I want to introduce you to an acquaintance of mine from church: Bob Metcalf, 85, a distinguished veteran. Bob served in the Army in World War II and has hand-written his memoirs which he calls “The Reluctant Warrior.” Bob’s wife Bev is a friend and also a local artist and they are very dear people, living life to the fullest.
When I was visiting Bev for an art lesson a few months back, she told me that Bob had written his war memoir in prep for an oral history to be done by a friend. He wasn’t feeling well the day I visited, but he got out his memoir to show me when I asked. As soon as I saw it, I knew I wanted to type it for him and insert photos later that he would provide. Neither Bob or Bev are computer users. Since then, he has loaned me a book very precious to him which was published after the war: “We Ripened Fast: The Unofficial History of the Seventy-Sixth Infantry Division.” He gave me the page numbers to specifically read to follow the Division’s movement.
Bob’s memoir begins, “Warning! This material happened sixty-five years ago. It has been stored in an eighty-four-year-old brain sixty-four years. While I do not, and cannot guarantee that this is the whole truth, it is the best I can do at this time.”
All the males in his senior high class in Los Angeles, Bob said, were drafted simultaneously. His principal pleaded with the draft board to just let them graduate, but to no avail. They were all loaded on a number five street car in the small hours of the night and sent off in the dark to downtown L.A. for their physicals prior to reporting for basic training.
Bob’s unit’s first assignment was to quell a riot in a California Japanese internment camp and his first poignant chapters are about his experiences there. And then the 40,000 member division was assigned to the European theater.They arrived via troop ships in England and shipped to France next. He recounts the journey vividly. Bob took a bullet in the leg in Trier, Germany and spent hospital time; the bullet is still there to this day. He often mentions fighting “in the bulge” which, as I am typing, I assume to be what history refers to as the Battle of the Bulge. When I read the Division's book, everything will become clear, I'm sure.
Every page of Bob’s memoir, which bounces from horror, to humor, and everywhere in between, is priceless and I've only scanned through it so far. I know he was experiencing all this through the innocent mind of a very young man in his late teens. He often writes about how fortunate he was to survive, “An angel on my shoulder.” His mother was forever knitting him heavy socks and even a wool hood with eye holes which got through the lines to him.
War is definitely survival of the fittest, which I personally have never experienced. Every time I hear or read stories of veterans recounting their memories, I realize what a wuss I am. Here’s a sentence of Bob’s experience that chilled me, although many did. “To show how unfeeling we got, here’s an example. When we stopped to eat a K ration on a long march, it had been raining. The only dry place to sit was on a dead German’s body. I didn’t think a thing about it while I ate.”
And the months passed, the battles were described along with every day living on the lines. Then the war was winding down and as they moved out to rejoin their old outfit, house after German house had white sheets in the windows signifying surrender.
“On arriving at my old unit I found that I knew very few of them. The unit had run into the one town in Germany that was built with California style stucco houses instead of stone. There was no cover and the men were shot to pieces while I was in the hospital. Talk about guardian angels. We went on almost to the Czech border where we were told to stop and wait for the Russians. Big mistake! While we sat on our behinds for two weeks, the Russians took over many countries. We were living in a farm house one day when a Jeep came screaming up to us with the news that THE WAR IS OVER!!!"
"At this point we went stupid. We fired all our ammo in the air in celebration. The next thing we knew, here comes a Stuka dive bomber. It didn’t fire. It was just looking for a safe place to land, which it did, down the road. Peace! We didn’t know how to act.”
By the way, this is Bob's wife Bev. They met at college. At the very end of Bob’s memoir, he tells a marvelous story about civilian life. “I decided the day after getting out of the Army to take up my life. I needed two courses to get into U.S.C. They were German and physics. So, I went to my old high school to talk to the principal about enrolling in those two subjects. The mistake I made was to show up in full dress uniform. When I explained what I wanted, he said no! I asked why. I was told, ‘If you think I am going to loose you on this pack of young ladies, you are mistaken.’ I told him I wanted an education not a date. He snorted and threw me out of his office. Wait, the story has a happy ending. U.S.C. gave me credit for physics because of the classes in the Army and for being ‘a G.I. who speaks German.’ So, off I went to career as a teacher of twelve-year-olds. Twenty-five good years and five bad ones. Not bad. The kids were great; the school system sunk under me.”
I am so looking forward to really delving into this project. In the meantime, my son-in-law, who works at Redondo High School, asked for Bob’s address. They have a project where students correspond with veterans to find out what it was really like. A high school student could have his life transformed by Bob’s story, as my own has been repeatedly transformed from the stories of my family members and friends who have served in the United States military. I must admit that I abhor war, but I am grateful and supportive of all who have served in all of our country's wars.