WWII: Morris Casey
When Morris Casey joined the army in 1942, he was a green kid from South Memphis who'd just gotten a job with the Firestone tire plant. "I heard about Pearl Harbor and that made me want to go," he says. "I was skinny — weighed 116 pounds at boot camp. And I'd never been any farther from home than I could walk."
Over the next four years, the 88-year-old husband and father of four — who still suffers from shrapnel wounds in his arms, back, leg, and head — would travel thousands of miles and witness more horrors and heroism than he ever bargained for. He'd survive 40 days and nights at the storied Battle of the Bulge, and help his Lightning infantry division capture 900 towns, 360,000 prisoners, and several key German strongholds.
Before he saw the front lines, however, the forward artillery sergeant trained thousands of men to fight using 105mm Howitzers, which fired shells a distance of four to five miles. Casey remembers the rigors of preparing for combat. He and his fellow soldiers would rise at 5 a.m., drop their shirts, work out 45 minutes, run five miles, and go on daylong maneuvers. When one battalion would finish training and be sent to Europe or the Pacific, other groups would fill the camp.
In the fall of 1944, his unit was called to serve in Belgium at the Battle of the Bulge. (The "bulge," often seen in maps of the era, showed the Germans' advance into Allied territory.) "I was with the 9th Army, and we had to march 14 miles to where we started fighting. Cold, I'm telling you cold. We'd fight in holes and trenches, with the ground like a brick bed. We lost so many boys over there," recalls Casey of what historians call the bloodiest and biggest battle for American forces, with some 19,000 killed and 70,000 more wounded or missing. But the Germans had more losses, with 125,000 men dead. "We took two towns, and when the Germans took them back, we didn't leave like the companies who were pushed out. We stayed the whole 40 days in below-zero weather. I've got neuropathy today from frozen feet."
Later, Casey's division faced the daunting objective of taking strategic dams at Germany's Ruhr River. "We had to get the tanks over, but we couldn't cross [the river] or we'd be flooded out. Thousands of men were behind us, waiting. Taking the dams was a big responsibility. We saw other divisions in front of us go down, just murdered," he recalls. "But we took those dams — my platoon, two Howitzers, we took them — and then we held them for three weeks to drain the dams."
Shortly after that success, Casey's officer assigned him the task of launching an attack on the Remagen Bridge at the Rhine River. "I was scared to death," says Casey. "I was not an officer, I got his job when he got hit." Although both German and Allied forces had tried to destroy the railroad bridge, it was still intact when Casey's men arrived. On the afternoon of March 7, 1945, with vital help from the Lightning division, Americans captured the bridge, clearing the way for Allied troops and supplies to surge through. Says Casey: "We were the first to cross."
While on the Rhine, a shell struck a tree above the foxhole he was digging. "I'd taken off my helmet for a second, then put it back on just in time. Shrapnel hit me in the head. I would have died without that helmet." He was shipped to a hospital in France, then back to the front. "But by that time," he says, "the war was over."
During those intense months of combat, Casey and his comrades feared every day for their lives." You didn't think you'd ever see this country again. No day. You wondered if you'd live through the night. Being fired at all the time." He remembers one boy who didn't understand the first rule of war: "You're like a rat, you dig a hole. That's how you survive. He hadn't done that. I pushed him down so he wasn't hit."
Awarded numerous medals, including the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and the Citation of Honor, Casey points with special pride at a symbol on his cap for Combat Infantry "because it shows I was on the front lines," he explains. He also received a medal from the Belgium nation for driving the Germans out.
Though he wasn't called to liberate concentration camps, he'll never forget seeing Buchenwald. "The barracks where prisoners slept were so short they'd hang off the edges. The Nazis would string people up just high enough so their toes barely touched the ground. Around the walls, you could see where fingers scraped deep into the concrete. Anything they could do to hurt [the Jews], they did it, before they shoved them into the ovens."
Casey, who met his wife Sarah before joining the Army, got married during leave on December 23, 1943. After the war, he went back to work for Firestone.
Today at his home in Walls, Mississippi, he looks through photo albums and clippings about the battles he survived. "I made friends for life — North, South, East, and West," he says. "I talk to some of them two or three times a week and we have had reunions every three years." Since 1946, he and his friends have helped raise scholarship money for needy students.
For awhile after coming home, when he'd think of all the millions of lives lost, Casey would wonder if freedom was worth the tremendous carnage. "But the longer I live the more I know it was. The terrible people we were up against had to be defeated. And then you come here and see kids going to school, playing sports, living their lives, moving around freely. I say, 'Yes, thank God. It was worth it.'" — Marilyn Sadler
Korea: Donald Campbell
At dusk on November 2, 1950, Donald Campbell peered into the gloom to see the enemy approaching. He was one of four mortar truck drivers who had advanced into the Korean town of Unsong — only to discover the Communist Chinese had beat them there.
Although the driver in front of him raised his hands in surrender, Campbell fired off a shot, then fled into the village. There he was lucky enough to find artillery gunners who were willing to give him a ride out of the area. But when the driver cranked up the truck, a grenade exploded under the floorboard. The driver shoved an unconscious Campbell to the ground. He woke up in a rice paddy with his gun and helmet flung out of sight. Things quickly went from bad to worse. "I was trying to figure out where to go, when I ran smack into a Chinese."
Campbell was ordered into a ditch with four other Americans, and as they lay there staring up a rifle barrel, most were begging for their lives. "I didn't believe in that," says Campbell, who had turned 20 a few days earlier. "I just laid there and said to myself, 'I'm not gonna see my mom again, I won't see age 21.' I made my peace with God. I was ready to go."
Instead, this native of northern Illinois who moved to Memphis in 2001 spent the next three weeks in a prisoner of war camp with 21 other Americans. They slept on a hard floor, "like spoons," says Campbell. They ate cracked corn morning and night, or barley and a bowl of hot water, "with a little leaf of something green."
Sometimes their captors would tease the men, asking them what they'd like to eat. "When we were first taken, we were going to hide out the first day in the woods. So here we are, nothing around us for miles, and they ask us what we want for breakfast," says Campbell. "Some guys actually fell for it. They were making out their menu, saying they wanted bacon and eggs. The Chinese told them, 'Well, you'll get barley and hot water.' I was actually laughing, it was so dumb."
Another time, the group ran into some captured American lieutenants. The Chinese general told them, "You will dine with us tonight." When the lieutenants returned, the other prisoners asked them what they ate. "It was the same stuff we had," says Campbell. "The Chinese just told us big, fat goofy lies."
During interrogations, the enemy would ask the men why they wanted to kill the Koreans, accusing the GIs of "coming here to sell Lucky Strikes and Coca-Cola!" Campbell would answer, "I'm just following orders." When asked if he had a wish, he'd reply, "It would be nice to go home."
Another POW named Harry wasn't so polite. "Harry told them, 'I'd like to blow you all away,'" says Campbell. "He'd say that every time, and they'd put him in a hole in the ground and dump food in after him, and he'd stay in a cage not big enough to stretch out."
Campbell had joined the Army in 1948 and served in Japan before being sent to the Korean front in July 1950. "I could speak some Japanese and so could the Koreans and Chinese. So at the POW camp, I was the interpreter," he explains. One night as the men were trying to go to sleep, Campbell was ordered outside and told that all prisoners would be released that night. "I really thought they were going to take us out and shoot us," he recalls. Instead they were driven for two nights, until the Chinese major ordered them off the trucks and showed them the road that led to the American front line.
During their three weeks of captivity, however, the POWs had noticed what was happening. Whenever they marched at night, they'd see many columns of Chinese soldiers moving south. Says Campbell: "All this time they were building up their army."
When they arrived at the front line, the Americans were sound asleep. "We had to wake them up, honest to God, that's how alert they were after three weeks of no activity," says Campbell. "At an intelligence briefing before daylight, we told the captain that thousands more Chinese were coming in for a really big attack. Nobody believed us." Shortly after that, more GIs were caught in the Communists' trap. "We knew it would happen but they wouldn't believe what we said."
Meanwhile, back in his boyhood home of Pecatonia, Illinois, Campbell's family rode an emotional roller coaster. On Thanksgiving Eve, unaware that their son had been captured, the Campbells got word that he was missing in action. But at 3 a.m. the next morning, Campbell's grandfather was listening to a radio. "He heard about a release of prisoners, and they said my name," says Campbell. "My aunt lived upstairs and he shouted up to her, 'Donald is coming home!' She was a schoolteacher, but a farm girl at heart. She went to the henhouse, grabbed a couple of chickens, and the next day they really celebrated."
Few POWs were as fortunate as those released along with Campbell. He points to an article in the September/October 2009 issue of Ex-POW Bulletin, which says that "a larger percentage of American POWs died as prisoners in Korea than any war since the American Revolution. Most were assumed by the folks back home to have cooperated with the Communists. . . . Even the fact that so many died as POWs was held against them as if they died simply because they were weaker than Americans in previous wars. This remains a terrible injustice to the men who suffered through the POW camps in North Korea."
Throughout the three-year war, thousands of POWs were marched to countless temporary holding points, often on bare feet, sick with dysentery, tuberculosis, and scurvy. Many were forced into ravines and bayoneted, while others were shot from behind while they marched. In one instance, the North Koreans came upon a group of wounded Americans being cared for by a surgeon and a chaplain; only the surgeon survived to tell the story. In December 1950, shortly after Campbell and his comrades were released, several American bodies were found; the men had been stabbed repeatedly by bamboo sticks.
Campbell, who made it home to celebrate Christmas with his family, realizes how much worse his captivity could have been. He went on to serve another tour of Korea, and was discharged in 1959 as a journeyman crane operator. He worked for a county highway department operating heavy equipment, married, and had three daughters. In 2001, he was remarried to a woman he met in Memphis at a POW reunion.
At those reunions he'd see Harry, the one who told the Chinese he wanted to blow them up. "We laughed and had a good visit," says Campbell. "He told me, 'I guess I should have played it smart, like you.'" — Marilyn Sadler
Vietnam: Ed Stutler
As a convoy operator, delivering supplies and ammo to his fellow Marines, Ed Stutler's truck often came under fire. Though he sustained no hits to his slim physique, his psyche took a beating. "Some things you see, they never leave," says the Cincinnati native. "They stay right there in your mind."
When Stutler joined the Marine Corps — "mainly because recruiters convinced me I had a better chance of surviving" — he was immediately shipped to San Diego, where his greatest fear was failing boot camp. But having grown up on the streets because his parents worked long hours, Stutler thrived on the discipline: "The drill instructor seemed to care about me and urged me on."
He arrived in South Vietnam in October 1966, stationed at Chu Lai, a newly established military base, with the 3rd Marine's Bravo division. He started out working in the warehouse but was soon recruited to drive a truck and run convoys that carried "everything the guys in the field needed and the enemy wanted to destroy." He remembers an especially fierce battle when he "felt like he was on the wrong end of a shooting gallery." Small-arms fire peppered the truck. "A Phantom jet came to help us and it flew so low I swear I could reach up and touch the wing," says Stutler. The jet dropped napalm across the jungle, sending the Viet Cong into retreat.
One night Stutler saw a line of boys crawling under the barbed wire — naked except for explosives strapped to their bodies. "We'd wiped out all the jungle and vegetation," he says, "so they had nowhere to hide and tried to blend in with the sand. Several things about that scene freaked me out — that they were only teenagers and willing to kill themselves [for the Viet Cong] in that manner. And that they got so close to us that they destroyed two Phantom jets. Three or four of those boys died in the explosion."
Of all the images seared into his mind, one in particular haunts him. It revolves around Pat, "a Jewish character from Chicago and the best friend I ever had," says Stutler. Every morning, as he prays at his dining room table in his Harbor Town home, the veteran sees the faces, hears the voices. "And I keep thinking if I had been there in the tent, things would have been different."
Stutler met Pat (center of photo, opposite page) at boot camp and they wound up at Chu Lai together. On December 2, 1966, Stutler was on watch at the command post, tuned to his radio for news of anyone being trapped or needing supplies. When he heard a "crack-crack-crack," he knew it was a rifle. "I thought it had to be the enemy, but it was too frigging close. So I went outside and even though it was pitch black, I could see people coming up the hill from the tent. I couldn't tell who they were." Then he made out the form of three men, and the one in the middle was bloody. "The guys were carrying Pat," says Stutler, "and he'd been shot point-blank in the chest."
Gradually Stutler learned what happened: A Marine guard had gone berserk shooting men inside the tent, and Pat was the first he hit. When they told Stutler that Pat was gone, seven men had to hold him back. "They put the gunman on a helicopter and got him out of there." Otherwise he'd have been dead. I don't think the Marines ever told the truth about that, and it's bothered me ever since."
Shortly after the tragedy, Stutler was sent on R&R. "When I got back, they never sent me on convoys again. I was glued to the commanding officer. I was not the same. I wish I knew how I was acting, wish I could remember. But they knew they couldn't trust me with anything."
Discharged as a corporal in November 1967, Stutler went home to find that nobody — not even his own mother — wanted to hear about the unpopular war. "I kid you not, her first words to me were, 'When you gonna get a job?'" As for overt hostility about Vietnam, he says, "I witnessed it toward other guys at the airports, but not toward me. I guess I looked too damn mean."
The following year, Stutler crashed. "I knew there was something wrong with me, my head wasn't right. Nightmares, yeah. But daytime too. I got married, because that's what you did, and had a son, and got a job with Kroger. But I'd walk around thinking, I'm crazy, I'm crazy. I reached for the only thing I could think of at the time. Alcohol."
Stutler lost the job in Cincinnati but found one in Memphis with Malone and Hyde. By then he has divorced and remarried a woman who had two children. "We moved here in 1985, thinking we'd quit drinking, pay attention to the kids," says Stutler. "The first night here I was sitting in a bar. My drinking got worse, not better. It kept taking more and more to numb me."
A turning point came when he tried to kill himself. "Once with a shotgun, and once with a pistol. But both times I passed out before I fired the guns." He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and hasn't had a drink since 1994. But the nightmares and day visions — of exploding bodies, of girls with hand grenades, of a landscape so ravaged that nothing would grow — plagued him still. Then he met some guys with Vietnam Veterans of America. "I had steered clear of that [organization], wanted nothing to do with it," he recalls, "but we got to talking and they said, 'Man, you need to go to the hospital.' They introduced me to a psychiatrist, who took my hand and told me, 'Your insides are shaking as hard as your outside. You have a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder.'"
Now 64, Stutler retired from AutoZone as a project designer five years ago. Divorced from his second wife since 1993, he has a girlfriend and keeps in touch with his 32-year-old son. He sees a VA psychologist every week and has been an officer of Vietnam Veterans of America, which raises money for vans and golf carts that help carry veterans to and around the hospital. "That's been a big help to my mental state," he says. "For the first time I could talk to people who had been there and understood."
His friends know what it's like to lie awake nights waiting for something to happen, to walk "the perimeter" outside to check for enemies. They remember when seeing mangled bodies was "normal."
And they listen when Stutler mourns his lost friend and asks himself the eternal question: "What could I have done to stop his death? I guess that question will forever be with me."
Afghanistan: Daniel Padgett
Even though U.S. troops entered this historically troubled country weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the conflict here has played out, until recently, in the shadows of the war in Iraq. With the twin missions of disrupting al-Qaeda training and removing the radical Taliban from power, the struggle in Afghanistan — where more than 20,000 American troops have been sent in the past year — has proven to be even more volatile and vexing than that in Iraq, where US. troops are gradually drawing down. Mountainous terrain and an Afghan population still heavily influenced by Taliban extremists place an end to the conflict beyond the scope of military experts.
This is the world Daniel Padgett knew for nine months.
A 1998 graduate of Kirby High School, Padgett's youth was counterbalanced between an environment of drugs and gangs — temptations he feels blessed to have avoided — and the work ethic of his mom and stepfather, each of whom often held two jobs to make ends meet.
Padgett's decision to enlist in the Army was less about mission than it was a practical means of providing for his own growing family. At the time of his high school graduation, Padgett's girlfriend (now his wife) was pregnant with their first daughter. He and Shante were married in November 1998, a few short weeks after Padgett completed basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Padgett was given a job in logistics, managing supplies out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, a base he chose for its proximity to Memphis.
The Padgetts lived the nomadic life military families come to expect, with time at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and a year for Daniel in South Korea where, away from his family (daughters Kyrah and Keyara pictured below), he discovered God. "He has a plan for us," Padgett emphasizes. "We don't always know what it is, but He has a plan." After a brief return to Fort Bragg, Padgett was deployed to Afghanistan in September 2002 with the 364th Supply and Support Company. Padgett had re-enlisted for active duty after the attacks of 9-11, so he knew what he was facing. Upon departing for the center of an international storm, Padgett remembers "the excitement of the unknown."
"It was dusty," recalls Padgett, able to smile in recollecting his first impressions of Bagram, a former air base 27 miles north of Kabul that he'd call home as America's war on terrorism began to escalate. "Bagram's in what you might call a pie crust: a flat region, surrounded on all sides by mountains," says Padgett. "It was early, so we lived in what's called tent cities, with 10 or 20 people per tent. Some had floor linings, some didn't."
A sergeant, Padgett helped manage a warehouse facility that supplied coalition forces with everything from food and clothing to auto parts and flat-screen televisions. "It's a mixture," notes Padgett. "We're at war, but we also have everyday functions. You better make the best of it, and make both happen."
Padgett had roughly 30 soldiers under his watch, while also working with subcontractors and Afghan locals. Padgett recalls fondly a relationship he developed with an Afghan interpreter, a man who voiced the opinion Padgett feels is the consensus of the region: We're glad you're here to help improve our country, but don't leave us behind as you did after the Russians were removed.
Padgett's unit was confined to the base at Bagram throughout his stay, and only one member was seriously injured (a soldier stepped on a land mine in exiting a truck after a brief trip). Padgett heard gunfire, mostly at night. But it was emotional trauma that left a greater impact than any wound or loss of life. "I remember seeing children at the hospital with legs missing," he says. "Another child was missing a good portion of his face. That's the kind of thing that never goes away."
Not long after Padgett returned to Fort Bragg (in May 2003) he came down with paralyzing pain in his right leg and was later diagnosed with a form of polyneuropathy, a nerve condition caused in part by a narrowing of his spinal column. On top of that, chronic knee pain and sleep apnea (that now requires he wear an oxygen mask every night) led to a medical discharge in June 2006. "It's still a blessing to me," says Padgett, "that I got out on good terms and I made it back from overseas in much better condition than some of my comrades."
Not long ago, the word veteran conjured images of black-and-white film, or grainy, yellowed photographs of a generation removed. Today, the same word can mean a 30-year-old husband and father, a deacon in his church, a college student working toward a business degree, and a distribution supervisor at Sears. All of which describe Daniel Padgett.
"I'm grateful that I experienced Afghanistan," says Padgett. "Being a man of faith, I believe everything happens for a reason. Some things that happened in Afghanistan have a purpose for me right now, and some things that happened there will have a purpose for me when I get older."
— Frank Murtaugh
Marilyn Sadler and Frank Murtaugh