Most of his life, Gerald Counts did not have time for wartime memories.
He was too busy.
A paratrooper in World War II, Counts came home in 1945 with the same passion so many in his generation had: to raise a family and make a home and a living for them.
He worked a succession of jobs – often two at a time – even re-enlisting in the Army at one point. He went from El Paso to Fort Worth, Springtown to Perrin, Runaway Bay to Chico. He spent his last years in Decatur and Bridgeport.
When he died on April 30, his obituary said he “lived life on his own terms.”
But along the way, he did share a few tales.
His daughters, Donny and Carolyn, married brothers – Tom and Ted Gillum. Donny and Tom, who retired after 30 years with General Motors in Arlington, live in Springtown. Ted and Carolyn make their home in Southlake, where Ted served for six years as superintendent of schools.
Ted is an avid student of World War II history. His grandson, Jax Garner, an eighth grader, is cut from the same cloth. When Gerald died, he left his medals to Jax – two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, a Presidential Unit Citation, the Good Conduct Medal, the medal for prisoners of war and his various campaign medals.
The snippets of memory were harder to come by.
Ted learned most of what he knows about his father-in-law’s military service by easing up to groups at veterans’ reunions, listening.
“The family members, we were afraid to even ask him about it,” Ted said. “He went through a period where he had had some nightmares.
“Fireworks bothered him – even loud noises around the house, he’d jump. I asked him one time what the worst part of it was, and he said it was the artillery.”
INTO THE FIRE
A country boy from Perrin, southwest of Lake Bridgeport in Jack County, Counts graduated from high school, married Maureen, his high school sweetheart, and had a daughter before deciding to join the Army.
When he heard paratroopers made $50 a month more than regular infantry, he signed up. He was assigned to C Company, 101st Airborne, 1st Division, 506th Regiment.
He trained, shipped out to England and waited along with thousands of others for the invasion of Europe.
The night before D-Day, June 6, 1944, he jumped into Normandy, coming down behind enemy lines and fighting his way back to the beach to support the massive landing. After pushing back the occupying German forces in 32 days of intense fighting, his outfit was relieved and sent back to England.
They jumped again Sept. 17 into Holland during operation Market Garden – two more months of almost constant combat, pushing the Germans back, village by village.
In both campaigns, about 75 percent of the soldiers were wounded or killed.
Gerald was unscathed.
“I asked him one time how he made it through all that,” Ted said. “He said, ‘Well, No. 1, I didn’t volunteer for anything. No. 2, when I walked along, I was always looking for the low spots.’ When artillery came in, he was able to find the low spot.”
He told Ted about one time when his unit was walking into a town in Normandy – a buddy on the left side of the road and Gerald on the right.
“They started shelling, and he could see the shells coming down the street,” he said. “He was by a house that had two windows that led into a basement, so he kicked out those windows and rolled off into this basement.”
After the barrage subsided, Counts crawled out of the basement and went back to where his friend was.
“The top of his head had been sheared off,” Gillum said. “That bothered him a little bit, he said. He was 20 years old.”
He would see worse.
PRISONER OF WAR
They were on leave in Paris when the Germans launched their final counterattack in mid-December. Gerald’s unit was rushed into Bastogne for a “tailgate jump” into what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
They were walking out to their position when a mortar attack shattered a cobblestone, and a shard flew up and hit him in the face.
He felt the wound was minor, but his lieutenant insisted on him getting it looked at. While he was awaiting a medic, the field hospital was overrun by German Tiger tanks, and he was taken prisoner.
“They loaded them on trucks, then put them on a boxcar for six days,” Gillum said. “He was in several different camps because they were trying to stay ahead of the Russians. He was up by the Baltic Sea somewhere.”
He stayed long enough to get a few Red Cross parcels and learn how to cook out of cans. Then word came that the Russians were about to overrun the camp.
“The Germans decided to move them,” Gillum said. “They went through about six weeks of walking, in the snow, in the dead of winter. They slept in fields overnight – in barns now and then.”
Thin, sick and covered with lice, he was finally liberated by the British and sent home. They burned the uniform he had worn the entire time.
He had nothing to pin that chestful of medals to.
TRAGEDY SPARKS MEMORY
After the war, Gerald returned home to his wife and daughter, and they quickly had another daughter.
Gerald worked for the highway patrol in El Paso, then moved to Fort Worth and took a job with Convair – now Lockheed-Martin. Later he went to work for the Rock Island Railroad, repairing rail cars at night. He bought a little corner store in Sansom Park and operated a grocery store and a laundromat, leasing out the other spaces.
“His wife ran the store during the day, while he was sleeping, then he’d go to work at night at the railroad,” Gillum said. “He worked two jobs for years and years. The girls never saw him much, growing up, because he was working all the time.”
The girls grew up and married, and Gerald and Maureen moved to Springtown, where he opened a Western Auto store on the Tabernacle square.
It was there, on Christmas Eve, 1975, when Gerald accidentally ran over his wife with a car and killed her. That tragedy is when Ted first remembers his father-in-law talking about the war.
“It was a bad time,” Gillum said. “We were sitting there the night before the funeral, and he got talking about it. That kind of broke the dam, I guess. He started telling us, and the more he told, the more we wanted to find out.”
Talking about the war was never easy for him.
“That was the problem,” Gillum said. “If you ever nailed him down and started asking him questions about it … that night, he’d have dreams about it and it would really bother him. He had a lot of trouble sleeping, and mostly it was re-living all that stuff.”
It wasn’t until he retired and began to go to reunions that he found himself able to talk about those days – but even then, with the few buddies who survived, the talk was mostly about the light-hearted moments, the funny incidents.
“It was 15 or 20 years ago, a friend talked him into going to one of the reunions,” Gillum said. “I think it was in Florida – and that was a big deal because he hated flying. But my sister-in-law, Donny, went with him, and he really enjoyed it.”
About that time the movie “Saving Private Ryan” came out, followed a couple years later by the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” in 2001. Gillum has watched it all, but his father-in-law had no intention of seeing it.
“He didn’t want to see it,” Gillum said. “It would bring back stuff.”
One year the family hosted the reunion at the Gaylord in Grapevine.
“Essentially, all these guys would show up and they’d just sit around talking,” Gillum said. “Invariably they would start telling stories about the war. That’s where I got most of it. I would just kind of ease over and listen to what all they had to say.”
One story he remembers Gerald telling was about a lieutenant, Albert Hasenthall, who was the driving force behind the reunions for many years.
“He said, ‘You remember old Hasenthall, when we were in the hedgerows, he just kind of raised up like an old turkey, looking around, trying to find out where we were, and he got shot through the chest? I put some sulphur on that, and I thought he was dead. We went on, and they relieved us, then we went back to England and there he was!’
“He was kind of proud of helping him,” Gillum said.
When Hasenthall died, it got down to only about five men who were actually paratroopers, Gillum said.
“Finally they decided they wouldn’t do any more,” he said. “As far as I know, there might be three of them left.”
They donated the reunion scrapbooks to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. Gerald and a buddy named George Williams went for the ceremony, and Gerald’s family bought a brick for the sidewalk there, inscribed with his name.
He didn’t want them to do it, but they did it anyway.