Family constantly reminded of the true meaning of Memorial Day
Eighty-year-old Chester Backes remembers when Memorial Day wasn’t just another day off from work.
“We were always in full uniform and I carried my rifle,” Backes, a World War II veteran, said from his Milner home.
“We’d walk out of the VFW and march, and fire off a bunch of rounds to honor the dead veterans.”
The Backes family has good reason to remember the significance of Memorial Day. Chester Backes’ younger brother, Warren Backes, served in Korea, and his grandson, Otis Lewis, served in the Persian Gulf.
Getting stories out of the three men is like pulling teeth, especially the tragic stories soldiers so often must endure during wartime. But with time, all three talked of the horrors they saw.
The eldest Backes served in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, famous for its “ski troops.”
He was working in the Mount Harris coal mine when he received his draft letter in 1944. He wound up fighting in several mountain campaigns in Italy including the famous Riva Ridge Battle where future U.S. senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole was injured.
Chester Backes said he didn’t train with the 10th Division at its Rocky Mountain site north of Leadville, but because he had been a skier in Steamboat Springs, he managed to work his way into the famous division.
He said when the company was resting, he served as the baker. During marching he became an “ammo bearer” for the machine guns on the front lines.
Like many veterans, Chester Backes said he has tried to put much of what he saw in the war behind him. He doesn’t much like to discuss what he endured at the battles of Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere.
But he can recount with vivid detail the moment he was injured. His troops were pinned down in the Po Valley by enemy fire.
“My section leader had been taken out and I just happened to look over there and saw two Germans with machine guns in a cave,” Chester Backes said.
“I directed my gunmen toward them and they took ’em out. We weren’t pinned down anymore but that ended my career.”
Chester Backes took a bullet in the leg during the fighting.
A month later, the Germans surrendered Italy while Chester Backes lay in an Italian hospital.
Warren Backes, 71, had a different kind of experience in Korea, a bloody conflict often called “The Forgotten War.” Without the clear-cut victory that Americans enjoyed in World War II, the Korean War and its veterans never attracted the attention Americans gave to World War II and its veterans.
Warren Backes remembers the apprehension he and his fellow soldiers felt when landing at Korea’s Pusan Harbor.
“When they unloaded us off the ship we had full packs and not a bit of ammunition,” the old cowboy said from his seat on a couch next to his wife.
“It was a good thing, ’cause we were so scared we would have shot each other,” he said.
Warren Backes served as a quartermaster in the Army, supplying troops and guarding those supplies.
He remembered guarding barrels of gas, most of them empty, and hearing South Korean allies jumping over the fence he was guarding.
“We didn’t get ammunition for guarding either. Our commanders were scared we’d shoot them and create an international incident.”
Warren Backes was later shipped closer to the front lines, 15 miles south of the infamous Chosin Reservoir where American and allied troops were pushed back by the Chinese across the frozen 38th Parallel.
“There was one company there they all froze their testicles and none of them could produce children,” he said, shaking his head.
Warren Backes remembered the devastation the war wreaked on Korean families. He and fellow troops even adopted a little Korean boy.
“He was crippled from birth and we decided to pay him $1 a week to sweep the tent and shine our boots,” Warren said.
“I used to get chicken and sugar for him and even ordered clothes from Sears.”
Chester Backes remembered a similar tale of feeding two orphans in Europe.
“Some big shot sent down an order we weren’t supposed to give them any food. We were supposed to throw it away,” Chester Backes said.
Chester Backes’ captain caught him in the act and kept him from earning his corporal stripes.
“That stripe would have meant more money for me and my three kids at home,” said JoNell Backes, Chester Backes’ wife of 60 years.
Lewis said his experience in the Persian Gulf was nothing like those of his grandfather and uncle.
A six-year veteran of the Air force until he was injured, Lewis served as a senior airman load crew chief in the Gulf. He loaded ammunition in A-10s and also repaired Gatling guns.
He couldn’t talk about some of his work in the Persian Gulf and like the older veterans didn’t want to recount some of the worst memories of the war.
When asked about some of the scenes that may have stuck with them over the years, the three veterans sat quietly.
Warren Backes’ wife, Beverly Ann, held her husband’s hand and asked him about seeing friends, people he knew, who were shot.
“You would see the bodies brought back and they weren’t covered,” Warren Backes said, shaking his head.
“There are some things you don’t want to remember,” Lewis added.
Chester Backes described an incident in the Italian mountains that he said he will never forget.
“Snipers cut Espinosa’s throat open and blood was shooting out,” he said.
“He stood there for a while, then he dropped. The officer was yelling at Espinosa, ‘You S.O.B., get up and get where you’re suppose to be.’
“I told him, ‘He can’t get up because he’s dead.'”
Lewis, who didn’t see direct combat in the Persian Gulf, had to respond to the scene of the barracks bombing where American doctors and others were killed before the ground war started.
“The effort to recover them was gruesome,” he said.
Such memories as well as the memories of his grandfather and uncle underscore the importance of Memorial Day for Lewis. It frustrates him that not everyone sees the holiday in a similar light.
“Memorial Day is the honoring of dead veterans,” Lewis said. “But nowadays it’s so commercialized. (People) go on vacation. They don’t remember what the day was made for.”
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