By Mark Constance
With another Veteran’s Day approaching, I am reminded of a man I knew while serving in the U.S. Army.
I was trying to hustle a few extra bucks to supplement my Spec. 4 pay, so I took a part-time job baling hay in the evenings and weekends near Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri (or ‘Fort Lost in the Woods’ for the initiated).
The man I worked for was a grizzled old farmer in worn bib overalls who lived a few miles down an overgrown two-track. Four of us bounced to his home in the back of an open Chevy pickup down the trail, which led to several hundred acres of the greenest fields I had ever seen.
We agreed on a rate of three cents a bale, shook hands and went to work.
The owner lived a simple life. He worked hard and his home was modest. His water was drawn from an outside well with a single, rusted, pulley that lifted a 4-inch stovepipe he used to fill a galvanized bucket with some of the best water I ever had.
His home had one large room and was heated with a wood stove. He had electricity, but didn’t use it for lights, preferring gas lamps. He told us he had the power turned on a few years earlier to operate a hay elevator because his knees bothered him “a bit.” His only other modern convenience was a small, black and white TV with aluminum foil on the antennae.
He had good friends and a solid reputation that preceded him. He would give you the shirt off his back without asking if he thought you needed it.
He was the kind of man who didn’t talk much. But when he did, everyone paused … And listened. Everything he said, he seemed to say with a purpose.
After the first cutting was finished, I sat at a wood picnic table in a buddy’s yard with him and a few other guys. It was a stifling, muggy day. The air smelled like a thunderstorm was coming.
We grilled burgers and had a few beers. The group of us talked about our experiences in the service – Where we had been. What we had done. It was a fairly typical conversation in those days.
He went on to talk about his drill sergeant and we all laughed. Every vet has a story about “that bastard.”
But he also went on to say the only thing he ever regretted about being in the service was that he never had a family, and he would have liked to have children. He didn’t explain why, and no one else offered at the time.
After he left, one of the older men explained that the farmer had been in the “Bataan Death March” during WWII.
After American troops were surrendered by Major General Edward P. King in the Philippines, Japanese troops marched 76,0000 prisoners of war from Mariveles, on the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula, to San Fernando, 55 miles away, and ultimately to “Camp O’Donnel” in Mukden.
If they couldn’t make the trek and fell down, they were dragged to the side of the road and shot, bayonetted or beheaded. Others were made to dig their own graves and buried alive.
Just 54,000 men reached O’Donnel, and thousands more died afterward from malnutrition and disease before the camp was liberated in August 1945.
The farmer survived the march itself. But while in captivity at O’Donnel, Japanese guards cut off his testicles. Thus, the comment about not being able to have a family.
To this day, I am still humbled and honored by the experience of having met and worked for this guy, on his terms. He asked for nothing in return from any man or from his government for his injuries. And he wouldn’t accept pity from anyone.
So, whenever I hear “Taps” being played, I remember him and what he gave for his county. And the many veterans who were just glad to make it back home – alive.