Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Gene Hampton

The cars entered the double gates one by one, circling around the drive, and then coming to a stop beside the shelter. Passengers exited their cars with gloved hands shoved in coat pockets, scarves wrapped tightly around their necks beneath their heavy coats, and speaking to one another with hushed words. The sky was overcast and the temperature a chilly thirty-two degrees; the kind of cold that people refer to as “chilled to the bone.” The wind blew steadily, snapping the cloth of the two flags positioned beside each other. Family and friends took their seats on the hard, wooden benches while others remained standing in the back row, creating a protective wall. A few people looked over their programs which served as a temporary distraction from the event taking place, while others looked straight ahead.
William Eugene “Gene” Hampton (known as “Papa” to his family) was born in Pryor, Oklahoma on July 31, 1919. When Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, he was a twenty-two year old man, strong and in good condition. His draft card had the letter “A” on it, which meant he would be one of the first to be drafted. He spoke about the pocket watch that his Father gave to him before he went off to war. His Father was proud of him and although he didn’t allow himself to show emotion when saying goodbye, the watch would serve as a reminder of the love and pride he had for his son. Papa vividly recalled his early days of training before going off to fight in the South Pacific, describing it as vigorous,  very strict, and it included military courtesy and discipline. He spoke about being able to climb a rope, dig a foxhole and jumping into it while machine gun fire shot a few feet over his head, and said, “It didn’t bother me. Some of the guys went haywire, though.”

He recalled that as soldiers in the Army they were trained and told, “There is the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way and you will do it by the Army way, and so we did. We were fighting for a cause. Japan attacked America.  We were fighting for our freedom. We were to be patriotic Americans and give our life for the government. We were not our own now and belonged to Uncle Sam.” When he spoke about being a soldier and the war, it was like he was recalling details from the day before even though it was sixty years later.

 In 2005, at the age of eighty-six, he was interviewed, along with other WWII veterans about his time in the war. One of the questions asked was about how he earned the Bronze Star. He humbly said, “I’m not a hero. Like I said before, the heroes are dead.” It was at this point that you could hear the catch in his voice as he tried to maintain composure while answering the interviewer. He then went on to say, “We had some guys that gave their lives for their buddies. But I was in combat and I have a combat infantryman’s badge…I don’t know of any special mission, except I tried to do my duty and be a good soldier and I did what I thought was right…and so I have a Bronze Star. I thank the Lord for it, but I know there are other men who probably deserve it more.” This type of response was typical of Papa as he was a humble man willing to give credit to others.

While being interviewed, he wore his Infantry uniform, which still fit like the day it was issued. The jacket was a muddy brownish-green with a cloth belt buckled around the waist. Near the edge of the sleeves gold stitching was sewn all the way around and matched the brassy-gold buttons that vertically buttoned in the center of the jacket. Each lapel displayed the letters “U.S.”  Slightly below was a pin on each lapel of two crisscrossed rifles and Captain Bars were placed on each shoulder. Two pockets were located at the bottom of the jacket and two more on each side of the chest with the same brass colored buttons centered on the flaps. Above the left pocket flap, four campaign ribbons were lined up horizontally. On the pocket flap below, the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Expert Rifle Marksmanship badge were pinned on tightly.

When asked about the Purple Heart, he recalled the story of having his machine guns (which he explained were water-cooled machine guns) and that his platoon was on the last hill, which he called Coconut Hill. The Japanese were shooting mortars on him and his platoon. He described how the Japanese would lob them up in the air and then the mortars would fall down and bombard the platoon. The mortars would shatter into tiny little pieces of fragments and go in every direction. Some of those fragments hit his shoulder and remained there the rest of his life. He said, “It wasn’t a real severe injury, it wasn’t real bad. I was very fortunate.” Nevertheless, he earned the Purple Heart.

At one point, the interviewer asked, “What did you do for good luck?” Papa questioned, “Good luck? I didn’t believe in good luck. I believe the Lord is my shepherd, my protector. 91st Psalm is my favorite Psalm…so I trust the Lord to be with me and I went through a lot of narrow escapes.”

One of those narrow escapes was when he and his platoon were on a hill in the Philippines and they were taking heavy fire. He told his men to pull back. They couldn’t see their enemy, because the Japanese were so well hidden. While Papa was trying to spot a sniper through his field glasses, he heard the snapping and crack of a bullet whizzing by him. He has just moved a little bit to the right when the bullet rushed by, and when he looked down he saw several bullet holes in the wrinkles of his left sleeve. He said that the sniper had a “bead on my heart” and it was a near escape.

Papa spent two long years in combat when “VJ Day” took place. VJ Day was the day of the allies victory over Japan on September 2, 1945. He spent two long years away from his family, away from his baby girl that was ten days old when he deployed, and two long years not knowing when and if he was going home. He vividly recalls that day saying, “We’d been training and we’d been fighting, of course, in the Philippines, and we were getting ready to invade south Japan…all of a sudden we heard horns blowing down in the company area. Guys are hollering, shouting, and something was going on. So someone came running up and said ‘Japan surrendered’ and boy we just rejoiced. I mean, that’s the day you’re waiting for,” as he put his arms up over his head showing victory.

What would surprise so many people is the fact that Papa held no malice towards the Japanese people. He would always say, “You know they’re people just like us. They’re human beings and my heart went out for them…and when I saw those little farms (while riding around the farmland in his Jeep one day), you know, in my heart, I’m a farmer (as he chuckles) and I’m a human being and I respect other human beings.” 

“If you could share one piece of wisdom with future generations, what would it be?” the interviewer asked as his final question.

Papa responded, “Appreciate your freedom and thank the Lord every day for America, and for your freedom, and the privilege we have to accept or reject Christianity.” He spoke these words ten years ago, yet they’re still relevant today. So many citizens forget about the sacrifices of our veterans and that those sacrifices allow us to speak freely, vote in a Democratic country, move about the country freely, and practice whatever faith we choose if we choose to do so.
The wind blew steadily, snapping the cloth of the two flags, which stood across from one another. The American flag and the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) flag each stood on one side of the casket, while a Specialist and First Lieutenant stood at attention beside each flag. A pair of combat boots sat on the grass, with an M1 Garand rifle and fixed bayonet stuck into the ground between the boots, with a helmet resting on top of the rifle symbolizing a fallen hero. Papa was a ninety-five year old combat veteran who served his country with honor. On December 21, 2014, he passed away in hospice, while surrounded by his children.

He was a man of unshakeable faith, sharing his love for God with anyone he met, speaking from his heart, and sharing scripture. He had blue eyes that twinkled; showed kindness when he smiled, and his hands were soft from decades of gardening. Papa loved gardening and had several raised beds in his backyard along with a greenhouse full of plants. He was well versed in homeopathic remedies, growing herbs and vegetables, and the concept of “clean eating” well before it became popular to those who practice healthy lifestyles. He had silver-white hair which he wore combed neatly back, framing his prominent cheek bones, and he wore wire-rimmed glasses to read his Bible and the numerous books that surrounded him at home.

Reverend Darren Rogers was the officiator at the funeral service and knew Papa well from church. He spoke thoughtful words and shared memories of times he spent with Papa.  He told a story about visiting the VA hospital with Papa and how the two of them would make their rounds to comfort the veterans. He recalled how at the age of seventy-seven Papa would always take the stairs instead of the elevator because he had boundless energy. Reverend Rogers joked about the fact that he, at a much younger age than Papa, would be winded by the time they reached the top of the stairs. He would try to hide his exertion from Papa, who was not winded at all and still able to hold a conversation! He spoke about Papa writing scripture on a yellow 5x7 index card with black lettering, inserted into his jacket pocket, just peeking out of the top so that others could read it voluntarily. Written on the card was the scripture: “Jesus said I am the way, the truth, the life. No man comes to the Father except through me”. Apparently, in the past, a VA employee had complained about Papa sharing scripture, but being a strong-willed and somewhat stubborn man, he wasn’t going to let that stop him. So, the card peeking out of his pocket was his way of sharing his strong conviction without upsetting the VA employee.

Seven veterans from the VFW stood across from the enclosure on the grassy area. With rifles in their hands, they lifted them, and fired three shots each for a “twenty-one gun salute.” Even for those that are familiar with a “full military honor” funeral, the loud shots caught them off-guard. Then, as tradition requires, the American flag (which had cloaked the casket) was carefully and properly folded into a tight triangle, with the stars facing outward. It was then presented to Papa’s daughter, Sonya, on behalf of a grateful nation and its citizens.
 After the funeral service, the family went to the church to spend time together. Papa’s grandson, Aaron, was present that day. Aaron had followed in Papa’s footsteps by joining the Army infantry. The two of them had a connection that only soldiers’ understand due to their experiences in the military, and since they had both had been in combat, that connection was even stronger.

Uncle David stood up and gathered everyone’s attention. He held Papa’s Infantry “dress greens” uniform in his hands. It was in immaculate condition, just like it looked in the 2005 interview. The top of the left arm sleeve displayed Papa’s unit patch showing that he served in the 1st Battalion 182nd Infantry (Americal Division) under General Douglas McArthur. Papa wore his uniform to any military function he attended because he was so proud to be an American. Papa’s uniform had been willed to Uncle David and he respected Papa’s service, but knew that it would end up in a closet where no one else would see it.

Uncle David then spoke about the advocacy work that Aaron does for wounded soldiers and how he frequently invites soldiers to visit his home, “Lost Creek Ranch,” for respite and mentorship. In Aaron’s home, Papa’s uniform would be seen by others that could appreciate it and understand the sacrifices it represents. It was at this point that Aaron began to realize that his Uncle was honoring him with his grandfather’s uniform. The emotion was evident on Aaron’s face even though he was trying to be stoic. As Aaron was handed the uniform he started speaking and it was captured on video:

“I was very fortunate to talk to Papa and he talked to me about how proud he was…I was kind of worried because Papa was very concerned. I could have gone into any branch I wanted. When I went in the service, they tried to talk me out of going into the infantry. The recruiters tried to talk me out of it, but I said my Grandfather was in the infantry and I want to go into the infantry. I knew Papa didn’t want me to go into the infantry, he really didn’t, but it was something I wanted to do… I was fortunate to be able to do it. Papa did a lot of very tough things. He kept a lot of people alive and he brought a lot of people home and he lost a lot of people…I had a lot of respect for him. When I was in the service I always pushed a little bit harder too, because I always wanted to honor my Grandfather. I never wanted to bring dishonor on him and he was a good man. If I could have been half the man he was, then that would be good. He was good.”

Later that afternoon, we started the five-hour drive home and Aaron shared many memories about his Grandfather. He told me about the time Papa taught him how to hunt. Like so many soldiers from WWII, Papa struggled with PTSD (known as “shell shock” in that era) and the last thing he wanted to do was shoot a gun to kill, but he knew how much Aaron wanted to learn how to hunt. Aaron shared this story:

“My Grandparents owned a small farm in Billings, Missouri and in the past had to hunt for food out of necessity. The day Papa taught me how to hunt there was a thick layer of snow on the ground and the brush along the fence was dense, which made it a good hiding place for rabbits. We walked along the fence line tracking the rabbits and shaking the brush to make them run out. I had a Ruger 22 rifle and Papa wanted to make sure that I understood how important it was to use the safety and keep my finger off the trigger if I wasn’t ready to fire the rifle. So he told me to put the safety on and aim the rifle in a safe direction towards the power lines. I thought I had pushed the safety switch hard enough to engage it, but when he told me to fire the rifle it actually shot a round. It scared me. I thought for sure that I was going to get smacked and yelled at and that the lesson would be over. Instead Papa remained calm and told me that the safety on a weapon can fail and that this was why you never, ever put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Papa was the positive male role model that I never had in my life and that lesson stayed with me throughout my military career.”

Once we arrived home, we were looking over Papa’s uniform and it was then that I felt something in the left pocket. I put my hand inside and pulled out a handkerchief. Then I felt something else and pulled out a piece of binder paper which was folded in half twice. I carefully unfolded it and the writing, written with an elderly person’s shaky hand, was without a doubt Papa’s handwriting. Although the writing was hard to decipher, after careful review, we realized that it was his notes for a presentation given to an elementary school class in Springdale, Arkansas on Monday, November 28, 2013.

The following is what was written on the paper:

“It is a great privilege to speak a few words to such a fine looking group of smart students. You look good and intelligent. A beautiful school, best teacher, you are the best in Arkansas.
What a privilege to live in America.  A land of freedom.
As a private citizen & a veteran of WWII in South Pacific as a combat infantry officer in the Americal Division under General Douglas McArthur.
It is an honor & privilege to voluntarily recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The pledge has been around a long time in public gatherings. Not compulsory until 1942. The 1954 Act of Congress added the words “under God.”
Thanks for inviting me. I am expecting great things from you. God bless you & God bless America.”

It was so fitting to find the school presentation, the handkerchief, and then having the ability to watch the interview from 2005. Everything I knew about Papa was from stories I’d heard my husband tell. While watching Papa speaking on camera, in uniform and wiping his eyes with his handkerchief, I was able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. I was able to hear his voice, the emotions displayed on camera when speaking about the war, and his words, which I have shared here. Now that interview on DVD is safely stored for later viewing. As for Papa’s uniform, it will be displayed in a shadow box, along with documents and photos, for visitors to enjoy and remember the great man Papa Hampton was.