When I was little my dad told me a single story about World War II. He told no stories about his time in the army other than this single story.
It was about the day he knew he was going to die.
He was in Italy in 1945 serving with 10th Mountain Division in the Army. The next day his unit was going to be sent to the front. At the time, the “front” in Italy was murder machine: mountain fighting against German 88 artillery. His entire unit knew they were being sent into the abyss, so they thought there would be no real consequences from sneaking into to town to visit the bar the night before to salute their final days on earth.
However, there were consequences. The unit was caught, and my dad was singled out. He was sent to the rear, and spent the rest of the war in a laundry unit. He experienced no greater humiliation in his life than this event. After that day, my dad never considered himself a veteran, and never once took advantage of any “veteran” benefit , gathering, or anything else that had to do with World War II. He pretended like his time in the in WWII did not exist.
My dad’s brother was named John Fulton Jr. When the two were growing up, the two did not get along. Their dad, a semi-famous illustrator named John Russell Fulton became violent as the boys grew older and money got tight in the depression. In 1931, to save the boys from getting hurt, their mom sent them to Manumit, a liberal co-op boarding school. They both spent the majority of their childhoods scurried away at that school. They both hated it, and seemingly, John blamed his brother, my dad, for the situation.
While my dad loved to play “war” games like Cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, kick the can and hide n’ seek at Manumit, his brother never partook in any of them. Instead, John was very quiet. We loved big band music, and collected lobby cards from his favorite band leaders. He was not a soldier in any way, but after high school John was drafted into the Army.
John was in Company L in the 83rd. Unlike my father, who lusted to fight the Germans ( my dad lied about his age when he was 17, so he could join-up as fast as possible), John begrudgingly fell into a combat as an ace shot bazookaman. He was fighting in Belgium in October 1944, when his unit got pinned down by a German sniper. John volunteered to use his weapon to clear the barbed wire that was blocking his company from gaining ground. During this act John cleared the barbed wire, but was shot and killed by the German sniper. PFC John Fulton Jr. was awarded the Silver Star for bravery for his action on the Battlefield in Belgium.
I heard this story many times growing up from my father. My dad was as proud of his brother’s service as he was ashamed of his own.
However, my dad never told me the full story of why he was sent to laundry unit in World War II until we were hiking in Mammoth on one of our last camping trips in the late-1990’s. We had recently watched the movie Saving Private Ryan together and I noticed this movie affected him a lot more than the other WWII movies we watched together, but I did not understand the reason why.
By that time in my life, I was old enough to hear the full story of my dad’s service in WWII and as we hiked, he finally let it out. In Italy, his unit had gone indeed AWOL to visit the local town the night before being sent to the front. However, they were not visiting the bar, they were visiting the local town whore. There was a long line outside the door (and I assume my father was in it, he never said), but before his unit made it “inside”, they were caught by some MPs. They all got in trouble, and things were not happy for them for some time.
However, this had nothing to do with why he was sent to the rear. My dad was spared because of the Sole Survivor Policy that spared the last living son if a sibling had already been killed in combat. My dad was just like the “Ryan” in “Saving Private Ryan”. This act weighed heavily on my dad’s heart. At the end of Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks character tells Ryan to “earn this” in reference to his ticket home. I’m sure my dad sent a lot of time calculating if he himself had “earned it” or not.
In the summer of 1998, my dad made his first and only trek to the cemetary in Europe where his brother has rested since the end of World War II. It took 53 years and my sister getting married in Germany to get him to face the reality of what had occurred so long ago. When he returned he pieced together a memorial to his brother that adorned the wall outside his bedroom up until his death last year. The images that accompany this story are from that memorial. Photos and medals that my dad had hidden away for 1/2 a century greeted him every day as he woke up. There was no hiding the truth any longer.
I think my father finally realized that John’s death allowed my him to live. The army spared him, and my dad went on to become an college graduate, actor, husband, father, motor-cross racer, soccer coach, illustrator, Civil War collector, amateur treasure hunter, and a grand father. All things his brother never got the chance to become. Instead, PFC John Fulton became an image. The photo that leads this story is the last known image of PFC John Fulton. It is a photo of a serious looking young man. A man who became an unlikely hero when people needed him most. By giving his life for his country, he also gave his life so my father would live, and in turn, his sacrifice allowed me to exist. As far as I’m concerned, my dad lived an amazing life to the fullest extent possible, and more than than “earned” his own ticket home.
And that is why I salute both of them on this, and every other, Memorial Day.
Thanks again Dad and Uncle John,