Crazy Brave

Bronze Star Ceremony, Austria, 1948

Bronze Star Ceremony, Austria, 1948

Like many young men of his generation, Greg’s father, J. L. Shreve, answered the call to duty in World War II, joining the Army in 1943. He served in the First Army’s 102nd Infantry Division, “the Ozarks.” He was assigned to the 406th Infantry Regiment, Weapons Company M as a squad leader and later a platoon sergeant. Formed in September 1942, the 102nd Infantry Division landed at the French port of Cherbourg in late September 1944, a few months after the Allied invasion of Western Europe on D-Day. In October 1944 the “Ozark” division advanced through the Netherlands towards the German border. The unit crossed into Westphalia in November. The Ozark Division got its baptism of fire in the vicinity of the Roer River toward the end of 1944 as part of the Ninth Army. The Ozarks crossed the Roer February 23, 1945 and successfully established a bridgehead from which it was able to attack north toward the Rhine. In its dash to the Rhine, the 102nd overran 86 towns and cities. One of the most important of these captures was Krefeld, a key railroad and communications center. Caves in the city had been used by the Nazis for a huge rocket factory. Crossing the Rhine at Remagen late in March, the 102nd followed a fleeing enemy, and in April the division was mopping up in an area from Bielefeld and Hanover to the Elbe River. The division stopped there only because it had orders to await the Russians north of Magdeburg. On April 14, 1945, as it advanced through Thuringia toward Saxony, the 102nd Infantry Division uncovered the site of a hideous massacre of concentration camp prisoners outside the town of Gardelegen.  The remnants of two German armies surrendered to the 102d May 4, 1945.

J. L. rarely spoke about his experiences during the war. We were fortunate enough in 2001 to capture his reminiscences on videotape when he was interviewed for an oral history project by his granddaughter, Jessica. It was clear from the interview he was, even after 55 years, still affected emotionally by what he had seen and experienced. This interview was one the few occasions we had ever seen J. L. visibly affected by emotion, to the point of tears.

After the war ended, J. L. continued to serve his country. He was a military policemen in Linz and Innsbruck, Austria from 1948-1951. In 1952 he was posted to Inchon, Korea. Upon his return from Korea, J. L. was posted to several army bases, including Fort Dix in New Jersey. J. L. left the Army for a short period of less than a year after Korea, the only gap in his military service between 1943 and 1965. During that time he managed a Lawson’s store in Akron, Ohio. Apparently shop-keeping and civilian life was not for him, and he returned to service in the Army at his previous rank.

In 1956 he was posted to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and then Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas. In 1957 he took a three-year tour of duty in Germany, serving in Wiesbaden at the Army Airfield, in Worms am Rhein (Taukkunen Barracks), and Wertheim (Peden Barracks).  Returning to the United States in 1960, J. L. was posted again to Fort Bliss, Texas to assume responsibility for securing the missile testing range located there. In 1961 J. L. and family returned to Germany for a second overseas tour of duty, stationed to Pioneer Kaserne and Fliegerhorst Airfield Kaserne in Hanau. In 1964 he returned to the United States to serve as chief enlisted security officer for the Oakdale Nike Base outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

He finally retired from military service in 1965, at the rank of Master Sergeant after 22 ½ years of service. Due to J. L.’s high level of training (he had attended many specialized military schools, including the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, Maryland), he had been offered rank as a Warrant Officer if he would delay his retirement. As he once confided to Greg, however, J. L. was fed up with the Army and decided to finally try civilian life.

During his long career in the U.S. military, which included combat in both WWII and the Korean War, he received the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, and the Combat Infantry Badge. His Purple Heart was awarded because he was wounded during combat and the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Clusters was awarded for multiple acts of bravery. What kind of warrior was he? At a reunion of the 102nd Infantry Division in 1995, one of the men who served in his squad called him “crazy brave.” It was clear that these men, even after 50 years, still admired and respected him for his leadership and fearlessness in battle.

Greg’s father was in many ways defined by his military experience. Born in the hills of Appalachia in West Virginia, he joined the Army at the age of 18 both as a patriotic duty and, no doubt, to find a way to make his way in the world. Many young men of Appalachia took the same military road out of the hills as he did. After his retirement at the age of 42, he searched for another identity, becoming for a time an executive for Pinkerton Detectives, a real estate broker, and finally, “Captain Shreve,” a Chief of Police for a women’s college in Columbia, South Carolina. But these other identities were, in many ways, only a consequence of his life’s defining experience.

In 2010, “crazy brave” J. L. Shreve finally met a foe he couldn’t vanquish. The last time we spoke with him, just a few days before he died, he told us that he was ready to go, to rest. Because he couldn’t talk very well as the result of a stroke, he mimed “going to sleep.” We knew what he meant. He told us what day it would be. A few days later, on the day he had chosen, he passed away. He had decided when and how to leave this life. And that accorded exactly with what we always knew about him. He always lived his life on his own terms. He left it on his own terms. Sergeant Shreve, Captain Shreve, in charge and in control.

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