Veteran’s Day

My Grandpa—my mom’s dad—Owen Johnston, enlisted in the army during World War II. He already had kids at the time, but joined anyway.

He served in Patton’s Third Army and made it to France in December of 1944 where he was shot. When he would talk about it, which was almost never, he said he could see the tracer bullets coming at him and that they moved so slowly. He lay in a trench for a long time and lost a lot of blood.

Eventually, he was evacuated, but he was in pretty bad shape. Several slugs had passed through and one stayed in. The doctors never thought he would live. We know this because The Stars and Stripes, looking for happy news that Christmas, wrote a short piece about him as “The soldier the Germans couldn’t kill.”

Only once did he ever show me his scar, and that only through his shirt, which he never took off in view of anybody. I was pretty young, but I recall seeing the depression, a kind of hole in his gut, through his t-shirt. I saw his Purple Heart, and he let me hold it. The slug they took out of him was supposed to be in a box in a trunk, but I was never allowed to see it. He also had his rifle, which he smuggled back as a souvenir. I was only allowed to hold it when my mom and grandma weren’t around, and I was forsworn to keep my mouth shut about it.

Years later, in the early 1970s, he and grandma took a trip to France to see the battle site. But the closer he got to the town, the harder it was, and he never made it. He turned around and came home.

Grandpa worked and retired from Fords in Dearborn, a regular union guy. We had an enormous family—a ton of uncles and aunts—and everybody stuck together. I used to go to the Eagles or the VFW with the gang and I would fetch drinks from the bar or sit and talk with my Aunt Katherine. I don’t think that a kid can do that nowadays.

Everybody would talk and drink and smoke for hours. Then the next day it would be the same. In the mornings, grandpa would tend to his yard—which was immaculate, like a golf course green; nobody was allowed on it—or go fishing. But in the evenings, flexibly defined to start anytime after noon, it was back with the gang or in front of the TV with the game and a glass of Kesslers and water.

All this eventually caught up with him and by the time the ’90s started, he had a stroke. He never really came back from it. My uncle Don, his oldest boy, would still sneak grandpa cigarettes, which irritated the hell out of my mother and her sister.

He was far from being any kind of saint and didn’t always make the right choices, but I always figured he earned it, so what the hell. He eventually died peacefully in his sleep at home.

Just one story with thousands more like it.

It’s Veteran’s Day. Try to remember or thank somebody who served and who helped make this country such a great place.


  1. Ari


    Thanks. For a lot of things. But today, thank you for serving. Unfortunately, most of my friends, including those who served, are in California. I used to get ’em rounds of Sam, but not this year. When will science invent the e-beer?

  2. Noblesse Oblige

    Great story. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Bernie

    It is so important to remember both the sacrifices and the evils that require the sacrifices.

  4. Joy


    This was a very touching story. Your granddad was a hero. You must be very proud.
    When I meet the veterans and the Chelsea pensioners I am always very moved by their grace and presence. They always get a kiss whether they expect one or not.
    My Granddad enlisted at 15 in the Welsh Guards. He died two weeks before he would have been a Chelsea Pensioner. I never knew him but he too had some of the habits (cigarettes and whiskey). This is still almost the norm today in the army and is entirely understandable.
    The other Granddad served between the wars and my Dad was in the RAF. The military are special people, all of them.
    Today they showed the three remaining soldiers still alive that served in the First World War; 108, 110 and 112 years old. One of them was a founding member of the RAF. It was touching to see him insist on laying his wreath without help although it was a struggle.
    The veterans should be better looked after than they often are, in England anyway.

  5. Bernie

    In England is the poppy still widely worn on Armistice Day?

    My daughter’s boyfriend is in a Pipe and Drum band that goes to Flanders each year. I would find it hard to handle the emotions of such an event.

    My dad would never, never talk about WWII – he had seen too many friends die.

  6. Joy

    Bernieand Matt,
    Yes red poppies still abound. The Cenotaph in London is always carpeted with Wreaths on 11th November. We wear poppies on our lapels as do the newsreaders and TV presenters.
    At Epre yesterday they had a service of remembrance and poppy petals were dropped through the opening in the ceiling, One for every Unknown Soldier that died.
    This is always moving and I shed a tear thinking about it now. I should like to go to Epre one day.

    One very brave soldier had lost most of his face, thought dead by the stretcher-bearers until one of them saw him twitch and noted that he must still be alive. He underwent pioneering plastic surgery and lived to eighty despite being given six months at the time. He told his grand daughter, ”I was one of the lucky ones.”
    When she saw all the graves lined up she said, “I think he was right”.
    At work I have had the privilege to treat soldiers with wounds from the second world war. Their stories were always moving and I remember them all. One was missing his left arm and his right one had become stiff and painful. That was sixteen years ago now.
    In Afghanistan and Iraq our losses have not been as high in number as the US by a long way.
    Have a look at this link, I know it’s wicki but I can verify the contents as I looked after cavalry barracks in 2006 and still keep old contacts. We lost nine last year from this regiment although this number may well have risen. Be sure and read about private Derby too, They had a sense of humour.

    Picture of our current stamp:

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