A lesson in humility

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Suzanne Matthews
  • 319th Maintenance Squadron
When I was younger, around my high school years, I didn't care about history. In fact I didn't really care about anything in high school. I wasn't what you would call a model student. My general attitude toward history was, "Who cares; it's in the past. When am I ever going to need to know this stuff?" 

It wasn't until I was older, in college and living in Korea, a country steeped in history, that I would begin to take interest. 

I had just started taking college classes and was taking history of the United States first -- to get it out of the way. All of a sudden, the lessons I had read -- or not read for that matter -- so many years ago were suddenly interesting. The papers I had to write weren't boring, and I wasn't falling asleep trying to get my assignments done. Things were going well. And then we got to World War II ... I was a goner. 

I couldn't get enough and, even today, I'm still completely fascinated by it. Anything I can get my hands on, be it a movie, book, article, etc., I watch or read. I thought I had reached the apex of my historic education experience when I was stationed in Germany and had the opportunity to travel around Europe and see the battle fields, cemeteries and museums; but today was truly the pinnacle of my experience not only with history, but with the military. Today I had the extraordinary experience of meeting the men who fought in that ominous war those 60 plus years ago. 

When the bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor on that infamous day in December 1941, the men and women of this nation were called to duty. Immediately the entire country was up in arms. Across the country, men raced to their local recruiter's office. 

In one story told by a veteran of Easy Company, a young man who was told he couldn't enlist even committed suicide. Imagine being so dedicated to your country that suicide seems to be the only answer when you're told you can't serve. 

These incredibly brave and self-sacrificing men and women are right here in Grand Forks and surrounding communities. A handful of us were lucky enough to meet and escort these forgotten and hidden heroes of our time. 

The first man I spoke with was Staff Sgt. Joe Tholkes. He was drafted out of his little farm town in North Dakota at 20-years-old. He was a radioman stationed in the Pacific Islands. He served four years in the military -- 38 months of that was spent overseas fighting the war. Compare that to our four and six month rotations, and we've got it pretty good. 

Joe Tholkes was wounded twice during his tour, three weeks apart. The first time, he was shot twice. One barely missed him -- just skimmed him a little bit. The second bullet got his foot. He was sent to the "hospital" to recover. He got three weeks off the line and was sent back to fight. Once back on the line, his sergeant ordered him to a foxhole to destroy a target. As he was crawling into his foxhole, he was shot again -- in the exact same spot. This time, he did not go back to the hospital. He used battlefield first aid and kept fighting ... it would be a month before he would receive new boots. 

When I told him how awe-inspiring the courage they exhibited was, he said that courage had nothing to do with it. He then told me a story of a young man and, as he would put it, the only act of bravery he witnessed while fighting. 

Three Japanese tanks disguised as American tanks were coming toward them. Thinking the tanks were American, their lieutenant told them to hold their fire. The Soldiers, using their instinct, were ready to fight. It was only after the lieutenant called down the tankman to presumably "chew his butt" that the Japanese opened fire.

The young Soldier and friend of Sergeant Tholkes could have taken cover, but instead darted across the battle ridden field to get back to his tank to defeat the Japanese. 

Sergeant Tholkes told me that he admired his friend after seeing that act of bravery and to this day considers it the single bravest act he has ever seen. Three days later, that Soldier was killed. 

We sat there and spoke for a long time. I told him about my life in the military, and he told me about his life after the military. He had a big family and a wife of 63 years. He had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren! One of his great-grandchildren is even in college, but that didn't stop the World War II veteran from flirting with me all morning! This little old man was very kind and deceptively full of fire! 

Sergeant Joe Tholkes was a brave and humble man. When I called him brave he laughed it off with his modest and gentle demeanor and said, "I was just doing my job." He told me that back then, that's just what you did. He said that there were cowards and there were the men who did their jobs ... but there were no heroes. I'd have to disagree with Sergeant Tholkes, because in my mind, I was speaking to one. 

Once we arrived at the airport, I was again, privileged to meet another special veteran. His name is Pfc. Ervin "Ervie" Foldoe. 

When Ervie's two older brothers had been drafted, his father gave him the okay to leave his farm in Minnesota and go enlist at the young age of 18-years-old. His brothers were sent to the Pacific, and Ervie joined none other than the 82nd Airborne Division. He was sent to Currahee in England for his training. 

While in training, his appendix ruptured and he was sent to the hospital. As the days went by, he saw more trainees going in and out of Currahee and started to wonder when and if he was ever going to get to jump. After 30 days in the hospital he had enough and yelled, "Just fix it already! I have to jump!" 

And jump he did, incomplete training and all -- right into The Battle of the Bulge. He held the line right outside of Bastogne for the infamous Easy Company. While they waited for Patton to move in, they lived, slept, ate and fought in their foxholes. 

One day, while he was in a foxhole with three of his comrades, a mortar struck them. His three friends were killed, and he suffered severe burns to his face. My eyes mirrored his own as they filled with tears when his small, sweet voice told the story of the seven medics the Germans lined up and shot in front of them to show them that there was no help. I don't know how he survived that especially frozen winter in the woods, but he is another hero that I will never forget. 

As it came time for him to go through the security gate, I thanked him for his service and his heroism. He smiled, shook my hand and said, "You guys are the heroes now."
These two men had so much in common. They were both farmers, they fought in the same war and they experienced the same pain. It's amazing that these two men never knew each other. And yet they both gave the same statement: "You are the heroes now." 

How is it that they look to us as heroes? I can't help but wonder what have we done to earn that title? These men took bullets, lost loved ones, and were away from their families for years. They were promoted on merit and not test-taking, commissioned on leadership abilities and not degrees. We complain if we have to work a 12-hour shift for a week, we step over our coworkers and subordinates for the fast-track to success. We volunteer for activities, not to help other people, but for bullets and to put ourselves in the lime-light, and we divorce after a mere four months apart. When did the road turn? 

I propose this: For anyone who saw themselves in the aforementioned qualities, let's look at what these veterans -- the ones before and after them - went through, and take a lesson in humility from them to earn the title these great men have given us. After all, the real hero is the one who doesn't know it.