Monday, May 24, 2010

Borrowed Time - Lloyd Ballard and the 102nd Ozark Division

Lloyd Ballard with a case full of his WWII honors. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

(Note: For the past five years, World War II veterans have been dying at an average of more than 1,000 a day. This is the second of two Reflection columns devoted to a pair of local Ann Arbor veterans and their stories of war.)

Lloyd Ballard turned 90 on Friday, but he’ll be the first to tell you he’s living on borrowed time.

Thanks to his ailing heart, Ballard has already made six trips to the hospital in the back of an ambulance this year, but each time he’s managed to rebound and return home to his wife Geneva. Now that he’s made it to his 90th birthday, Geneva is hoping he’ll be around for their 66th wedding anniversary in September, and maybe her 90th birthday in late October.

But Ballard isn’t so sure he wants to be around that long. He’s confined to a life in a chair these days. If he lies down for an extended period of time, it could kill him. It’s hardly the quality of life he wants, so he spends most of his time working on jigsaw puzzles, and doing something else he never thought he would do – talk about World War II.

For nearly six decades, Ballard was mum on his war experience. Not even Geneva was privy to some of the horrors Ballard faced as a member of the United States Army 102nd Infantry Division. It wasn’t until a few years back, when his grandson Andrew, a fifth grader at the time, asked him about the war that he started to open up.

And when he did open up, he had quite a story to tell.

“He asked me the hardest question of all.” Ballard said, recalling the moment. “He said, ‘Grandpa, did you ever kill a man?’”

To this day, Ballard has a hard time giving a direct answer to that question.

“When you’re a rifleman – the first echelon – you’re the one who does all the dirty work.” He said.

Ballard’s war experience started in 1944, when the Ann Arbor native was drafted and went to California for basic training. There he was trained to fight the Japanese, but instead, found himself heading to Europe to fight Germans. Before Ballard headed overseas in October of 1944, he and Geneva were married while he was on leave. The two wouldn’t see each other again for more than two years.

When he got to Europe, Ballard was trained as a rifleman in Belgium before becoming a member of the Ghost Army – a stint that left him completely exhausted. In the Ghost Army, Ballard and his fellow soldiers were constantly on the march, sometimes 20-miles a day, joining other American units trying to fool the Germans into thinking U.S. troops were bigger than they actually were.

“We were moving all the time.” Ballard said. “I was dead tired, I couldn’t have fought even if I wanted to – there were times I wish I’d have got shot.”

Thankfully, Ballard was integrated into the 102nd Ozark Division, and for the first time he felt like part of a an actual unit. It was as a member of the 102nd, that Ballard fought some of the fiercest land battles of the war.

“There’s not a day between October and March where I don’t know exactly where I was.” Ballard said of his time in Germany. “I can’t forget a lot of the things that I saw and did.” He added.

Among those memories is a fierce firefight with a German Panzer division right after the 102nd crossed the Roer River.

“They came at us seven times,” Ballard said, “and all we had were guns.”

Ballard remembers his sergeant asking him how many rounds he had left during a break in the fighting.

“I had two clips left (eight bullets in a clip). When I started I had 400 bullets. Thank goodness they (the Germans) pulled back, if they hit us one more time they would have pushed us back over the river.”

For his actions fighting back the German tanks, Ballard was nominated for a Bronze Star – a medal he only recently received and still has no idea who nominated him.

Other memories aren’t so fond.

Ballard recalls rather vividly seeing his buddy get accidentally shot through with machine gun fire from one of their own gunners. He also remembers all too well the horrific site of a barn in Gardelegen where more than 300 slave laborers were locked up, doused with gasoline, and then set on fire by the Germans once they realized the town was about to fall. But worst of all is the memory of the children soldiers the SS used at the end of the war.

“Their rifles were bigger than they were.” Ballard said. “They’d come down from the hillsides and start shooting - killing every German soldier who had surrendered. We had no choice but to shoot them.” Ballard’s voice trails off at the recollection. “Some of those things – the kids – the concentration camps – they’ll be with me until they bury me.”

“Back then I was living on borrowed time too.” Ballard said. “I thought about dying every day, I was always scared.”

These days Ballard doesn’t think about death all that much, saying he’s already faced it so many times he doesn’t worry about it anymore. His biggest fear is being a burden to his wife and family. But he hopes that when the time does come, it will be a peaceful ending.

“MacArthur once said that old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” Ballard joked, “But what I’d like and what actually happens might be two different things.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

Bill Lewis - The Art of War

Bill Lewis, 92, in the basement studio of his Ann Arbor home. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

(Note: For the past five years, World War II veterans have been dying at an average of more than 1,000 a day. With Memorial Day approaching, I will be focusing my next two Reflection columns on a pair of local WWII veterans and their stories of life and war.)

Bill Lewis still remembers one of his earliest drawings. The 92-year-old from Ann Arbor was real young at the time - maybe kindergarten or first grade - and he’d just received an easel, a slate and some chalk from his parents at his childhood home in Grand Rapids. With his new drawing tools in tow, Lewis wandered out and looked for something to draw. What he found was a boxcar – so he sketched it. Now the only thing left to do was seek out his father to see if it was any good. Lewis regarded his father, an electrical engineer who worked for the phone company his entire life, an expert on everything.

His father liked the drawing.

“I’ve been sketching trains ever since.” Lewis said smiling.

Although Lewis never formally studied art, he knew from that moment on, his calling in life was to be an artist.

Of course it wasn’t always easy. Even though his parents had bought Lewis his first art set, they weren’t exactly keen on the idea of having their only child end up an artist.  And then came the Great Depression, which Lewis admits, didn’t affect him or his folks all that much because his “Pa” had an important job. But it did mean his father now had to support the rest of his relatives who were affected.

“You have to remember,” Lewis said, “during the Great Depression, nobody would be going into something as ridiculous as being an artist.”

Despite the times and lack of parental approval, Lewis’ love of drawing never waned. It wasn’t until he graduated from high school and began junior college in Grand Rapids in 1938, that he feared his art might take a back seat to world affairs when Nazi Germany marched into Austria.

With the prospect of war at America’s doorstep, Lewis and his mates figured it was better to enlist than be drafted, so he and two of his “sidekicks” immediately joined the Naval Reserves in June of 1938. In 1939, Lewis transferred to the University of Michigan, but in July of 1941, after an initial deferment, he was called to active duty.

At this point one might expect Lewis’ story to take a turn for the worst - to tell of horrific battles and the hell of war. Of coming back a tortured man, like a lot of soldiers and sailors did – going through life, silent and normal on the outside, but torn to shreds on the inside.

But Lewis’ story is not the usual fare. His is an odd story of training and observing, of good timing and even better fortune. He was a young man beyond his years - a young man who understood the magnitude and historical importance of the moment while living it, and he made it a point to use his artistic talent to record those moments as they happened.

His story began with months of training stateside in Chicago, and then Dearborn, before moving on to New Orleans and Tampa.

It was that first year with the Navy that Lewis had his only brush with real warfare – a solo encounter with a German submarine off the Atlantic coast while Lewis and his mates were taking their boat, a yacht the Navy converted into a gunship dubbed Marcasite, down to Key West to join a convoy to Panama.

It was more of a cat and mouse affair, Lewis acknowledged, and somewhere along the way, he and his mates realized “the Germans were just as afraid of us as we were of them.”

Nothing ever materialized between the Marcasite and the German sub, and Lewis and his mates traveled the rest of the way to Panama without incident. From there it was on to San Diego for more training, and then to Pearl Harbor, where the war had begun less than a year earlier.

“I was very interested to see what Pearl Harbor looked like when I got there.” Lewis admitted.

Pearl Harbor was still very much in crisis control, according to Lewis, but two things in particular really stuck out to him. The first was the battleship West Virginia, which had been terribly damaged in the Japanese attack on the harbor, but now was tied to a dock being repaired.

The second was the wreck of the Oklahoma, still upside down in the middle of the harbor undergoing a massive construction effort to turn it upright. The fact that the bodies of 700 men were still trapped inside the Oklahoma was very sobering for Lewis.

For the next several months, Lewis and his Marcasite crew made several trips to and from the South Pacific as a spotter for other ships. When Lewis saw pieces of other boats coming back from the war zone, it made him perfectly happy not to be more involved. So he drew.

He sketched boats, and planes, and urban landscapes - loading up on art supplies in San Diego, Pearl Harbor, and later in Seattle where the Marcasite had been sent in the summer of 1944 to be a weather boat in the Gulf of Alaska. Later, after the Gulf’s rough seas tore apart the Marcasite, Lewis was reassigned to another boat - a carrier called Shangri-La.

It was on board the Shangri-La where Lewis’ sketches and paintings not only got better, but also took on historical importance.

“When I was on the carrier, I did quite a lot (sketching).” Lewis said. “By that time I knew what I was doing.”

When the Shangri-La docked in the Leyte Gulf in July of 1945 with the rest of “MacArthur’s Navy” (every boat in the U.S. Naval fleet that wasn’t still in Europe) to prepare for the final invasion on Japan, Lewis would sit and paint a section of the enormous fleet every day until he painted the “whole thing.”

“Battleships, carriers, torpedo bombers, corsairs – everything!” Lewis said. “I had a buddy who was a signal man, and he pointed out and identified every ship I painted.”

Cameras were forbidden, according to Lewis, but no one paid any attention to his drawings, until one day an officer walked past, stopped, looked over Lewis’ shoulder as he painted, and then told him, “You’ll never go crazy!”

After the atomic bombs were dropped (which Lewis and none of his Navy mates knew anything about until after it happened) they sailed into Tokyo Bay and eventually went ashore where Lewis saw the incredible destruction the war had caused on the Japanese homeland.

“Seeing those cities (Tokyo and Yokohama) turned me into a peacenik right on the spot.” Lewis said. “It was the total cleaning out of a culture. This (Tokyo) was a modern place that had just been wiped out.”

Through it all, Lewis felt no animosity toward the Japanese.

“The Marines fought a different war than we did.” Lewis said. “I could understand their hatred toward the Japanese. But I went through the whole war without seeing anything – it was all at a distance. There was too much of a mess – I couldn’t be mad.”

When Lewis was in Japan, he ran out of drawing paper, so he started sketching in a small notebook, or on paper lent to him by his fellow sailors.

“They had to end the war,” Lewis joked, “because I was running out of paper!”

By the end of the war, Lewis had amassed more than 200 drawings, sketches and paintings from his time in the Navy. After returning home, Lewis did make his living in the art world, eventually becoming an art professor at the University of Michigan.

In 1995, Lewis’ work from his time at war was put on display at the University of Michigan’s Clement’s Library. It wasn’t the first time Lewis had his artwork from war on display. In 1964, his show “The Last Year of the Civil War” went on a national tour, and now, even at the age of 92, Lewis plans on having yet another show that deals with war. This one he plans to launch in four years to commemorate the centennial of World War I - a war in which four of his uncles fought.

Seeing the devastation the Great War took on his uncles is something Lewis will never forget. “I’ve had that war with me my whole life,” he said, “it’s on my mind – always.”

Lewis has always wanted to do a show on World War I, a war he feels never ended - it just picked up where it left off as WWII. And now, after years of putting it on the back burner, he’s doing just that.

When it’s all said and done, Lewis plans on having 40-50 paintings in the show – a show that is very personal. “This is strictly for me.” He said. “I don’t know where they’re going to go and I really don’t give a damn – I just figure I have to run for another four years to get it done.”

Despite his advanced age, Lewis thinks the odds of being around another four years are in his favor.

“My dad lived to be 96, and my mom was 104.” Lewis said. “The guy who checks my prostate said he wants to be invited to my 100th birthday, so I guess he thinks I’ll be around.”

In the meantime, Bill Lewis will do what he does best – what he’s always done best – he’ll take out a piece of paper and he’ll draw.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Slipping into Silence

Legendary Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell, lies in repose inside the main gate at Comerica Park in Detroit, Thursday, May 6th, two days after his death at the age of 92. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Two old men died this week. Both about the same age, born some 90 years ago. They roamed the planet at the same time, drew the same air into their lungs, and beat out the same rhythm with their hearts before they wore out and quit working.  But that’s where the similarities stop.

All knew the one old man; his voice entrenched deep into our souls for years and years. And he knew you too, or at least he said as much. Whether you were from Inkster, or Trenton, or Grand Rapids, he’d call you out on the airwaves if you were lucky enough to have a spherical chunk of rawhide tumble from the heavens and end up in your lap. He was kind and gentle - as genuine as any person on the planet, and if you ever got the chance to meet him, you’d never forget, because he made you feel like you were the most important person in the world.

People wept when this man died, even though he told us not to. He announced he was terminal last fall and told us not to shed a tear. He told us he had lived a great life, as great as any man could wish. He just wanted to die peacefully without any fanfare.

But the people cried anyway. And there was fanfare.

Thousands and thousands came from as far away as Alpena, Traverse City and Muskegon to say goodbye to him. Some brought flowers to lie at the foot of his casket, some brought the same spheres of rawhide the man had so pleasurably described for 55-years of his life, but all had brought their memories.

Memories of a little girl sneaking her transistor radio to bed so she could listen to her favorite team until she fell asleep. Memories of long car trips across the state listening to a ball game with nothing more than that familiar voice to keep them company. Memories of those chance meetings where he’d made them feel so important. Memories of looking up into an old stadium’s press box to see if they could pick him out – the man with that familiar, old Greek fisherman’s cap.

He wore that same cap as he lay in his casket next to a statue of himself inside the main gate of the new stadium. Up the street, about a mile, was the old stadium, or what was left of it. The place where he really made his name. The place where his magical voice still resonates through the weeds and the rubble where Tiger greats like Cobb, Greenburg and Kaline once roamed.

They came from sunup to sundown to pay their respects to the man they felt they all knew. The man, they felt, knew all of them.

The other old man was no less a man. But his life was hard. As hard as it could be before he slipped silently away while sitting on a corner bench in the city. The years of racial slurs and injustices he’d endured as a black man, growing up in a time when civil rights were hardly civil, were gone now. His friend pleaded for him not to die as two other homeless men sat on a bench nearby completely unaffected.

But the old man didn’t listen. He’d had enough – seen enough. It was time for him to go, to be done with it all. Dressed in fine slacks and a dark blue cardigan, he looked at peace now, almost as if he were sleeping. But he wouldn’t wake up, no matter how much his friend shook him and begged him to do so. He was gone.

The old man had picked a beautiful May morning to die. The sun shone brightly on his lifeless corpse, keeping him warm, even in the absence of pumping blood.  Flower petals from the blossoming tree above him, flitted off the branches and landed at his feet, which no longer bore any weight. His head, topped with a fine derby hat, sunk heavy on his chest. His right hand still clutched tightly to the handle of his cane, but his left hand fell limp at his side.

Cars drove by and didn’t stop. People walked past him with Starbucks in one hand and cell phones in the other. Apart from his pleading friend, no one seemed to notice. No one seemed to care.

Forty miles away, people stood in a long line to say goodbye to the one man. But here on this street corner, on a beautiful May morning, no one even knew this man was dead.

Two lives, no less lived, no less important, were gone now. And for one brief moment, the world fell silent.

(note: To watch the slideshow of images from Ernie Harwell's public viewing, push the play button on the first image. To see them full screen, click on the box with the four diagonal arrows in the bottom right hand corner of the screen.)


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Dear Mr. President

President Barack Obama soaks in the applause at Michigan Stadium. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Dear Mr. President,  May 1, 2010

I just wanted to let you know how cool it was to have you in town today for Michigan’s commencement – despite the brevity of your visit, it was a day I won’t soon forget.

In my 25-year career as a photojournalist, you’re now the fifth President of the United States that I’ve shot … errr, photographed (note to self: remember to use proper vernacular at all times when referring to the President – e.g. it’s okay to say that you’re going to “shoot” a football game, but never the President).

I guess that means I’m getting old. Actually, you and I are near the same age. Maybe that’s why I like you so much – I can relate. We’re both a pair of 40-somethings from the Midwest with young children. Okay, so maybe that’s where the similarities end, but it still feels like we’re cut from the same cloth.

It occurred to me more than once today, that you’re just a flesh and blood human being going through life the very same as everyone else on the planet. Heck, three years ago I could have met you on the street and shook your hand, maybe had lunch and chatted about the White Sox.

A secret service agent keeps his eye on the crowd. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

Of course, those days are over. Now you’ve got guys 100-feet above me with high-powered binoculars and sniper rifles at the ready, not to mention the countless secret service agents in the crowd – some quite obvious, but some, I’ll bet, deeply undercover as college students or parents. Some of the other photographers even looked awfully suspicious … hmmm, I wonder?

I’ve been in this Stadium nearly a hundred times now for Michigan football games. A lot of folks around here get goose bumps and nearly pee their pants when they see the Wolverines run out of the tunnel and rush onto the field. That’s never been the case with me – that is, until today, when you emerged from the tunnel.

I gotta say, it really took me by surprise too. I never expected to feel that way, but I did, and you’re not even a whole team. Maybe it was the lack of sleep (your visit caused us all to be up and ready by 6 a.m. for security checks, but I don’t hold it against you) or maybe it was the “build up” to your actual arrival. Whatever it was, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

I knew your itinerary - the White House let everyone in the media know of your arrival and departure times, as well as all where we should be and what we should expect - but, they never said anything about how we should feel. At 10:30 a.m., I knew you had arrived and were probably in the locker room, or a staging area in the tunnel, and without knowing, or expecting it, I started getting excited.

I thought for sure you would be walking onto the stage with Governor Granholm, or UM President Mary Sue Coleman, or at the very least, a couple of armed escorts. But they walked out alone, and then, almost without warning, there you were, walking out of the tunnel and onto the stage all by yourself, save for the American flag you walked past on your way to your seat.

President Obama emerges from the Michigan Stadium tunnel. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

At that moment I actually got choked up, and I don’t think I could say that if it were any other American President. It’s not that I’m a fierce Democrat. It’s more that I just found myself really liking you as a person when you campaigned for President, and still liking you two-years later as you’ve struggled to remain sane in your current job.

I’ll never forget how this campus reacted that November night, 18-months ago, when these very students who sat you before you today, spontaneously rushed into the streets and onto The Diag the night you were elected. No cars were flipped over and burned. No windows were smashed. People just ran joyously through the streets, hugging and crying, and screaming out a roar of hope.

Wide-eyed graduate waiting for President Obama to arrive. (photo by Lon Horwedel)

And today you were here – their man! The very first President they voted for in their lives. I voted for you too, as I suspect, did the majority of the 92,000 people sitting in the stadium. It’s the second biggest crowd, apart from your inauguration, that you’ve spoken too - certainly the largest venue. But you didn’t seem nervous at all, in fact, you seem awfully cool. I’m the one that was nervous, and I was 60-yards away, locked into position on my assigned riser.

You were pretty funny too. It’s nice to have a President who can poke fun at himself. And despite the tough times, as of late, it’s nice to know your message hasn’t changed. You still seem like the very same guy who won me over two years ago on your way to election.

I feel for you as you continue on your journey, and I wish you all the best. We’ll most likely never meet face to face, but I just wanted you to know, that I, and everyone else in that stadium today, feels like we just did.

Thanks Mr. President (or can I call you Barack?) you made my day a memorable one.


Lon Horwedel - photojournalist and humble constituent

P.S. Nice touch with the Marine One flyover on your departure, I know you didn’t have to do that, but it was super cool!