Still In The Thick Of It

Far left: Charles Lewis, Sergeant, USMC (Air Forces)

In the summers of 2000 and 2001, the last years before the Baron’s Boy obtained his driver’s license, Dymphna spent those long, warm afternoons driving the future Baron around the county where we live, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. The Baron’s Boy, whose name is Will (though back then it was “Willie”) had decided finally on his Eagle Scout Leadership Service Project.

As most readers of this blog probably know, no boy can attain the rank of Eagle unless he creates a project, completes it, and appears before a Board of Review to discuss and defend his work. It is always a service project, one that must benefit the boy’s community — church, school, individuals, etc. The boy serves as leader of the project but he must include others in the work. He learns to lead and to co-operate.

Will had — and has — a deep love of military history, strategy and tactics. In middle school he’d written several papers within this field, including an overview of the strategic use of airplanes in the European theater in World War II. So when it came time to create his service project, what better thing to do than interview the remaining World War II veterans in our small county? Gradually, over several months, he drew up a list of questions for the vets: things he wanted to know, but also things he thought would be of interest to readers years from now, when the grandchildren of these men were grandparents themselves.

Armed with his questions and a list of veterans a school teacher had drawn up previously (she used to invite the veterans in to talk to her classes), Will made his appointments with the vets and set off onto the back roads of Buckingham County, excited to be able to talk to the men he so admired. In the meantime, he’d acquired a video camera. Being able now to capture the whole experience on tape made the project even more rewarding.

It’s going on five years now since that first day on the road. The project, “Right in the Thick of It”, is long finished, printed and bound and distributed. All the extra copies of the book were donated to Historic Buckingham, with the proceeds of their sale going toward the historical society’s other projects. Meanwhile, a number of the veterans interviewed have since died — some of them even before the project was completed. Always, there was a sense of urgency, a need to record these men and their thoughts before they were gone.

Every man and woman in this book is special. Each holds a place of admiration in Will’s heart. One soldier in particular, Dick Miles, was the grandfather of Will’s friend and a member of the church where Will played the organ; he was particularly beloved. When he died in February, 2003, Will’s final salute was to play the organ at Dick’s funeral. During the service, one of his sons got up to say that during his whole life, he never remembered his father saying an unkind word about anyone. To Will, and to all of us, it was the final word on a life that Ralph Waldo Emerson would have admired:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have made some difference that you have lived and lived well.

Now Sergeant Miles lies buried in the church graveyard, in property his family donated to the Episcopal Church, just as they donated the property on which the volunteer firehouse stands.

As a Memorial Day tribute, here is the transcript of Dick Miles’ interview. As you will see, it was he who gave the title to the book.

     Name: Lauren L. “Dick” Miles
Rank: Staff Sergeant
Branch of Service: U. S. Army, Engineers
How old were you when you joined the service?
23 years old.
Did you volunteer or were you drafted?
I volunteered.
What year?
I really can’t remember… probably 1943, somewhere around there.
How long were you in? Did you continue after the war?
I went to Fort Belvoir Virginia — I was in 5th Engineers — and pulled three years. I was discharged, and I joined the reserves. They hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor yet. I got me a real good job — I never made any money — got me a job paying good money, and one day, they called me back. And I went to Camp Lee and stayed there two weeks. Then I was sent to Camp Gordon, Georgia.
What was training like?
Well… training, it was tough. You had to train to be a good soldier to protect yourself and protect others if there was a possible chance of doing it.
And engineering was difficult because you had to know how to build bridges in the middle of combat and so forth.
Right. We built bridges, we done all kinds of things. I was right in the thick of it.
You were in the Battle of the Bulge, right?
I was in five battles. There were only five battles in the whole war. I was in the Battle of the Bulge — that was the last battle. We were in a little village called Abbel-Fontaine, Belgium for rest. We’d been out in the snow, freezing weather… and we moved into this little town of Abbel-Fontaine, Belgium for a rest, on the 17th of December. We were going to be there for Christmas Day, and have a big Christmas dinner. Well, the Germans broke through about five miles from where we were. They broke through where a brand new division was in the line, all brand-new, young boys, eighteen, nineteen years old… oldest people there were the noncoms, sergeants and so on. They broke through, and we had to get the hell out of there right quick, and we did. And we didn’t get our Christmas dinner. We were out there in the snow, in foxholes, dodging bullets, 88’s [88mm AA-guns], the whole daggone works. But I remember that village real well… when we moved in there, we unloaded the equipment from the vehicles and put camouflage netting over them so the Germans couldn’t see them from the air… and our all tractor-trailers were camouflaged so the Germans couldn’t see them… We had to move out right quick, move out on the line. I was a demolitions man, and I had to use TNT, nitro-glycerin to blow trees, blow holes, all that stuff. We had to get this line all shut up, in case the Germans tried to come our way. So we tried to slow them down with trees crisscrossing the road, and with holes, so when a tank came along he’d hit one of the holes and down he’d go. They attacked us, but it wasn’t so bad.
What was your rank at the end of the war?
Staff Sergeant.
So you were a platoon leader?
I was a platoon leader, anywhere from fifty to fifty-five men. At that time, I must have been around twenty-six, twenty-seven years old.
Where did you see action? I know you were in the European theater, but which campaigns did you take part in?
I was in all the battles. Sometimes, certain outfits would be right in the thick of it. We were bridge builders, blow holes, check for mines with mine detectors, all that stuff.
Where did you first see action?
Well, I was in England. We didn’t come across at D-Day; we came over on D+3[June 9th]. They shelled us and there was bullets coming at us but it wasn’t as bad as when the fellows came across on D-Day, D+1[June 7th]. Because they [the Germans] was all up on the line then, trying to kill every last one of those men.
Were you wounded at all?
No, no, I never was wounded. I had a lot of close calls, but they never got me.
What was your impression of what we were fighting for?
Well, Nazi Germany was actually hoping to win the world. They weren’t just aiming to take the United States, but the world. If they could have taken England, they would have… you see, to cross the English Channel, you had to have the very best of equipment to do it with. That’s about twenty-three miles from England to France, and you had to have the best equipment and men to continue from the beaches of Normandy on up into Germany. That’s the whole situation… when we came in on D+3, they were shelling, everything to try to stop us. There were mines, machine-gun nests… and we was engineers. If they ordered us to take a machine gun nest and we couldn’t get close to it, we had a long pipe, TNT or whatever, that we tried to slide down into it to blow it up with.
What was your most memorable experience of the war?
I think it was landing on the beaches of Normandy. You know, it was something exciting… we were in England, training for this, about six to eight months. We moved to Winchester, England, and they just told us to be ready. Didn’t give a time or date or anything, just told us to be ready. There was a cathedral nearby, and we could go in and say a prayer if we wanted to. I can’t remember if I did or not to tell you the truth. Didn’t worry me, I wasn’t scared; what did I have to be scared of? If I got hurt or killed, it was just another thing that happened. We had fine young men, Italians, Polacks, the whole daggone works.
Thank you, Mr. Miles. I appreciate you letting me interview you.
All right. You’re welcome.

So Dick Miles, veteran of World War II, came back to Buckingham, married Hazel Ragland, and opened a country store. Back before the advent of supermarkets, he ran a “pretty good grocery” where people could charge their purchases till payday. As they came up, all the children took their turn at working in the store. When retirement came, Dick sold the store and walked home. He and Hazel lived another twenty years in retirement, in a house always full of grandchildren. When Dick died in 2003, everyone wondered how Hazel would manage on her own. She wasn’t well and despite a constitutional cheerfulness, old age is always a series of obstacles to outmaneuver. But no matter how old you are, life is still full of grace and surprises.

Yesterday, our small county had its Memorial Day celebration and here is what it was: Hazel Miles, Dick Miles’ widow, married old “Doc” Woods. The bride and groom sat in chairs at the top of the large porch while we gathered below to witness the occasion. Hazel carried flowers gathered by the children. The Reverend Canon Bruce Weatherly, also a World War II vet (and Korean War Marine Corps chaplain) officiated at their marriage. No doubt Dick Miles was somewhere close by, beaming at the dozens of relatives and friends gathered on his lawn to pay tribute to the endurance of grace and of hope.

Rest in peace, Sergeant Miles.

4 thoughts on “Still In The Thick Of It

  1. A very moving post. There are a lot of people like Sgt. Miles out there–and we should never forget them. My father passed away one year ago today. He was a veteran of WWII–a Marine who fought on Iwo Jima. None of the stories of those men should be forgotten.

  2. Thank you for this post. My two cousins, Claude and Kenneth, were among the survivors of D-Day. They never said much about their experiences there, but they never slept well again. Both died young, at ages 39 and 44.

    We must never forget those who fought, and continute to fight, to maintain the freedoms we so often take for granted.

  3. It is BY hearing their stories, that we honor and remember them. NOW, with videocameras so accessible, we can and should record as many stories as possible, before they’re all gone and their stories untold, unshared.

  4. By the way, ever hear of “Diary of Anne Frank”? Well, I’ve just uncovered a Diary of Manni, a 13-year old non-Nazi kid in wartime Germany…

    Turning it into a screenplay… his pain and insights, as an ordinary German citizen, are quite remarkable!

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