THE IDLE AMERICAN: First Words at Last Rites

Published 1:00 pm Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury

If ordered to stop and think, opposition to the edict would emerge quickly. There’d be protests, fist-shaking, social media barrages and other assorted demonstrations, like lines drawn in sand.

“You can’t make us stop and think,” some would growl. Such angst might remind many of violinists playing while Rome burned to the ground.

The growing gulf between thinkers and non-thinkers must instead become an ocean of growing understanding on important topics which should draw us together. One such topic is patriotism. We have several calendar dates denoting patriotism, and one approaching on Sept. 11 is Patriot Day. That 9/11/2001 date–living on in infamy–marked the beginning of Americans’ keen awareness of terrorism. The clear call is for all Americans–military or otherwise–to be patriots when our freedom is at stake.

Such awareness should result from lessons learned during World War II. Sadly, too few details were shared by combatants–even with closest family–because many who fought on foreign soil simply couldn’t speak of the atrocities that sometimes were just one rifle swing away. Authenticating their repeated battles, however, were nightmarish screams in the night, when daytime clarity of mind kept memories hidden.

One such combatant was H. C. Pruett, whose National Guard outfit was mobilized for World War II. He, and thousands of others 18 or younger, was a member of the battle-tested 36th Infantry Division.

The heroic acts of this Brown County native they called “Skinny” earned him his country’s Silver and Bronze Stars. For the remaining 35 years of his life, however, he simply didn’t talk about the war. Nor did he ever own a firearm again–or roam the fields as a hunter–as he had done as a youth.

He was just 59 when death came his way. Thankfully, some of his fellow servicemen attended the funeral. They told Skinny’s family about his repeated acts of bravery, often when the platoon he eventually led was greatly outnumbered.

One spoke of their confidence in Pruett. “Even though there was an officer present, and Skinny hadn’t yet gotten sergeant stripes, we voted to stick with him, even as our landing craft neared battle-torn Italy. If he went, we’d go; if he got down, we would, too,” he said. “We knew who’d get us through.”

As they neared the beaches of Salerno in September, 1943–nine months before the US invasion of Normandy–artillery fire filled the air. Pruett took charge when the landing craft operator lowered the landing gate 200 yards from shore. He knew many would drown if they left the craft so far from shore. Brandishing an Army pistol to emphasize his intent, he ordered the operator to “take us as close as you can, or I’ll shoot.” The guy complied.

Pruett and others endured much, including hunger, atrocities, failing weapons, hand-to-hand combat, loss of limbs and disease. And many paid the ultimate price.

This is but one account of military heroes. If our national moral fabric is to be re-stitched, we must honor sacrifices–then and now–recommitting to true patriotism. At the flutter of a flag, playing of the National Anthem or even the drawing of a breath, surely we should be grateful. All of these are “part and parcel” of the massive debt we owe to Skinny Pruett and his kind who kept freedom alive. Let us first be patriots– reasonable people committed to working out differences in a climate of civility.

I appreciate friends like Tommy Pruett, who was gracious to share stories about his dad–accounts he’d never have known if comrades hadn’t shared “war-time accounts” at the funeral of this blue-collar American hero. Skinny did what he could for as many as he could as long as he could, in both war and peace. He’s the kind of man Tom Brokaw wrote about in his book, The Greatest Generation.


   Dr. Newbury is a former educator who “commits speeches” round about. Comments/inquiries to: Phone: 817-447-3872. Web site: Twitter: @donnewbury. Facebook: don newbury.