Coming home – Vineyard combat veterans share their stories

Nelson Bryant (right) and friend, in a brief moment of calm during the Normandy Invasion. — photo courtesy of Nelson Bryant

The armistice that ended the fighting in World War I went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In grand fashion, November 11, 1918, was declared the end of “the war to end all wars.”

In 1954, Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day by President Eisenhower, to accommodate the subsequent wars, and to recognize the growing multitude of veterans who have served.

Today, 95 years and at least five wars after World War I, American men and women are still going into battle. Some will come home to families and friends and quietly get on with the life they left behind. Some will come home with scars, mental and physical, that will take years to heal, if they ever do. And some will come home in a casket draped with an American flag.

Memorial Day is for the fallen. Veterans Day is for the living. It’s a day where all of us, regardless of personal politics, have a chance to acknowledge the sacrifices our veterans of all the wars have made. There are three generations of war veterans on Martha’s Vineyard who’ve seen combat firsthand.

The Times sat down with Nelson Bryant, Paul Schultz, and Jamie Craig — veterans of World War II, Vietnam and the Gulf War(s), respectively — to hear their stories, memories fond and fraught, and to find out what it’s like to return home to Martha’s Vineyard after surviving the mayhem of war.

Nelson Bryant

Mr. Bryant has lived 81 of his 90 years on the Vineyard. His family moved here in 1932 to try to escape the depression. He became friends with Beanie Alley, who showed him how to fish and hunt on the shores and fields of the Vineyard. Mr. Bryant would go on to become one of the most prolific and well-known outdoors writers ever to appear in newsprint. From 1967 to 2005, he estimates he wrote about 6,000 “Wood, Field and Stream,” columns for the New York Times.

Although he describes his memory as “getting soggy,” Mr. Bryant gives precise, sometimes lyrical descriptions of a war that he miraculously survived, as a paratrooper 508 Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division.

On a recent afternoon in his comfortably rustic West Tisbury home, he recalled parachuting into Normandy on D-day, in the pre-dawn darkness, “I snoozed on the way over,” he said. He recalled the “the lazy arcs of tracer bullets curving up at me, then hurtling past” in a languid tone. On the fourth day of the invasion, he was shot in the chest. “I remember lying on the ground, the other scout was next to me, moaning ‘Help me, help me,’ then he died,” Mr. Bryant said. “A medic gave me a shot of morphine and I remember lying there, looking at the cows and the men go by me, thinking ‘Jesus Christ, is this the way it’s going to end?'”

After another medic put him deeper into a morphine haze, a friend in retreat passed by and seeing the ants crawling in the blood that flowed out of his mouth, he assumed Mr. Bryant was dead, and reported him as such. Fortunately the mistake was soon rectified. Mr. Bryant convalesced in Wales until he heard his regiment was jumping into Holland and hitched his way back to their base in Nottingham.

It was an ill-fated mission where his close friend Wally Bergstrom took a sniper’s bullet to the forehead as he sat inches away. “It was a warm September afternoon and Wally took off his helmet because it was hot,” recalled Mr. Bryant. “I said, ‘Wally, you better put that damn thing back on.’ Wally said, ‘The hell with it.’ The next thing it was the snap of a high velocity bullet going by my head, they make a cracking sound when they go by your head. I turn around looked at Wally and there was a little hole, right in the middle of his forehead.”

Then came the Battle of the Bulge, the legendary last gasp of the Germans, fought in the coldest European winter in the 20th century. “I really didn’t want to go to that one, obviously,” he said. “I remember one day I led an attack on a German town. Six of us went running down Main Street like John Wayne. All of a sudden we saw white flags waving. I think about 20 or 30 Germans who were in the town surrendered. I was feeling very invincible, but I was too keyed up. All of a sudden I could feel bullets picking at me. They crack in the air when they go by your head.”

Mr. Bryant then recalls the next ten minutes with riveting detail. “First, my canteen was shot to shreds. Then, my M-1 rifle was shot out of my hands. Then, two of us were crawling through the snow, and I saw a puff of snow on my left, then another on my right, then I feel bang! I got hit in my right ass. I remember thinking of the ignominy of being shot in the ass,” he said, laughing. “I think I’ve been shot, and we gradually find out that the bullet went through my coat and was stopped by a tobacco tin full of gun cleaning tools.”

Mr. Bryant opened a tin of tobacco dip and put a small pinch of tobacco under his front lip. After a pause, he reflected on his Island homecoming.

“It was November ’45. I was met at the Vineyard Haven dock by my mother and my father and my 11-year-old brother, Danny. The first thing I wanted to do is go to Boston and see my girlfriend, Jane Cottle. I also wanted to tell Wally’s mother how he died. I was quite close to him. A lot of guys died beside me, but this was kind of an intimate thing. So, when I got back, I just felt that maybe his mother would like to know that one minute he was sentient and the next minute he was dead; there was no suffering.

“When I knocked on the door I could hear the sound of a washing machine. It was an upstairs apartment in Boston. A woman came to the door and she had some damp clothes in her hands. I said, ‘I was a friend of Wally’s and I was beside him when he died’ and I told her how he died. She cried quietly, tears streaming down her face. She said, ‘My daughter’s coming home in a little while, could you wait and tell her?’ I said I had a date with Jane. I knew Jane would have understood, but I was just too selfish, I guess. I didn’t want to sit there and look at her grief for another hour.

“If I had the choice between taking fire on a hill or telling her about her son…” he said, his voice trailing off.

Asked how long “battle fatigue” stayed with him, Mr. Bryant recalled an incident in Edgartown, not long after he got home. “When I was courting Jean, the first inkling she had was on a cold windy night on Main Street in Edgartown, a metal sign above squeaked, and it sounded like the dreaded German 88 [artillery shells] and I flung myself to the concrete in front of the store — it was absolutely instinctive,” he said. “For a long time, sudden noises did me in. I hated the 4th of July. Still do. And I don’t like planes overhead.”

Mr. Bryant also remembers that he wore his uniform, with a purple heart with a gold cluster on the chest, for about six months after he got home. “I was very proud of being a paratrooper,” he said.

Asked how if he felt differently about hunting after the carnage he’d seen in the war, Mr. Bryant said, “I never shot anything I didn’t eat. That’s one of the great joys, hunting it, preparing it, cooking it.” Mr. Bryant said he’s looking forward to hunting deer this muzzle-loading season. “I feel just as bad about cutting down a sturdy tree as I do about shooting a rabbit. They’re both alive,” he said.

Paul Schultz

Paul Shultz was born and raised in Edgartown. He was drafted into the Vietnam War on September 9, 1968, and selected for the B Battery third battalion, sixth artillery unit. “We were assigned to the first air cav [cavalry],” he said, in a recent conversation. “When they went out of missions, we fired support for them.” His weapon was a 105 Howitzer, capable of hitting targets over five miles away, and his battalion saw heavy action, often.

He recalled a night that he thought was probably his last. “The army sent a courier telling us the North Vietnamese are going to take over the village. We put two guns in the middle of it, mine and a guy named Wilson. We just fired all night long, as fast as we could. We could see them coming over the wire. We started shooting at the wire with beehive rounds. They’re shells full of darts. The next day there were a lot of bodies. But we survived.” Mr. Schultz received an Army Commendation for bravery in front of enemy fire.

Mr. Schultz is a well-known fixture on Chappaquiddick, where he’s fished since his boyhood. He recalled the surreal experience of being deep in the Vietnamese jungle, in July of 1969, and hearing “Chappaquiddick” in the headline on Armed Forces Radio. “All of a sudden my favorite fishing spot that nobody’s ever heard of is everywhere because this senator went off a bridge.” he said. “Luckily Neil Armstrong knocked him out of the headlines two days later.Mr. Schultz recalled his long trip home, starting on April 16, 1970, on a plane full of soldiers cheering the take off from Saigon. “I arrived Boston at 2:30 in the morning, waited until eight or so to go see some friends in Quincy,” he said. “One of them gave me a ride to the boat. In Woods Hole I saw John Araujo, he was in the Air Force, leaving for someplace. We shook hands. I tell this guy Maurice Healy I’m coming home from Vietnam and I tell him nobody knows I’m coming. Then a guy David Smith gave me a ride to the Fire Station on Pease’s Point Way. I think Tony Silva, the fire chief came out. Charlie Leighton, the deputy chief of police, and a few other people. When I got to my house, my father was in the kitchen, just finishing his lunch. He was pretty happy.”

There wasn’t a welcome home celebration for Mr. Schultz at the dock. Nor was there one in Edgartown, which is the way he wanted it. “They were going to have a big party for me, but I didn’t want one,” he said. “I’m not a party person. I just wanted to see some friends.”

Mr. Shultz is a low-key man, in attitude and in voice. He said his transition to Island life was relatively smooth. “Although one time, Mike Dolby and I were at the fire station, and a car went by and it backfired and Mike and I both went down. It was drilled into you, you think it’s coming, you get down.”

Mr. Shultz went to work for the Edgartown Water Company for 20 years until complications from Agent Orange, brachial neuropathy, left his left hand numb and weakened.

“I can’t grip much of anything, but I can still fish,” he said. “I hold the rod with my right hand.”

Jamie Craig

Mr. Craig is a fourth generation Vineyarder. His parents’ house on Seventh Street in Edgartown was his grandfather’s hunting camp. “When I was a kid it was a cabin in the woods, no running water, no electricity. My mother was born and raised there,” he said, his baritone laugh echoing in the empty American Legion hall on Katama, where he met with the Times after working the midnight shift for the Edgartown Police Department.

Mr. Craig joined the Navy in 1988, rapidly progressed through officer and pilot training. “The Navy has a ton of helicopters and a few fighter jets, so I ended up flying the H-3 Sea King,” he said. “We described them as venerable. They were built in the late 50s, so all the bugs were worked out. The Black Hawk used to be called the Crash Hawk because there were so many accidents.”

Mr. Craig was stationed on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt and he shipped out for the Persian Gulf around Christmas of 1990. “I got over there just as Desert Storm was starting,” he recalled. “We did night attack missions. We never flew in daylight at all. There’s no visible horizons in the mideast, no stars, just pitch black so we’re always on instruments.”

Mr. Craig recalled an incident that demonstrated the fog of war.

“The Iraqis knew there were carriers out there [in the Persian Gulf], they just didn’t know the location. One night they launched F-1 fighters with anti-ship missiles to look for us. The ship went to general quarters [emergency lock down] and it went dark. So I don’t know where our carrier is. It got confusing on the radio, my call sign was Jaguar, but the British were flying a fighter called a Jaguar. A thick accent says ‘Jaguar, take this heading,’ and there’s 600 aircraft hearing this, so if I don’t change headings, is something bad going to happen? One of our missions is to deploy chaff — a cloud of small, thin pieces of aluminum — which appears like a target on radar screens, to divert heat-seeking or radar missiles. But you have to fly at the incoming missile, and get in between it and the ship, and deploy the cloud and get out before the missile hits the cloud. The destroyer U.S.S. Caron started launching their chaff missiles from the ship, thinking they were shooting at missiles, but they were really shooting at us. My other pilot was on night vision goggles so he was immediately blinded by the explosion. I had to take control of the aircraft and get out of Dodge. Everything was going crazy, everyone screaming on the radio and we’re getting shot at by our own battle group. It worked out, but it could have gone badly. You don’t want to ingest aluminum foil into your engines while you’re flying through clouds of exploding metal.”

Among his many decorations, Mr. Craig was awarded the Strike Flight Air Medal for his 38 direct combat support missions.

On the way home, he was allowed to have a relative flown to the ship for the final leg of the trip, from Bermuda to Norfolk, Virginia. Mr. Craig invited his father, Philip Craig, popular Vineyard novelist, who based his successful series of mystery novels on the Island.

Mr. Craig recounted the final blocks of his trip home from the war. “As I started to get closer to Seventh Street, I could see some signs and a big banner stretched across the whole road. When I got to my parents’ house they had gathered everybody that I knew on the Island. There’s a guy in Vineyard Haven now, Dr. Ryan Shea, was a little kid back then. When I was in flight training I gave him a Navy baseball hat with my squadron on it. When I went off to war, apparently he would not take it off until I got home safely. You weren’t supposed to wear hats in school, but he wore it. When he saw me, he took the hat off. I signed it for him and gave it back. That was kind of a cool thing.”