The Hero Next Door

Rose Hill Cemetery

When I was growing up during the 1970’s my neighborhood had several middle aged World War Two veterans. The war had ended 30 years previous, putting many of the twenty-something vets when they were discharged now in their 50’s, some still working, others dealing with the aftermath of the carnage they endured. That was my way of viewing the wounded, not theirs. The vets did not think of what had happened to them as anything but duty, and they all held a very deep honor for the ones who were killed. Most were glad to be alive, you could get a real sense of that when you talked with them, but there was almost always a sadness that they tried to keep inside, away from everyone else, not to be discussed. My next door neighbor Lester Hill told me he was an island hopper in the Pacific Theater during WW 2, who manned a machine gun with numerous partners that kept getting killed while he somehow survived and slogged on through the jungles. He told me that a helmet was one of the most important possessions a soldier had, not only serving as armor but a hygiene, food and water utensil as well. He said on one island his unit came upon a freshwater stream and they all stopped to drink, scooping up with their helmets. Continuing on upstream they rounded a bend and found numerous bodies of the enemy that had been killed and were decomposing in the water. He said most of his guys vomited. One episode I regret to this day, committed when I was a boy, was sneaking up behind Lester and scaring him in his garage. We were buddies and I thought he would think it was funny. He turned to me quicker than I had ever seen him move, with his arms raised to strike, and baring his teeth. When he saw it was me it was like the air came out of him, and he made me promise to never scare him again. Another time I remember asking him in my boyhood enthusiasm how many people he had killed during the war. He looked off, not at me, and answered, “I don’t know, maybe none.” I wondered at the time why he would give an answer like that. In 1985 when he was 64 and I was 19, he died. His heart gave out after years of failing health, which began with the jungle rot that he endured during the war. He was a man who did his duty and, years later, paid the ultimate price. He was my neighbor, my good friend, my war hero.