William E. Himes is a 91-year-old World War II veteran who lives in Sharon.
He served in U.S. Army from December 1942 to March 1946. He fought in the European Theater with the 722nd Military Police Battalion, which started out as noncombatants but was quickly switched to combatants.
Himes went ashore on Utah Beach a couple weeks after the D-Day invasion in Normandy, France, as a private. When he was discharged, he had achieved the rank of staff sergeant.
After being discharged he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in mechanical engineering. He worked at the Sharon Transformer Division of Westinghouse Electric Corp. from 1952 until he retired in 1984.
He began writing privately eight years about his personal experiences, including those as a veteran. These are two stories penned by Himes, one a real-life account about a local encounter and the other, a fictional piece.
The Little Soldier
By William E. Himes
It was late Saturday afternoon and I had stopped at the Sears Auto Store in Hermitage to check the price of some new tires for my car.
Having completed my business at the rear of the store, I turned to leave.
Leaning on my cane for support and wobbling toward the door my attention was drawn to a tall handsome young man and a small boy apparently waiting their turn at the counter. Passing by them I thought I heard someone speak. Assuming it was the young man I inquired, “I’m sorry. I have a hearing problem. Did you speak to me?”
“Yes I did,” he replied a little more loudly, “I wanted to thank you for serving our country in the war.”
It was then I realized that I was wearing my cap that indicated I was a WWII veteran.
“Oh!” I replied. “Thank you for your comment. I was glad to be able to do it. In those days everybody in the country was involved. I was just one of more than 16 million people in uniform. If the situation was the same and I was able, I’d be proud to do it again, but that’s not likely. I think we veterans are disappearing at the rate of about 1100 per day. There are just a little over one million of us left.”
“Where did you serve?” he continued.
“I was in France. I went ashore on the Utah Beach section of the Normandy coastline.”
“Have you ever been back there since the war?”
“No, I haven’t, but I would like to see the area as it is now.”
“I’m stationed at the Vienna Air Base near here,” he replied. “Several years ago I had the opportunity to visit the Normandy invasion sites. It’s an awesome thing to see. There are huge craters left by bombs on offshore shelling. There are still some of the German gun implacements with 10-foot-thick walls and large chunks of concrete missing where shells have struck. The cemeteries with the men that died there are beautiful in a sad kind of way. The whole area is well cared for by loving people.
“The French people we met treated us like royalty. Even though I wasn’t involved, they didn’t seem to be able to express the extent of their appreciation for what the Americans had done in liberating them from the plague of the German occupation.”
“Well as you can see I was one of the lucky ones. I got there several days after D-Day and wasn’t really involved in the death and mayhem of the actual invasion, I was one of the ones that got a chance to return home.”
“God bless you for what you did,” was his final comment.
As I was preparing to continue my way to the door, I became aware of a part of this two-man scene that, up until now, I had missed.
That man’s young son – probably 3 or 4 years old – had been facing me, standing there as erect as a statue with his little right hand up to his forehead. Apparently all the while his dad and I were talking he had been holding the most perfect salute to me that any general would have been proud of.
At first I was at a loss as to how best to respond. I could have told him that I didn’t deserve a salute – that a salute is thrown to the uniform being worn – not the man, but he wouldn’t have understood that. In his little mind, he felt I deserved it.
In the moment it took me to recover my thoughts, I decided to do the normal thing. I returned his salute. He then dropped his little hand to his side. There was no exchange of words between us.
As I continued on my way to the door another thought came to me. I remembered the famous November 1963 photo of little John Kennedy Jr. standing at the curb and saluting his daddy’s casket as it slowly passed by on a horse-drawn caisson.
The stance and the sentiment were exactly the same. There was only one glaring difference. I was able to return the salute.
Not everyone forgets
By William E. Himes
I know it’s early November. It must be near Veterans Day. It is usually very quiet here, but there seems to be a lot more activity lately.
About the only thing we ever hear is the sound of the guy cutting the grass or maybe the commotion connected with the arrival of a new buddy.
A few days ago a guy from one of the veterans posts placed a bronze holder at my head with a little flag, just as they do on Memorial Day.
I guess you get used to the quiet after awhile. I haven’t been here as long as some of the guys. I was one of the lucky ones who came back safely and in one piece. I got to marry, raise a family and live to a ripe old age. In fact it was just old age that got me.
Joe, two plots over, has been here for a long time. He caught a piece of shrapnel on a bombing run over Berlin in 1944. The crew made it back to England and they were able to ship what was left of him back to his mother in the States.
Jerry, down below there hasn’t been here long. A land mine got him in Iraq just two years ago. I think Mike over on the left got his in Vietnam. I’m not sure.
I don’t get many visitors. Most of my family and friends are either dead or live so far away that they never get back here. When they used to come to town it was to see me. There’s no need for that now. I can understand that.
Some of the other guys around me used to get visitors now and then, but hardly anyone ever comes anymore. It seems that at first everyone is concerned, but as time goes on they forget.
Thank goodness there are some groups that don’t forget. The guys in the VFW and American Legion always get here to show their respect. They are getting old, too. Some of them have come on walkers and one guy was in a wheelchair, but they come. I don’t know how some of them continue to do it.
They pledge allegiance to the flag and somebody plays “Taps.” That always gets to me. I have to get out my handkerchief to blot my nose, but otherwise I’m fine.
Yesterday there was a speaker who had a very nice talk. I heard most of it. He basically was thanking all of us for putting down aggression and saving the world from disaster at one time or another.
He especially reminded everyone that without the sacrifices made by so many of us, they would not be enjoying the freedom that most people take for granted today. All of us involved made the sacrifice of several years of our lives and many made the ultimate sacrifice.
One thing he said really impressed me. He said that we didn’t lose what we sacrificed. Rather we gave that portion of ourselves to our country as payment for the privilege of living in a free society. I never really thought of it that way before.
I’m not sorry that I sacrificed a part of my life for my country when it needed me. I just never thought of it as a gift to my country given in return for the good life that I enjoy as a member of this country.
I suppose everything will become quiet again now that the celebrations and parades are over.
When you go by a memorial park even if you don’t stop in, think of us and say a little “thank you” prayer for your freedom.
Be assured that freedom is not free. In fact it is very costly, but someone whom you probably don’t even know paid the price for you.