On May 24 1945, in oppressive Philippine heat, an American soldier sat behind a Browning 1917 water-cooled machine gun – smiling . That soldier, along with the rest of the US Army’s 38th Division “Cyclones”, for the months and years prior had seen some of the most brutal warfare in Pacific theater. On this day, he and all of those other men, had once again fought for their lives and a country’s freedom – The battle for Woodpecker Ridge was one in a series of intense firefights culminating in the capture and control of key dams just outside of Manilla. Another harsh day, yet this soldier sat there smiling.
Using only paper and a pencil, Jim Bodrero, a combat artist working for Disney Studios, memorialized that soldier at Woodpecker Ridge doing what an Army machine gunner does best. Except Bodrero mixed in an unmistakable Disney brightness – somehow turning the horror of that day into a hope for victory.
The fact that Bodrero sat calmly with a slate and a pencil and created such a powerful image of a lone American soldier while machine gun fire, mortars, artillery and death surrounded them both is awe-inspiring. How many other sketches did he create under similar circumstances? How many made it home? How many did not?
If you could talk with that soldier sitting behind his Browning, he would joke about being able to fry eggs on the water jacket covering his barrel. He then would tell you about the waves of Japanese soldiers that had attacked his position so many times over. He would tell you about transitioning to his 1911 during belt changes or mechanicals to save himself and his crew. And the piles of enemy soldiers that had fallen just outside his nest.
He would tell you that he did not like being a soldier – not because he wasn’t proud to serve his country – but because he felt responsible for every man he served with in the 38th; a massive load that no man should have to carry. That soldier fought every day as if his position behind his machine gun meant life or death for him and the rest of his unit. And I’m sure it did.
That same soldier would tell you about being injured from artillery shrapnel and later, while recovering, asking his childhood friend Leonard Spainhour, also in the 38th, to sneak him in a Thompson submachine gun. A gun that he kept under his hospital bed because enemy soldiers were running night attacks. After a Sergeant, Lieutenant and Captain failed to convince him to surrender that Thompson, it finally took a full bird Colonel promising to protect all the patients to make him relent.
I am lucky and proud to have that soldier’s original sketch hanging in my office as a constant reminder of duty, honor and sacrifice – that I also have a responsibility to fight for a greater good. It’s folds and creases are the lasting evidence that it rode in a fatigue shirt pocket through God know’s what, for the rest of the war.
I have that soldier’s gifted Colt 1911. An iconic sidearm that symbolizes a refusal to give up despite the overwhelming odds of failure and a true embodiment of the saying “one man can make a difference”. I have that soldier’s Combat Infantry Badge – a beaten up piece of metal that he earned and the one material good for which he was proud to own.
I also have some spent .30-06 brass; not kicked out from that Browning 1917 some 70 years prior, but fired from the seven Garands’ at that soldier’s final salute.
In the decades that followed the war, my grandfather returned home to the Midwest and like the rest of that Greatest Generation, worked hard, raised a family and helped to rebuild our country into an industrial powerhouse. He influenced his children, grand children and even great grand children to be good human beings and the importance of service and sacrifice. Quite a journey for a man who never even finished middle school.
And, as immortalized in that sketch, through good times and bad, my grandfather always wore a smile and was proud to be an American.