Our Dead Have Faces

Recollections of James Hugh Powers

From the photograph hung on my living room wall, the 19-year-old soldier gazes into the room, his Army visor hat on at a cocky angle, yet “regulation.” His uniform is immaculate, the Acorn (87th) Division patch showing on his left shoulder. His eyes twinkle, and a broad, engaging youthful smile greets the world. An eternal teenager and Harvard freshman, he is frozen in time.

It is so like the photographs one sees of Soldiers, Sailors and Marines of other wars, captured by the camera….the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, the two World Wars, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam, and most recently the Gulf War. They are young, and their moods are many. They are in their hours of hope, boredom and danger, living for today and aspiring to live to see tomorrow. They are not supermen, not larger than life, however great their bravado. They are very human. They are regular guys.

They griped about the powers that be who commanded their units. They opined abut the offerings of the cooks. They tried to impress the girls when they were on liberty. Some of them got into trouble with the Shore Patrol and Mps, and were extracted from it by their Cos and their buddies. Their feet hurt. They endured either tropical humidity and heat, or the dampness and cold of winter battlefields. They talked about what they would do when they returned home, gambling that the odds were in their favor They wrote loving letters to their parents, kidding letters to their siblings, and outrageous nonsense to their girl friends. They died.

For those of use who shared the rigors of war and survived, there lingers always that haunting question? How would our families and country have fared had we died and our buddies had lived.? Why were we spared? Why did so many men who were so much better than ourselves because the victims of fate?

Our dead have faces. Their voices echo in our memories. They gave the last full measure of devotion, taking their courage in their hands and defying fear. They marked their ballots for freedom with their own blood. This is how it is, out there on the battle line. Death is nasty. It is not poetic. Parting is instantaneous for some. Others, less lucky, linger in agony their buddies write white lies home, to spare the family. Every article of the Bill of Rights is fashioned from torn flesh. And in my worst nightmares, the red stripes on our flag begin to run downwards, dripping to the ground, as the banner flies lazily against a black sky, and the moans of wounded intensify , the legacy of time spent in a Naval hospital.

Who was this soldier? A few vignettes come down through the halls of time now fading into history.

He was a small boy once, full of imagination and mischievousness and adventure,,, at times a bit too much for his parents!

In 1927, when we were living in Sudbury, Massachusetts, mother was expecting a third child which she hoped would be a daughter as she found two sons quite a handful. She asked Pet and myself, his oldest brother, whether we would like a nice little sister. Pete and I retired to a nearby room and consulted. Then we returned with this verdict: “Mommy, we would rather have rabbits.” We got neither. What we got was one number 3, John, Yale man, future attorney, Assistant District Attorney, administrator and author.

A small boy, Pete went into our Father’s studio office, upstairs in our home, then in Sudbury, Massachusetts. Curious, he began to explore, peeking into everything, including then unlocked drawers of our dad’s office desk. Pete came upon Dad’s Army service revolver, and ammunition therefor, in a drawer left unlocked by oversight. Pete loaded the weapon, aimed it at the studio floor and began firing.

Mother, working in the room below, suddenly came under fire as bullets whizzed by her head. Dropping everything, she raced upstairs to disarm her son. When Dad came home that evening from the newspaper, he was in the doghouse. He remained there until he disposed of the offending firearm. Mother earned her combat star that day!

Returning home from school one day, obviously having participated in a schoolboy fight, Pete, then about 9, was asked to explain himself. His triumphant answer, “I was carving my initials on a Swede.”

As a kid he was intensely loyal to his brothers, his friends, and our family mutt. One day, the dog was put down because of allegations made by a grouchy lady, which later proved to be false. Shortly thereafter, Pete confronted her, with almost demonic fury. He never forgave her. A boy’s relationship with his dog is a very special one. Kids see pets as being one of themselves.

In his teen years, he developed into a fine student and athlete at the Browne & Nichols School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, winning the school’s Nichols Prize for scholarship. He was demanding of himself in his school work. He was a good team player, and very aggressive, on the playing field. He was reliable, with a good sense of humor and little patience with cheats. He was very popular with his schoolmates.

Once, Mother was asked about the differences between Pete and myself. She replied, “Hugh is my Scottish son, and Pete is my Irish son.” Asked further to elucidate, she explained:

Hugh is my Scottish son, because when he is wronged, he broods upon it for some time, before getting angry and acting.

Pete becomes instantly furious when he is wronged, and wants to tear the offender apart right there and then. Each is formidable in his own way.

These traits were to follow Pete into the Army. His Army buddies particularly valued his amiable disposition, his daring under fire, and his fierce loyalty to his comrades-in-arms. He was a regular guy, some steps short of sainthood.

Two incidents reported ancedotally to our family by men who served with Pete in the Army seem to human and so characteristic of him.

While on liberty in the west of England where is division was then stationed, Pete had a few drinks an made the acquaintance of a young lady whom he took with him to the next pub, one frequented by Gis. When he entered the pub, someone had the poor taste and bad luck to make a remark about the girl to which Pete took considerable offense. Like Andy Jackson, Pete believed in dealing very directly with such offenders. In no time at all, he created that condition so dear to the heart of an Irishman, a full-blown riot. He, his buddies, and the young lady, made their exit seasonably just as the Mps showed up. Mother did not appreciate this story. But Pete’s buddies raised their glasses to it! he was their kind of guy!
His loyalty to his men was demonstrated dramatically during an incident in northern France during the winter of 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge. Pete was leading a party of soldiers over snow-covered fields swept by bitter winds. The unit came upon a farm, the barn of which contained hay. Some of his men asked whether they could “appropriate” some of the hay for use in lining their foxholes, to make them a bit warmer. At that point, the farmer showed up.

Pete, who was fluent in French, asked the farmer whether his men could take some of the hay for the purpose of lining their foxholes. The farmer refused his permission, arguing that he needed the hay for his cows. Pete pointed out that his men only wanted a little of the hay. Still the farmer would not relent. Pete then offered to pay for the hay with an Army requisition or with occupation money. Again the farmer refused. Pete’s patience was at an end.

Slowly and deliberately, he drew his 45 automatic from its holster, placed the muzzle to the farmer’s head, and asked ever so politely, “precisely what price does Monsieur have in mind for his hay?”

Pete’s men got their hay.