Time on Target: Memories and Gratitude

OKLAHOMA CITY – World War II veterans are dying by the hundreds every day. Human faces rest embedded in the data. 

When J. Leland Gourley, the state’s senior newspaper publisher, died last month, I remembered meetings involving a half-dozen editorialists – competitors and friends who conspired during the 1990s to fashion common “messaging” promoting education reforms.

At one session, I suggested publication of similarly-themed commentaries for a particular weekend, for maximum impact.

Leland, the sage conservative, replied, “What we want is ‘time-on-target.’” The old World War II Third U.S. Army cannoneer explained the term for coordination of artillery fire from varied points – mortars, field cannons, battleships, bombers – so that all weaponry arrived on target at the same moment.

The most voluble of men, Leland rarely talked about his Army years, but often shared with younger colleagues his insight about times in life to follow orders, and moments to improvise, or days to go your own way.

In Jerusalem when he died, I remembered him in prayers at the Western Wall.

Dr. James Pippin, who died this summer, spent his service stateside during the war. His book, “Miracle a Minute,” is laced with humor and pathos about those experiences and his later life.

His great battle came after his beliefs about the in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit edged him away from the mainstream of a church he pastored. He recovered from a purge to have a blessed and abundant second ministry – and befriended me in my time of need a decade ago.

Gabriel Duty, my unit’s Scout leader when I was a lad, died nine weeks ago. His time of trial came in the Pacific, with the 32nd Division, where combat heroism garnered him the Bronze Star. Before passing, the rail-thin Gabe came to Veterans Day meetings of the Knights of Columbus, still fitting into his uniform from 1945.

Norman Vaughan was 14, and member of a Boy Scout unit in a small Oklahoma town, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Many older Scouts immediately mustered into the U.S. Army; Norm begged his parents to sign papers so he could join, too.

In peacetime, he became a brilliant photographer, helping generations of Oklahomans learn to use film. He comfortably made the digital transition in his latter years at a camera shop on a wide boulevard in Oklahoma City.

For a decade we were both in a Bible Study group. A few times, we gently nudged him for nuggets from the war. Like most in that generation, he normally demurred.

One night, we touched on the Holocaust, and a news item about those who deny it ever happened.

Softly, Norm began to speak, with these words: “If I could have an hour with those deniers, I could convince them.”

After boot camp, Norm had wound up in the Rainbow Division. In April 1945, that unit, with soldiers from a dozen states — including 17-year-old combat veteran Norm — linked up with the Fighting 45th Division, mostly Oklahomans, to free concentration camps.

Norm was in one of the first groups to walk into Dachau. For a time, they thought it was empty, but then poor creatures – like skeletons, they were so drawn and thin – began to creep out of the barracks and the alleys toward the liberators.

The G.I.s fell to the ground, cradling the survivors, feeding them K-rations or candy as they gathered round. Some of those rescued convulsed and died as they desperately gorged themselves on the proffered nourishment.

A medic ran about telling the guys, “Go slow, slow. Pace it. Give them small pieces of bread, a nibble at a time, then a small portion of water.” That gentle labor took the next few hours, until scores of new soldiers arrived in relief, methodically to comfort and bring back from the brink many among the thousands of desperate souls.

Remembering, Norm was emotional that night, with a bit of an edge in his voice as he repeated: “I could convince them.” Years later, I told that story in his eulogy.

One by one, they are leaving us. There will never be enough time or opportunity, or sufficient means, to say what should be said. Still, there is at least some time, some opportunity, some means.

This Veterans Day, I trust many Americans will spend some time on target – in peace and in security, with a cascade of memories and prayers of gratitude. That would honor and cherish, in diversity and unity, all the guys like Leland, James, Gabe and Norm.

When the roll is called up yonder, they’ll be there.

You may contact Pat at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com