Back in 1984 when I first dropped into Waterville, Maine, one of the first people to befriend this outsider was a very good man named Peter Joseph. Peter is gone now, but his name, kept alive by the family Joseph, still vibrates even on the new shiny streets of the tiny river town where he grew up.

Back then, Peter sat with me one day and told me a great war story. During World War II Peter served in the Army, and on this day he spoke of, his officers dropped him from the back of a truck on a dirt road outside of the beleaguered city of Bastogne. If you remember anything about World War II, you’ll remember Bastogne.

If I have the details correct after all these years, it went like this.

The Siege of Bastogne was an engagement in December 1944 between American and German forces at the Belgian town of Bastogne. The siege was from Dec. 20 to 27, until the besieged American soldiers of the 101st Airborne were relieved by elements of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army.

Enter Peter Joseph. “They dropped me off the back of a truck on a dark road in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “Just me and my rifle and a canteen of cold water. I was out there all alone, and it was snowing at about 10-below zero.” Between gulps of coffee, he offered these very words.

“They said, ‘Go sit over by that tree sergeant and keep your eyes open; don’t go to sleep because Gen. Patton and the entire Third Army is coming down this road, and if he sees you sleeping, he’ll have you shot.’”

On Dec. 26, Peter stayed awake and saluted, as Gen. Patton and his tanks rolled by.

On the second cup of coffee, I felt obligated to tell Peter of my war story and my gallant one night stand in service of my country in a watch tower over the guard house on the Air Force base at Waco, Texas.

OK, it’s pitiful, I know. A mud road outside Bastogne in the most crucial battle of World War II versus a cold night in Waco, Texas. Well, I never said I was a hero.

Waco, Texas, Dec. 21. After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, I found myself at James Connally Air Force Base, located 7 miles northeast of Waco — there to get required shots before being sent to Korea. It was a two-day stop before a 30-day leave prior to going overseas.

Because they didn’t want four young recruits wandering off to bars in Waco, we were given temporary assignments to keep us out of trouble.

That’s how I found myself spending a cold Texas night in a high guard tower overlooking the cyclone fence of the base guardhouse.

Sgt. Lopez, a brusque man, issued Scoop and I one ill-fitting helmet, the standard carbine with clip and a stool to sit on. Lopez spoke in standard military sentences. It’s been a long time, but it went something like this.

“Pay attention, airmen, this is your post tonight until 0700 tomorrow morning. Your job is to keep your eye on the guardhouse and prevent prisoners from climbing over those fences and escaping. If they attempt to do so, you are to stop them. If you fail to do so, you will serve out their time. Is that clear?”

“Stop them … how?”

“Fire once over their heads, and if they fail to comply, fire directly at them.”

“Kill them?” Scoop asked.

“Or do their time.”

With that, Sgt. Lopez took Scoop away to his post.

I will remember that night to the day they box me up. I could hear music from the nearby bars, barking dogs and coyotes. I recited the Hail Mary over 100 or more times, and prayed that no fellow airman would climb my corner of the fence. I could see only one light in the guard house.

I remember Peter listening to my story with a question and eyes full of respect. Peter was that kind of man. He treated my attempt at humor as serious reporting, as though I had been guarding Hitler himself.

At 0700, when the sky brightened, no one came to relieve me. So I climbed down and made my way to the mess hall. Upon entering, the room full of airmen, including Sgt. Lopez, stood and with bursts of laughter, applauded. I learned that there had never been a felon in that guardhouse. I had played the fool in a regular game the locals played with new recruits, designed to break the monotony of life in Waco, Texas.

The truest of my many true stories.

For your entertainment this morning, I offer these, mine and Peter Joseph’s, two young Americans who one cold night in Waco and Bastogne, served their country.

 

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer. 

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