Twilight’s last gleaming

Credit: Mark Hancock

When the battle for Okinawa ended, 12,500 Americans had been killed or lost. The Japanese lost more than 100,000.

Fenwick, hailing from southeastern Oklahoma, was a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman, an advanced kind of medical personnel who landed with the Marines. He almost didn’t make the battle when his first landing craft sank with him and his unit. After shedding his equipment, he managed to swim to a troop ship and clamber back up the cargo nets hanging down the sides. Unwounded, he was reequipped and sent back.

The Japanese, having been schooled by the Germans about the Allied landing at Normandy, waited until all the troops landed before opening fire in order to maximize killing. Fenwick found himself hunkered down in a foxhole with another man. A fragmentary mortar round landed near the foxhole and blew them both out of it.

Fenwick awoke covered in blood, with other Corpsmen cutting off his clothing. “I thought I was dying,” he recalled. “They only do that if you’ve been hit.”

But the blood wasn’t his. It belonged to the other man, who died. A piece of shrapnel hit Fenwick’s body and knocked him unconscious, but it miraculously embedded in the hilt of his government-issue K-Bar knife. He still has that knife, its handle wrapped with 60-plus-year-old electrical tape.

Stark
images and events still stand out in his mind — the POW camp that the
Marines liberated, and the men there he treated. There was a 14-year-old
Japanese girl whose gangrenous leg had to be amputated. And he
remembers a little Japanese toddler sitting beside the road, crying, his
head bandaged; when Fenwick removed the bandage, a piece of the skull
came away and maggots crawled in the wound.

Ralph Fenwick, circa 1940s

“The
hate left me,” Fenwick said of that moment. He treated the child, sent
him to the field hospital, and to this day is haunted by his fate, which
remains unknown to him.

Fenwick
survived World War II, Korea and Vietnam, became a medical researcher,
raised four children (including this writer) with his wife of 59 years,
and now, at 87 years old, finds he’s one of what newsman Tom Brokaw
coined the “Greatest Generation.”

So
… why are those of his generation called the “greatest?” “Well, what
do they want?” Fenwick said. “We did everything they asked us to. Wasn’t
that great enough?”


‘Bitter cold’
With
this week marking the 71st anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor, it seems a fitting time to reflect on the
sizable contributions of those who served in World War II. Memories,
unlike people, can live on — provided those recollections are passed on
to younger generations.

Meanwhile, the members of the “Greatest Generation” are dying at a rate of 740 each day.

The
advancing age of that generation recently prompted a movement to help
its veterans visit the World War II memorial on the National Mall in
Washington, D.C. The nonprofit Honor Flight Network flies
the veterans to Washington to see their memorial, then returns them
home. The entire trip takes one day.

“The
window of opportunity, for us as a community and as a state, to act on
their behalf is closing very rapidly,” said state Rep. Gary Banz, the
founder and executive director of Oklahoma Honor Flights. “We still have
an opportunity to say thanks before they are all gone. That’s what
drives and motivates us.”

At
an October ceremony held at Rose State College, 89-year-old Charles
Bryant, a soldier who survived the Battle of the Bulge, echoed Fenwick’s
sentiment about being called to service.

“You
go over and go through what we went through, I guess you could call it
the ‘Greatest Generation,’” said Bryant, who lives in Walters.

In
1944, he was in a Paris hospital, recuperating from stepping on a land
mine when his unit, the 30th Infantry, advanced into Germany.

Charles Bryant

Meanwhile, on Dec. 16 of that year, Hitler ordered the
German army to throw everything it had into a massive strike in an
attempt to take back territory it had lost from the Allied advance
through France. The Germans struck under cover of darkness, during a
cold weather front that had grounded Allied aircraft.

So
complete was the surprise that many in the American units didn’t have
coats for the winter. The commanders brought Bryant and other
convalescing soldiers up to the front. He was well enough, they said.

“They
took me back to the front lines and my outfit was in the Battle of the
Bulge,” Bryant recalled. “Oh, it was so cold, I’m telling you. Bitter
cold. Some of the boys, their feet froze. They lost their feet. We had
to keep moving.”

Bryant
said he and another soldier manned a .30 caliber machine gun on the
front — a weapon they could scarcely use, because its sound would draw a
German artillery assault.

“They
could put the artillery right in on top of us,” he said. “The only
times we were allowed to fire w

as when our lives were in jeopardy.”

Three
times his unit was almost overrun by advancing Germans, causing him and
his fellow soldier to open fire, repelling them. In between these
assaults, they tried to stay warm.

“One would lay down in the foxhole, and you would cover him up with a raincoat or whatever we had.

Then after a couple of hours, he’d come up and he would stand guard and you’d go down in the foxhole,” Bryant said.

He survived the war with a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and his legs intact, with a little shrapnel for a souvenir.

Rep. Gary Banz

‘Fate made us look good’
For hotshot P-51 Mustang fighter pilot Stanley Newman, the war was often “fun”— with gravity.

“Flying
a fighter plane in World War II for a kid like me, it’s like having the
family car with 14 cylinders, six machine guns, no real
responsibilities, just trying to stay alive, and plenty to drink. And
the girls love those silver wings. I hate to say it … but World War II
was fun,” said the 89-year-old Newman, an Oklahoma City resident and
retired major general.

Then again, there was the
time he almost died. As the Allies pushed into Germany, Newman and his
wingman were flying ground support for what he later learned was the
45th Infantry Division, Oklahoma’s celebrated Thunderbirds.

“As we started on down, I saw a German jet, an ME 262,” Newman said.

The
ME 262 was the world’s first operational combat jet, a plane so fast
that most of its targets never saw what hit them. It was one of
Germany’s secret weapons, a last-ditch marvel that came too late to save
the crumbling Third Reich.

“I
peeled off,” Newman recalled. “I had my airplane going as fast as it
was able — full dive, right up to the red line speed, about 500 miles an
hour. Just before I got into range, he took off. He left me behind like
I was walking. He was out of sight.”

White
puffs of smoke erupted all around Newman and his wingman. The ME 262
carried 30 MM cannons that shot explosive rounds, any one of which could
have taken down the plane. Apparently, one jet was below them, but
others were above, closing them in a trap.

“[Explosive
rounds] were blowing up all around us. I made a real tight 360-degree
turn. I just let loose a stream of bullets. It was going so fast I
couldn’t set him up on gunsight. I just let fly with the guns. Whether I
hit him or not, caused any damage or not, I’ll never know. I was
lucky,” Newman said.

Then the Germans were gone.

Years
later, Newman learned that he had dived into a nest of crack German war
aces, the “Galland Circus.” Its squadron leader, Adolf Galland, had
shot down 106 planes, and had hand-picked pilots for his unit who often
had as many, or more, kills.

Stanley Newman

“Two fuzzy-cheeked 2nd lieutenants took on the cream of the Luftwaffe,” Newman said, laughing.

After the war, Newman finished his college degree, married, settled down, raised kids.

Today, he looks back with gratitude, he said.

“We’re
a great generation, but we’re not the greatest,” he said. “How about
Valley Forge in the American Revolution? How about Antietam or
Gettysburg? We just got better publicity. Some generations are just
called to do things. I’d do anything for this country. And that’s what I
did.

“But that’s also what these other generations did. … Sometimes fate just made us look good.”

Ben Fenwick

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