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Roy StoryThe amazing and true rags-to-riches account of an Aggie legend, WWII hero and entrepreneur extraordinaire
By Roy Bucek Rusty Burson
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 Roy Bucek with Rusty Burson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWinning the game of life is all about perspective
Ever since the 1940s, I've had a party trick—an ice-breaker of sorts—that has always made a lasting impression on people I meet. I'd like to think that it's my dazzling personality that makes me so damned memorable, but just to make sure that people find me unforgettable, I've been known—especially in my more ornery days—to remove my left eye from the socket and to drop it into somebody's drink when they are not paying attention.
You should see the way people look at me—and each other—when I announce at a party or gathering: "Excuse me, folks. I seem to have misplaced my eye. Before you crunch into your ice cubes, could everybody please check their glasses to see if my eye shows up?"
I bet you just winced, didn't you?
That prank has been guaranteed to leave an indelible impression on people since I received my first plastic eye back in the 1940s. I lost the left eye I was born with while serving in World War II. I was about a month shy of my twenty-fifth birthday when—on January 19, 1945—a sharp-edged, rusted piece of German metal, roughly seven-eighths of an inch long, ricocheted off a tree and sliced my left eye in two. Like you might cut a tomato in half with a kitchen knife. (You just winced again, right?)
The metal didn't stop at my eye, however, as it continued to travel behind my nose and lodged permanently in my right cheek. I'll never forget the initial fear, the pain, the horror and the shock of it all. I lost vision instantly as blood poured from my face, and my eyeball dangled in pieces from the socket. Strangely, I even lost my sense of taste.
To add insult to injury, I later developed spinal meningitis from the rusted shrapnel. Those damned Germans did everything in their power to make sure that we—the Allied soldiers—died in the most agonizing and gruesome manner, either by the immediate wound of the explosive or the long-term infection the corroded metal would later cause. Losing an eye stunned me, but it was the meningitis that nearly killed me.
Every January since 1945, I have awoken on the nineteenth day of the month, pausing for reflection, recalling the loss of my eye, recalculating my steps that day and thanking God in heaven for allowing me to experience the single GREATEST DAY OF MY LIFE!
That's right. January 19, 1945 was the single best day of my life, because the events of that day allowed me to experience so many other great moments in my life: the day I was married, the joy of sex (I was a virgin until I was twenty-six), the births of my two daughters, opening and growing many businesses (at least twenty-five different types) that have taken me beyond my wildest financial dreams, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so forth. In all likelihood, I wouldn't have experienced any of those monumental events in my life if I had been an inch to the left or right on January 19, 1945.
As a member of the United States infantry, I was told when we were being shipped from England to France—and into battle—that one of three things would likely happen to me:
1. I'd be killed.
2. I'd be so tormented by the inhumanities of warfare that I'd lose my mind.
3. I'd be wounded and shipped back home.
Considering those three options, I was one helluva lucky guy. Sure I lost my eye; sure, I nearly died after spending eleven days in a coma at a hospital in France; and sure, I have never been able to walk through an airport metal detector without being accosted by the security guards like I am some sort of Muslim terrorist. But at least I kept my mind and kept breathing.
According to various reports, roughly 600,000 Americans were involved in the Battle of the Bulge, and 81,000 of them never made it home alive. The Germans also suffered heavy casualties, as 100,000 Nazis were killed, wounded or captured. The surgeons who worked on me told me that I came ever-so-close to being one of the members of the "Bulge bodybag club." If the shrapnel had entered my head slightly to the left or above my eye socket, it would have entered my brain. If that had been the case, it would have been instant death. Good-night, Irene. So long, Roy.
But God spared me. And He provided me with something that has been so extremely valuable to my successes in this life: Perspective. It's a little thing that makes all the difference between success and failure in practically anything. I lost my ability to see out of one eye on January 19, 1945, but God actually expanded my vision in the aftermath of that battle wound. I eventually realized that I didn't need both eyes to be a visionary in terms of my perspective on life.
Think about it. Most people you encounter have eyes and can see. But how many visionaries do you know? Real vision involves a person's point of view—his attitude—more than the clarity of what he sees in front of him. Virtually any man with decent eyesight can see obstacles in front of him, but a person of real vision can see beyond the obstacles ... toward the possibilities that exist past life's hurdles.
That's been one of my greatest attributes in life. I truly understand that life is a game of inches, where hundredths of a second and other miniscule measurements of distance, time and space can separate the successful from the run-of-the-mill. A handshake can lead a man from rags to riches or vice-versa. A wrong turn can lead to the right "chance" meeting. A missed traffic light can prevent a tragic automobile accident. Even something as arbitrary as the thoughts you continually think or the words that you casually utter to yourself can make the difference between fulfilling dreams and failing to ever realize them.
I'm not a philosopher or even a particularly deep-thinker. Nor am I an essayist, novelist or journalist. On the contrary, I'm a pretty simplistic, straight-shooting man. But because of my background as an impoverished farm boy, a world-class athlete, a World War II Purple Heart recipient, a naive businessman-turned-aggressive entrepreneur, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a widower and ultimately a millionaire, I can tell you that it's your attitude that will dictate everything you achieve or fail to accomplish in your own life.
Trust me on this. I possess more than ninety years of perspective on the overall importance of perspective.
Back in 1945, when the medical staff finally cleared me from having meningitis, I was placed on a train for Marseilles, France. When I arrived at that next hospital, I looked around and saw all these men with one arm, one leg or scars all over their bodies. They weren't mourning or grieving. They were all singing happily, like a bunch of drunken sailors who'd just discovered an island flowing with beer and pretty ladies in bikinis. We had all been diagnosed as 'Zone of Interior,' which meant we were going home. We were wounded, but we were alive. It was right then that I fully realized what a lucky man I was to still be walking, talking and breathing.
I gained perspective, and I vowed right then not to take my life for granted. I made a commitment to fulfill my potential. Even though I'd just lost an eye, I suddenly viewed the world in a whole new light. Where once I saw obstacles, I suddenly could view opportunities. Where I once questioned some of my own abilities, I suddenly realized that God had spared me for a greater purpose to fulfill. The Battle of the Bulge produced within me a new "drive to thrive."
It's my belief that every man and woman will face hardships and will reach pivotal points in their lives where they will choose to handle those difficult stretches with either resolve or resentment. They'll count their blessings or curse their circumstances. They'll decide to stay upbeat or they'll slither into the ranks of the downtrodden.
Either way, those simple decisions typically become patterns and routines for the rest of your life. And, while we can't always change our circumstances, we can always change the way we look at them. As the playwright Oscar Wilde wrote in the 1893 play, Lady Windermere's Fan: "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
Perhaps I would have eventually gained my optimistic outlook on life without my experiences in World War II. But I wouldn't want to risk it by choosing another path if I had a chance to do it all over again. Besides, at that point in my life—and in the history of our world, for that matter—going to war was the right thing to do.
Don't misunderstand. I am not generally a proponent of war. Not even close. But that war was necessary because Hitler absolutely had to be stopped and the Japanese could not be allowed to go unpunished for the atrocities they had committed at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941.
After Pearl Harbor, everybody at Texas A&M, which was a military college back then, knew that we were eventually going to war. I graduated from college on May 16, 1942, and with my degree, I also received orders from the Army to report—within twenty-four hours of my graduation—to Camp Joseph T. Robinson in northern Little Rock, Arkansas. Camp Robinson, which still exists today as a training facility of the Army National Guard, was used back then for basic training and to house German Prisoners of War.
I was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and I was eventually selected to play football on the Eastern Army All-Star Team in New Haven, Connecticut. We were coached by the legendary Gen. Robert R. Neyland, who is one of the greatest names in the history of the University of Tennessee, where the 102,000-seat football stadium bears his name. Neyland became Tennessee's head football coach in 1925, but he coached the Army All-Star Team during the World War II years (more on that experience in Chapter 6). We played three ballgames against NFL teams, and the proceeds from those games went directly to the war effort.
I didn't actually join the Allied Forces in combat until September 1944, where I entered the fight in the Ardennes Mountains, which cover portions of France, Luxembourg and Germany. I was originally part of the Seventh Army, 103rd Division. But I was moved into the Third Army—George Patton's Army—as Hitler began his all-out assault in the Ardennes.
By December 1944, Hitler had concluded that the alliance formed by the United States of America, Britain and France in the western sector of Europe was not strong enough to resist a massive attack. Either that or the noted madman simply dove completely off the deep end in utter desperation, as he devised a plan he called the "Ardennes Offensive." His goal—as absurd as it now seems—was to cut off Canada's First Army, America's First and Ninth Armies and Britain's Second Army. If everything had gone according to his plans, we might all be speaking German by now. And he most certainly would have struck a devastating blow to the Allied Forces by taking over a major supply port in Antwerp.
Fortunately, Hitler's grand plan ultimately sailed about as smoothly as the Titanic, but the Nazis did have some significant early success. The battle started on December 16, 1944 with a two-hour bombardment of the Allied lines that caught our leaders and troops by surprise. The Germans advanced sixty miles in two days, creating a "bulge" in the Allied front line. Consequently, the attack became commonly known as "the Battle of the Bulge."
The Germans fought as if their lives and their country's existence depended on winning that extended battle, and casualties were heavy on both sides. On Christmas Eve, sixteen jet bombers (German Me-262s) attacked rail yards in an attempt to cut off our supply lines. The explosions from the bombers and the exchange of gunfire that night created a fireworks display unlike anything I had ever seen. The sky was literally lit up like the Fourth of July, and the air was filled with the distinctive odor of gun smoke.
Speaking of odor, I was in combat between five and a half and six months. During that whole time, however, I was permitted to take just one shower. We always slept in foxholes, but since the temperature was always brutally cold, it cut down on the sweating somewhat. Nevertheless, we all stunk, and the Army decided at one point that—freezing or not—we needed a shower. They gathered two or three companies together and sent us to a creek, where the water was frozen about five or six inches on top. They used an air hammer and knocked a hole in that ice and then inserted a tube into the water. They had also set up three tents: One where we undressed, one where we took a shower and one where we put our clothes back on. They ran the water from the creek through a heater, and twelve of us packed into one tent and undressed; then they blew a whistle and we had twelve to fifteen minutes to take a shower. The water was fairly warm from the heater, and after about fifteen minutes, they blew another whistle, and we moved to the next tent where they provided us with new Army uniforms.
I was thankful for that shower, and I longed for another one as the battles waged on, day after day and night after night in the brutally cold and rainy conditions throughout the Ardennes Mountains. Snow, ice and slush covered everything around us, and "trench foot" became one significant concern for all the soldiers. Trench foot, which was a common problem in World War I, is caused by prolonged exposure of the feet to damp, unsanitary and cold conditions. Once affected by it, your feet become numb and turn red or blue because of poor vascular supply. It can lead to blisters, open sores, infections and even gangrene, so it was important to keep your feet as dry as possible.
Of course, it was even more critical to be alert and to stay on your toes at all times, regardless of whether they were frozen or not. The brutality of the combat was even worse than the weather or the stench of body odor. The battle lines weren't really clearly defined, so at every moment you had to be prepared to encounter German soldiers, who could be hiding behind trees and other terrain, overlooking mountain ridges or lying in wait in valleys or trenches. Right around New Year's Day 1945, the fighting became particularly ferocious, as the Germans attempted to start a second front in Holland.
At times, we exchanged fire with German troops hundreds of yards away. At other times, we engaged in hand-to-hand combat, where the sole strategy was to kill or wound the German soldiers ... before being killed. In those hand-to-hand situations, the barrel of your rifle could be used to smash the head of your enemy. So could rocks, tree limbs or anything else that could be utilized as a weapon. It was survival of the fittest and most fortunate, and the mountains became a landscape of cruelty and corpses.
During one night, my battalion commander gave me orders to take five men back down the mountain so that we could replenish our ammunition and food supplies. At the time, I was a weapons platoon carrier in the fourth platoon. We'd been involved earlier in the day in an intense exchange of mortar and gunfire that lasted two or three hours, with many soldiers on both sides dying in the battle. We were in a heavily wooded area, as were the Germans. Between the two sides was an open field, approximately 300 or 400 yards in total distance. Because we used so much ammunition in the battle, it was imperative that we restock our supplies.
As we carefully retreated under the cover of darkness toward our supplies, we came across an opening that was so densely covered with dead bodies that it was nearly impossible to avoid them all. It was so dark that I didn't know if we were stepping around the dead bodies of Allied troops or German soldiers, but as we attempted to be as quiet as possible, I inadvertently stepped onto the torso of one of the recently deceased. His belly was filled with air, and he made a loud sound—much louder than a typical fart—as the air exited abruptly from both ends. My men and I immediately dropped to the ground amid all the dead bodies, as we heard the sound of German soldiers scurrying toward us.
The Germans shot a flare into the air, trying to detect the cause of the noise. We stayed motionless on the ground for thirty or forty minutes. Thankfully, we were camouflaged among the corpses, and we managed to fulfill our mission without being detected.
I wasn't so lucky a few days later. By mid-January of 1945, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Allied Forces would eventually prevail in the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans could not keep their armored vehicles supplied with fuel. The Allied Forces had supremacy in the air, and our commanders had used our planes to bomb fuel plants throughout Germany. As the battle waged on, the Germans simply had to abandon their vehicles and tanks. When on trial after the war, German Field Marshall von Rundstedt said that "absolutely all conditions for the possible success of (the German offensive) were lacking." Furthermore, Hitler's hopes of splitting the union of the Allied Forces backfired in a big way. If anything, the Allied soldiers from various countries were unified by the attack and more determined than ever to defeat the Nazis.
Excerpted from Roy Story by Roy Bucek Rusty Burson Copyright © 2012 by Roy Bucek with Rusty Burson. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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