Nine little letters make me proud

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 30, 2007

You wouldn’t think that a simple, God-given name would be enough to generate enough words to fill an entire column.

But when that name touches your heart, you can find enough words to fill a book.

When facing the front of the new Murfreesboro War Veterans’ Memorial, look at the right-hand side of the three-stage center panel, under the heading of World War II Era, and scan down to the 11th name. There, etched for all the world n or at least those visiting the memorial n to see is the name of my father, Ray Bryant.

It’s just a simple nine letters, but they sent a chill down my spine when I first spotted his name. Seeing that name etched in a beautiful Georgian granite stone is enough to make you proud to be the son of an American military veteran.

My dad was a buck private in the U.S. Army during World War II. He trained in the hot, mosquito laden environment of boot camp in Florida to prepare him for what he thought would be deployment to the Philippines. However, the war was intensifying in Europe.

On Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans launched an all-out offensive in France and Luxembourg, one that became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Committing a quarter-million troops fanned out over an 85-mile line, Germany’s planned goal for this operation was to split the British and American Allied line in half, capture Antwerp, Belgium and then proceed to encircle and destroy four Allied armies, forcing the Western Allies to negotiate a peace treaty in the Axis Powers’ favor.

Exactly nine days later n Dec. 25, 1944 n PFC Hinton Rayford “Ray” Bryant climbed aboard a troop transport ship in New York harbor and, with his orders changed from fighting in the Pacific Theatre, he went directly to Luxembourg where he joined up with the 87th Infantry Division, one attached to General George Patton’s famed Third Army.

By the end of January, 1945, the Americans and their allies had fought back the German advance and recaptured all the ground that was lost. Unfortunately, over 76,000 Americans were killed, wounded or captured. Fortunately, Ray Bryant was not among neither of those groups. Of the 35 men in his original Platoon, my Pop and one other were the only ones not killed or wounded.

Pop would not talk much about his war experiences until I was old enough to understand. Even then he attempted to downplay it all by mixing in his trademark humor. He never, ever said he killed anyone, but I know better. When men (or women) fire high-powered weapons at each other, someone will die.

The one thing Pop did talk about was how proud he was to be an American and have the opportunity to defend this great nation. When he boarded that ship in the winter of 1944, Ray Bryant was only 19 years old. He was sent into the midst of mayhem as a teenager. His only known skill at that time was he knew how to harness a plow to a mule and till the fertile soil of Northampton County, but when Uncle Sam called, he answered.

I stood ready to follow in his footsteps in 1971. Pop urged me not to sign-up for military duty, but rather take my chances in the draft. I was classified 1-A and was 18 years old in the summer of 1971. War was waging in Vietnam. I was extremely nervous, thinking that a superior would place a rifle in my hands and order me to shoot total strangers.

If Uncle Sam came calling, I would not have hesitated to answer. I was the proud son of a proud American veteran of World War II. The draft came, a lottery-like affair where each day of the year was stamped on a ping-pong ball. Randomly selected, those dates represented birthdays. Mine, June 22, was selected 263rd out of 365, meaning my chances to be drafted were slim. I wasn’t.

I still stand proud as an American. At times I envy those brave men and women who placed themselves in harm’s way so I can write this column today in English rather than German or Japanese. The special bond they share, the stories they can tell as military veterans is something that will last a lifetime.

Etched in the Murfreesboro memorial are 502 total names, meaning there are more than 500 unique stories to be told. Those veterans represent World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf War. All hail from the Murfreesboro area and if combined would represent roughly a small military battalion.

I recognized many of the names on that memorial. My next-door neighbor and “second father” was listed n Glenn “Stumpy” Johnson n as was my sister’s father-in-law, John Elton Vinson. Both were World War II vets.

Some of the names took me by surprise. I took Graphic Arts at then Chowan College from 1971-73 and did not know that two of my professors, Bill Sowell and Herman Gatewood, were Korean War veterans. Ditto for Brinson “Mr. Jefcoat Museum” Paul and Percy Bunch of NC Watermelon Festival fame.

I could go on and on about these brave men. There’s not enough money on the face of the Earth to pay them for their service and sacrifice.

My hat is also off to Joe Dickerson and his group of 13 men who envisioned a war memorial in Murfreesboro. Instead of wishful thinking, they went to work and made it happen. Thank each of you for what has turned out to be a handsome memorial, one that includes nine little letters that make me very proud.