owen Johnston, enlisted in the army during World War II. He already had kids at the time, but joined anyway.
He served in Patton’s Third Army and made it to France in December of 1944 where he was shot. When he would talk about it, which was almost never, he said he could see the tracer bullets coming at him and that they moved so slowly. He lay in a trench for a long time and lost a lot of blood.
Eventually, he was evacuated, but he was in pretty bad shape. Several slugs had passed through and one stayed in. The doctors never thought he would live. We know this because The Stars and Stripes, looking for happy news that Christmas, wrote a short piece about him as “The soldier the Germans couldn’t kill.”
Only once did he ever show me his scar, and that only through his shirt, which he never took off in view of anybody. I was pretty young, but I recall seeing the depression, a kind of hole in his gut, through his t-shirt. I saw his Purple Heart, and he let me hold it. The slug they took out of him was supposed to be in a box in a trunk, but I was never allowed to see it. He also had his rifle, which he smuggled back as a souvenir. I was only allowed to hold it when my mom and grandma weren’t around, and I was forsworn to keep my mouth shut about it.
Years later, in the early 1970s, he and grandma took a trip to France to see the battle site. But the closer he got to the town, the harder it was, and he never made it. He turned around and came home.
Grandpa worked and retired from Fords in Dearborn, a regular union guy. We had an enormous family—a ton of uncles and aunts—and everybody stuck together. I used to go to the Eagles or the VFW with the gang and I would fetch drinks from the bar or sit and talk with my Aunt Katherine. I don’t think that a kid can do that nowadays.
Everybody would talk and drink and smoke for hours. Then the next day it would be the same. In the mornings, grandpa would tend to his yard—which was immaculate, like a golf course green; nobody was allowed on it—or go fishing. But in the evenings, flexibly defined to start anytime after noon, it was back with the gang or in front of the TV with the game and a glass of Kesslers and water.
All this eventually caught up with him and by the time the ’90s started, he had a stroke. He never really came back from it. My uncle Don, his oldest boy, would still sneak grandpa cigarettes, which irritated the hell out of my mother and her sister.
He was far from being any kind of saint and didn’t always make the right choices, but I always figured he earned it, so what the hell. He eventually died peacefully in his sleep at home.
Just one story with thousands more like it.
It’s Veteran’s Day. Try to remember or thank somebody who served and who helped make this country such a great place.