How do we define a hero?
My friend, John Lucas is an unsung hero. He passed away 24 July 2008. An affable, frumpy man with a genuine smile and time for everyone. A young boy could visit his hobby shop and have enough money for the model airplane or boat but maybe not the tax. Of course John would manage the price so there was enough.
But John was a hero in another way. How many of you have seen 'Saving Private Ryan'? Did you know it was based on a true story except that Ryan's real name was Fritz Niland? Being a very German, Saving Private Fritz or Niland (pronounced NI-linT in German) just couldn't work for the World War II period film, so Steven Spielberg changed it. By the way, one of the stars in the movie, Vin Diesel, has a very German name.
In 1943 John was sort of drafted into the Navy at the age of nineteen. While he was in the process of enlisting, he stood in a line of Army inductees as a sergeant counted off and thumped each fifth man in the chest and said, "You number fives are in the Navy ...." No one argue or complain because their country was at war and apparently they were needed elsewhere.
John soon became a Coxswain's Mate 3rd, piloting LCPs (Landing Craft Personnel) or Higgins boats as they are also known. You know, those landing crafts that drop their ramps as GIs and Marines storm beaches into an insane hail of bullets.
On 6th of June 1944, John piloted his LCP onto Dog sector of Omaha beach at Normandy - where the scene for Saving Private Ryan is based. As the ramp fell half the men, including his assistant, died where they stood. The other half made it onto the beach. Traveling in reverse, John nursed his LCP back to an LST (Landing Ship-Tank) to off-load the dead and raise the ramp. There were no wounded.
By now, many of you are asking how is this guy a hero? Because he went back to Dog Sector with a second wave. John told me he knew he was a dead man. The weapons fire was so intense there was no way he would survive and he had made peace with God at this point. So at another LST John jockeyed his LCP into position and received more assault troops and another assistant to man the ramp.
Please keep in mind that Higgins boats, or LCPs, were most made of plywood to maintain a shallow draft. As a matter of fact their simple construction is something akin to the PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat.
At the beach, the ramp lowered and two-thirds of the soldiers died in place. Miraculously, this assistant was not hurt. Again, the dead were returned and another load of soldiers were ferried to the Dog beach. Most of the soldiers departed but John's assistant died as John himself was hit by machine-gun fire. When John regained consciousness, an army medic had bandaged his shattered arm and shoulder and administered a dose of morphine. Then the medic ask if John could return the wounded to a ship. With his one good arm, John manned the helm and piloted his LCP of wounded to the LST.
For John, the war was over. His left arm and shoulder were nearly destroyed. This was John's first and last battle. Keep in mind, it was NOT going into an unknown battle that makes a hero. It is returning to the known horror of certain death, not once more but twice more, that makes a hero...