My grandfather Dave Freda is an incredibly strong human being who has led an inspirational life despite hardship and war. At 87 years old, he is currently recuperating from chemo and throat cancer in a nursing home in Portland, Oregon. This is part of his story.
by Dave Freda
My early life was spent on a small farm in New York State. I remember Pearl Harbor and World War II— the excitement! The patriotism!
I wanted to be a part of WW II. At ten years old there was no television. I learned about Pearl Harbor on Sunday Morning. The priest announced at 7:30 mass. The church was on a hill overlooking valley, the river, and the hills. Everyone left the church looking down the valley expecting Japanese to come streaming over the hills. My sister Peggy and I walked, as usual along the RR track to go home.
When we got to the bridge there were two soldiers carrying rifles walking the bridge. There had been no soldiers just an hour before. We stopped. The soldier came to our end- stopped stared straight ahead— did an about face and walked back. We decided he wasn’t friendly so we jumped down the ice and snow on the bank and walked the extra mile around the roads.
My father was on the phone when we got home-talking about manning observation towers looking for and reporting enemy aircraft activity. The towers were on hill tops. I went with my father. The nearest enemy plane was three thousand mile away-but we were looking and reporting. A little hysteria there??
My father reported several planes – small Piper cubs, Cessna’s etc. I spotted two black flying objects flying fast and low. I told my dad. He said, “Dave they are crows,” but he reported them anyway!
I heard the news reports about the battle of Britain— I decided to go to Canada and volunteer for the RAF. I got on the Thruway going north- a truck stopped and picked me up. The truck driver asked me where I was going. I told him I was going to Canada to join the RAF. He asked me how old I was; I said 10 yrs old. He stopped the truck, turned it around and bought me home. The next day I met a pretty little blond girl. She kept my mind off the RAF for quite a while.
My father served in the Army in WW I. My older brother served in the Air Force in WW II. He was shot down flying over the Indo-China hump. He walked out of the jungles. He was rescued by Chinese warlords, was returned to his unit and started flying again. I remember the trauma that my mother went through while he was missing in action.
I was talking to him about being held in China waiting to be gotten home. Pilots were scarce commodities then. It took a while to make secure arrangements. While he was waiting he said that the Chinese Warlords took good care of him. He made me promise not to tell Mom, but he stayed in one of the best whorehouses that were regularly used by the Chinese generals and warlords.
My father was an Italian immigrant. He was five years old when he arrived in the United States around the year 1900 or so.
My grandfather was an influential political figure in Northern Italy, living a comfortable life. He and his family were on of the many that had no choice but to leave Italy for political reasons at that time in history. After he arrived in the US he worked as a low level labourer on the railroad-a ghandi dancer as it was called at the time- and saved enough money to buy a small farm in Callicoon, NY.
My father earned a masters degree at Cornell University and The University of the State of New York when getting a college education was very difficult for someone with an immigrant background. Only the wealthy could afford it. He earned money for school by working on the NYC subway system as a subway train operator. After receiving a master’s degree he had a career as a Physics teacher in high school in NYC.
My mother’s family was Scotch Irish. They immigrated to the Unite States in the early 1700’s. Members of that family fought in wars from the Indian Wars, the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War (Gettysburg and the Battle of the Wilderness) and the Spanish American War.
My younger brother flew in combat in the Vietnam War. My oldest son retired as a Colonel in the Marine Corps after serving in the Iraq war.
I signed up in the Army as soon as I was old enough. I graduated from Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. I served as a platoon leader and Company Commander with the 32 Regiment Seventh Infantry Division in the Korean War. I was one of those guys that couldn’t wait to see combat. Reality sets in with your first real life encounter. It’s a very physically difficult, dangerous, demanding experience, especially as a new platoon leader ordering your men into combat, knowing full well that some will not survive.
My first experience taught me a lot. It was Porkchop. My platoon was moving to the attack. A young soldier (they were draftees then) came up to me and said he had a bad leg— he was sick to his stomach, felt light headed, and thought he was going to pass out. I was about to let him go until my Platoon Sergeant came up and shouted, “Lt. if you lets those guys go-it will soon be just you and me against all those guys up there who are trying to kill us.”
I came out of that war as a service connected 100% disabled veteran. Coming home was the best part of my tour of duty. I boarded the train on the ERIE Railroad that would take me to Callicoon and home. The conductor stopped and reached for my ticket. “You’re Joe Smiths’ boy. Just getting back from Korea?” “Yup” I said, “it sure is good to be going home.”
The conductor shook my hand and warmly embraced me around the shoulders.
He said, “Yeah, we been reading some stuff about you. That was nasty war over there. I read about some of your experiences in the local papers. You know- like Baldy and Porkchop Hill.” He named those names like they were stops along the railroad.
“I hear that infantry Lieutenants get killed pretty quickly when they first get into combat. Everyone was worried about you. I’m glad to see you coming home safe and sound.”
He was trying to be friendly, but that wasn’t where I wanted to be. No sense in re-living the war. The confusion, the horror, the violence, the grimness of people dying and knowing that in the next instant it could be you was still vivid in my mind. But right now I was just a kid eager to get home.
About half way there, the train stopped. No station. It just stopped. The lights of a nearby diner were flashing in the night. No artillery. No firefight here. Just folks enjoying a good old hamburger and a couple bottles of beer or some other late night snack to help sober up a little after a night of drinking. “I can’t wait until I get back to a little of that,” I thought.
A few minutes later, the conductor returned with a large bag. When he got back on, the train started again.
“Coffee, hamburgers and apple pie for everyone. Welcome back, son. We got some beer for you.”
“Hi Dave, you wanna ride or you gonna walk,” Clyde Multz, the only cab driver in town, said impassively. He treated me as if I was returning from a vacation in New York City, but I knew that old reprobate was experiencing feelings a lot deeper than that. He had always joked around with me while I was growing up, and had helped me get out of trouble more than once.
“No. I think I’ll walk.” I went past the bars and down the railroad track. A walk walked thousands of times. I went over the bridge, past the cemetery, still as scary as ever but feeling different now. Growing up, I had always imagined noises, fleeting images and had the feeling that someone was watching me when I walked by that cemetery late at night. But tonight the spooks were being benevolent. The cemetery seemed to be sending good vibes. It seemed like my brother and sister who were buried there were saying— welcome home Dave.
It was two o’clock in the morning when I got home. The lights were out. Duke, our German Sheppard, didn’t even raise his head. After three years he’d probably recognised my footsteps when I got off the train. I went in the unlocked door, piled my stuff in the living room and went to my room. I stood at my bed and looked around. Dead quiet. No incoming artillery or mortars here. Nostalgia swept over me. All the denials that had gotten me through the past years caught up with me. I went back outside, sat down on the porch and wept. Duke came over, licked my face consoling me. Some tough-guy image, I thought. Enough of this foolishness. The symbolic flak jacket came back on. I went upstairs to my room and fell asleep immediately.
“Give them a hot meal and dry socks,” I shouted. I heard a noise in my sleep. I was back in Korea. The night combat patrol was getting home. My sister poked her head in the door and called, “Welcome home! You need dry socks? Mom’s got breakfast ready for you?”
My father and mother were down in the kitchen. They both hugged me. My mother said, “Why didn’t you write more? We worried a lot about you. Fred was home on leave. He told us about flying you from Korea to Tokyo for Rest and Recuperation. I hope you had a good time.”
“You better not ask him about R&R, Mom” my sister Peg laughed. She knew that whatever I did in Tokyo was probably pretty wild.
My father said, “You better think about getting back into college.” I wondered how he really felt. “How about some cold milk, coffee, pancakes and sausage,” my mother said.
I broke down and could not hold back the tears. This was something I dreamed about during those long nights in Korea, and never knew if I would ever experience again.
Especially the cold milk. I was a farm boy and the powdered milk we got there just did not cut the mustard. Sweet corn was second on the want list, but this was November, I would have to wait until summer for that.