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Remembering one of our ‘Greatest Generation’

Posted: December 2, 2011 11:39 a.m.
Updated: December 5, 2011 5:00 a.m.

As a reporter, there are times when your editor comes to you with a story assignment that -- you can’t help it -- makes you cringe. I’m not a golf fan. I don’t play, I rarely watch and I certainly had no interest a number of years ago in following a couple of guys in their 80s and their grandsons around a golf course. It just wasn’t my thing.

I met Roy Brazell and his grandson, Russ, and Ed Moss and his grandson, Will Owen, at the Camden Country Club early one Saturday morning in mid-2007. It turned out Roy and Ed both served in World War II, both in Italy, but in different companies and at different times. The story idea: a double-profile on two of Kershaw County’s “Greatest Generation” as they shared their WWII experiences with their grandsons during a round of golf.

The day turned into one of the best experiences of my career.

Roy was 84 at the time; Ed, 83. Both shot games under their ages. I won’t embarrass Russ or Will by mentioning their scores.

During the game, I learned that Ed was 18 when he joined the U.S. Army’s 88th Infantry, survived three battle campaigns and earned the Bronze Star. All of his combat experience took place in Italy, starting and ending in Naples. At one point, Ed’s unit was heading to Austria, making their way to the Bremmer Pass when they came upon a German company. He and his compatriots spent three weeks there, not knowing for three weeks after the official end of the war who had won.

Roy, on the other hand, got to Italy by way of Africa, Sicily (an autonomous part of Italy) and India. He joined the 5th Army, 3rd Division, serving with war hero and future actor Audie Murphy. At the end of the war, he, too, ended up in Naples. Even after leaving the military, he continued to keep in touch and keep up with the 3rd Division.

“Once you’re a 3rd, you’re always a 3rd,” Roy told me.

His top memory: ending up in a German officer’s train car while waiting to be transferred to the Pacific Theater sometime after the end of the European side of the war. The atomic bombs had just been dropped in Japan and he was heading to France to, eventually, come home.

A German officer wanted to know what he was doing on the train. Roy nervously answered that he was in charge of keeping civilians off the train. He had only a .45 caliber pistol for protection. He needn’t have worried -- the officer just wanted him to deliver a letter to his girlfriend in Salzburg, Austria.

I think Roy, Ed and I got along just a little bit more than we otherwise would have thanks to one thing we had in common: we were all hard of hearing. But where I owe my hearing loss to both genetics and 14 years as a DJ -- and Ed’s, I believe, to age -- Roy’s was something of a war wound. He’d lost some of his hearing when a bomb went off across the street somewhere in Europe.

After the golf game, we all headed over to Ed’s family’s house in Camden’s historic district where Roy and Ed talked even more about their time in Italy.

They talked about the points system used to grant soldiers leave. How being shot at is frightening. Roy remembered a British Spitfire knocking down a German plan after it bombed a hospital on Anzio Beach, and of seeing Winston Churchill at the end of the war. Ed talked about how Germany was “just destroyed” by the war.

They talked about working for DuPont (Roy) and Burlington Industries (Ed). They also talked about their golf game.

Of course, anyone who knew Roy Brazell knew him not just because of his military service. Certainly, there were those who knew of his service to his country, especially his fellow veterans at American Legion Post No. 17. But the greater Kershaw County community knew him as the founder of Roy’s Cabinet Shop, which grew into Roy’s Wood Products, under his son, Roy Jr.

Russell and his brother, Jody, are the third generation to run the business.

I haven’t seen Russell in a while, but Jody is the current chairman of the KershawHealth Board of Trustees, so I see him at least once a month. I hadn’t seen Will for quite some time, but ran into him at the city of Camden’s recent tree dedication ceremony on the Town Green. He reminded me that he keeps a framed copy of the article about his and Russell’s grandfathers on the wall at his dental office and that people still ask about it. I’ll admit to feeling a certain bit of pride at learning that.

Roy died Wednesday at the age of 88. Editor Martha Bruce told me after we received the obituary.

I was immediately saddened but also transported back to that golf course and the great time I had following him, Ed and their grandsons around.

His death also reminded me, once again, that we have lost another of Kershaw County’s greatest generation. They are leaving us, nationwide, at an alarming rate. According to a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs fact sheet, more than 16 million individuals were serving in the armed forces during WWII. The VA estimated in May that only 2 million were still living today. A few years ago, the government estimated WWII vets were dying at a rate of about 1,000 each day. My bet is that is still happening now.

I consider myself very fortunate to have met Roy and Ed, along with the dozens of WWII veterans I interviewed for a series of articles three years earlier leading up to the opening of the National WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C. in 2004. (Roy was a Memorial charter member.) I got the chance to hear their stories and, in many cases, bring them to you.

A lot of veterans’ wives and children told me their husbands and fathers just didn’t talk about their service. In each case, these vets were glad someone was willing to help them tell their story. They were glad someone wanted to remember.

But as more Roy Brazells leave us, we lose those opportunities. Don’t miss them. Don’t wait to learn about a vet who’s passed here in the newspaper.

Find them. Let them tell you their stories.

I promise, you won’t regret it.

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