Veterans Day was my Grandpa’s favorite holiday. He was immensely proud of his service as a combat medic with the 692nd Tank Destroyer Battalion during World War II.
He said those days in the Army defined him.
Charles “Chick” Mullen dropped out of school at age 14 to help earn money for the family. However, in rural West Virginia, there were little options for employment during the Great Depression. He eventually joined the Civilian Conservation Corp as a means of helping his family. The family moved to Akron, Ohio while he was gone with the CCC. This is where he met my Grandma Mary. They married in 1940 and my Uncle Fred was born the following April. My Grandpa was 26 years old when war was declared. My Grandma became a “Rosie the Riveteer” and acted as a single mom while he was in Europe.
December 7, 1941 was a day I heard about often as a child. I spent a significant amount of time with my Grandparents. While stories of the war and the sacrifices my family made helped define who I am, these stories were attributed without enhancing or promoting those sacrifices.
To them, this was life. It was not something that was optional.
A number of my great uncles also served in the military during the war. My Uncle Sammy was killed in France in 1944. My Grandfather felt his years of service were an opportunity to grow and protect our country from evil. When asked about the hardships, he would defer to the sacrifice my uncle made with his life.
As a combat medic, he cared for the injured and the dying. Nazi Officers often would surrender to him instead of an Officer. He seemed to find it amusing that they would surrender to someone with an 8th grade education rather than a college graduate.
He survived the Battle of the Bulge. But what had the most effect on him was Dachau. He was one of the first Americans to arrive at the concentration camp. He was tasked with caring for the survivors. My Grandpa didn’t talk about this much, at least to me. But, when he did, it was like he was right back there, witnessing the horrors for the first time and regretting he hadn’t gotten there sooner.
Family members often told me that when he returned home, it appeared that my Grandfather had suffered from PTSD. He continued to carry those burdens with him for several years.
That began to change in 1949.
When my dad was born, my Grandma’s roommate in the hospital and her husband profoundly impacted my Grandpa and sped up the healing of his wounds.
Rose and Larry Schwartz had arrived in the United States several months earlier. They had survived Auschwitz and came here to start their life as a family. My Grandparents accepted them as family. My Grandpa taught them how to drive. They vacationed together. This close friendship was life lasting and life changing.
My uncle told me that it was as if his bond with Mr. & Mrs. Schwartz helped my Grandpa overcome the guilt he had from not being able to do more at Dachau. I asked my Grandpa about this once and he said to me:
“I think my friendship with Larry made me whole again.”
Grandpa finally graduated from high school in 2002. An Ohio law gave WWII Veterans the opportunity to receive their diplomas. And my grandpa seized on this opportunity.
Veterans Day always meant a lot to my Grandpa. He took the opportunity to call fellow veterans to discuss their tales and thank each other.
Veterans Day 2006 was bittersweet as it was the day we had to say goodbye to him.
My Grandpa would never have claimed that he was a remarkable person. Humble to the core and Irish in his spirit, he was an excellent story teller. But he was never one to describe himself as someone other than an average man.
And our veterans reveal to us how seemingly average men can do remarkable things.