"They told me, ‘you’ve done a lot;’ ‘you’ve seen a lot;’ ‘you’ve done a lot for your country,’" Command Sergeant Major Willard Blake (Ret.) said during a conversation while a Veterans Day ceremony was winding down at the Faulkner County Senior Citizen’s Center on Monday.
Blake, now 93, lives in his home, drives and takes care of himself. He sat quietly and smiled when State Rep. Linda Tyler said that Blake was "from a generation that knew how to take care of themselves." Tyler was introducing him as one of this year’s local inductees to the Arkansas Military Veterans Hall of Fame.
Blake’s recollections of first-hand combat experience in World War II outlines the historical high points of the ground war in Europe and North Africa, starting with Operation Torch, the seaborne invasion of North Africa in November, 1942 and one of the first American actions of the war. From there, he played his part in the July, 1943, invasion of Sicily, opening up "the soft underbelly" of Nazi-occupied Europe as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill put it. From Sicily, he was transferred to Britain, and landed at Normandy in the D-Day invasion. He recalls fighting "in that awful snow and ice" during the Battle of the Bulge, and being part of the first American unit to enter the German capitol city of Berlin — or what was left of it at war’s end.
"There are parts of it I don’t talk about and won’t ever talk about," he said. But he’s also got joyful stories about riding into newly liberated cities, including Paris, where certain grateful citizens "were just about climbing up into the trucks to get at an American," and also about a friendly rivalry between British and American troops in English pubs.
It’s hard to take notes when listening to someone who’s got stories like Blake’s. He was an aide to Gen. Omar Bradley and claims to once have scolded Gen. George Patton on a point of strategy he thought was wasteful of American lives. He says he urged men under his command to not to fire "anything, not even small arms" at German soldiers he thought were approaching to surrender, and that he ordered them to hand over anything edible when he first saw Holocaust survivors walking down a road away from a liberated concentration camp. At the ceremony he was wearing a vest with his 2nd Armored Division insignia and its motto, "Hell on Wheels."
Tyler said that she had been honored to spend many hours talking to Blake while writing his application to the Arkansas Military Veteran’s Hall of Fame. A second local inductee this year was Archibald Douglas "Tiger" Odom of Greenbrier, a Vietnam Veteran.
Blake was one of more than a hundred veterans at the ceremony, which was one of hundreds in the state. The speaker at the event was Gen. Travis D. "Dwight" Balch, commander of the Arkansas Air National Guard, who said, "Every veteran in here, if you can talk to them — and if you can pull it out of them — will tell you their story."
After most of the crowd had cleared out of the senior center’s meeting hall a small group of veterans from the Korean, Vietnamese and first Iraqi wars sat at a table talking, and the conversation turned to a few ways that they thought America’s ‘thank you’ to its veterans has been inconstant. They shared often-repeated stories about shortcomings in VA benefits and about their battlefield exposure to known or feared health hazards including Agent Orange, depleted uranium, sandstorms and the fallout of burning oil wells — depending on which war they fought in — and post-traumatic stress, which they agreed was the same regardless of which war it was.
Eventually the question was put to them: "It’s your day; what do you want to see in the newspaper tomorrow?" After a moment’s thought one of them said, "How about that all wars present and future are hereby cancelled due to lack of public interest."
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1277. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)