My uncle Jack was a real hero in World War II – he brought home a Silver Star to prove it.
But Jack never spoke about his service, didn’t want to speak about those years he spent fighting Hitler’s army in Europe.
Jack was the oldest of 11 children born to Charlie and Hattie (Hildal) Knox. By the time World War II rolled around, Jack was 25 and married. Like most able-bodied men of that era, though, he went off to war.
Jack was married when he went off to the war, but his wife divorced him while he was away. When his service finally came to an end, Jack returned to the family farm north of Stratford. He never left. He farmed the 160 acres of land, but he turned his love to motorcycles. Jack opened a cycle shop on the farm and could always be found in the shop tinkering with his own motorcycle or one belonging to a friend.
When I took a job at the Fort Dodge Messenger in 1963, I found myself traveling to Grandpa and Jack’s farm on many occasions. I asked him several times to tell me about the war, to tell me about his service, but my Uncle Jack would always change the subject.
Along with his motorcycles, Jack found lots of other ways to occupy the time he spent away from farm duties. He loved kittens and would get down on the floor with them; he played both the do-bro and mandolin to accompany my grandfather’s fiddle; he made wine – 50 gallons of it at a time. At one time, Jack had both a World War II Harley Davidson and a vintage Indian. He kept both of those cycles in the house, safely tucked away on an enclosed front porch.
He loved to ride out to Sturgis, S.D., every fall and did so deep into his 60s with his 80-year-old father along for the ride.
Even though Jack kept both his mind and body occupied most of the time, I’d sometimes see him sitting in his chair, obviously deep in thought. On those occasions I’d watch him and wonder what thoughts were going through his mind.
Was he remembering the war?
I asked my mother once why Jack would never talk about the war. She told me that her brother had simply seen too much death, too many horrors of war, and he just would never talk of that time in his life. It was only reluctantly that he would ever get out his war medal and let his nephews look at it and hold it with the awe that it deserved.
Jack served in an engineering battalion during the bloody, horrific Battle of the Bulge. He and his Army comrades had the task of building roads and bridges as the Allied troops moved increasingly deeper into territory held by Hitler’s army. While building those roads and bridges, Jack’s crew at times also had the task of destroying roads and bridges to impede the Nazi troops.
During those dangerous missions, I’m certain my uncle saw lots of death and destruction. My mother told me, too, that he had witnessed some of the atrocities that went along with World War II.
I had several uncles who were in the service during World War II, but I believe Jack was most heavily involved in the fighting.
The memory of my uncle Jack came vividly back to mind last weekend as I watched television coverage of the 70th anniversary of D-Day. On June 6, 1944 thousands of troops stormed France on the beaches of Normandy. They came by air and sea, bursting ashore with weapons blazing, parachuting behind enemy lines.
Although Jack wasn’t on that mission, he was in the next wave of troops to move into the Battle of the Bulge. He and the troops with whom he fought side-by-side, helped bring Hitler’s army to its knees.
Those who served and survived that awful time in our history are dying by the hundreds and thousands every month. If you know someone who served, time is running out to hear the stories each one of them can tell us.
It’s too late for me now to coax some of those tales from my uncle Jack. I’m saddened by that.
I can only imagine the stories that went with him to his grave.