I remember the day my grandfather, Lacy Davis, told us about holding a dying man in his arms.
He didn’t speak about his World War II days often – but when he did, we listened and we all remember the stories.
He was older than most when he joined the U.S. Army, having been born in 1914 in the midst of great world upheaval.
World War I was engulfing the world, and the United States was doing its best to stay away from the fray. But in 1917, America took to the trenches. My grandfather was 3 years old at the time.
Many men in my family fought in WWI. Most returned home, some did not, including a great-uncle who died in Australia.
The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression by the time my grandfather was in high school. He graduated and was offered a full scholarship to attend college. But he didn’t go. He stayed in Northeast Texas to work, farm and support his family.
It was during this time he learned radio repair – a skill that changed his life.
When he enlisted, he was in his late 20s, training alongside men nearly a decade younger. Before that, the farthest he had ever been from Pittsburg was a trip to Dallas.
Soon he went even farther – to England, readying for invasion. It was in this time his technical abilities proved useful.
He was a smart man, sometimes too smart for his own good as he spoke his mind freely, often to others’ chagrin. This must be a genetic trait, as it often plagues me … just ask my wife.
His technical skills got him shifted into artillery, where he taught himself trigonometry. His job involved locating enemy firing positions using sound and equations.
It was in the water of the English Channel that he nearly lost his life, and saw many of his friends die.
My grandfather was not one to gamble, drink or smoke. He didn’t discourage others from doing so, but he never indulged. He had no time for such things.
So when he saw several of his buddies shooting dice, he chatted for a minute and then walked away. He hadn’t gone far before the entire ship shuddered and an ear-splitting explosion sounded behind him.
Right where his friends had been sitting, passing the time between England and France, there were only lifeless bodies, fire and chaos.
A torpedo had struck and crippled the ship. It began to list and the alarms to evacuate blared.
He made his way topside to see another ship coming alongside to rescue them from the now-sinking vessel.
A rolling ocean is no place for a man from northeast Texas. That’s what my grandfather concluded, seeing as how he couldn’t swim.
Able-bodied men were told to jump to the rescue vessel. He knew a miscalculation would mean his death – either from drowning or from being caught between two mammoth boats.
He said they had to time their jumps with the waves’ action. He had to leap when his ship was on an uproll and the other ship’s deck was below. He made his jump and survived with a knee injury that reminded him of that day until he died in 2007.
A wounded man he knew was already aboard, and beckoned my grandfather. He comforted him, holding him as he died from the burns that covered most of his body.
My grandfather’s voice choked as he told us the story of watching this young man die in agony. I never saw him like that before, or since.
After they landed, he was resourceful and smart. He did many good works, even building a communication network. He was promoted to Technical Sergeant and then to Master Sergeant in rapid succession. He was proud to serve, but longed for home.
Had the bombs not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would have been shipped to the Pacific after Germany surrendered. Instead he came home to Pittsburg and married my grandmother, Jane.
He taught me about photography and was a large part of my life. I miss him, and I remember his stories.
Jimmy Alford is a Messenger reporter.