On this upcoming Memorial Day, I wanted to share a time I was so moved by an old Soldier recounting the sacrifice of others, that it left an indelible mark on me for which afterward, I would never be the same.
I spent only an hour of my life listening to Ernest Grant as a high school teacher. I sought to present my students to the Greatest Generation, American servicemen and women, 11 WWII vets, Col. Bud Day (the then-most highly decorated living Soldier and John McCain’s cellmate), and Korean and Vietnam Vets including our most recent conflicts.
I also introduced students to those who had survived the Holocaust and lived under socialism in Cambodia and Vietnam so they wouldn’t take for granted the freedoms these men and women sacrificed so much for.
Enter Ernest Grant, WWII vet. I called him to ask if he would be willing to speak after a student gave me the tip. He started to tell me, “I don’t know if I’m much of a speaker. You know. It was really difficult–it’s a difficult thing to talk about it.” I told him I understood and anything he could tell our students would be great. I looked at the clock because I had five minutes before an especially rowdy class would be in my room. “It all started when our plane was shot down…”
The next few minutes were like a haze in my memory. Fragments and pieces of the story, every man dead beside him except one…a farmhouse…German Nazis below him…a French family…worry that he wouldn’t be interesting or able to tell everything perfectly. I assured Ernest that he would do fine.
The day arrived, and Ernest came, thin and frail, donning a sweater, a man who must have been singularly handsome in his day. We had asked our veteran speakers to speak twice, but his daughter told us that he hadn’t ever spoken about his ordeal like this. One could tell that she was unsure of how he would do. He came to the front of the classroom. 36 students looked at him. One’s eyebrows raised. I breathed in, and Ernest started.
What followed was a perfectly lucid recount of perhaps the most amazing story I have ever heard. Ernest was born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1922 and was a star baseball player in high school. After playing on a state championship team, the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor and the next thing he knew, Ernest was flying over France as a 20-year-old when his plane was shot down.
Every man was killed except one. Wide-eyed, with measured pace, but recalling the thing, the emotion seemed raw as if he was recalling last week’s heavy heartedness. Imagine Ernest losing every person he had been closest to–guys he joked with, smoked with, talked with of dreams of marriage, jobs, and new cities upon returning home. Except that in a flash, the pain of his broken body and bloodied face subsided into the searing pain that none of those boys would have a single one of their dreams fulfilled.
In a smoke-filled France, Ernest Grant realized for the first time that he was alone…until the thought struck him, there were those who would be by his side in a minute–the Nazis of now German-occupied France.
What makes Ernest Grant’s story so remarkable is a story of sacrifice that runs counter to the lesser nature of self interest. A French family took Ernest in. Maybe there was a kindred connection that America and France were staunch allies. Maybe they had pity on this boy who hardly knew a word of French, lost and alone.
The stakes could not have been higher. Just a kilometer away, a French Catholic bishop was housing 10 American soldiers in the back of his cathedral. When the Nazis discovered who the bishop was hiding, they made sure that a ghastly spectacle made it clear that their expectations were to hand over any enemy to the new state. All 10 of the soldiers were marched into the street in front of the cathedral. Each one was shot in the back of the head. Then the elderly bishop looking on in horror was dragged in front, pleading for his life until a bullet stopped short his pleading. Such was the danger that this French family faced who held a boy with a Boston accent atop their lodgings—for over a year.
There is a silence that communicates more than words. When Ernest Grant spoke of this family, a distance showed in his eyes. Something of gratitude—not the kind that you give for a material gift—cannot be expressed. The gift of laying one’s life on the line is apt to be expressed by earnest eyes and awestruck dumbness. So it was with Ernest Grant.
Ernest Grant survived over four dozen Nazis raiding the French family below him for supplies, the taking of six Nazis he ended up handing over to the French Underground, the American occupation and liberation of France, stints with semi-pro baseball teams, an accident at Swift Packing Plant in 1949 which, in a sad repeat of the earlier memory, killed 21 of his co-workers, the death of his wife in 2002 after 56 years of marriage, and he stood to tell it all to 36 quiet freshmen.
The French family sent their son to visit Ernest in America upon the son’s graduation from high school. Their sacrifice would indelibly be etched in Ernest’s memory until he passed away on December 10, 2007, living 65 years longer than the men whose memories we honor on Memorial Day.
Upon reading his obituary, the thought struck me. The French family risked their lives for Ernest’s. And so Ernest Grant did for his fellow American and millions who were enduring the nightmare of the evils of Nazism, Fascism, and Imperialism. As the French family did not know Ernest Grant, so Ernest did not know every person he fought for. And he stood in front of us at our high school at 83 years old. What seemed to be frailty and weakness were transformed into hardy grit and weathered battle wounds making me realize that there are very few people in the world like the French family, Ernest Grant, or the men who never returned.
We are a little less today because a hero has passed from us, quietly, without great pomp or ceremony. He alone lived to tell the story publicly just one time before he passed.
If my son were to have met this man, I would have said, “Son, stand up. Ernest Grant is passing by.” But I will tell Ernest Grant’s story. Such men are the kind a father wishes a son to be.
Jeremy Taylor lives with his wife Kim and 6 children and after hearing such stories, enlisted as an intelligence analyst. Today he serves as an Iowa Army National Guard Chaplain and Major.