Red Buttons, Grandpa and me
Monday was Memorial Day, a day to remember those who served our country and made the ultimate sacrifice.
It’s always had a special meaning for me, growing up as I did in the house of my grandfather, who taught me the meaning of this special day from a young age.
I count myself fortunate that he was able to do so when so many of his generation were unable.
This coming Sunday — June 6 — marks the 77th anniversary of D-Day, when the Allied Forces in World War II launched a massive invasion of Europe.
My grandfather, like many men of his generation, was drafted into the Army right out of high school.
In 1942, the U.S. had just entered World War II and was ramping up its efforts to fight the Axis powers in Europe.
My grandfather, Robert Walker, graduated Poplar Bluff (Mo.) High School in 1943 and almost immediately received his draft notice.
He had been apprenticing with a local watchmaker and was already skilled at working with small precision instruments.
After basic training, he was assigned to the 471st Engineers attached to the 9th Air Force and sent off to England in the early months of June 1944 as an instrument repairman tasked with maintaining the gauges and dials used on his unit’s heavy equipment.
By spring of 1944, Allied Command had begun finalizing plans for a spring invasion of France in an operation codenamed Neptune. The whole thing kicked off with Operation Overlord, the Battle of Normandy. It’s more commonly known as D-Day.
Fortunately for him, and for me really, my grandfather was not one of those brave souls tasked with taking the beach at Normandy.
I say fortunately because Allied casualties on D-Day have been estimated at 10,000 killed, wounded and missing in action, including 6,603 Americans, 2,700 British and 946 Canadians.
My grandfather and his unit landed three days later, and took a mostly leisurely path through France, repairing roads and airstrips as they went.
His stories didn’t revolve around combat — he often commented that he didn’t even carry his rifle most of the time, at least until Gen. George S. Patton took command of the Third Army a month later.
Instead, his memories involved trading soap with French girls in return for clean laundry, real eggs and milk.
My favorite — and, of course, my opinion was colored by growing up watching M*A*S*H and Hogan’s Heroes — involved the time a junior officer got his hands on a truckload of radio tubes and offered my grandfather and a buddy weekend passes to Paris if they helped him transport them to another site.
They agreed, the officer got his radio tubes delivered and my Grandpa and his buddy got to see Paris. He liked to tell the part about how he got a hotel room that weekend for the price of a chocolate bar.
The closest he came to combat was when their commanding officer volunteered all the truck drivers in Grandpa’s company to help deliver supplies to the troops caught up in the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, my grandfather returned home to his wife and fathered two daughters, my aunt Carrol and my mother, Susan. I came along later.
Ever since I can remember, or at least ever since we got cable television, June 6 was movie day.
Every year, Grandpa and I would settle in and watch all 178 minutes of “The Longest Day,” an epic 1962 film that documented the D-Day landing from start to finish, starring nearly every famous actor you can think of from those days, including John Wayne, Eddie Albert, Paul Anka, Richard Burton, Fabian, Henry Fonda, Roddy McDowall, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, Robert Wagner and even a pre-James Bond Sean Connery.
The name that stuck in my head, however, has always been Red Buttons, who played the part of Private John Steele, the American paratrooper who landed on the church tower in Sainte-Mere-Eglise, the first village in Normandy liberated by the Americans on D-Day.
My grandfather pointed him out nearly every time we watched. I always looked forward to seeing Buttons, almost as much as the scene where the wounded soldier notices the German he just took out is wearing his boots on the wrong feet.
In later years, we added a few other shows to our June 6 list — “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” in particular — but those three hours with Red Buttons, Grandpa and me will always be my favorite.
My grandfather taught me to have great respect for those men who landed on the beach, both those who lived and those who didn’t, and I always will.
I’m very glad he was around to teach me.