Special Edition:
Dave Graf & Others


I have been on a bit of a hiatus from this column lately, a little bit of a coffee break after four years you might say. While revving up to head down the road again, I woke this morning with a thought rattling around in my head and had to generate this Special Edition Column for you.

As I write this, Memorial Day weekend approaches, Flag Day is next month and Independence Day just around the corner. Then it hit me; June 6 is the 60th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Yesterday I accidentally caught a few minutes of a film called Memphis Belle, the story of a WWII B-17 bomber and it's crew attaining and surviving their 25th mission. I love synchronicity, so here I am this morning, exercising the keys.

I awoke thinking of Rod Hart then another name leaped into my thoughts; Dave Graf. You probably don't know who Dave Graf is, have never heard of him, so I’ll tell you a bit about this man.

David Graf was my high school shop teacher, but that title, like most pigeon-holing titles, is deceptive. Although he was a very good shop teacher, Dave Graf was a great deal more than just that.

In that small farming community, where few went on to college, he successfully encouraged the school to become affiliated with a program called Diversified Occupations, then ran the program himself. Coupling education with the workplace, students attended school half a day and worked in the business community half a day learning a trade. I participated in this program, as a mechanic and auto parts man. I also took courses he offered during the summer; Architectural Drafting and Physics among them. “Speed and accuracy equals skill,” he once told me. He also said, “Always give and honest day's work for an honest dollar.” Honesty was important to Dave Graf. Under his guidance I worked hard, gained a hunger for knowledge and life and graduated with six or seven credits more than necessary, but he worked even harder and that was an important lesson for me.

Dave Graf was a quiet man who possessed great courage. “All happiness depends on courage and work,” Balzac wrote. He could have been describing Dave Graf.

He organized the school’s Rifle Club. One day a week after school, we would roll the heavy steel targets out into the gymnasium. We would haul the thick mats to the other end and then carry in the rifles and ammunition. There, week after week, I gradually became an expert marksman, but more than that, I learned the importance of absolute responsibility, to the equipment, the other members of the club, the gymnasium and to myself. I learned the meaning of respect and the necessity to be responsible for my own actions.

Dave Graf had a daughter. When she was very young, he was informed by doctors that she suffered from a hopeless mental handicap and would never even be able to read. Dave took this as a challenge; he became dedicated to educating his little girl. She graduated a year ahead of me, a bright, intelligent young woman. When he learned there were others in the community who suffered from the same disability as his daughter, he cleared out a spare room in his house, painted the nearest exterior door bright red and invited them all to come and learn; and he educated them, too. He called it the Open Door. Like all good things that are nurtured, it grew.

Eventually he found a way to get a building of their own constructed and began receiving work contracts from local businesses, enabling these young people to learn trades, to learn a skill. He did all this on his own time while still teaching at the high school. Selflessly, through his actions, he touched and changed the lives of literally hundreds of people, it was his gift. Looking back I have no idea how he could have accomplished all this, but he did. Hard work and determination are words I associate with Dave Graf.

At the same time, Dave Graf was a Colonel in the United Stated Army Reserve. In 1964 he was called to Washington D. C. to meet with President Lyndon Johnson regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Vietnam. In 1968 he was again call to the nation’s capitol and again he met with President Johnson, this time to receive the National Teachers Award.

I can recall three teachers who changed my life; Dave Graf is one of them. I confided to him one day that I didn’t really want to be an auto mechanic, that what I wanted to be an actor. He replied simply, “You can’t do that here.” It wasn’t until many years later when I was a working actor in New York City that the simple brilliance and weight of his words hit me.

Dave Graf was a soldier, a Lieutenant in World War II. Like Rod Hart he too fought his way across Omaha Beach on the morning June 6, 1944. I guess that’s why I thought about him today. He would never talk about the experience except to say it was an awful day, but necessary.

He taught me a trick he learned and used during the weeks following the invasion. When there was a lull in fighting or a brief chance to rest, he would find a foxhole, a downed tree or some sort of cover. He would settle in and holding a rock in his hand would rest his elbow so the rock was suspended over his body, then he would go to sleep. When he relaxed enough to drop the rock, waking him, he found he had enough sleep to continue until the next break. Using this procedure, these miniature naps were the only sort of sleep he had for more than two weeks, he survived, he found a way.

I lost track of Dave Graf several years ago when he retired. I believe he lives in Arizona now. But I have never forgotten what he gave me. Over the next few weeks I will think of him often. I will also think of men like Rod Hart, Ed Klein, Ben Klinger or Lou Kittle, men whose lives you can read about below. Yes, I will think about these men and all the others, men and women, who have given and continue to give selflessly to that which is far greater than themselves. May your thoughts be filled with their names and with respect for their actions.

What follows are three previous From The Road columns I hope you will enjoy revisiting.

Note: I recently heard from Rocky Barker. "Read your wonderful memories of Dave Graf. He was my teacher too and my cousin. He died November 1, 2005 in Peoria, Arizona of Alzheimer’s Disease. I spoke with him in 2002 and he was lucid and still living life as best as he could. His wife and daughter preceded him in death." Thank you Rocky, we and so many others are better people for the priviledge of having stood in Dave Graf's light.



A Dream or A Nightmare

It is no coincidence that Memorial Day, Flag Day and Independence Day fall in close proximity in the spring and early summer, the time when all things are bursting with life. It is the time of regeneration of the soil and appropriately of the soul, a proper time to honor those who sacrificed, in the name of freedom.

The 2nd “Indian Head” Infantry Division trained for three months in Cardiff, Wales. Rod Hart, “Roddy” to his friends, was a 2nd Lieutenant with that Division, one of 30,000 men destined to become part of history.

On February 9, 1942, Rod Hart stood for a photograph along with 35 other men, in front of the Columbia County Courthouse; Army inductees, bags packed, departing to serve their country. For the next year Rod bounced from one camp to another from basic training to AIT to Officers Training School. Stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, Rod had a buddy, Bob Waterfield. One night Bob’s wife, movie star Jane Russell, came to camp. Rod got to dance with her. On leave, October 3, 1942, Rod married Norma, now his bride of 60 years at St. Mary’s Church. In March of 1943, he shipped out of Boston.

Strains of Glenn Miller’s, In The Mood or A String of Pearls reminded the boys of home. The music eased a modicum of tension that ran all too high for the soldiers assembled in Cardiff, waiting. There were false starts and delays. Then the day arrived. Orders came down; the mission, codenamed operation Overlord, was a go. With a .45 automatic, an M1 rifle and his gear Rod boarded the first ship out. “Everybody was ready, not sure what we faced.”

“Quiet?”

“Oh, yes." Rod shakes his head, a slight smile tugs at his face, "I figured landing on a beach would be nice.”

The shadowy gray sky was foreboding, stormy. The sea was rough with 6-foot waves. Within sight of land, on the morning of June 6, 1944, Platoon leader Rod Hart and his 30 men slipped over the side of the ship, down rope ladders into the small landing craft. It was a jarring 30-minute ride to the beach, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. The cold spray of water over the sides of the landing craft was constant. There was very little talk. The high-pitched drone of the motor strained against the waves. Occasionally the hull would scrape against the crossed German steel I-beam girders submerged into the sand beneath them. The 16-inch Navy guns fired over their heads pounding the enemy entrenched on the cliffs overlooking the beach. The Germans pounded back with artillery, mortar and constant machinegun fire from the lofty pillbox bunker. The steady thud and ring of bullets hitting the landing craft was deafening. A nearby landing craft attempted to discharge its cargo, a tank, but it wasn’t in close enough and the tank and its crew were at once consumed by the channel.

When the forward door on his landing craft opened, Rod found himself submerged chest deep in frigid channel water. Bodies and pieces of humanity floated everywhere. The water was red. Rod Hart’s first day in combat was one of gargantuan horror. "Confusion was what it was, it’s difficult to remember anything except survival. I never saw anything like it in my life.”

“Did it compare to Saving Pvt. Ryan?”

“No comparison,” his voice was flat, matter of fact. “ It was worse. It took us a couple hours to get off the beach.”

“Must have been the longest two hours of your life.”

“Oh, gosh,” Rod softly blurts out, averting his eyes, he looks at the floor, his hands folded in front of him.

The D-Day Invasion was the single largest invasion in history; 155,000 American troops, 12,000 Aircraft, 4,000 landing craft, 1,200 ships, 950 tanks, 10,300 casualties. For those who survived it truly was, “The Longest Day.”

Artists at Division Headquarters sketched and issued daily battle plans to company commanders. Within a few days of the invasion, Rod’s company commander became a casualty and Rod assumed command. Rod’s Battle Plan book is pictured here,“You had to keep in constant contact with the enemy, so you knew where they were.”

The 2nd Division is credited with 337 days of continuous combat, from Normandy across northern France to Belgium, the Arden, Siegfried Line, Bastogne, the Battle of the Bulge, the Rumagan Bridge, Czechoslovakia. Rod earned 2 Purple Hearts, Bronze Star with Cluster, European Theatre Ribbon with 5 Battle Stars, Presidential Unit Citation, French Foraguerre, and the Combat Infantry Badge. “We had a job to do, it had to be done,” he states simply. “Thinking back on it, it seems like a dream, or a nightmare.”

Once Marlene Dietrich came to entertain the troops. She joined the boys at chow, sitting next to Rod. “She was a real chow hound,” Rod chuckles. “Boy, could she eat.”

By Christmas 1944 the 2nd Division was on the front lines in Germany. They made up Christmas cards for the boys to send home. Seen here is the cover and inside of the card Rod send Norma. In case you can’t quite read it, the quote on the cover says, “No foreign soldier will ever set foot on German soil.” ~ Adolph Hitler 1939.

Back home in the summer of ‘44, Norma was riding the train to work. Flipping through a copy of Look Magazine, one photograph grabbed her. “That’s my husband,” she announced to the woman seated next to her. The photograph was of some G.I.’s bathing outdoors, their backsides to the camera. She called Look Magazine. They couldn’t give out the names, but sent her a copy of the picture.

“Patton took over command of the Division about three weeks after D-Day. We hadn’t bathed or shaved since the invasion and Patton was furious, ordered everyone to do so immediately. That was the first water we came to,” Rod explains.

Norma leans close, “You know how I knew it was Roddy?”

“How?”

She points at the photograph, “You see the way these trousers are laid out here beside the boot?”

“Yes.”

“That’s how I could tell it was Roddy.”

Returning from the war, Rod worked for a time with the family business, Hart Express. Then he went over to Gifford-Wood where he stayed for 24 years. He performed his civic duty serving on numerous boards and organizations, was a Commissioner of Cemeteries and helped compile the History of Columbia County in WWII. He also became Hudson’s first Housing Director.

On September 2, 1982 a young man walked into his Directors Office at the end of the day, pulled a gun and announced a stickup. Rod handed him the petty cash. He threw it back at Rod. The stick up man knew it was rent day and there should be a lot more money there. He was also foolish enough to attempt to hold up a man who survived D-Day. He ordered Rod into the back room, “I knew if I went into the back room I was dead, so I tackled him.” In the struggle that ensued Rod was shot, the bullet missing his spine by less than the thickness of a nickel, but he survived and foiled the robbery attempt.

That period of time, the war years, was recorded in images of black and white. Black and white photographs have a way of leading us to believe the events captured in the photograph were not quite real, yet that time, 60 years ago, was far more real than most of us can today imagine.

Colonel Gerard F. Hart, USAR Retired is quite a man, gentle, soft-spoken, a kind face but it is the deep conviction living in his eyes that surprises you, catches you off guard. He is a man, confident, at ease with himself, after all he has noting to prove, he did that long ago. He represents a generation of Americans who possessed courage and character sufficient to selflessly stand up for what is right and just in this world, not unlike the men who dared sign that declaration 227 years ago. They deserve our highest respect and honor. We are a better place because of men like Rod Hart.



A Duty Greater Pt. I

I walk along an old concrete runway, fine tufts of grass peaking up between the cracks. Vintage aircraft, parked diagonally, line both sides of the runway. Two men and a woman walk ahead of me. One of the men wears a white cap and gestures toward one of the planes; I figure he’s conducting a tour, so I wander close to listen.

The patch on his cap reads, “Distinguished Flying Cross Society.” His name is Ed Klein, the other man is Ben Klinger, the woman is Ben’s wife, Norma. There’s no tour, just three friends visiting the U.S. Air Force Museum on an overcast, blustery day in Dayton, Ohio.

Ed Klein flew in B-17’s during World War II. As part of the 381st Bomb Group he flew 25 missions over Europe from Ridgewell Airfield, in Essex, England. If you were fortunate enough to survive 25 missions you were sent home. Ed was one of the lucky ones. Surviving 25 bombing missions was no easy feat.

The B-17 Flying Fortress bomber carried a crew of ten. Ed was a bombardier. As bombardier you’re sort of the point man. The bombardier sits out front in the nose of the aircraft. He also operates the chin turret guns below.

As Ed talks, I look up at the nose of the B-17 pictured here and imagine myself sitting up there at 20,000 feet, surrounded only by clear Plexiglas, completely exposed. The muscles in my back tighten as I consider the concentration and courage necessary to perform this job; operating that bombsight with anti-aircraft fire exploding and fighter planes swarming all around you.

Ed, pictured here, gives me a basic lesson in the operation of the Norden Bombsight. In 1943, the Norden Bombsight was a top-secret device that determined an exact release moment, enabling bombs to accurately hit their designated target. To guard the secrecy, the sight was loaded aboard the aircraft under armed guard just prior to takeoff, covered from view until in the air and immediately removed, again under armed guard, after landing. “They liked to say bombardiers could drop a bomb into a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet with that thing, but in combat it wasn’t that easy,” Ed smiles.

As the Flying Fortress withstood heavy flak, the bombsight helped compensated for crosswind, but the weight of the mission fell directly on the shoulders of the bombardier. Should the plane be shot down, he was responsible for destroying the bombsight in order to protect its secrecy. Bombardiers took an oath, swearing in part, “in the presence of Almighty God to keep inviolate the secret of all information revealed to me, if need be, with my life itself.”

Once over the target area the plane would be switched to automatic pilot. Crouched in the Plexiglas nose of the plane, breathing pure oxygen and peering into the rubber eyepiece that left a black circle around your eye like ‘Petey’ the dog in the Our Gang comedies, Ed would maneuver the plane’s course using small knobs on the side of the bombsight. He wore silk gloves to keep his skin from freezing to the metal knobs. Temperatures of nearly 40 below zero were common, as was frostbite.

As Ed neared the correct coordinates he would announce into the radio, “Bomb bay doors open.” When the doors were fully open the ball turret gunner, suspended from the belly of the aircraft with a clear view of the bay directly in front of him, would reply, “Doors open.”

Ed would then lock on the target, setting the coordinates. The floating cross hairs in the sight made of spider's webbing would then automatically move. When they fell into perfect alignment over the coordinates, Ed would hear an electronic click sound as the sight released the lethal cargo. “Bombs away,” he’d call out. “You never pushed a button to release the bombs like in the movies, I set it and the bombsight did it automatically, but when I heard that click I knew.”

Once the bombs were released Ed waited for the ball turret gunner’s important three word reply, “bomb bay clear,” the signal that all the bombs had fallen clear of the plane.
“It was always a nervous wait,” Ed recalls. “One time he didn’t get back to me and I repeated ‘bomb bay clear,’ and all I heard was, ‘No.’ One bomb was hung-up in the bay, a pretty dangerous situation.”
Ed’s eyes grow quiet. I watch sixty years evaporate. Ed shakes his head and his friendly smile returns, “We got lucky. The wind evidently caught the bomb just right and freed it up. I was never happier to hear, ‘bomb bay clear,’ in all my life, I can’t begin to tell you how happy.”

I look at Ed and Ben and realize they were barely twenty, “Just boys,” a voice whispers in my head. “No, hardly boys,” I mutter correcting myself, “just everyday men committed to a duty greater than their own existence.”

Part II of this chance meeting next time, From The Road.

 


A Duty Greater Pt. II

October 8, 1943 was a difficult day for the 381st Bomb Group. Twenty-one B-17’s took off from Ridgewell that day, seven failed to return, many others were so badly damaged they barely made it back. The target was the industrial northern German city of Bremen.

Bremen and Berlin were the most highly fortified cities in all Germany. Berlin alone had 6,000 anti-aircraft guns amassed over 600 square miles. Ed Klein’s eyes narrow when he mentions the names of those cities. Ed’s plane lost a crewmember that day, their tail gunner Steve. Steve and Ed were best friends and it hit him hard, but he went out again the next day.

Standing on that abandoned runway at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, Ed tells me, “March 6, 1944 we went into the briefing room and learned our mission would be over Berlin. When I learned my last three missions would all be over Berlin my heart sank.” The odds were bad, but providence smiled on Ed.

On March 9th 1944, 1st Lt. Edward A. Klein completed his 25th bombing mission over enemy occupied territory and went home with the Air Medal, 3 Oak Leaf Clusters and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Ben Klinger had an older brother Stephen who was killed in action in the war, but the family never learned the details surrounding his death. Ben became a pilot and in 1944, shortly after Ed returned home, wound up in England flying bombing runs with the 381st.

Fifty years later at a 381st reunion, Ed was introduced to Ben. As it turned out, it was Ben’s brother Stephen who was the tail gunner on Ed’s crew October 8, 1943. Ben finally learned the circumstances of his brother’s death. Ed and Ben have been good friends ever since.

Because of the high level if intensity, of the horror that accompanies war there is too, an equally high level of mischievousness play, a necessary release.

“Planes were often named for former girlfriends,” Ben chuckles lightly, “My co-pilot drew a picture of a nude woman on the nose of our plane, the commander wouldn’t allow nudes, so we glued colored cellophane over her private parts.”

Reaching your 25th Mission was a high watermark and crewmembers often did curious things to commemorate the event.

“One guy had a bicycle he rode everywhere on the base,” Ben recounts. “On his 25th he took the bicycle along. After the bomb release he said, ‘I won’t be needing this anymore,’ and tossed the bike out over Germany.”

There were other rather bizarre tossings. One crewmember found several mannequins somewhere and dropped them out. Another fellow, having nothing to toss out, unhooked a sink in the barracks, took it along and dropped it out over the Hitler’s head.
As we chatted on the windswept runway two men pushing another man in a wheelchair stopped. The man in the wheelchair was Lou Kittle. Lou was a P-38 pilot in the South Pacific during the war with the 339th Fighter Squadron from Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field. Lou flew the “Yamamoto Mission.”
Japanese Imperial Fleet Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was the mastermind behind the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. American code breakers intercepted a message revealing plans for Yamamoto’s 9:30 a.m. arrival on April 18th 1943 at Bougainville Island.

“One of our boys had been Yamamoto’s roommate at Harvard, told us he was a stickler for punctuality, so we knew he’d be on time,” Lou explained. “We flew 400 miles, dangerously low that morning at 50 feet above the Pacific in order to fly under the radar. We were flying so low you could see the prop wash on the water.”

They arrived on schedule and at 9:34 sighted two Betty bombers and six Zero fighter planes. A brief air battle ensued resulting in Yamamoto’s plane crashing in flames into the Bougainville jungle.

The incident was a crushing blow to the Japanese and had a powerful morale boosting effect on American troops everywhere; they’d gotten the man responsible for the attack on Pearl. I saw that effect, still evident in Ed’s eyes these many years later as he leaned forward toward Lou. Ed held out his hand, “I want to shake your hand, sir. Thank you,” was all he said.

I felt my throat tighten, as it tightens now putting these words on the page. I doubt I’ll forget the look I saw in Ed’s eyes, the honor, the respect.
I was humbled and privileged to witness this chance meeting, to be in the company of men who possessed such enormous character. They were modest, quiet men, no bragging here, just truth. I was in the company of men who did what was asked of them to the best of their ability without question and when it was over, they simply got on with their lives.

This Thanksgiving day take a moment to think of Ed and Ben and Lou and the thousands of others who selflessly sacrificed, who in the line of duty faced fear and horror preserving individual freedom for each of us. Quietly say thanks, I know they’ll hear.

We’ll talk next time From The Road.

Back to Road Archive


Note: All material contained on this web site is ©Daniel Region 2005 and may not be used or reprinted in any form without the express permission of Mr. Region.

This site a creation of Blue Mesa Productions