Heroes: the Army
"...The casket was closed and the six men bore it to the waiting hearse. The women followed in a car as the rest of us made our way up the gravel path to the grave site. The preacher gave a short prayer and the service was ended..."
John B. Tillson
- Branch of Service: Army
- Unit: 102nd FA Hqs.,
102nd Infantry Division
- Dates: 1942 - 1945
- Location: European Theater
- Rank: Capt., Bronze Star Medal
- Birth Year: 1925
- Entered Service: Paris, TX
by John Tillson -102 FA HQ
On a rainy October 18 I arrived in New York for the memorial service celebrating the life of John Howland Steinway who had been my roommate at Loomis in 1930 and Harvard in 1934. The service was jammed, first with the huge and close-knit family in three or four generations and then a host of friends and acquaintances as well as many from the piano factory in nearby Astoria, which had been closed for the day. The diversity of those gathered to commemorate his life testified to the depth and width of his interests.
The next morning my wife, Frances, phoned to tell me she had received a call from a young woman in Georgia reporting that her daddy, once Private Cavender in my Army command, had very suddenly died. He had always insisted that if anything happened to him she, his daughter Joan, was to notify "The Captain". "Henry, as I had always called him, came to my outfit as a pink cheeked 18 year old fresh from the barefoot hills of Georgia with a record of repeated AWOLs. He admitted he ran away every few months because he was so concerned for the welfare of his Ma and Pa back there in 'The Holler." Further questioning revealed he could barely write and his parents could neither read nor write. We struck a bargain that I would write what he wished to the Preacher who in turn would read the letters to the parents and take their dictation of replies to be sent back through me. It worked. Henry never went AWOL again, and it established a deep bond between us which lasted until his death. In all those intervening years we corresponded spasmodically and talked on the phone occasionally. I only saw him once between 1945 and the day of his funeral. In 1986 he appeared at our door in North Carolina in a huge Cadillac sedan with his wife, Ruth, and their 'littliest boy, David." Typically, he arrived without warning at a most awkward moment for us, but he was still a little mischievous boy and still had pink cheeks.
I knew they lived north of Atlanta, not far from "The Holler" where Henry was born. A phone call to his wife told me the funeral was planned for the next day and I wanted to attend. I flew to Atlanta early on the 20th and drove north to the town of Clermont where sheer luck led me to the funeral home at 12:15 before the service scheduled at 1:00. I entered and asked for Mrs. Reynolds (daughter Joan). As an attractive young woman approached me she stopped , cried, "You're Captain Tillson - you came to be with us," and threw herself into my arms. Word that "The Captain" was there spread through the crowd and soon widow Ruth, son Ronnie and younger brother "J. L." came to greet me. There seemed to be hundreds of relatives and neighbors milling around and I was constantly being introduced to one after another.
I was asked by son Ronnie and daughter Joan to intercede with the undertaker to learn what cash benefits they might be entitled to, and I then learned that Henry's house had burned down a few years back and all his Army records and other memorabilia had been destroyed. We started seeking forms to request duplicate discharge papers from the government.
Ronnie led me into the room where the body lay in an open casket. As we approached I saw two 8 year old boys standing with arms around each other, tears streaming down their faces as they viewed the corpse. 'That's our littliest brother David", Ronnie explained, and I later learned that Henry and Ruth had adopted the young orphan in the community when his parents were killed.
The family was summoned for the closing of the casket. The preacher spoke a few words and the casket was closed. I stepped out into the room beside the door in time to see a young boy about 5 rush up to one of the very old men and announce, 'They just closed the casket, Gramps, so you better start to get up." The two sons, the son-in-law and three grown grandsons lined up to bear the casket to the waiting hearse. A Sheriff's car with blue lights flashing led the cortege through the center of Clermont (three buildings) and left across the fields to a tiny frame church beneath the nearby mountains.
I was almost the last person to enter the church where the reopened casket stood before the platform. The pall bearers sat in the front pew on the left and the widow, daughter and the rest of the family were seated in three front rows on the right. I deliberately walked to the front and sat myself in a pew directly behind the pall bearers. A man whom I assume was a lay preacher rose and identified himself as a lifelong friend of Paul's (Henry's local name) younger brother J. L., and thus a lifelong admirer of "our friend and neighbor Paul whom we have come here to honor."
He told of visiting The Cavenders as a boy of about 5 or 6 "when they lived right up the creek from here." A thunder storm made the creek rise and he was afraid to cross the rushing water and return to his home. Charlie, their Pa, called Paul and told him to roll up his pants and carry that wailing kid across the creek so he could go home That was his earliest memory of his hero Paul. Memories rushed in of Henry, as I knew him, driving me across much of Texas and Louisiana and from the English Channel to the Elbe River in Europe during the war.
When this speaker finisher, Joan's 15 year old son Adam rose, stood by the casket and sang "Amazing Grace" in a lovely soft voice. The preacher, successor to that man with whom I had exchanged letters nearly 50 years before, then assured us that our friend was with Jesus and that we too would be reunited with them all at some time in the future. He read a passage from the Book of Job, and then offered a final prayer.
As I sat there with the mountain framed by the large window behind the pulpit, and I felt a hand on my shoulder. The undertaker whispered, "Sir, would you go forward and lead us in saying goodbye?" I walked to the casket, stood for a few moments, turned to smile at Ronnie through tear-stained eyes and returned to my pew. All the friends and neighbors filed past the casket, many openly weeping and even the young children paid their respects.
The entire family then gathered before the casket, arms around each other with kisses and unashamed tears. The casket was closed and the six men bore it to the waiting hearse. The women followed in a car as the rest of us made our way up the gravel path to the grave site. The preacher gave a short prayer and the service was ended. A distraught son Ronnie gave me a great bear hug and thanked me for coming. I hugged the young grandson and tried to tell him his Grandpa would have been proud of his singing. He solemnly shook my hand and said "You must be the Captain. I've heard about you all my life. Thank you for coming." As I walked back to my car Ronnie once more stopped me and again warmly expressed his thanks.
As I drove off I glanced back at that little frame church, the mountains in the background, and the fresh grave. I thought of the months Henry and I had shared during the War nearly a lifetime before. Maneuvers in the Louisiana swamps. The convoy into Cherbourg Harbor and months in the hedgerows and rains of Normandy while our men and tanks worked on the Red Ball Express to keep the Army going. Seeing our first dead GI lying in an apple orchard. Being strafed by a German fighter and talking Henry back out of a mined potato field. Our first trip to celebrating Paris, crossing the Rhine on a pontoon bridge. The burning bodies in the tobacco barn at Gardelegen, the miles of surrendering Germans on the roads west of the Elbe, and the wild celebrations as we met the Russians on the Elbe.
I shall forever be glad I made the trip. Henry left an old car, a devoted wife, two sons and his "littliest son David" a daughter and several grandchildren. There was no insurance, but a mobile home on 30 acres of disputed land five miles from the spot where he was born. After the house burned down he returned from semi-retirement and was making "a good ten dollars an hour, take home". The Veterans Administration may pay $150 and buy a marker for his grave and Social Security may pay $300 for burial. The undertaker's bill was more than $4,000' In the America of the 1980s my dear Henry left very little of maternal wealth but I saw an entire community turn out to honor this man. I shall forever be grateful I was able to join in that final tribute.
A week after I returned home I received a printed "Thank you for your gift" card from the Reynolds and Cavender families.
On the gift card from the Cavender family, Joan had written: The gift I'm speaking of is the gift of friendship you gave to my Daddy and the gift of love, support and friendship you gave to me and my family. I feel much richer having had the opportunity of meeting you and getting to know you as a real friend of my Daddy's. Daddy spoke of you often, and always with joy and love in his heart for you. May God bless you and your family always."
----- John B. Tillson
(Editor's note: Attempts were made throughout the text of the following story to place full names to the men listed in the story. For the most part, this is an educated guess and some names may very well be mistaken in their identy. The names were all taken from the division history book: With The 102d Infantry Division Through Germany, edited by Major Allen H. Mick. Using the text as a guide, associations with specific units were the basis for the name identifications. We are not attempting in any to rewrite the story. Any corrections are gladly welcomed.)
Interested in some background information?
Check out the related links below...
United States Army, 102nd Infantry Division
102 Infantry Division
History of the 102nd Infantry Division
Attack on Linnich, Flossdorf, Rurdorf - 29 Nov -- 4 Dec 1944
Gardelegen War Crime
The above story, "The Funerals", by John B. Tillson, 102nd FA HQs, was originally published in the 102d Division "Ozark Notes", Vol. 52, No. 3, April/June 200o, pp. 12 - 13.
The story is re-printed here on World War II Stories -- In Their Own Words with the kind permission of the 102d Infantry Division Association, Ms. Hope Emerich, Historian. Our sincerest THANKS for the 102d Infantry Division Association allowing us to share some of their stories.
We would also like to extend our sincere THANKS to Mr. Edward L. Souder, former historian of Co. F., 405th Regiment. His collection of stories of the "Kitchen Histories Project" series entitled, Those Damn Doggies in F, were responsible for bringing the stories of the men of the 102nd Division to the forefront.
Original Story submitted on 19 October 2004.
Story added to website on 21 October 2004.
September 5, 2002.
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Updated on 17 February 2012...1351:05 CST