FROM HERE TO THERE, THE LONG WAY HOME ~ T. E. Stephens
WWII, The Italian Campaign
“One seems to learn fast, and we’re bound together in the knowledge that nowhere else does a man learn to trust his fellow man. The weakness of one man may cause the death of others. Out of all this comes the strength, the pride, and trust of one another. Some of the men may have hid their fears by talking a lot, others making wisecracks and jokes, while others just kept silent. I guess I tried to hide my fears by just smiling.”
In the early 1980s my grandfather, Timmie E. Stephens whom we lovingly called ‘Pop Pop’, bequeathed his brief memoir of World War II to our family members as a surprise Christmas gift. Until that time, I had only thought I knew the man.
Pop Pop’s memoir chronicles his service as a soldier during the Italian Campaign, from Anzio to the Po Valley, with the 135th Infantry. Short stories are scattered throughout his reflections and include: arriving in Casa Blanca, the Anzio landing, hand-to-hand combat with a lone German soldier, several trips to the Evac Hospital, a buddy going AWOL, rescuing an unknown G.I., finding a wine cellar in a vineyard and singing to the men as they got blisteringly drunk, holding-up with Italians in the countryside, singing gospel songs he wrote to his buddies as they sat around their foxholes and watched phosphorus shells bursting overhead, the barrage of messages from Propaganda Sally, seeing Prime Minister Winston Churchill as he toured the Italian front near Rome, the letters from home -the stories go on and on.
My grandfather’s account of his time on the front came to an end as his unit moved into the Po Valley. Here, he was severely burned and sent to the hospital for almost a year. While there, he witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and later, returned stateside on the John L. Clem, U.S. Army Transport and Hospital Ship. After several stays at intermediate hospitals, he was admitted to Northern General Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama which at that time was the world’s largest burn hospital, specializing in skin grafts. During this time he was recruited by the government to participate in a War Bond Tour, which put him right back in Gadsden, Alabama speaking before friends and family.
As children, my cousins and I didn’t see the wounds. We saw things clearly, people clearly, the way children do. We saw our Pop Pop for the man he was, radiating goodness and joy from within some inner, ceaselessly brimming, well.
Memories can be funny things, but those of my childhood remain clear. Our grandfather was a good man. He radiated unfettered love like the sun relinquishes its heat out into the world. Pop Pop taught us young’uns (his word) about God. He taught us when we stood beside him, following his movements as he grasped handfuls of white bread and held it up into the air. We stood beside him in the knee high water of the murky Coosa River and waited for the ducks which must have watched from overhead for this old man who beckoned daily. And down they would come in swoops so close that we trembled in fear at the onslaught of such undisciplined beasts.
Bird in the brush, tune in your heart; life was pure and simple in his eyes. Hard work and pleasure went hand in hand. He would call us to him, show off his newest creation -a miniature water wheel in the front courtyard; a sunken porcelain claw foot tub filled with fresh dirt, compost, and red worms for fishing. He taught us about the fruits of the Catawba trees -you know, it’s worms! The fish we would surely catch filled our dreams, and his.
The knowledge he shared, the lessons he taught, are the things I still believe. They are the way I see the world. And through his appreciative eyes the world is beauty all around. Never will I forget his influence on my young life, the pride I felt when we listened to him quietly play his guitar in church, singing a hymn he had recently penned. Never will I forget sitting near as he shared his stories of Anzio and the brave men he called ‘buddies,’ nor the sacrifice he so willingly made for our country.
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