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My Grandfather In-Law: A True Veteran Hero

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Sometimes A majority of the time I am an idiot. Today is one such case. My wife and I are scrambling around to get some chores done like it's any other Wednesday. I knew that it was Veteran's Day as that is the reason my military wife is home to begin with. Let me rewind to last week. I had been trying to figure out a way to tell a story that needs telling... one that has nothing to do with being lazy/efficient or managing money. How can I go so far off-topic to tell a war story of my grandfather in-law? It took until about 3:38PM today (Veteran's Day) for my fissure-lacking brain to realize that this is the one day of the year where it's completely appropriate to write this story. (As a special bonus, writing this article is also a Get-Out-of-Cleaning-Free card from my wife.)

Chronologically, the story starts in 1950 during the Korean War, but for me, it started this past August. Regular readers know that my wife and I relocated from Boston to San Francisco three years ago. We make two trips a year to Boston to visit with family. One of them was this past August for three main reasons 1) my niece's 1st birthday 2) my grandfather-in-law's 80th birthday and 3) no snow! While enjoyed seeing Boston without snow and had good time with friends and family at my niece's birthday, the interesting thing happened at my grandfather-in-law's 80th birthday. (Note: From here on out, I'll just refer to him as "Pa" as grandfather-in-law is rather lengthy.)

For Pa's birthday, it would be decided we would go out to lunch in a beautiful seaport town near where he lives. My wife and I show up to see Pa with my mother-in-law and someone strange man we've never met before. He's from the local Veteran's society and he's doing a story on Pa for their newsletter. This really didn't rub me or my wife that well. When we come to visit, we generally have one day with each branch of the family and this was our only chance to spend time with Pa. Perhaps selfishly, we didn't want to share the time with a reporter for a newsletter with a circulation we estimated at under one-hundred people. (Okay maybe more, but again, remember we are really, really upset by this.) We gritted our teeth though. Obviously Pa must have invited him... and at his 80th birthday party, he has every right to do the tango with Bozo the Clown if he wants.

We noticed a newspaper article copied at every place setting. My mother-in-law tends to send us a newspaper article each week, so we kind of passed it off as something that could be looked at later. We knew it was about Pa, but it would seem rather rude for us to ignore Pa or the lunch to take time to read the article. Besides, if there was really something we should read there, Pa would surely tell us.

Flash forward to the following week. By this time, my wife is finally calmed about the newspaper reporter incident. She suspected that my mother-in-law had invited him in some kind of conspiracy to gain publicity for Pa while ignoring our trip. (My wife and her mother rarely agree on anything and I have to say that my wife's suspicions don't seem far-fetched if you know my mother-in-law). My wife is away on a business trip and calls me up as she usually does at the end of her workday. She asked if I had read the newspaper article from that day. I confessed that I hadn't. It turns out that neither did my wife... nor my mother-in-law read it either. That is until that day when my mother-in-law sent the e-mail to my wife saying, "OMG, you gotta read this now!"

The story goes back to 1950, specifally the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. I dont know anything about the Korean War. My US history classes started from the Columbus and took us up to the Model-T before running out time in the school year. You can read the Wikipedia article here, but I'll give you a short version as I understand it (please don't hold me to complete accuracy here). Twenty to thirty thousand US troops were surprised by Chinese forces who range from an estimated 60,000 to 200,000 in number. The temperature is 30 degrees below zero. A small wound is very much a death sentence in those conditions under those circumstances. What ensued was considered the biggest retreat in US military history. An estimated 3,000 people died and and another 13,000 were severely injured, mostly from frostbite. It's estimated that 35,000 Chinese also died in the battle. Even with my weak history knowledge, that's one hell of a bloodbath.

Pa's convey was under heavy fire. In his words, it was a "complete slaughter." He said that frozen weapons had made many in his troop helpless. The sounds of hand-to-hand combat and screams of fallen soldiers were all you heard... if your ears even worked in that kind of cold. Pa said that you had to keep moving, because your feet would catch frostbite. It didn't matter that his feet were severely blistered or his calf was full of shrapnel... you must keep moving. The retreat lasted for days where the only sleep he had was when they dug a foxhole... one on the lookout for the enemy, the other sleeping. Looking back, Pa said the hardest part was leaving soldiers behind, noting that even today he cries thinking of it.

For the first time in several days fortune smiled on Pa. He hitched a ride on a US tank. However, with no room on the inside, he held on to the outside. He continued to using different modes of transportation until he got to where his troop was dispatched from. Pa was saved.

Now Pa is a simple man. He just wants to play with dog, eat lunch at the Border Cafe, and watch the Boston College Eagles games. He is active in the community, and even has a donut named from him at local bakery (he invented it). My wife never knew his story. My wife's mother never knew his story. We doubt that Pa's wife who died six months ago heard his complete in any kind of detail. He lived with it every day for 60 years probably thinking, "What good is it going to do anyone to tell it? Why not move on and enjoy every moment of life."

In the story, it came up that Pa was up for a Purple Heart as well as a few other millitary accomidations. However, the building that housed the records burned to ground and the information was lost. Pa just shrugs his shoulders at that. I suppose for a man who has experienced what he has, a Purple Heart doesn't mean much - it might even be a reminder of a time in his life that he'd rather forget. However, it turns out that through a random chance encounter, my mother-in-law bumped into the nurse to took care of him when he got back to the Army base. Through that eye-witness testimony it looks like Pa will be receiving his much delayed Purple Heart.

My wife and I had seen him wear a wool Army hat a dozen times to only think that it's fashionable. It has no markings or indicators that it was part of a uniform. I wonder if it could talk if it would have told us the story that Pa wouldn't.

Posted on November 11, 2009.

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4 Responses to “My Grandfather In-Law: A True Veteran Hero”

  1. Evan says:


    Amazing story. My mom just told me the other day about her father (who I never met) – he would NEVER talk about what he did in WWII, but knew he was stationed in Hawaii and he slept with a gun nearby every night.

    Check out http://www.ancestry.com/military – you may be able to find cool things about your Pa (it is free until Nov 13th)

  2. thisisbeth says:

    That’s an awesome story–I’m glad you got to hear the story. Thanks for sharing with us.

    My grandpa fought in WWII. We never heard stories. My dad knows the most stories about his father-in-law. My mom never heard them because my grandma always insisted “No one wants to hear your war stories!” My mom often regrets not saying, “But I do!”

    On the good side, since his death we found letters he and his brothers sent from the battlefields. It gives a little sense of what they went through.

  3. Great story Lazy Man and Energy Gal. Really great. Glad to hear that your grandpa will be getting the Purple Heart.

    Lots of war stories from my family too — about WWI and WWII. Too many and too long to relate here, but maybe i’ll tell you next time I see you Lazy….

  4. That’s awesome about the Purple Heart.

    My dad was in Okinawa at the end of WWII. Didn’t see any action. The one story we heard is about a cliff that the Japanese jumped from rather than surrender. Lots of bones at the base. My dad – the most mild mannered person you would ever meet – picked up a finger bone as a souvenir. It seems extremely odd that he would have done this – completely out of character. Luckily, it got lost in transit.

    Man, I wish I could get a donut named after me.

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