It was the smell that struck him at first. LeRoy motioned to the wounded Forceman to lay still as he reached for a bit of rope from his backpack. He thought he recognized the young Canadian man but he couldn’t be sure. As he looped the rope around the soldier’s shattered leg he looked around for a something to tighten the tourniquet. It was the smell; the mortar smoke; the steaming mud; the blood and the burnt flesh. All around were the chaotic sounds of mortars, burp guns, bullets singing and a young man’s cries of pain, but it was the smell that had Roy’s attention. This was his first true battle, and he was separated from his platoon.
After setting the tourniquet, LeRoy had little choice but to continue with his backpack. He marked the spot as best he could in hopes that members of his regiment coming back down the slope would find the wounded soldier and take him back to the supply staging area. As he negotiated the flats below the Italian mountain slopes, he avoided following other Force members into the trees. He had already seen some of his buddies cut to pieces when mortar rounds turned those trees into deadly swaths of jagged splinters. No; he reasoned that even though he was in plain view of the German spotters above, it was better to be out in the open where the mortar rounds would sink into the wet ground before detonating.
Above him were the slopes of Monte La Difensa. The clatter of weapon fire was intense from the summit; true to their extensive training, the 2nd regiment had done the unthinkable, and scaled the northern cliffs with ropes to the summit the day before surprising the Germans from behind their defenses. Now it was the 3rd regiment’s job to haul supplies and ammo up the slopes to the base of those cliffs in support of the mission; the climb to those cliffs was still too steep for the mules.
LeRoy strained for each and every step, fighting the ever increasing slope of loose rock and slippery thick mud. More than once he slipped hard to the ground to have that 80 pound pack beat him against the earth, and then drag him, back down that awful slope.
As difficult as that initial climb was, in just a few short hours the word came from returning force-men that the summit had been taken. Shouts from the 3rd could be heard all over the hillside as the news spread up and down the slopes. But there was little time for celebrations; the Germans would counterattack from the other side and this ragged supply chain, consisting of men and heavy packs was vital to holding the newly won summit. So the 3rd kept hauling, one pack at a time. LeRoy turned and leaned into the hill; the base of the cliffs was just a bit further ahead; he could finally get rid of this hateful pack and begin his trip back.
Late that evening LeRoy was headed back down the slopes. By this time he had lost count of how many trips he had made up that hillside to the cliffs and how many gurneys he helped to haul back down. It was getting dreadfully dark. The night provided a bit more cover, but it also brought a surreal intensity to the fight with flashes of artillery, tracers and flares. The darkness also made the trip back down the mountain paths treacherous under the cloud-shrouded skies. As he walked he realized he hadn’t seen another Forceman for some time. To make matters worse, a bitter cold rain kicked up. Roy decided to try and get some rest before continuing back down. There was no comfortable place on that slope; just a rocky and barren ridgeline with little cover. He pulled his jacket up and tucked his cold wet hands underneath. He found a cigarette but his matches were soaked. As his head lay back, his helmet found a slot between two rocks to cradle his head. By now he hardly noticed the sounds of weapon fire and the percussion of mortars; totally drained, he drifted off to sleep.
The approach of a mortar round pried Roy’s eyes open to the sting of cold rain. The flash and concussion of the blast found him rolling in a desperate attempt to take cover. Instantly he felt his left foot go numb as rocks and shrapnel ricocheted all over the ridgeline around him. As the deadly shrapnel slowly turned back to a relentless rainfall, LeRoy found himself unable to look down at his foot. Is this how he would go home?… foot blown off while napping? As he slowly sat up his heart was racing, yet he still couldn’t feel that foot. He wanted to make himself look, but for a while, he couldn’t. As the cold wind whipped another squall of rain up the mountainside he finally heard the voices of other Forcemen.
He had to get back to the mission.
Slowly Roy lifted his leg to look at his foot. It was still there – numb and stinging, but he still had a whole foot. What was missing was the bottom of his boot. It appeared the mortar round had cleanly blown the sole away leaving a good portion of his foot exposed. The faint light of morning was beginning to highlight the mountains to the east. Roy cut a chunk of his jacket pocket and tied the material to the bottom of his boot. He then proceeded to hobble down the mountain into the misty, rain-soaked, fog of war… to get another load.
In the years to follow, LeRoy never found out what had become of the fellow Forceman he attended to. If he survived he undoubtedly headed back home without most of that leg; A lifelong wound. And it seems that most war veterans you meet will hold regrets in equal standing to their accomplishments. I do not know of such things because I have not served; in war or otherwise; But I was raised by this Vet.
LeRoy taught me a great deal about carrying loads. He was not my real father but Roy became, and always will be, my Dad.
In actuality, LeRoy was my uncle. He was my biological father’s half-brother. At some point during my parents failing marriage, Roy fell in love with my mom. It was not a pretty process as you might be able to imagine, but trust me when I tell you, it couldn’t have worked out better for myself and my siblings. This gentleman stepped up and took on the 5 children of the woman he loved. He often told me that’s when his life really started.
For me, it was a turning point too; but I was too young to fully realize the importance of that juncture. I was just a boy, caught in the swirling emotion of our family struggles and I risked losing my way many times. Through it all Roy became the steadfast anchor in my life. Through it all he was there to take me aside and calm me with that steady, soft voice, that was like a blanket – warm and safe. “No matter what’s going on around you son, it’s important to keep your wits about you.” he would say. “It’s all too easy to despair”.
Roy knew a little something about despair. For years after the war he wandered… from job to job and relationship to relationship. During the days he was simply my uncle, he would visit our home in Toledo and help my father with the ongoing construction of our house. In those years it was common to see him carrying a gallon wine jug throughout the day. Even so, he took time with me and taught me carpentry. He never talked about the war unless we brought it up… even then he wouldn’t say much.
I didn’t see it then, but now I know, he was hurting from that war.
I do not know exactly when my mom and Roy fell in love. Frankly, looking back now, I’ve never really cared about the timing. Whether it was before or after the divorce seems unimportant in the grand scheme of things. All I know is that shortly after the divorce of my parents, Roy, my uncle, asked mom to marry him; and with that, the wine bottle disappeared.
Then one day, all 7 of us, my brother, sisters, mom, and Roy crowded into the front seat of a 56 Chevy Utility Pickup for a drive from Lebanon Oregon to Vancouver Washington. Roy stepped out of the truck as we gassed up at the Gas for Less in Lebanon. Mom just gazed forward out the windshield and said: “I hope I’m doing the right thing”. I’m not sure of my exact words that day but they were reflective as any young boy could be the age of 12; “Mom, I think he’s a good man”.
As we drove up I-5 to Vancouver we saw a young man wearing Army Fatigues thumbing for a ride along the way. He got one look at our windshield crammed with faces, he smiled and the thumb turned into a wave. A little way up the road we turned into the French Prairie Rest Stop just before Wilsonville. After stretching our legs and taking care of business we crammed ourselves back into that Chevy and headed north. As we exited the rest stop and entered I-5 we saw that same hitchhiker with his thumb out. The young man smiled as he saw us again and gave us another thumbs up. Roy chuckled as we rolled past him saying “I guess we’re all making progress”
Later that day, after a small marriage ceremony with my Uncle Leon (LeRoy’s twin brother) and his wife, Aunt Gerdis as witnesses, I greeted Roy as he opened the driver’s door of that old 56 chevy pickup for the drive back home to Lebanon… ; “Common in Dad,” I said from the center of that bench seat with a big smile.
The surprised look on his face betrayed his expectations of needing to win us over. His subsequent smile indicated his relief that now he was part of a family. I suppose in a way it was much like that day when the mortar round blew off the bottom of his boot; finally deciding to look at the wound, he discovered he could continue. He realized he was part of a family that desperately needed a steady supply line of love and stability… something he apparently needed too.
All he had to do was, pick up the load.
For LeRoy, my Dad
© 2016 Darrel Boyd