This is a day for remembering those who gave up their lives for freedom. I want to remind you of a real hero who is almost forgotten.
I was not called upon to give up my life, because I was between wars: too young for Korea, too married for Vietnam. That was probably just as well. I’m not a hero.
After six months active duty at Fort Ord and the Presidio of Monterey (talk about a tough assignment), I rose to the rank of specialist fourth class (corporal) in the Utah National Guard.
The closest I came to combat was standing on top of a Utah mountain with a forward observer while artillerymen fired rounds over our heads, at a target they could not see. Or maybe it was the time I knocked a major’s cap to the ground because a practice grenade had set it on fire. After he realized I was not attacking him, he thanked me.
One night, some fool asked the Army guard to test security at the Air National Guard base.
The artillery sergeant in charge of this detail volunteered me and one other citizen soldier to accompany him. Driving a National Guard truck, we easily infiltrated the air base.
I’ll never forget the sight of that big sergeant from Cedar City holding a .45 automatic to the head of the air adjutant, a one-star general who apparently had not been warned that his security was being tested.
Unfortunately, the following morning I related that anecdote to a buddy at the Associated Press bureau where I worked. He put it out as a radio news item, and attributed it to me.
The air adjutant was quoted as saying he wished I had some stripes so he could take them away. I wouldn’t have minded being overseas for a few days, but there was no war to hide in.
The reason I bring up this frivolous stuff is to establish that while I was never a warrior, I have some sense of what the military is about. I have told the story of Corporal John Henry Pruitt before, but much has happened since I last wrote it on Memorial Day, 2000. Many good people have died in a new war, or two.
Pruitt was born in Arkansas. His family moved to Arizona and lived briefly in Jerome when he was 5 or 6. His family soon moved to Alhambra, then a suburb of Phoenix, and he spent the next fourteen years in the Salt River Valley. His parents were farmers. He enlisted in the Marines in May, 1917, soon after President Wilson declared war against Germany. The United States was reluctant to enter “The War To End All Wars,” which had been raging for years in Europe.
By February, 1918, Pruitt was in the trenches of France, one of the Sixth Marine Regiment’s ”Devil Dogs.” On October 2, 1918, at Blanc Mont Ridge, a German machine-gun nest had Pruitt’s unit pinned down. Pruitt set out to silence it, while his fellows waited. After more than an hour, the machine gun fell silent. Soon, Pruitt emerged from the battlefield haze, dragging a German machine gun. Later that day, Pruitt attacked another machine-gun position. He wiped out the German gunners, and captured 40 Germans he found in a dugout nearby. He brought them back alive, reminiscent of the deeds of Sergeant Alvin York. (My parents took me to see “Sergeant York” at the Orpheum movie palace in Phoenix in 1942, during the early days of World War II.)
Pruitt’s superiors assigned him the next day to relatively safe duty as a sniper. As he sniped, he was killed by a random German artillery shell. It was his 22nd birthday.
Posthumously, both the Army and the Navy recommended him for a Medal of Honor, a rarity in the muddled history of that coveted award.
Pruitt’s deeds were overshadowed by the flamboyant performance of another Arizonan, aviator Frank Luke Jr. Luke downed fourteen heavily-defended German observation balloons and four German airplanes in just a few days near the end of the war. Luke’s plane was forced down by a squadron of German Fokkers, and he was killed on the ground by German soldiers.
A statue of Luke stands before the state Capitol. An Air Force base was named for him. Pruitt is a footnote.
Without much explanation, Pruitt’s name appears on both both faces of an all-purpose monument to war heroes at the Capitol. On a bronze plaque on the rear base of the Luke statue, he is listed alphabetically among 321 Arizonans killed in World War I.
This is not to take anything away from Luke. In the mold of many heroes, Luke was an insubordinate loner who was one step ahead of a court martial during his brief military career. He was a national hero. He died while firing his pistol at Germans who were shooting at him.
But let’s not forget John Henry Pruitt, or any of the many thousands who have died defending freedom.