Review: GRAMPA JOE as told to Troy Montes (El Salvador)

 

grandpa-joeGrampa Joe: Portrait of a Quiet Hero
(memoir)
Troy D. Montes (El Salvador 2004–06), editor
Patriot Media Incorporated
May 2016
$14.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96

Troy D. Montes holds degrees in International Studies, Spanish and Linguistics from the University of Oregon and a degree in Philosophy from Portland State University, as well as a Master’s degree in Conflict Transformation from the School for International Training Graduate Institute. Troy is also a poet and writer. This last skill shows brilliantly in his impeccably edited memoir told to him by his Grampa Joe. The book was published by Patriot Media: Publishing American Patriots, an organization I’d never heard of, but found touchingly appropriate for Joe’s story.

Joseph Manly Davis was a humble hero of World War II, serving in the most violent terrain in Europe – Normandy, Battle of the Bulge, through France, Belgium and Germany. In 1998 when he was eighty years old, his grandson, Troy, became his biographer, editing his typewritten notes, and being amazed at the stories that his Grampa Joe had never before told, but that haunted him into old age.

Tears streamed down Joe’s cheeks as he talked to Troy about his buddies who never made it home. His past came to life, his memory was fresh as though it had all happened only days ago, as if he had just returned from the war and the battlefields of Europe.

We now know that PTSD also affects veterans of wars fought decades ago. As the long-range memory of the aged improves, while short-range memory dwindles, veterans in their eighties and nineties suffer again the devastating experiences they suppressed for so long. As Joe recalled,

Uncle Sam referred to shell-shocked soldiers as men suffering from battle fatigue. This was a euphemism for a nervous breakdown. Those who suffered from this condition were given big bluish pills that we had named blue beetles. The medication put GIs into a three-day coma at the end of which they appeared to be rested and calm again. The army gradually worked these poor souls back into combat.

In the context of today’s afflicted military personnel, this is a piece of history I had never heard, but which all Americans should, for in many cases, PTSD is often still viewed as “battle fatigue.”

The book is sprinkled with old photos of Joe in military training and in war zones. He’s a tall, gangly fellow with a heart-shaped face. There’s kindness in his eyes, along with a look of pride in his uniform. Even though he endured much suffering through his life, the later photos reflect a goodness, perhaps a trace of sadness that reminded me of actors of yore. Gary Cooper comes to mind.

Joe was a country boy, raised initially in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He went to an elementary school where one teacher taught all twenty-six children — first through eighth grades. They went to class by horse and buggy, sharing rides with neighborhood kids.

When he was twenty-three, Joe joined the United States Army in Clark County. “True to army style, all the city boys were put on horses and all the farm boys were assigned to motorcycles.” In 1940 he “ . . . volunteered for the draft for one year and had only four months left to serve when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, drawing Uncle Sam into World War II. I was in the army for the duration.”

Joe was assigned to General Patton’s Third Army, “. . . but we saw neither hide nor hair of the great general ever.” He sailed across the Atlantic to Chichester, England. There, he recalled a Liberator bomber that crashed into a laundromat, killing several women. He comments, “The English people suffered so many terrible losses during the war.” In June 1944 his unit sailed across the Channel to Utah Beach and the Battle of Normandy. They later moved across Belgium and France. As part of General Patton’s race to Paris, Joe’s unit made the breakthrough at Saint-Lô where “ . . .they had the Nazis on the run.”

He went to Paris with a few buddies. They enjoyed the typical tour of nightclubs, the Dôme des Invalides, museums and churches, artists along the Seine, and sidewalk cafés where Parisians were celebrating freedom once again, thanks to Allied forces.

Joe lost his innocence in bloody battles where he saw things like a dead German soldier being run over by a six tanks. “. . .there wasn’t a trace of his body left. No one ever said war was kind.” After the infantry captured a town in France, Joe saw a huge pile of dead Germans. “War is hell for all sides.” Seeing his buddies die affected Joe deeply. When the machine gunner on his jeep was shot, he rushed to him, but “. . . felt that dying quiver as he went limp . . .. He was another one of the good kids who died too soon and too far away from home.”

Joe mentions “luck” several times, intuitions that saved his life on many occasions. He had “gut feelings” about danger and skirted death as a result. He was separated from his unit a few times, but managed to crawl back to find his buddies.   “. . . if someone was lost for three days or more and out of contact with headquarters, Uncle Sam wrote him off the books. Missing or dead.”

On a lighter note, some of the soldiers decided to check a village house for enemies, but instead found a cask of excellent cognac, which, of course, they tasted. They reported their find and “ . . . patrols went back and forth for the next couple of hours. Everybody from the captain on down got drunk.”

On to Aachen, Germany, a city on the Wurm River that had been almost destroyed by the Allied army. His unit came to the Hürtgen Forest where the Nazi’s infamous German howitzer, “Big Bertha,” was buried into a hillside.

General Eisenhower visited the troops and awarded hero medals “. . . for the same things we did day in and day out, and we never thought ourselves to be heroes.”

Returning to the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 he had a feeling that “. . . it would not be a safe day.” Joe was shot in the leg and blasted by a grenade. . . . He was saved by medics, put into an ambulance and sent to a hospital in Brussels. From there he was loaded into a boxcar and sent to Paris, then on to England. There he was en route to another hospital in an ambulance that catapulted off an icy road. Joe was rescued and brought to another nearby facility for surgery on his mangled leg. While in hospital a colonel and his aides appeared to pin a Purple Heart on Joe’s hospital gown. He felt he didn’t deserve the honor for just being wounded; he lamented his buddies who were killed.

Subsequently, Joe flew to an army hospital in Ogden, Utah where he was fitted with a special boot and brace for his knee. Joe doggedly exercised until he was well enough to walk without the brace. He was discharged from the U.S. Army in October 1945.

Joe ended up in Beaverton, Oregon working for a Buick dealership. He met his wife, Hazel and, as they say, they lived happily ever after. Grampa Joe was finally awarded another purple heart and other commendations in 1990.

The last thing Grampa Joe had to say in his interviews was a tribute to his grandson, Troy.

I’d like to say that I may be his hero, but I am as proud of this young man and his         accomplishments as he is of me.

Reviewer Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon, as well as several travel memoirs. (amazon.com or lkaldi@hotmail.com).

 

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