Sometimes you scratch your head and ask yourself, “Where do I begin? What can I remember?” This story begins with my wanting to talk with a World War Two veteran. I have read countless books on the subject, so I was hoping for a first-hand account to be able to share with my kids someday. I wanted to hear the vets story, what they remember, what they felt during and after the war.
I met Louis Gammons through contacts at St. Luke’s. I tell you without exaggeration; a busier and more active man doesn’t exist, at any age, let alone in the mid-’90s. When I first spoke with Mr. Gammons on the phone, he said he was free on a Saturday a week and a half away, at 1:00 in the afternoon. Until then, his calendar was full. At this point, I knew he was going to be a fun guy to talk with.
It is slightly awkward knocking at the door of a man you don’t know and asking to come into his home to share memories made 75 years ago, but this is what I did. From the first knock, I knew it would be memorable. I knocked firmly on his front door at 2 minutes before 1:00 and within 10 seconds, an equally firm set of knocks were sent back to me from inside the house. Mr. Gammons let me off the hook as our game of knock-knock ended as he opened the door and politely invited me inside his house and into his world. We sat in the dining room with a table covered in books, maps, and personal photos. Things he brought out for our meeting. The walls held pictures of those he loves the most, his wife and family, including a picture of his mother and uncle that both lived well into their 100’s!
He first asked himself “Where do I start?”. He then had me turn around as he pointed to a picture of his wife. They were married over 70 years and he knew exactly how many years, months, days, hours, and minutes they were married. He is still very much in love and it showed.
Mr. Gammon enlisted in the Army after America entered the War. He landed at Normandy a few weeks after D-Day. From there he made his way up through France, Belgium, and finally into Germany. He was a mechanic in the 104th Infantry Division, the Timberwolves. He was a part of the Red Ball Express, a legendary convoy of every kind of machine known to modern war. The Red Ball Express supplied the men and machines of WWII, expediting the war’s end and allowing the Allies to move through Europe at unheard of speeds while keeping the Nazi’s on a continuous retreat. As the Allies rolled through France and Belgium in the fall of 1944 they helped liberate town after town.
As winter set in, Mr. Gammons happened to be in the Ardennes Forest along the borders of Belgium, France, and Germany. The momentum of the war had swung decisively with the Allies. Hitler tried a last-ditch offensive to change the tide of the war. Hitler’s last offensive gamble happened to take place in the Ardennes. While there, in his makeshift mechanics shop, protected from the elements and the enemy by only a tarp tied between trees, Mr. Gammons found himself and his shop in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. He showed me a picture of himself and another mechanic bundled up from the cold and standing outside the shop. His shop was in the immediate background behind the two men, and he also pointed out the foxhole they had to dig. Just a few feet away from the shop and foxhole, was a crater left by a German 88mm cannon. If you were within 5 miles of the front, there was no escaping the 88’s. The 22 lb. projectile could fly over 6 miles. With very few exceptions, almost all men and machines were constantly within the range of the 88’s. His description of the whistling noise and the vibration of the impacting shell a few feet away must be an impossible picture to paint to someone that hasn’t been in a combat zone. After Hitler’s efforts were thwarted, the Allies and Mr. Gammons headed into Germany.
The Ruhr Valley of Germany was the industrial might behind the German war machine. The manufacturing efforts were sustained by slave laborers from nearby concentration camps. Little did Mr. Gammons know, but the most indelible event of his time in the war was about to occur, even more than getting blown out of a moving jeep and earning a Purple Heart. Mr. Gammons was among the very first few soldiers to liberate a concentration camp. He and a few other men were rounded up by their CO and told there were stories of a prisoner camp a few miles away. What he saw still haunts him to this day. He showed me a picture or two he snapped and the famine in the pictures is impossible to put into words. Nordhausen Concentration Camp was one of the worst. People there were not gassed, they were left to starve. The war in Europe was now over and these were just a few of his many European war memories that he shared with me.
His ship ride back home was very memorable, not because he was on a ship holding many times more men then it was designed for. Mr. Gammons and the men in his division were told on the voyage home that they were to have a month off once they got back to the States but they needed to meet back up at a port near San Francisco Bay to set sail for the Pacific. He and the rest of his Division were being deployed to be part of the forces that were to land on the Japanese mainland. They were told to expect a battle unlike any they have witnessed in Europe and to expect casualties of 50% or higher. They were told that the Japanese will fight to the last man to defend their Empire.
In early August of 1945, Mr. Gammons and his fellow soldiers were aboard their boats but still in port when news broke that the U.S. had dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A few days later, Japan announced its unconditional surrender. World War II was over. Mr. Gammons offered up one of his two opinions that he has held onto to this day. The first is that the horror of dropping the bombs saved his life and that of his fellow soldiers. He said to me, “You know what the bomb means to me? It saved my life.” We continued talking and both agreed that there are things that happen that are horrible, but sometimes understandable, when looking through the context of the time period when the events happened. We cannot forget or revise history, we must learn from it. His second opinion is to not ever cede control of our government for a promise of security, to some extent, that is what happened to Nazi Germany.
So as this Memorial Day is upon us as well as the 75th anniversary of the landing at Normandy, I hope we say a prayer for those men and women who have given their lives to serve our Nation, but let’s also remember those who returned home. I know that I will remember my afternoon with Mr. Gammons, not only because of his service but because of his admirable devotion and faithfulness to his wife, friends, family, country and church. There is more to learn from his generation than what life was like before most of us were born.