He stepped into my office on a press day, clutching a photo album. He was a big bear of a man who glowed with genuine, humble kindness – but there was also a quiet authority about him.
I was covered-up busy, but I invited him to have a seat.
“I just got back from a reunion of my Army outfit from World War II,” he said. “I thought you might be interested. I spent a couple hours talking with this movie feller… maybe you’ve heard of him… Steven Spielberg? Yeah. Real nice guy. He brought along one of his actor friends, Tom, uh… Hanks! Tom Hanks. Nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. You heard of him?”
He had my attention.
J.B. was a World War II veteran, a member of E Company, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne – the outfit known as the “Band of Brothers.”
The HBO mini-series by that name, and the movie “Saving Private Ryan” were based on his unit, one of the most decorated from that war.
This old gentleman sitting across from me had parachuted into Normandy the night before the D-Day invasion, fought his way through France, jumped into Holland, stood his ground in the freezing foxholes of Bastogne and walked into Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in the mountains of Bavaria.
He came home Dec. 1, 1945, and two weeks later he married the girl he’d had one date with before he shipped out to England. They got to know each other through letters. They were married for 63 years before she preceded him in death.
J.B. was buried Thursday in Jaybird Cemetery, between Azle and Springtown. He could have, and probably should have, been laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. But he preferred a resting spot in the country, next to his beloved Ola Mae. Their four children honored that request, as they had honored him in life.
When I met him, J.B. was a little overwhelmed. With the release of “Saving Private Ryan,” suddenly everyone was interested in what he’d done in the war – things he’d never even told his kids about.
“I spent 50 years trying to forget all this stuff, and now everybody wants to talk about it,” he told me.
But he overcame his reluctance and did talk about it – to schoolkids, civic clubs, patriotic gatherings, his grandsons’ basketball teams. He got picked up in limos and treated like royalty, and he deserved it all.
In the summer of 2001, HBO flew him and Ola Mae and all the other surviving E Company veterans to France, where they premiered “Band of Brothers” in a huge tent on a beach at Normandy. They ate at the table with Winston Churchill’s grandson and got a bus tour of Paris narrated by Stephen Ambrose.
In more than 30 years in the newspaper business, I have met and interviewed a lot of interesting characters, and a few heroes.
J.B. was both.
Talking to him, I got to go on that journey with the Band of Brothers through his choosing the Airborne (“We wanted to be able to tuck our trousers in our boots – and they got paid a little more, too!”) to the Battle of the Bulge (“Every time I get in bed and turn up that electric blanket, I’m thankful I’m not at Bastogne anymore. Man, that was cold!”).
He was injured there, grazed by a bullet from a German sniper (“You always hear about guys that got the most awful wounds and kept on fighting – I was just the opposite. I just got nicked, and I thought I was done!”) but he never missed a day of combat with his unit.
He told me about the real “Private Ryan” – a kid named Fritz Niland who lost two brothers in the D-Day invasion and had another brother missing in the Burma-India-China theater.
The chaplain just walked in one day and said, “Which one of you is Niland?” and he jumped up. “Come with me. You’re going home!”
They had to spice the story up for the movie, but J.B. said they got the combat part pretty close to right.
When we talked about the war, he got quiet and serious, remembering the horrors he’d witnessed. But whenever I asked about Ola Mae, his face lit up.
The 10-part, 11-hour HBO mini-series “Band of Brothers” aired its first episode on a Sunday night, Sept. 9, 2001. Two days later, the world changed forever when terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11.
J.B. Stokes was what he was – a big, strong country boy who knew how to shoot. He was a natural leader, rising to Staff Sergeant by the end of the war. The guys in his outfit said he was steady as a rock in combat, always making the right decisions, tenacious as a bulldog in going after the enemy.
When his country needed him, he went and did what he was asked to do. When he got home, all he wanted to do was earn a living, raise a family, enjoy the fruits of freedom. He remembered his brothers who fell and stayed in touch with the ones who came home.
He and his generation built America. It’s not an exaggeration to call them the “greatest” – and I don’t think it’s hype to place him among the best of them.
But then, I’m biased. He was my friend – and that’s one of the great honors of my life.
Rest in peace, J.B., and be sure and tell Ola Mae “hi.”
Bob Buckel is executive editor of the Wise County Messenger.