Friday, January 6, 2012

Howitzer Howard.

I have always held my grandfather to be an exceptional man. Ever since I was a child I would marvel at his noble gait, and the way he would humbly hold his head as he gazed about. As I grew up I came to understand that he had served this nation when asked to without question and did his duty like so many others. A fact that instilled in me from my earliest memories a life-long admiration for that service and a willingness to do the same.

Sadly, I must confess that while I scored highly on the ASVAB, a standard aptitude test given in high school to assess students who might later choose to serve, my health prohibited my desires. Now, my grandfather was not my only family member to ever serve, but out of my two grandfathers he was the only one alive as well as the only one I had ever been able to get to know. For me he was and still is a shinning example.

I have always maintained a fascination with history, ancient cultures, languages, but military history has always held a special place for me. Perhaps it is a burning desire to know all that I can about those who came before us and fought to earn for us the right to stand where we now do. But for whatever the reason I have and still do find a passion within me for knowing all that I can. And for that reason alone something has always puzzled me. All I have ever known about my grandfather was that he had served in the military, he had seen some of Europe including Germany and a handful of humorous anecdotes.

For years I would relish those small moments when I was regaled with jests about comedic events in training or how silly fellow soldiers were when they would trade my grandfather their chocolate for cigarettes. To him the trade was ludicrous since he didn't smoke and chocolate was a precious simple delight. But as I grew up and studied more and more I often found myself driving over to deliver a meal of left overs or some other little task and would set for hours just talking to him. And in all those times he never said anything more about his service. No real mention of his branch, his MOS (basically what he was designated as his duty), or even anything as simple as his station or unit assignment.

I have always heard countless tales about my own paternal grandfather's exploits growing up, but my maternal grandfather was somewhat of a mystery. Even when I would tactfully attempt to broach the subject I was never even met with a simple "I'd rather not talk about." When other relatives were asked, nobody knew, not even my own mother. To her knowledge, not even as a little girl was anything ever said nor did anyone ever ask or speak of it.

But in the last several months my grandfathers health has been declining somewhat prompting him to move in with my parents. Curiosity has been something I have always had a weakness for, so I soon found myself turning back to research. Only this time I was able to locate public records thanks to the internet. Located within the national archives was a singular treasure in the form of  The World War II Army Enlistment Records File and Access to Archival Databases.

Thanks to what some might say was trivial information I was able to see his army serial number, when he enlisted and a handful of other facts. For example, he was only 19 years old and had only a year of high school education at the time. Armed with this info I was able to let my mother know at least something about her own father. Little did I know what something so trivial might unlock.

To my very delight I was asked to mention my findings to my grandfather. I will admit I was more than a little apprehensive. The feeling soon melted away when I was met with the singular quiet unassuming claim of: "You know, I still remember my service number." Instantly a veil was lifted and I was given insight into so much I had never known. Once enlisted my grandfather was placed into a standard infantry unit as a rifleman. However something set him apart, something that for whatever the reason lead him to being reassigned within a few weeks to a separate unit. That unit, as he likes to refer to it, was known as a '105.' For those of us unfamiliar, it was a unit who operated a 105 mm M2A1 (M101A1) howitzer. A standard light field howitzer for the united states in world war 2. A piece of rugged and durable equipment that has seen effective use for many years, even still seeing use today.

My grandfather's was responsible for the weapons angle of elevation and trajectory according to him. A job that no doubt required more than just a point it and pull a trigger approach. Which happens to be a revelation that has helped me to understand something about my grandfather that use to make me think he was somehow magical. You see, he has always been a skilled carpenter, one often sought after. But I have always marveled at how, almost by instinct he could look at something and within a split second comment on it's angle or distance with laser like precision. A feat that now makes perfect sense.

Another thing he said to me has stuck in my mind like finding a old puzzle almost complete but still missing some vital piece. He said to me upon learning of the national archives: "It is good these things are memorialized now. So many have forgotten or their loved ones don't know what was done. I'm glad they are recorded." The remark slowly festered in the back of my mind nagging at me. Until one day my father added a key piece of insight.

While watching t.v. together a history program was on, one that documented the liberation of Dachau a German concentration camp noted for it's horrific and sadistic events. Already thinking back on his life my grandfather said to my father such simple words regarding the documentary: "We were there." The phrase alone slammed home in me the name of a German area he had mentioned only a handful of time. A name that given the classes and personal research should of caught me sooner. My grandfather had taken part in events pertaining to such locations noted for their atrocious activities, had seen some of their nightmarish scenes himself, and I had never known.

He has never complained of his time in service to his country nor has he claimed dubious honors. All he has ever done was nod his admittance that he served and that was that. It has always hurt my heart at how some veterans are treated or how some families take the service of loved ones for granted without knowing the extent to which they have sacrificed for others. And yet some of these noble souls have done all that we asked of them, without question or fail and then simply went on without praise or gratitude.

My grandfather has always told me as he looked up from a fresh cut length of wood that if a job is worth doing at all, it is worth doing right the first time. At his very core has always been this belief that commitment to a job done right is all the validation needed. Many a cabinet or home has benefited from his belief. And never once has anything ill been spoken of his work, nor has he proclaimed with pride at his efforts.

Fred R. Howard, one of the noblest souls I have ever had the honor to know, whose blood runs within my veins. So much gratitude is owed to men like him. We must never forget what they have done. If you have a loved one who has ever served in war time or peace, thank them. Let them know their service is appreciated. Honor their memory, for we walk a road paved by the sacrifices of those who came before us. And if you know nothing of their service, endeavor to learn. You owe it to them and yourself.