In 1916 my Uncle Fritz was born in a sod house on the White River, just north of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. His mother died when he was twelve, and he ran off and lived on his own, doing men’s work, like teamstering and bucking hay.
In 1941 he was a sergeant in the Army, and when the 82nd Airborne Division was formed he volunteered. In World War II the Airborne’s mission was to jump behind enemy lines, and wreak havoc. They were all on their own, until the regular infantry could fight its way through enemy lines to relieve them. He fought all the way from North Africa to Berlin, at the tip of the spear.
My parents were divorced when I was a baby, and my father had no role in my life. He seemed uninterested in me, and we had no relationship. My mother never remarried, and I grew up with her, my sister, my grandmother and my aunt. I really never had a male role model.
I met Uncle Fritz in Alaska in 1969, when I was 23. I was having a hard time of it, and he and Aunt Helen Mary took me under their wing. That summer of 1969, in Anchorage, Alaska, was a turning point in my life. I knew what I wanted now. I wanted to live in Alaska.
I never served in the military, so I missed the Vietnam War. I’d smashed up my ankle when I was at Cal, and I was 4-F. I didn’t dodge the draft. When I was freshman at Cal in 1962 I joined the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps. When I was a junior I was going to take the Marine option and graduate as a 2nd Lieutenant in the USMC, in 1966.
That didn’t happen, and I felt a little guilty for not serving. I told Uncle Fritz about it, and he said not to worry about it. “Vietnam was not a good war”, he said. That made me feel a little less guilty.
I spent a lot of time with Uncle Fritz that summer. He was, among other things, a sort of godfather to the local Hell’s Angels. He was hiring them to go out in the bush and stake mining claims. Then he’d sell the claims to people who wanted a legal basis for putting up a cabin in the Alaska wilderness. He was making pretty good money at it.
He told me a lot of stories about the war. Before a jump. like D Day, they were meticulous about their equipment. Every strap tightened just right. At Normandy Fritz had 20 pounds of explosives strapped to each leg, to be used in blowing up bridges. He was about 230 pounds, with a 53 inch chest.
Everything was screwed up when they landed, the entire unit scattered across the countryside. He hooked up with three other troopers, and they spent the next few days wreaking havoc.
The war was the great experience of his life. Nothing could ever compare to it. We can only imagine what it all was like.
75 years after Fritz jumped, my second grandson is set for birth. Cruz Oakley Pettyjohn, June 6, 2019. Maybe he’ll be like his great Uncle Fritz, of the 82nd Airborne, who was a father to me.