What price, this sacrifice?

It has been sometime since my last post. I have been compelled to write today because I was prompted by a message from a cousin. With the COVID-19 virus that has interrupted our routines, she has been giving virtual Sunday School lessons for her class. The lesson she shared yesterday spoke of the sacrifice of loved ones lost in war.

Memorial Day reminds us each year at this time to pay tribute to those in uniform who never came back home. Many of us, many family and friends have been touched by the loss of someone in uniform. For some, multiple family members have given their life in the service of their country.

This is the story of one of my family members. My great-uncle, Jesse Lawrence Caston was born on April 20, 1893. He was the eldest child to Joseph and Elizabeth Caston. He grew up in a mill village in the shadow of the Pepperton Cotton Mill. As a young man, he would later join other residents of the mill village as an employee of the cotton mill serving as a laborer/machinist. The guns of August would herald in the beginning of a World War in 1914. Within three years, the United States would be brought into the war, and soon hundreds of thousands of men would be called up to serve.

He registered with the draft board on June 5, 1917. The local draft board selected him for service and on April 2, 1918, PVT Jesse L. Caston, service number 1,933,313, reported for duty at Camp Gordon, Ga. He trained as an infantryman until June 8 and then embarked on the USS Susquehana on June 22 as a member of Company G, 148th Infantry, 37th Division.

On August 19, the 37th Division, along with three other American divisions, was attached to the Belgian, French 6th and British 2nd Armies in support of the allied offensives in Flanders. This major offensive was known as the Ypres-Lys Operation. The 148th Infantry fought in Recicourt and Avocourt for three strenuous months until the allied victory had been won.

The price of that victory was high. My uncle was one of those soldiers who paid that price. Through the ancestry and genealogical research done by another cousin, a glimpse into his sacrifice is revealed from his service/death card.

Caston, Jesse L. 1,933,313 Pvt

Engagements: North-west of Verdun

Wounds received in action: Wounded severely about Oct 17/18

Served overseas from June 22/18 to October 22/18

Died of broncho pneumonia on Oct 22, 1918.

My great-grandparents received the notice from the War Department on Saturday, Nov. 16, announcing the death of their son. Te dispatch went on to say that Pvt Caston died on October 22, from gas and pneumonia.

I cannot fathom the sorrow that they must have felt that day. The Armistice had been signed and announced just five days earlier on November 11th. I can only think that they were happy that the war was over and Jesse would be home soon. That was not to be. The family would have to revisit their sorrow almost three years later when his body was finally brought home by the War Department.

At what price was his sacrifice? A young man’s life taken away. He would never have the love of a wife. He would never feel the joy of watching his children play. The mill lost a hard worker. The community lost a good man with potential to bring so much to the community. His mother and father lost their oldest son. His siblings lost their big brother. His family lost forever a piece of their hearts.

It is why I tell his story and why I will continue to tell his story from now on so my children and my children’s children will remember his sacrifice. I am chilled to think that he lay on his death bed in a Red Cross hospital in Warwickshire, England with no family around him, only to hope that he was tended softly by caring nurses. In his last breath, I am sure he knew that he was loved by his family. I pray his spirit sees that he will continue to be remembered and honored not only on Memorial Day, but everyday.

The “V”

As a boy of five years old, I attended Kindergarten at Mrs. Knight’s Kiddie College. Our classes took place in the First Baptist Church. We would have our recess behind the church where some swing sets and see saws were located. But sometimes, we would go and play in a grassy area beside the church. This area was bordered by two rows of hedges which converged into a point, thus we called it, The “V”.

Kindergarten would not be my last time in The “V”. A few years later, I would join the Royal Ambassador’s. The Royal Ambassador’s is a Bible-centered, church-based organization for boy’s in grades 1-6. We would load up in my mother’s Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser station wagon and she would drop us off between The “V” and the church. Our group would meet every week and we would stimulate our minds and spirits with teachings from the Bible. After our classroom instruction, we would exercise our bodies in The “V”. We would usually have a game of football or dodgeball. My mother would wash many a pair of blue jeans with grass stains picked up at The “V”.

Boys grow up. They get their first cars and forget about some of the things they did just a few years earlier. My ’67 Mustang would pass by The “V” hundreds of times as I drove on the “main drag” in my hometown.  Sometimes I would glance over and give it a cursory look, remembering throwing a football within its confines, but most times, I never gave it a thought. The First Baptist Church would move to a new building on a new property. The old church would still serve as a house of worship for another denomination in town. All the while, The “V” continued to stand vigil over 3rd street.

I would go on to college, then military service and then make a home in another city. Over the course of thirty years, I would come home to visit my parents and each time would find me driving down 3rd street and passing by The “V” once again. One evening, I was on the phone with my mother and she said that the city and county were going to erect a Veteran’s Memorial on a spot next to the old First Baptist Church. Upon hearing that, I knew exactly where it would be located. It had to be, The “V”. No more fitting place would be suited to stand as a memorial. The symbolism of The “V” is fitting for honoring the Veteran, but it also stands for Victory. Long before the iconic two finger “peace sign” of the late sixties, Winston Churchill first used the gesture as a symbol for Victory. To me, Churchill’s symbol holds more meaning, for without Victory, there is no peace.

During one of our evening chats, my mother mentioned that she would be sending me some forms to fill out for the Veterans memorial. The memorial committees plan was to have individual engravings of each veteran’s service information as part of the monument. She also asked me to fill in the service information for two of my deceased brothers and my father. My surviving brothers filled out their individual information and my oldest brother filled out one for his father.

Time passed and I received another call from my mother. She said, “They are going to dedicate the memorial on the Saturday after Veterans Day. I sure would like for you to come over so we can go together.” I said, “Of course” and confirmed the time I would pick her up.

It was a cold, crisp November morning and the sun shined brightly. I walked into my mother’s house and she was standing in the kitchen with an eager look in her eyes. She smiled and said, “Are you ready to go?” I answered back, “I sure am” and I gave her a hug. She was beautiful. You would not think that she was 89 years old. Her hair and make-up were perfect and she was wearing a stunning overcoat in her favorite color, red. She was also prepared. She had a thermos of coffee and the ever-present snacks in her purse.

We drove to town and found a parking place next to the church across the street. As we made our way up to the memorial, my mother greeted many friends with a beaming smile on her face. There was already a large crowd assembled as we made our way to some chairs that stood next to the memorial. We sat down and waited on the ceremony to begin. As the first person began to speak, my mother reached for my hand and smiled. This memorial meant a great deal to my mother. She, and many more citizens of Butts County, had earned it.

Jackson Memorial 3

The architecture of the monument is beautiful and brilliant. At the point of The “V” stands our Nation’s flag and the flags of the different branches of the Armed Forces. Extending out on either side are angled walls which contain engraved stone square blocks. Each square is engraved with the name and service information of the veteran. At the top of The “V” stands the main feature of the memorial. It is an impressive black granite wall. On the front of the wall facing the street is the engraving, “Jackson Veterans Memorial Park”. The reverse side of the wall facing into The “V” is engraved at the top with, “All Gave Some, Some Gave All”. Below this inscription are the names of all the service men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice. Listed by war, the names detail the human cost of liberty that was paid by the citizens of a small rural county in middle Georgia.

Jackson Memorial 2

There were eight soldiers lost in World War I. One of those soldiers was my mother’s Uncle Jesse. She would never know him. Jesse was a soldier in Company G, 148th Infantry. He succumbed to the effects of gas in the trenches on the French frontier. He died on October 22, 1918. He was 25 years old.

There were over 40 service members lost in World War II. Two of those lost were first cousins of my mother. 2nd Lieutenant Robert C. Reynolds, U.S. Army Air Corps was killed when his bomber was shot down over Austria on May 10th, 1944. He was the only Air Corps serviceman killed in action from Butts County. He was 22 years old. Seaman 2nd Class Charles E. Carr, U.S. Coast Guard, was lost at sea in the Pacific Ocean on January 29th, 1945. His obituary stated that he was a popular young man and was a talented singer. He was 19 years old.

There were 3 service members lost in Korea. One of those was my mother’s first husband. 1st Lieutenant Carl L. Kelly, U.S. Army, was killed in Korea on February 12th, 1951 while leading an assault against the enemy. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry. He was 32 years old.

While sitting at the dedication ceremony, I gazed at the names on the monument wall. I then focused on the names from World War II. Over 40 families suffered the loss of a loved one. The population of the county was less than 10,000. Sacrifice was felt by all. The price of freedom and liberty does not come cheap.

Jackson Memorial 4

Inscribed at the bottom of the memorial wall are the words, “In this hallowed place, we remember the sons and daughters of Butts County who died so that liberty might live.” These words were penned by my cousin, J.M. Brewer. The year of the dedication, he also wrote a poignant piece titled, “In This Hallowed Place” on his blog at http://www.theliteratepen.com.

After the dedication ceremony concluded, my mother and I mingled in the crowd, speaking with family and friends. One of the encounters in the crowd was significant to the moment. My mother and I encountered “Buck” Thompson and his family. “Buck” was a World War II veteran who had served with my mother’s first husband Carl. They were both members of the “Jackson Rifles”. My father had also known “Buck” for many years. The smiles and greetings they exchanged were a metaphor for the significance of the day. They were both happy to see this standing tribute.

My mother and I would have lunch and then I said my goodbyes and headed for my home. As I drove by the memorial, I recalled the laughter and smiles of young boys playing between two rows of oblique hedges. I then reflected on the plaques with the names of all the veterans and the memorial wall with the names of the fallen. I was reminded of a statement that rings so true. “They sacrificed their tomorrows for our today.”

Jackson Memorial 1


This week will be the anniversary of one of the most pivotal moments in our nation’s history. Seventy-three years ago, United States Marines landed on the beaches of Guadalcanal. This marked the first ground action against the Japanese Empire following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Among those first Marines who stepped onto the beaches was PFC John J. Smolka. He would play a significant role in the campaign that ensued. My father met “Johnny” after the war and they became close friends. He would become my friend as well.
I could see his big grin through the open window of his beige Ford Torino as he turned into our driveway. I would interrupt my session of playing in the yard to rush over and say hello. He would get out of his car and say, “Hello Chipper!”, and I would greet him and walk with him into our home.
Throughout my childhood and into my years in high school, Johnny was a frequent dinner guest. When my father would roll in from work, he would announce, “Smolka’s coming over”, as he passed through the kitchen on his way to change his clothes. My mother silently acknowledged his statement by pulling another plate out of the cupboard and setting it on the table.
As we sat around our kitchen table, enjoying the bounty that my mother had prepared for supper, Johnny would entertain us with quips and quotes and comments on the news of the day. His voice was distinct and loud, and his diction was the envy of any college English professor. He could tell a story and capture his audience. As a young boy, I would savor those moments when Johnny would come over and visit with our family. He and my father would often enjoy a Michelob Lite after dinner. The meal and his beer would be his primer before he began the entertainment.
While I was going through my old footlocker to find any memorabilia of my friend, I could only find one photo with Johnny. On the left side of the picture is my mother and father, sharing a laugh about something. On the far right is a skinny kid with a “sheepish” grin on his face. That’s me. In the center of the picture, as he was in many things he did, was Johnny, looking forward with his effervescent smile and an eagle, globe and anchor tattoo on his arm.

Johnny Smolka 3089
Johnny grew up in Niles, Ohio. He was born in 1911 and would come into manhood around the beginning of the Great Depression. I asked Johnny one time what was the origin of his name Smolka. He promptly gave me a brief history lesson on his Bohemian ancestry. His ancestry was Czech. His ancestors had emigrated from the Bohemian lands that were then part of the Austrian Empire.
When Johnny was a young man during the Depression years, he spent time riding the rails of America as a “Hobo”. Listening to Johnny talk about the sights he had seen captured my imagination. Through his eyes, I could experience all of those places and all of his adventures. During those years, I think Johnny also dabbled in umpiring baseball games. One of his dreams and passions was to become a professional baseball umpire.
Johnny was nearly thirty years old when he joined the Marines in 1940. He was trained as a radio operator and would later serve as recreation director at two different Marine bases at Mt. Martha Balcombe in Australia and Puvuvu (Russell Island) during World War II. Johnny was literally “the old man” around his fellow Marine recruits. It may seem that Johnny had the “dream” job as a recreational director on a Marine base, but he paid his dues at Guadalcanal.
Sitting at our kitchen table, I would write down names of people and places that Johnny was talking about between his sips of beer. I wish I had kept those precious notes that held the names of Vandergrift, Puller and then PFC Smolka, but they may yet still be in a lost notebook in my mother’s attic. I remember Johnny telling a story about speaking with Major General Vandegrift on the beaches of Guadalcanal and listening to the discussions he was having with his commanders about the battle. He also talked about a Lieutenant Colonel who led the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, by the name of Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller. Former Marines need no explanation, but many of you who read this essay may not know of the names of Vandegrift and Puller, but students of history, particularly Military history, should recognize these two legendary figures in Marine Corps history.
I particularly remember a story Johnny told about being near the mouth of a river and under heavy fire from Japanese rifles, machine guns and mortars. The Marines on the beach needed some fire support from one of the Navy vessels stationed offshore. I guess being early in the war, radio communications between Marines on the beach and Navy ships was not optimal, but the Marines had a solution. That solution was accomplished by PFC John J. Smolka. In addition to being a proficient radio operator, Johnny was an expert in semaphore communication. Semaphore is the use of hand-held flags to communicate visually by holding the flags in different positions corresponding to letters of the alphabet. The Marine commander, Puller, wanted Johnny to signal a U.S. Navy Destroyer for fire support.
As I sat with eyes wide open and ears tuned in, Johnny spoke with excited tone and animation about being on the beach waving his semaphore flags and watching the sand around him being kicked up by Japanese rifle and machine gun fire. He stood up from the table and showed me how he would shift his feet and move to avoid the gunfire, all the while keeping his wits about him so he could signal accurately. Performing this action once and surviving was against the odds, Johnny did it twice.
Johnny survived that action and would continue on with the battles that followed. When I was a kid, as I listened to those stories of Guadalcanal, I would visualize Johnny squatting in the jungle brush barking into the handset of his radio. As I grew older and learned more of the history of this battle, I pondered the sheer force of will that Johnny possessed to stand out on that beach with Japanese riflemen and machine gunners drawing a bead on his position.
Lieutenant Colonel “Chesty” Puller thought so much of Johnny’s actions that day that he later recommended that he be awarded the Navy Cross, the U.S. Navy’s second highest award for valor. Johnny was ultimately awarded the Silver Star for his actions on Guadalcanal. Below is the citation as it reads in his service record.

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Corporal John J. Smolka (MCSN: 297414), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while serving with the First Battalion, Seventh Marines, FIRST Marine Division, during action against enemy Japanese forces on Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, 26 September 1942. On two occasions while under heavy fire from hostile machine guns and rifles, Corporal Smolka stood on an exposed stretch of beach near the mouth of the Matanikau River and communicated by semaphore to a United States Navy destroyer off shore. As a result of his courageous act, an officer of the First Battalion was picked up by boat and taken aboard the destroyer so that he might direct the gunfire of the vessel against enemy-held shore positions. Corporal Smolka’s heroic conduct, maintained with complete disregard of personal safety, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Action Date: September 26, 1942

The war was over. Johnny came home. His background in communications in the Marine Corps undoubtedly propelled him into the business of radio. Not to mention that he had the perfect voice for the airwaves. Johnny found himself in Griffin, Georgia as the station manager for WKEU. From the recollections I have from my father, he was “THE” man in Griffin radio for a number of years. Many who read this will know better than I the impact that Johnny had on the airwaves in Griffin. As I was working on this essay, I did an internet search on Johnny and found a recording that someone had made of one of his last “sign-offs” from the radio station. I played it and suddenly a cascade of childhood memories surged forth in my mind. His distinct voice was great to hear again.
Johnny would later take a role at WJGA in my hometown of Jackson, Georgia. I still have an old LP record that was going to be discarded from WJGA that Johnny gave me when I was a kid. While he was in Jackson, he was also a live-in caretaker for the local golf course in the county, Deer Trail Golf Club, which is called Hickory Hills now. My younger brother’s first set of clubs was a mismatched set that Johnny had accumulated over the course.
As a member of the media, Johnny had his finger on the pulse of local happenings in the middle Georgia area. When Johnny got wind of a movie that was going to be filmed in the neighboring town of Monticello, Johnny persuaded my mother to join him as an extra in the movie. So, my mother and Johnny got to be fans in the grandstands for the movie, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings”. The movie was about a traveling Negro league baseball team from the 1930’s. My mother met Billy Dee Williams. Johnny and my mother were both featured in a picture in our local newspaper, The Jackson Progress-Argus, for their performance as movie stars.

Smolka 1192
After graduating from high school, I didn’t see Johnny for a long time. I went to college and my visits home were few and far between so I would miss the occasional visit from Johnny. My parents told me later that Johnny had moved to live with his nephew. To my knowledge, Johnny never married and did not have a big family. In the fall of 1983, I would receive a remembrance from Johnny. Earlier that summer, I was a cadet attending ROTC Advanced camp for students seeking an Officer’s commission. Our newspaper printed a press release that was generated from my college about the Advanced camp. Johnny cut out the clipping from his newspaper and pasted it to a sheet of typing paper and wrote me a note. I would carry those words with me in my heart.

Smolka 2193
I have taken it as a personal mission to celebrate our veterans from World War II. In my humble eyes, it remains the greatest generation. Johnny was one of a kind. He had been a “hobo”, an umpire, a disc jockey, a Radio station manager, a golf club caretaker and a United States Marine. Johnny’s actions on that beach in Guadalcanal are referenced in two books. The first is “Guadalcanal” by Eric Hammel and the second one is “Chesty: The story of Lieutenant General Lewis B. Puller”, by Lieutenant Colonel Jon T. Hoffman. With his boisterous character, some would either love him or hate him. Count me as one who loved him.
Thank you Johnny for the laughter, the education and for giving a young boy confidence to pursue his dreams.
Semper Fi!!

Dedicated to the memory of John J. “Johnny” Smolka and to those valiant Marines who answered the call at Guadalcanal

A Memorial Day Tribute – The Picture on the Dresser

When I was a young lad of elementary school age, I would sometimes find my way into my parent’s bedroom and ramble in their closet. I would find my father’s Class A uniform coat and put it on and stare at myself in the mirror. I remember it was Khaki, a Class A uniform color in use back in the 50’s and 60’s. The right shoulder sleeve was adorned with the bright blue, white and red patch of the 11th Airborne Division. My father had been a soldier in World War II and also was in the Georgia National Guard in the 50’s. I would stand up straight and salute myself in the mirror, struggling to keep the oversized coat from swallowing my little arms.

As I practiced my close order drill, my eyes would drift around the bedroom and I would find a picture kept on my parent’s dresser. It was a picture of a man. It was not a picture of my father. The man in the picture looked a lot like my older brother Pat. Next to the picture in another frame was an award. My inquisitive eyes would try to read the big words……”The Silver Star awarded posthumously to”………. I would try to finish reading it and then I would eventually finish my drill then go and play.

As I grew older, I would eventually ask my mother who the man was in the picture. In her most loving way, she sat me down and told me that the man was my older brother’s father. She told me that he was a soldier and that he had been killed in a war. I had wondered why my brothers were so much older than me and they had a different last name.  I began to understand now why the picture was there and what it meant to my family and what it meant to me.


This reality would further touch me on a Memorial Day long ago. We got in our car and drove to the National Cemetery in Marietta, Georgia. As we drove through the cemetery, I looked out over the hundreds of headstones that stood over the rolling hills. Our car finally came to rest and we all got out. My mother had an arrangement of flowers that she had purchased from one of the flower shops in town. We walked up the hill and came to find the headstone of her late husband. We placed the flowers and said a prayer. We made our way back home that afternoon and we shared hot dogs and hamburgers at a family barbeque.

Years later, I would reflect on my family, a family with brothers who have different last names. I would think about the thousands of other families who had brothers and sisters with different last names, all with the common thread of ultimate sacrifice, the final devotion of service to a country and a way of life.

The victims of war are not only the soldier, the sailor, the airman or the marine; they are also the widows, the sons, the daughters, the mother’s and the father’s. They are the families that must pick up the pieces and move forward with their lives after the loss of a loved one from war. My mother was not yet 30 years old when she faced this reality, along with three young sons whose father would not be coming home.

I am led to believe that the people who originated the Memorial Day remembrances right after the Civil War, did so not only to remember the fallen, but also to aid their own grieving and healing process. A war where hundreds of thousands lost their lives seems unfathomable to us today, but was all too real for our ancestors.

We must dutifully remind ourselves that this is not just another three day weekend to open up the summer, but a solemn remembrance of those who have given their lives in war. I will always be reminded by a memory, a memory of a picture on my parent’s dresser.

In Memory of 1st Lieutenant Carl L. Kelly, Infantry, Killed in Action in Korea, 1951.

Awarded the Silver Star


Looking over a Fence

With the 4th of July Holiday approaching in the next few days, my thoughts are taking me back to 1985. That year, I spent 30 days patrolling the West German border as a young infantry officer on my first assignment. After that experience, I would never look at the 4th of July, the holiday, and all it stands for the same way.
The “Cold War” was still very much alive in Europe. German reunification and democratic reforms were only a few years away, but in the spring of 1985, walls and fences separated two different ways of life; one of freedom and one of oppression.
Hier Grenze
When I reported for duty, my company began preparing to conduct a “border augmentation mission”. A “border augmentation mission” was an operation designed for an infantry company to relieve a unit already in place patrolling the border. These missions were standard operations designed to allow the unit being relieved the opportunity to conduct training, participate in gunnery exercises and to give them some time off of the border. The unit we were relieving was part of the 2nd ACR (Armored Cavalry Regiment). Their base of operations was Camp Hof, a U.S. Army post situated opposite the East German and Czechoslovakian border. This would be the new duty station of A Co. 1st BN 7th Infantry for the next 30 days.
I traveled with the advanced party to Camp Hof to become familiar with the operations and coordinate the hand-off from the cavalry unit. As the newest officer to the company, I was being closely mentored by my Company Commander. We were conducting a border trace with our hosts when I caught my first glimpse of the border and the “fence”. I had seen pictures about it, I had read and studied about it, but to actually see the border and the physical separation of a land and a people was sobering.
East German Barber Pole
As our unit assumed the mission and began running operations, my duties included leading patrols and working in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center) monitoring patrol activity. There are three memories of that border mission that remain vivid in my thoughts after all these years. The first was of a patrol I was leading in a sector where several East German civilians were working outside the fence near the actual border. The actual border was marked by “barber pole” posts placed at certain intervals along the agreed upon border. The fence and obstacles were placed many yards within the East German side. As our patrol neared their work site, we stood feet away from our East German counterparts. With their weapons slung over their shoulders , the East German soldiers stood guard over the workers as they used their picks and shovels on a ditch. We were standing so close that I could plainly see the face of one of the workers shoveling in the ditch. An older gentleman, his blue eyes and haggard face told a story of resignation and despair. I will never forget his expression.
Border Pics141
The second memory illustrated the seriousness of our mission and the consequences of failing to follow standards and procedures. I was on duty in the TOC one day monitoring mission activity and patrol operations, when we were informed of a potential “border incident” by a higher headquarters. My commander was immediately summoned to the incident area and upon investigation, subsequently relieved the Lieutenant in charge of the patrol. My commander radioed into the TOC and ordered me to relieve the Lieutenant and assume command of the patrol and continue the mission. I learned from my commander that operational protocols had been breached and the potential for a serious “border incident’ was possible. Border incidents had the potential to create diplomatic and political issues.
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My third memory and perhaps the most significant in terms of my appreciation of freedom occurred on a night patrol. The sector we were patrolling that evening was home to a small town that had been literally split in half by the delineation of the border. The illustration could not have been starker of the difference between freedom and oppression. A wall physically separated the town in half. As I stood at an observation post, I looked over my shoulder at the West German part of the town. The West German part was illuminated and bright. The streets were clean and there was activity in the town. Looking the other way across the wall, the East German part of the town was dark and dirty. The town appeared static and motionless. The Western side of the town was vibrant and alive; the Eastern side was stale and dead. At that moment, I gained a real world vision of what freedom means and what is possible for man in a free society.
A few years later, the walls and fences would come down. Freedom would spread like wildfire over the former Eastern bloc of communist countries. I sometimes wonder what the other side of that town looks like today. I envision bright street lights and a seamless transition from one side of town into the other. Today, the German people celebrate Unity Day on October 3rd. It is a national holiday. East Germans joined West Germans in freedom and became one people again.
Looking over a fence in Germany nearly 30 years ago, I found fresh significance in our country’s own independence and freedom. I learned that what we have is a precious gift. A miracle of freedom realized and brought to life by our founding fathers. It must be refreshed and fought for eternally to preserve its meaning. As we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July with fireworks, cookouts and parades, let us be thankful for the freedom it represents and remember always the sacrifices that were made to preserve it.

Time with a Hero


During the course of our lives, we meet many different people from all walks of life. From our encounters, we gain new perspective and awareness and sometimes enlightenment. In 1990, as a young officer stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, I was assigned to the staff duty roster as was many of my peers. Once your name came up in the rotation, you could be assigned to a host of additional duties and assignments. One of those roles was that of an Escort Officer for visiting dignitaries, high ranking military officers from foreign countries and other high profile personalities that would visit the base. The Escort Officer was charged with fulfilling the itinerary and coordinating different functions during the visit.


Fort Benning is one of our premier Army bases and is the Home of the Infantry. Each year, the Infantry School trains thousands of recruits, non-commissioned officers and officers for warfare. The base was a bustle of activity and there were always visitors. One day, my name came up in the rotation and I was called to the Post HQ to receive my assignment. Upon reading my orders, I was struck with the emotions of being both tremendously excited and terribly nervous. I was going to be the Escort Officer for a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.


The veteran whom I would have the honor and privilege of escorting was none other than Colonel Lewis L. Millett. During the Korean War, then Captain Millett was cited for valor for leading the last major American bayonet charge against an enemy. He sported a distinctive red handle-bar mustache, this would be his moniker. Part of his citation reads, “His dauntless leadership and personal courage so inspired his men that they stormed into the hostile position and used their bayonets with such lethal effect that the enemy fled in wild disorder.” Colonel Millett had a long and storied military career beginning in World War II. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940, he soon went AWOL (Absent without Leave) so he could join the Canadian Army and get into to fight against Nazi Germany. After serving in England with Canadian troops, he transferred back to the U. S. Army after Pearl Harbor in 1942. A year later he would be court-martialed for desertion, but by then he had distinguished himself in combat and was a sergeant fighting in Italy. He had already taken part in the invasion of North Africa and had earned the Silver Star for action in the Tunisian Campaign. He was fined $52 for his court-martial and later received a battlefield promotion to lieutenant.


Also travelling with Colonel Millett was retired Warrant Officer Keith Payne of the Australian Army. Warrant Officer Payne had been awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in action while serving in Vietnam. The Victoria Cross is the United Kingdom’s highest military decoration awarded for valor. Warrant Officer Payne was quite the personality also, charismatic and flamboyant, his distinctive Aussie accent was forceful and commanding.


I remember going to receive them in my best pressed BDU’s and spit-shined jump boots, standard SOP for a good North Georgia grad. Although age and time had changed his hair and mustache from red to white, his features and presence were striking. He wore his class A uniform and my first gaze peered at the little blue ribbon with the small white stars, his Medal of Honor award. I snapped off the best salute I could muster and greeted him firmly, “Good morning Colonel Millett and welcome to Fort Benning!” He crisply returned my salute and firmly responded, “Thank you Captain Daniel! Great to be here again.”  Warrant Officer Payne was equally striking in his Aussie uniform sporting their distinctive shorts. We made our way to our van and then headed off to make our stops on the itinerary.


One of the visits on our itinerary which has been etched in my memory all these years is a stop we made to a unit of infantry recruits training in the field. Upon nearing our destination, this was the most visibly excited I had seen the two heroes. It was a pretty hot day, even in the fall, and Colonel Millett had taken off his class A jacket, but as we exited the vehicle, Colonel Millett grabbed his jacket and looked over at me and winked as he said, “I can’t let down the troops, they will want to see this little ribbon.” I smiled and said, “Yes sir, they certainly will.” When he addressed the troops, you could see that he was in his element. He spoke to them with empathy, but his delivery was confident and commanding. He was a leader. As I listened to him speak, my mind drifted to imagine his speech to his troops some forty years before, as he stood at the base of a cold, wind-swept and heavily defended hill in Korea and commanded his troops to fix bayonets and attack. I could see the young officer in battle dress with the turned up cap and red handle-bar mustache yelling the order to charge. I could see him leading and advancing on the enemy with tenacity and purpose, driving out the enemy with the fury of cold steel. My mind returned to the present and I saw the same passion from a distinguished veteran with white hair and mustache, his presence still captivating.


Warrant Officer Payne would not go unnoticed, as we were walking among the troops; one errant soldier was resting his hand over the muzzle of his weapon. Warrant Officer Payne slapped him on the shoulder and pointed his finger in the young troops face and said, “Keep your bloody hand off of that muzzle if you don’t want it blown off!” The poor soldier’s eyes were as big around as saucers as he corrected himself and held the weapon properly. The OIC (Officer in Charge) of the site and me glanced over at each other and shrugged. Slapping the soldier about the shoulders was not generally the approved method of correcting a soldier, but neither I nor the OIC were going to admonish a recipient of the Victoria Cross. I will guarantee that the soldier never made that mistake again.


As we departed on our way back into the main post, the two men were in great spirits albeit a little tired from the day’s activities. We talked about things going on in the Army at that time and they shared stories of their time in service and experiences they had throughout the years. It was a genuine pleasure to not only learn about their experiences, but to also learn about them personally, as men. They had families; they had children and grandchildren, aches and pains of growing old, all of the things you think about with “normal” people. The fact is they were “normal” people, certainly blessed with some extraordinary traits, but never the less, “normal” people. This was struck home when I asked Colonel Millett, “What was it like being a hero?” His answer was telling, he leaned back and said, “Well Captain Daniel,” then he leaned back into me and his words grew softer, “Chip, we are all heroes. Every one of us who makes a stand for freedom and it’s our responsibility to continue to fight for that freedom.” He leaned back into his seat and then said, “Oh, it’s a lot of fanfare and a few free meals here and there!” Warrant Officer Payne grinned as he took a drag off of his English cigarette and we continued on to their quarters.


Their VIP quarters were situated in one of the “Quads” at Fort Benning, the “Quads” were used as quarters for students staying at the post and theirs had been specially upgraded for VIP’s. When we reached our destination, I was a bit saddened that the day was going to end, and then Colonel Millett asks, “Will you come in and have a drink with us?” I said, “It would be my honor sir.” I walked in to their quarters with them and they had a dayroom that was stocked with refreshments for them. Warrant Officer Payne had a scotch and Colonel Millett and I had a beer. We had some more laughs and stories and then it was time to leave. We shook hands and we all wished each other well. Driving home that evening, I thought about the day and the wonderful experience I shared with two war heroes. I called my parents that night to tell them about my Escort Duty with Colonel Millett and Warrant Officer Payne. I told my dad, “I spent the day and had a beer with a hero today.” My dad said that I would remember that for the rest of my life. I sure have and I sure will.