The members of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post #4667 hold a special place in my heart. Not a single one of them owe me anything, but I have never met the first person who was unwilling to show me friendship. Over the years, I have tried to return their kindness by supporting their activities, mostly Salvation Army bell ringing and the annual Memorial Day parade.
Neither my wife nor my parents served in the military; Dad was of age during World War II, but his poor eyesight kept him excluded. That said, both sides of our family have had more than our share of aunts, uncles and cousins to proudly wear the uniform. In fact, I have a cousin serving currently overseas who is in line to make brigadier general.
One thing our nation does right is military logistics. Our fighting men and women are well equipped for success, and that includes being well fed. Even in the times of Napoleon, an army moved on its stomach.
A story that I have shared many times over the years involves a now-deceased member of Post #4667: Jack Wheeler and his suffering and hunger during his service in Italy in World War II. I interviewed Jack for a spotlight feature in our state dairy association magazine years ago. The following are excerpts from that interview.
Growing up in the Smyth County (Virginia) town of Chilhowie, my friend Jack Wheeler was a member of the “Greatest Generation." Like many of his day, Jack is a veteran of World War II, and he went through some dark, serious times as part of his service as a tanker in Mark Clark's armored division.
It was as a member of that invading army in Italy that Jack’s most horrible memories came to be. “You spent as much time out of the tank as you possibly could. They were real death traps,” Jack spoke of the relatively light Sherman tanks in which he served. Shells and fragments that penetrated the light armor would ricochet inside the turret, ripping the crew to shreds. “In 1944, I spent a lot of time in foxholes, days and weeks at a time. Most of that time, I was at least knee deep in water. I went days without dry clothes. I couldn’t change my socks – everything I had was soaked. I had terrible sores on my feet, but we just couldn’t do any better.”
Adding to Jack’s misery was the death of his longtime friend and first cousin Charles R. “Buddy” Hankla, also of Chilhowie. Buddy and Jack had enlisted together and served together until Buddy’s death. Jack’s voice cracked with emotion as he recalled Buddy’s death. “Buddy was shot and died in my arms. One of the hardest things I did in the war was burying my cousin.”
One of the members of Jack’s crew was a school bus driver from Osmond, Nebraska, named Friel. Shortly after burying Buddy, Friel and Jack were pinned down in their foxhole for four straight days. They spent those four days with little water, less rest and no food. “We had nothing, not even a C ration. Those were hard times; we were so hungry, we didn’t know if we could make it. A lot of the fellas made promises in those foxholes, but I have to say proudly that Friel and I have kept our promise for over 57 years. We pledged to each other that if we were delivered from that battle that we would never complain about what we had to eat for the rest of our lives.
“You can ask my wife, Lula, over the years, I have had the pleasure to enjoy good health and three square meals a day. Some of those meals I liked more than others. Some just weren’t that tasty, but I ate every meal like it was the best thing I had ever had. They were all good to me. I kept my promise. I remembered to be thankful. I ate anything my wife fixed and was truly thankful to have it.”
I think about Jack and his story whenever I am cold or feel down. No matter how bad things are, someone is having a worse day. It’s hard to feel sorry for yourself if you think about Jack and all the other soldiers who suffered under some pretty tough circumstances. Life is what you make it, and we are fortunate to live in a country where we have the ability to cut our own furrow.
Jack and Lula aren’t with us anymore, but they live on in my heart. I am proud to be part of an industry that not only feeds our military but our civilians as well. This Memorial Day, as you celebrate and maybe take an extra day or two away from work, please take a moment to be thankful for all the servicemen and women who didn’t get to come home to a parade or cookout – to be thankful for the ones who did and to be thankful for the dedicated farmers and businesses who are on the job today, tomorrow and Monday to be sure the supply chain of food goes unbroken.
Andy Overbay holds a Ph.D. in ag education and has more than 40 years of hands-on dairy and farming experience.
- Extension Agent
- Virginia Cooperative Extension
- Email Andy Overbay