By Jonathon Van Maren
I remember when video montages of soldiers returning home began circulating shortly after the second Iraq War began. I discovered, to my surprise, that they reliably reduced me to tears. There is something about the videos of returning vets that perfectly encapsulates the strength and depth of human love. Children bursting into tears as their uniformed fathers unexpectedly fill classroom doors. Wives flinging their arms around their husbands, too overcome to even kiss them. Mothers sobbing, hugging, and sobbing some more. The sheer power of family is there for all to see.
So, too, are the sacrifices these families make while their loved ones are overseas. Fathers and mothers miss birthdays. Recitals. Graduations. Anniversaries. Even births. They do these things to serve on the front lines so that everyone else can enjoy these things. They endure the pain of separation while, at home, things proceed as normal. In fact, they endure these things for this very reason. Rarely do those of us without family members in the military stop and consider this.
Veteran’s Day is one opportunity to do so.
Over the past year, I have been working on an essay series about eyewitnesses to the 20th century. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, many of those who lived through the great events of the last century are departing, one by one. I wanted to hear their stories firsthand, before they are gone. I spoke with many combat veterans of America’s wars. Like the only surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, or the triple war ace who flew combat missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Their stories were an incredible glimpse into what veterans endure on our behalf.
Bud Anderson is 98 years old and the highest scoring American fighter ace alive. A World War II triple war ace, he flew combat missions over Europe, Korea and Vietnam. He was a California boy working as a junior aircraft mechanic when the Japanese attacked. “That’s when I knew we were off to war,” he told me. “I didn’t even know where Pearl Harbor was.”
Anderson ended up based in RAF Leiston, in England, flying combat tours against the Luftwaffe with the 363rd Fighter Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group. “We had good pilots in our group,” he told me proudly. “All we had to do was be turned loose and we were going to chew somebody up. I was quite proud of our unit. That was one of the greatest times of my life, working with these guys.”
When I asked him what it was like to fight the German pilots over Europe, his response was to the point: “It was very rewarding. It was scary when you first got over there, before you got any kind of experience. You looked down, and that’s enemy territory. If I go down, all these farmers are going to pitchfork me. They’re just waitin’.”
He remembers the first time he shot down a German fighter like it was yesterday. “We got about halfway out of Germany when here came three ME-109s,” he told me. “We were on the left side, and they were coming in from the right side. They obviously couldn’t see us, because there was seven of us. I thought: ‘One of these is mine.’ We cut ‘em off at the pass, before they could do any attacking. I latched onto this guy. It was down low, where an ME-109 could give the Mustang a harder time. I just couldn’t get on this guy’s tail. I was coming at him at very steep angles, and I just couldn’t slide in behind him.”
Anderson decided to gamble. “I had been through three gunnery schools, so I knew how to shoot. I said, ‘When this guy comes around again’ — we’re both in a very high-speed turn, that means your wingtip is vertical — ‘I’m going to get my stick site right on him, pull through him.’ This’ll mean I can’t see him, because he’ll be under my nose. ‘I’m going to pull through to my estimated lead, fire a burst, and see what happens.’ Sure enough, I hit him with a golden bullet. He pulled up and bailed out.”
John Anderson, another pilot, pulled up beside him. “He’s grinning like a kid, and he gave me the OK sign.” Bud wondered whether John had shot the plane down rather than him. Confirmation of a kill had to come from other members of the squadron.
Back on solid ground, he asked several members of the squadron whether they’d seen who made the kill. But all of them had been out of position and couldn’t confirm. He headed over to the club for a drink. There John ran over to him from the bar, beaming. “Andy,” he said, “that’s the greatest shot I ever saw. You got the sucker out there at about 60 degrees!” Anderson ran his fingers down up and down his left shoulder and shrugged it off. “Aw, Johnny, lucky shot.” And then, he told me with a laugh, “I rushed to the phone and claimed my first victory.”
Anderson would rack up 16 and a quarter kills and several probably kills over the course of 116 missions.
Even now, all these years later, part of him still misses it all. “I enjoyed squadron life,” he told me. “I enjoyed being in a combat unit more than anything I did. The camaraderie. Most of us guys would say we were fighting for our country, or the flag. But we were fighting for each other. I think that’s true of any good combat unit with good morale. A guy gets wounded, and the first thing he wants to now is when can I leave to get back to my unit. That kind of a feeling.”
On the other side of the world, a very different war was being fought. To hear about the fight against the Japanese in the Pacific, I got in touch with 96-year-old Hershel “Woody Williams,” the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from World War II.
A farm boy from West Virginia, Woody’s first combat experience was in Guam in July of 1942. After that, the Marines headed to Iwo Jima. None of the GIs were aware that the island was crisscrossed by miles of tunnels and 22,000 waiting Japanese soldiers. The first division landed on February 19, 1945. Woody Williams landed with the First Battalion, 21st Marines on February 21.
It was a brutal, bloody fight. “On the 23rd, we were still fighting for the first airfield,” he told me. “They had pillboxes protecting the airfield. As we tried to advance, they had all of the advantages. They were inside a concrete structure. We were out in the open, running from one position to another. We were a great target. We kept losing Marines very rapidly and could not break through those pillboxes. Every time we’d try, they’d kill another group of us and we had to retreat.”
What Williams did next would earn him one of the most prestigious military awards in the history of combat. Covered by four riflemen, he fought for four hours under nonstop enemy fire, constantly returning back to his lines to prepare more demolitions charges and fetch more flamethrowers. When I asked him about it, he sounded as if he were reciting a military report.
“I was able to eliminate the enemy in seven of those pillboxes. We couldn’t do anything about the pillboxes; they were built so strong with some form of concrete that had metal rods in it. Artillery, bazookas — it didn’t do anything to them. They were fully protected. They had an aperture across the front of every pillbox that was about eight inches in height. That’s where they could stick their rifles and machine guns out—and that was the only place we could hit.” To clear the pillboxes, Woody had to somehow get close enough to pour fire through the opening.
“With 70 pounds on your back, you don’t get up and walk around very much,” he recalled. “I was crawling towards that pillbox in a ditch that the Japanese had dug to enable them to go from one pillbox to another without getting above ground. I was in their ditch, and they were shooting at me with a machine gun. I remember the bullets ricocheting off the back of my flamethrower. I saw smoke coming out of the top of the pillbox. So when they were reloading their machine gun or had run out of bullets, I jumped up and ran to the side to get out of their line of fire. That’s when I decided I’d go up on top of the pillbox to see where the smoke was coming from. If there was a hole up there I could put flame down through it.” The smell of burning human flesh would haunt Woody for decades.
It was a four-hour fight, and Woody Williams witnessed the event that would become an icon: The American flags being raised on Mt. Suribachi. He was 1,000 yards away from the volcano. In March, he was wounded when shrapnel hit him in the leg. In October, he found out that he would be awarded the Medal of Honor by President Harry Truman himself.
But when I asked Woody which memories truly stand out, it was none of those. It was meeting Americans, who had been the Japanese’ prisoners of war, on a plane back to the U.S. “Men that had at one time weighted 170 or 180 pounds now weighed 80 or 90 pounds. They looked like skeletons. Their cheeks were hollow, their eyes were sunken. You could see every bone in their body. They were absolutely the happiest people that I think I’ve ever seen in my life, because now they were free.”
In fact, Woody discovered that his seat on the airplane had been designated for another former POW who had died before he could make the flight. “One of them said something I’ve never forgotten: ‘You will never know what freedom is until you have lost it.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
In addition to World War II veterans, I also interviewed Vietnam vet Philip Caputo, author of Rumor of War (widely considered to be one of the greatest combat memoirs of all time). I spoke to H. Lee Barnes, veteran of both the conflict in the Dominican Republic and Vietnam. I also talked with Kyle Lamb, a North Dakota farm boy who first saw combat in Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm. Lamb’s son was born just before he deployed to Iraq, so he came home to a six-month-old son who had no idea who he was.
Lamb doesn’t count Desert Storm has his first combat experience, because he says that he was shot at but wasn’t aware of it. “My first real experience with combat was the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia,” he told me. “We were there to get Mohamed Aidid. My first experience was watching all the guys around me. The fighting didn’t seem to bother them, they were doing what they needed to do. I was a little scared and amped up. I said a lot of prayers there. On October 3, when Black Hawk Down happened, it got really intense because the number of people trying to kill us was significant.”
Anyone who has seen the film Black Hawk Down knows that Lamb is referring to. One helicopter that got shot down was smashed so badly that the body of Cliff Wolcott, the pilot, was trapped inside. “We couldn’t just leave because we had to stay there until we could cut the pilot’s body out of the wreckage,” Lamb said. Nobody even considered leaving before recovering the pilot, despite the danger of cutting open a downed chopper under fire. “We were going to stay.”
Lamb watched the film, he said, “with the guys I served with there. It was pretty intense for us. What was even more intense was watching our wives. They went through what we went through, but they were in a worse situation. We were in a gunfight on the battlefield. That’s not such a big deal once you get used to it. But they have no information and are slowly finding out their husbands are wounded, or killed or missing.”
He saw terrible things during that battle that he can never forget. “Once the first bird got shot down and we started fighting our way to that aircraft, we were taking heavy fire. Earl Filmore was struck in the head and killed immediately. Moving forward, a young Ranger, Jamie Smith, was hit high in the femoral artery. I was next to him when that happened. I immediately put direct pressure on his wound. Nothing heroic, just doing what we were trained to do. When we got him behind cover, we took turns applying direct pressure. Kurt Schmid kept him alive well into the night, and he eventually passed away because we couldn’t get him out of there.”
“The first time I ever shot a guy — that was a moment of clarity,” he told me. “It’s not like in the movies. It’s not like you think on the range. You think: Here’s a guy. I’m going to shoot him, and then it’s all over. But it ain’t all over. People don’t die as easily as you would think.” Some people, he mused, are “tougher than reinforced woodpecker lips.” Throughout it all, he prayed for survival, and he prayed that he wouldn’t be a coward. God answered and granted both of his requests.
He would later serve five more tours in Iraq, or what he refers to as “the current war.”
On Veteran’s Day, take a moment to remember the families that have been shattered and those who still wait anxiously for news from loved ones. The children separated from parents, wives separated from husbands, and the thousands who sleep beneath white crosses in Arlington and in those great repositories of American courage across the nation and around the world.
The world is free and remains free because they died, and because so many who live are willing to carry scars with them. Their bravery, their sacrifice, and their deeds of valor deserve both our gratitude and remembrance.