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
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.
Dream or A Nightmare
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.
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
“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
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
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?”
She points at the photograph, “You see the way these trousers
are laid out here beside the boot?”
“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
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
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.
Duty Greater Pt. 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,”
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,
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.
Duty Greater Pt. II
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.
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.”
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
“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
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
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.
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