The throw to home

As Near As I Can Tell


 

 

No dumb bastard ever won a war by going out and dying for his country. He won it by making some other dumb bastard die for HIS country.”—General George S. Patton Jr.

He never talked about it. I only knew him as a jovial, full of life man that always had a twinkle in his eye and a story to tell. Come to think of it, every story he told me was about baseball. I take that back—he told me a story about going to the doctor once. He thought the doctor’s poking and prodding might have been a little excessive as he squirmed around on the examination table, but something about the experience reminded him somehow of the unbelievable pitcher he faced back in high school. “Man—that old boy could really throw that ball,” he told the doc (and later, me) as he slapped me (and probably the doc) on the knee before rocking back in a laugh. He had the kind of laugh that seemed to work its way up from the bottom of his feet.

I saw him just about every holiday. We’d go see them or they’d come see us. He never drank. After the holiday meal, my grandfather and he would hold court on a cardboard table set up in the corner somewhere and whoopup on any and all that dared challenged them in 42. Though the injury he suffered as a young man affected him cognitively, he still played dominoes sharply enough to get banned from a Vegas table if he would’ve displayed similar skills in blackjack.

Did I mention he loved baseball? He was a helluva player in his younger days. He wouldn’t tell you that, but I know because I know the right people to ask. They all confirm that he was a bad man with a baseball in his hand. No one around today can remember what position he played, but they remember he was great with a glove and had an arm like a cannon. He, too, could “really throw that ball.” Funny thing is that the greatest throw he ever made in his life wasn’t made on a baseball field, but it just might be the greatest throw to home ever.

At the start of World War II, Howard Poth was a South Texas cowboy living near McCoy, Texas, working cattle on his dad’s ranch as well as teaching and coaching at the nearby school. Like many young men of the time, he wanted to enlist and serve his country, but his wife, Fay, talked him out of it. Had he enlisted, he would’ve been an officer candidate in whatever branch he decided to serve, but Fay didn’t want Uncle Sam to take her husband away. She figured that he was 27 years old and married—surely he wouldn’t be drafted. She was wrong. Uncle Sam sent him a notice of where to be and when, and boy, was it a head scratcher.

Camp Hale was a high altitude winter training camp built near Leadville, Colorado and dedicated to service on June 14, 1942. Howard was inducted into the U.S. Army on Dec. 10 of that year and was sent to Camp Hale as a part of the 87th Infantry. There’s more than a little irony in a training facility built at an elevation of 9,000 feet with an average high temperature in January of 31 degrees F, and an average low of 3 degrees F, being lovingly referred to by recruits as “Camp Hell,” but the shoe fit.

In a publication detailing the construction of Camp Hale titled, “The Invisible Men on Skis,” author Rene L. Cuquoz says, “As any living member of the 87th Infantry would say, ‘It was rugged training and not for the weaklings.’” Howard was no weakling, but he’d never seen a pair of skis in his life before Uncle Sam sent him the invitation to Camp Hale. He called them “death boards,” probably because he had more than one near death experience trying to stop the dang things by running into a tree after reaching a downhill speed that exceeded his comfort level. He wasn’t alone, though; most of his fellow recruits were new to skiing as well. He later learned that there were many bona fide skiers that grew up playing in the mountains that had begged the Army to be in the ski patrol, but the Army didn’t listen. They were sent elsewhere. Unlike today, the government didn’t always know best back in ’43 (if there were a “dripping with sarcasm” emoji, I would have inserted it here).

In 1943, 15,000 men received training as ski troops in mountain terrain along with 5,000 mules and a 200 dog K9 unit (Cuquoz, 1970). Mules and dogs were used to pack in supplies and carry ammunition, with some of the dogs being trained to root out the enemy with extreme prejudice. Howard joked that those dogs were trained to kill. Howard loved dogs and always had a way with them, so he didn’t think twice about bending down to scratch one on the head when he saw a German shepherd tied to a pole outside the mess hall one brisk January morning. The dog’s handler came flying out the door with a look of deep concern because his dog was supposed to be trained not to take too kindly to a friendly approach. Howard apologized to the handler, but was worried he might’ve gotten that dog terminated from the service.

Howard’s service continued on, however. In July of 1943 he was sent to the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific Ocean. As is the case with most combat veterans, he experienced all the horrors of war that nobody ever wants to talk about when it’s done. One of the few stories about the war he later told his sons was about the regret he felt over not enlisting. If he had enlisted, he could’ve been an officer, and he wouldn’t have had to do all the dirty work he had to do as a private (or “grenade catcher” as he called himself sometimes).

He jokingly told his three boys that he cursed their mama every time he wallowed in the mud thinking invisible thoughts as he watched the enemy’s planes fly over him. Howard always made light of things, especially after that throw to home.

In January of 1945, Howard was sent to Italy with company B of the 87th Infantry, 10th Mountain Division where he served under the supreme Army command of General George Patton (J.L. Poth, 2003). “By March 3, 1945, the 10th was again on the move with the artillery, infantry, tank destroyers and other weapons of war to Mt. Terminale, Mount Della Vadetta, Campo Del Sole, Mt. Della Castellana and other Italian mountains. For 19 days the various troops of the 10th Mountain Division fought hard and bitter, keeping enemy forces in a confused state of mind.” (Coquoz, 1970). As near as anyone can tell, Howard was in a foxhole somewhere around one of those mountains on March 12, 1945, with two other soldiers before everything faded to black for all three men. When the battle ended and the smoke cleared, the grim business of triaging the wounded and gathering the dead began.

No one can be sure of how the triage took place that day—too many years have passed. After some Googling, I came across an article, A Grave Task: The Wartime Job Nobody Wanted, by Joseph Connor. From the article, I learned that since 1917, the burying of wartime dead was the job of Quartermaster Corps’ Graves Registration Service. Graves registration men were responsible for selecting body collection sites, identifying the dead, and providing a prompt burial. According to Connor, prompt burial was not just for morale; it was crucial for reasons of sanitation, especially in warm weather. The odor of decomposition was almost unbearable. Hence, bodies sometimes had to be buried temporarily and returned for at a later date so that a more proper burial could be provided. In 1946 Congress authorized the return of bodies at government expense, for burial in the United States (Connor, 2017).

Of the three men in Howard’s foxhole, one was blinded, but lived, and the other two were placed in the body collection site for burial. Severe shrapnel wounds to his head, left arm, and left side left Howard Poth unrecognizable and left for dead. As the men of the 87th Infantry formed up to march out, one soldier felt a rock hit his leg. He turned and saw that a mangled-up cowboy from McCoy had mustered up all the strength he had to make one last throw to home. The soldier found a medic; the medic found a pulse, and Howard was on his way.

Howard was sent back to the US for treatment of his many wounds. He had a steel plate implanted in his forehead where he had lost part of his frontal lobe. He was given muscle transplants and blood transfusions throughout the course of his many surgeries. Some of the surgeries he endured were life threatening, but he pulled through every time. He received his honorable discharge at Cushing General Hospital in Framingham, Massachusetts on June 7, 1946, after serving in the military for 3 years 5 months and 28 days (J.L. Poth). He would deal with his injuries for the rest of his life with dignity, and grace and a smile.

So much has changed since WWII, but the world can still be a scary place. They say history repeats itself. If that’s the case, we’re gonna need a new generation of “dumb bastards*” to stay away from the safe spaces and step up to the plate. Do we as a nation have the mettle among us now to meet our next big challenge the way Howard and his generation did? I don’t know, but I sure hope so.

Enough with ethereally existential what-ifs and what-fors—let’s get back to baseball. Howard Poth passed away on June 12, 2003. He received the hero’s funeral and burial that he deserved four days later. The children and grandchildren who would have never existed had Howard not made that throw to home on a battlefield in Italy back in 1945 all signed a baseball that they placed in his coffin before they put him in the ground. This time, and to the surprise of some, he didn’t throw it back.

*My flippant use of the term “dumb bastards” is said in complete deference to General Patton’s quote and with all due respect and reverence to the men and women who serve, and have served, this country.

One response to “The throw to home”

  1. Michael Taylor says:

    Very nice read. A true hero and warrior. God bless him.

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