Memorial Day salute: A son’s remembrance
Editor’s note: Ozark County native Sid Pierce, a Navy veteran, worked and traveled with country music star Roy Clark for more than 20 years before returning home to teach in the Gainesville Schools. Now living in Kimberling City, he works as a sound technician at the Hit Songwriters in the Round show in Branson. In this remembrance, he recalls the stories of the World War II experiences of his uncle, Millard Pierce, who died in combat in France, and his dad, Herman Pierce, who would later serve several terms as Ozark County Sheriff.
School was almost out for the summer, and I’d just spent my quarter on a small American flag at Terry’s Dime Store. Playing outdoors with my new flag, I was excited to see my dad pull into the driveway. With flag in hand, I went running to greet him. “What do you have there, son?” Dad asked. “A toy flag,” I replied. “Son…there are no toy American flags. We need to talk.” Dad took my flag and my hand while we walked inside the house.
Tried by the Depression, tempered by the war
Millard and Herman Pierce were born and raised near the small hamlet of Zanoni, the sons of Elmer and Eva Birdsong Pierce. Millard was not only two years older than Herman, he also towered over him physically. The younger brother looked up to his brother because he seemed to excel at everything. Herman always said Millard was destined to be somebody. Everyone liked Millard and enjoyed his company.
Destiny would have the brothers tried by the Depression yet tempered by a world war. The war was underway, and it appeared that the United States would be getting involved. Folks at home were divided, with some even saying, “Our boys shouldn’t have to go overseas to fight. Their boys should have to come over here if they want to fight.”
The Pierce boys knew better but hoped the war wouldn’t end before they could go.
Herman wanted to join the Army, and Millard thought the Navy sounded adventurous. They both joined the Army on Oct. 2, 1940, and started their training. They were promised a brand-new Army post at Fort Ord, California.
It was new, all right. It was all tents!
Both men participated in the invasion of North Africa on Nov. 8, 1942, under the command of Gen. George S. Patton. At one point, things were so bad they were patching up airplanes with water ration cans. Both brothers saw plenty of action.
On Aug. 15, 1943, they both were involved in the invasion of Sicily and later Italy. Millard was wounded in action while crossing the Volturno River in south central Italy. Living and fighting conditions were bad; however, mail was delivered to the troops, and the brothers kept tabs on each other – when the censors allowed it. Letters and packages from the folks back home as well as to each other were well received, including one letter of April 28, 1943, in which Millard thanked Herman for some cigars and asked if he got the Ozark County Times.
The battle of Anzio, Italy
January of 1944 found the Pierce brothers digging in at the beachhead at Anzio, Italy. This battle lasted five months, with men living in holes like animals. The Germans bombed and shelled them mostly at night, with airplanes strafing them during the day.
Herman shared a foxhole with Otto Lafrenz of Toms River, New Jersey. Otto said Herman was a country boy for sure because a local chicken would lay its egg every morning near Herman’s bedroll, and if Herman could find any flour, he’d make gravy in his helmet. Herman remembered how that chicken would get down in that hole when things got real bad. He recalled that he and Otto would dig their hole deeper every day – to the point that it was almost impossible to get out of. Both men talked about needing food and exercise and how other men lost their minds after months of being pinned down.
Millard was wounded a second time during this long, hard-fought battle. Seven thousand men gave their lives at Anzio, with 22 men presented the Medal of Honor during that battle, most of them posthumously.
Herman always had a fondness for Gunsmoke, the television western about a no-nonsense marshal. Later, I found out it was because the actor who played Marshal Dillion, James Arness, had also been at the Battle of Anzio. It has been said that the men who fought at Anzio were assured of heaven, because they’d already been in hell.
After the Battle of Anzio, the brothers got to share a cigar one afternoon while sitting in the shade of an airplane wing. They both knew the war was coming to a close, and both men were excited to return home; they debated whether they should return to the Missouri Ozarks or move to Southern California. The brothers would part ways in Italy, with Millard taking part in the invasion of southern France and Herman continuing onward into India.
A life of great promise, cut short
Shortly after invading France, Millard Pierce was killed in action on Sept. 7, 1944, outside of Besanan. He was buried in an American Military Cemetery in France until his body could be returned for burial at the Patrick Cemetery in Ozark County. His death was a great loss to his family, friends and neighbors. A life of great promise cut short in his prime.
With the war winding down, Herman was sent back to the United States. A couple of senators were returning home on the transport plane with the G.I.s One senator showed Herman a horrible picture of slaughtered Jews and told the 22-year-old that’s what he’d been fighting for.
Herman said to the senator, “No sir. Those people didn’t deserve that, and it was very bad, but I’ve been fighting for the guys on my left and my right.…I’ve seen dead Americans stacked up like cordwood. You can’t show me any pictures worse than what I’ve seen, sir.”
Returning to Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis, was like being at home, not because of its proximity, but because a bunch of Ozark County boys were entering the Army as Herman was exiting. It was a real homecoming of sorts, with the new recruits wanting to hear war stories from the dog-faced vets and the vets enjoying free drinks.
“Here we were, just a couple of years older than those guys, but we looked like old men in comparison,” Dad would recall.
“So, son, that flag isn’t a toy,” Dad continued that day. “That flag draped my brother’s casket and will someday drape mine. Do you understand now?”
On his deathbed in 1994, Dad asked that after he died I call Otto, his old foxhole buddy.
Ozark County’s war memorial
I encourage everyone to visit the Ozark County War Memorial on the courthouse lawn honoring Ozark County’s veterans who gave their lives in war. Each name had a family who loved him. Each name was denied a future. It goes without saying that in time no one will remember them personally, but hopefully we will never forget their ultimate sacrifice for this grateful nation.
My childhood wasn’t unique in that my dad was a World War II veteran. One out of 10 Americans served in that war. Almost every family was represented by members serving in the military during that era. It doesn’t baffle this writer for one second why and how that generation won the war and then got busy creating the greatest time of prosperity for the most people this country has ever experienced. Once home, their service didn’t end. Neither did their commitment to each other or to their country.
––Sid Pierce, veteran, U.S. Navy
My dad borrowed his oldest sister Hazel Lamberson’s car to attend my basic training graduation in San Diego, California. It so happened that Aunt Hazel was married to an admiral, and her car had a military ID that required everyone on base to salute the car. After graduation, Dad drove me around the base for hours so I could return all those salutes, especially the officers’. He got a kick out that!
Aunt Hazel once told me that she got a letter from Dad during the war. She woke up in the middle of the night and steamed the stamps off the envelope. Under them, she read, “I’m in North Africa and Millard is nearby.”
Herman and Millard were among the first American soldiers to enter World War II in North Africa under the command of General Patton. It was in North Africa that the American soldiers made their entrance into World War II. Dad would recall decades later how he was scared and his hands were trembling with fear during his first night bombardment. A British colonel had positioned himself in a chair and was smoking his pipe, watching the night sky light up like the Fourth of July when he turned to the young, frightened American G.I.s and asked, “What’s wrong?”
Dad spoke up and said, “Our commanders have told us not to smoke. It might give away our position . . . but a cigarette would certainly calm our nerves some, sir.”
The officer replied, “I really don’t think a smoke is going to make much difference tonight, gentlemen.” The Americans lit up in union and were impressed by the coolness of this man’s demeanor in battle.
Gainesville had a movie theater when I was a kid, and we could see its marquee lights from the duplex where we lived in town. Dad took me to one movie. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it wasn’t just a movie. It was Dad’s story. The movie was Patton.
When I was an adult, Dad told me how he had been court-martialed by a general. Dad and a couple of other guys had run out of ammunition and found a ship where they could steal some. They got caught, and the Navy declared that they were in big trouble as Patton was onboard and they were going in front of old Blood and Guts himself. The general informed them if they’d stolen anything else except something to get back into the fight, he’d have had their asses. Instead, they got five days hard labor onboard the ship. But then all hell broke loose a couple of hours later, and they had to rejoin their outfit. So much for the hard labor . . .
Gen. Dwight Eishenhower assembled a large audience of soldiers prior to the Battle of Anzio. He gave them two orders: (1) Make peace with your Creator, and (2) Write the folks back home. Dad said they had all the chaplains representing all the faiths in the Army as well as stationery for letters home. The general told them, “Half of you will not be alive tomorrow.”
Dad told me, “I looked at the guys on my left and right and told them, ‘I’m sure going to miss you guys.’”