Living With John Wayne

One of my all time favorite movie actors was John Wayne. There was always a particular aura around John Wayne that made a person feel protected. An air of natural leadership surrounded him. I of course am refering to the roles he played as I have no idea how he was in real life. I do know that in real life my Dad bore an uncanny resemblance to John wayne in both personality and in some aspects physical appearance as well.

Take a good long look at Mr. Wayne’s face and you realize it’s not the sort of handsome face you’d see on the cover of GQ magazine. Wayne’s face had character. He oozed moral fiber, inner strength and fortitude, self confidence, and he tolerated no baloney. I mean what good and reasonable person would feel threatened in his presence and what evildoer would be stupid enough to go up against him?

Well that pretty much defines my Dad in a nutshell. My Dad was drafted into the Army in september of 1942. He had not gone out in a patriotic rush after Pearl Harbor to join up. He was 22 years old and figured if the country needed him the country would let him know. Once in the Army Dad made the best of it. Having grown up poor with five younger brothers and sisters he was no stranger to responsibility and hard work and he knew the value of a dollar. He was trained as a combat engineer and assigned to the 12th armored division. In september of 1944 his division was sent overseas.

Dad was a buck sergeant squad leader by then. During combat Dad’s platoon sgt. was killed and Dad was given the job and promoted to staff sergeant. A month later his platoon lieutentant was killed and Dad took charge of his platoon. During those first few months of combat Dad was wounded twice by shrapnel. One large piece of metal imbedded in the main nerve casing that runs down your arm. The surgeon at the field hospital told Dad the arm needed to come off as they could not get the metal without cutting the nerve all the way through.

Dad refused to let them take it off and refused all painkillers or sedatives in the ensuing 48 hours, because he knew if he fell asleep the surgeons would remove the arm. He finally got a little movement and feeliing back in the arm, showed the surgeon, and promptly just got up and went back to his platoon. He would later undergo a series of operations commencing at wars end through 1947 to help more fully restore the use of his arm.

In early March of 1945 after having run the platoon as a sergeant for two months the Army promoted Dad to 2nd Lt. in what’s called a battlefield commission. When the war ended Dad had enough points, what with time served and medals for bravery and wounds, that he got to come home to the states fairly soon after hostilities ended.

At the port of embarcation all the officers who had entered the war as draftees were gathered together for a speech by a regular US ARMY officer. As many of you may be aware a soldier is not necessarily done with the military once he gets out. You may have heard the term “Stop Loss” in our current conflicts in the mideast. A commissioned officer usually has to serve a minimum 6 year hitch. Once that officer leaves the military he has an additional six year obligation refered to as inactive status. This means if the army determines they need him back bad enough the officer can be recalled to active duty. It’s sort of like being in the reserves but with no pay and you don’t have to do a weekend drill once a month.

Well, back when the draft was in force things were a bit different. The government had the power to draft someone into the military. It was done via lottery , and according to age as well, with the younger aged men called first and then on up the ladder. Once a draftee was released from service the government had no further claim on that individual. If a new war broke out that person could theoretically be re-drafted but it would be unlikely because the person would be older than the normal draft age brackets.

So the demobilizing army had a problem. What if that which was looking like a potential future conflict with the Russians materialized, and we needed troops quick? Well an infantry grunt can be trained up fairly quick, but officers and specialists are another thing entirely. To help solve this dilemma at the end of WWII our government instigated the inactive reserve officers program. It would be mandantory for regular army officers but for those who had been drafted and then promoted to the officer ranks it would be voluntary. So this was the speech my Dad and others were given prior to going home.

The officer said “okay, who volunteers?” Not getting much response the officer repeats the speech. Some of his captive audience ask what’s the benefit for volunteering. The only benefit was that, say you were recalled in a few years, and had you stayed on active duty during that time instead , you would have earned a peacetime promotion, then if you were recalled you’d re-enter service at the higher rank. Kind of confusing I know. Still getting few volunteers, the officer says “look guys, this is a volunteer program and I have orders to stay here giving this presentation until everyone of you volunteers. Now you can do so and get on that ship or be here tomorrow listening to this speech after the ship has sailed.” Well, he got his volunteers!

Now, back to John Wayne . . . My Dad had displayed natural leadership abilities during the war. He was the type of guy you’d want leading you. One who would share all your risks alongside you. A leader who would not incur any unwarranted risks. Dad was only as brave as he needed to be. He wasn’t the type to rush a machine gun nest with grenade in hand if a friendly tank was handy to get the job done. Dad returned to civilian life and opened a plumbing business. The VA assigned him a 30% permanent dissability because of his arm.

In 1950 Dad got a letter from the VA stating they’d upgraded his health status to 100% and he would no longer be given a dissability check. Dad wondered how they could arrive at this descision since he had not gone to the VA since 1947, however he always felt bad about taking the small check to begin with, because there were plenty of veterans he felt more deserving, so he did not question the VA descision.

Two weeks later Dad got recalled to the Army for the Korean War. Seems the country had urgent need for military specialists like engineers and pilots and such, and it took too long to train new ones. Dad was given thirty days to report. Had Dad been on the disabled list he could not have been recalled. Anyone see any subterfuge going on here?

He fought the recall notice and hearings were held, however the first hearing did not take place until he was already back in the army. He ended up in Korea before a final appeal was held. To add insult to injury the army assigned Dad to an engineer construction battalion. Dad had been a combat engineer in WWII and knew nothing about building airbases and roads.

After returning from Korea Dad was overwhelmed by the prospect of starting over in life once again and asked the army whether he could stay in. So that’s how my Dad ended up with a military carreer.

Two weeks before he retired in september of 1969 he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. It was sort of a freebie promotion given to help boost his retirement pay. Every other promotion he received was given in wartime. He came back from Korea a captain and in 1965 he was still a captain.

As a matter of fact he was the ONLY CAPTAIN in the army at that time who was a battalion commander, a postion which typically calls for at least a major and ideally a lieutenent colonel. He was reassigned late in 1965 as the operations officer of an engineer battalion going to Vietnam and was promoted to major while over there. Seems my Dad was only appreciated by the Army in times of war. Like John Wayne, Dad had a low “bull**** threshold”. Likely necessary in wartime but under appreciated in peacetime.

The highest accolade I ever heard given to my father when he was in the Army, was spoken by a grizzled 30+yr lifer Sergeant Major who pulled me aside and made a point of telling me that my Dad was the finest soldier he’d ever served with. This coming from a veteran who likely had a corporal assigned to him just to help carry his medals around!

Yeah, I know this all can be read as coming from a prejudicial viewpoint, me being his assumed loving son and all, but many people felt that way about my Dad right up till he died in 2008. I know I for one, will always think of him whenever I see the ‘duke” on the big screen.

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  1. Thank you for sharing the memories of your “Duke.” He sounds like the kind of guy they should have cloned for leadership in tough times. 

    • Thank you Kelley for reading and commenting upon my article on Military Brat life. It’s a bit difficult for me to write such an article because I feel that others will naturally assume I’m a bit predjudicial on the subject and that always brings to question it’s veracity. I assure you that others with no vested interests felt the same towards my Father. He was just a great person to have in your corner!

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