Veterans Day is tomorrow, and if you have the time and inclination, I want to encourage you to visit Voices of Veterans, an oral history program designed and run by the Texas General Land Office.
Growing up in San Antonio (aka Military City), I read about heroes like Audie Murphy, the little kid from Kingston, Texas who received every military combat for valor available in the U.S. Army before becoming a movie star and one of the most famous men in the world. But as I got older, I came to understand that for every Audie Murphy, there are many thousands of men and women who serve valiantly, even heroically, but whose stories go unsung.
Voices of Veterans has given the unsung heroes in our midst a chance to tell their stories. And as I was perusing stories from my father’s era (World War II), I happened on one that I found both fascinating and entertaining. It’s the story of a man named Robert Bearden. Robert was born in 1922, and like so many other families, the Beardens roamed all over the country looking for work during the Depression. Young Robert attended more than a dozen schools before finishing at Adamson High School in Dallas.
He was earning 12 cents an hour at a grocery store when one day a man told him if he joined the National Guard, he could make a dollar each Saturday for four hours of his time. Robert figured that 25 cents an hour sounded like a good deal. His father warned him that the country was headed to war and the men in the Guard would be the first ones called up. Robert told his Dad he didn’t know what he was talking about. But of course the elder Bearden was exactly right.
When Robert got the call, he believed he was going to serve one year. After all, the number one song on the hit parade was called “I’ll be back in a year, Little Darling.” Well, for Robert one year turned into 4 years, 11 months and 20 days.
One of the things Robert loved about the Army was that he had never before had any authority over anybody. Suddenly, at the age of 17, he was in charge of a five-man mortar squad, which included a 53 year old Guardsman, and, I kid you not, a 12 year old boy. The boy, whose mother had passed him off as 16, had a goofy disposition and the dubious nickname of Cobra. For three years, Cobra stayed under the radar, but eventually the Army got wise and discharged the lad at the ripe old age of 15.
For his part, Robert Bearden was no expert in geopolitics or current events. He never read a newspaper, and nobody in his unit had a radio. But, he said, he did have an understanding that he “wasn’t learning that 60mm mortar to win some trophy at a carnival,” and that he “intended it to use on an enemy of the United States government at some point.”
Robert trained to become a paratrooper, despite the fact that he had never been in an airplane in his life. He jumped out of the first seven airplanes he ever got in. He made 25 jumps in all, and hated every single one of them. Why? Because he “didn’t think the sucker was going to open.” That is a sentiment I can fully relate to.
Robert’s 25th and last jump was into Normandy, as part of the D Day invasion. He and his comrades had been told they’d be dropping in undetected, with nary a trace of anti-aircraft fire. Well, I think you all know that wasn’t the case, even for the first wave of jumpers, and Robert was in the last wave, an hour behind the first paratroopers. By that time the entire German Army was well aware, and the sky over Normandy looked like the Fourth of July.
For the paratroopers fortunate enough not to get shot on the way down, there was a considerable danger of drowning, for the Germans had flooded much of the landing area. Imagine landing in a lake with a 125 pounds of equipment on your back. Fortunately, Robert didn’t drown. He was wounded twice in battle, however, and eventually captured by the Germans. He spent eight months in a German POW camp before it was liberated by the Russians in January, 1945.
I’m proud to say that after the war, Bearden came to Austin, earned a degree in business from UT, and went on to a great career.
Robert passed away less than three months ago, on August 18, just two days short of his 95th birthday. I wanted to share his story, not because it is so extraordinary, but because it is so exemplary of all the millions of Americans who, generation after generation, have answered the call, have gone wherever, and done whatever was required to defend the great country we call home.
Every veteran has a story to tell, and their stories help make all our stories possible. So tomorrow, or the next chance you get, I hope you’ll take a moment to reach out and thank the men and women who have worn the uniform and our behalf. And ask them about their stories. You might be amazed by what you hear.
Thanks, as always, for reading. I’ll write again soon.