Jardine: Rendering 'final salute' a solemn job

Veteran recalls his service as an escort for WWII military dead

05/30/2010 3:35 AM

02/15/2012 8:58 PM

STOCKTON -- Bill Bahr had seen plenty of death. He saw it in the Pacific campaign in the Navy as World War II came to its end.

He saw it again in the blistering cold of Korea, when he was in the Army.

But nothing, the 84-year-old valley resident said, jarred his soul like the death he experienced back home in the United States in between those two wars. For 23 months beginning in October 1947, he delivered America's World War II dead back to their families as a sergeant in the Army's Military Escort Service.

In charge of the casket bearing the remains of a young man killed in battle, Bahr bore the absolute duty of making sure the soldier went home to receive his proper military burial and his "final salute."

While many people in the United States today see Memorial Day as a three-day weekend to

usher in the summer play season, Bahr experienced Memorial Day roughly 120 times over those two years. Each time, he became the face of the military to the grieving mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. Some wanted answers he could not provide. Others took him into their homes as their own, as a temporary living stand-in for the son they'd lost.

Quite a burden, indeed -- even more so when you consider he was only 22 when he took his first soldier home.

"I was discharged from the Navy in 1946 and went back to Iowa," said Bahr, who now lives in Stockton and recently began visiting the Stanislaus Veterans

Center in Modesto for post-traumatic stress disorder counseling. "I tried to find work, but there'd been too many servicemen released and not enough jobs."

Over beers with a friend one day, the buddy said he was about to go.

"I said, 'Where are you going?' " Bahr said. "He said, 'Back to the Army.' I thought about it, and I applied in Chicago."

After a brief training, he was promoted to sergeant and assigned to Fort Sheridan, about 35 miles north of Chicago. The military used the now-defunct base as its Midwest distribution center for bodies returning from World War II.

"It was gut-wrenching," he said. "My first day, they took me to a warehouse. It was about four blocks long by two blocks wide and two stories high. Not an inch of it didn't have a casket."

Assigned one casket at a time, Bahr received any available information about the dead soldier and how and where he died. Sometimes, he knew little more than the soldier's name, family and hometown. He carried total responsibility for the casket from the moment it left the distribution center until the end of the funeral. He coordinated the services with local funeral directors, but took orders from no one. In fact, Congress bestowed so much power upon the military escorts that "the only person who could supersede me was the president of the United States," Bahr said.

Most of the trips involved night-time train travel so he would arrive at the soldier's hometown in the morning.

"You wore black arm bands and white gloves," Bahr said. "People always knew who you were. You might be there for three days."

Some of the families latched onto the escorts as surrogate sons. They'd want the casket kept at their home until the funeral, and the soldier's mother would implore Bahr, mature beyond his years despite his boyish face, to stay in her son's room.

"You'd get to dwelling on it," Bahr said. "There's his baseball glove. Everything's just like he left it. You spend three days looking at his picture. The second day, they wanted a hug to remind them of the son they'd lost."

He always gave it, even though he was uncomfortable doing so.

"His mother would tell you what he liked for dinner," Bahr said. "His father would tell you what a great football player he'd been. And I'm thinking, 'Yeah, he was a great kid. But I've got to bury him.' Each time, I had to bury a friend. I'd think about the final salute you made at the end of the service. What a relief. ... But it wasn't over. You were still there with the family."

Some of the families understood that these young military escorts hurt, too. One southern Indiana family -- a very poor one -- touched him in a way he'll never forget.

"We didn't get much money (maybe $75 a month)," Bahr said. "That family didn't have anything. But as I left, the father ran up and handed me a handkerchief filled with coins. About $6 worth. They didn't have anything, yet they took up a collection for me. It really shakes you up."

Other families, however, weren't so hospitable.

Bringing a solider home to Kentucky's hill country, Bahr once found himself arrested and placed in protective custody by the local sheriff.

"The boys in the hills are upset you're bringing bodies back," he said the sheriff told him. The local funeral director added, "You'd better stay on board (the train). Otherwise, they'll take a shot at you."

It was the only time, Bahr said, he didn't stay with the casket until burial.

Other families took their frustrations out on Bahr verbally.

"In Kansas City, the funeral director met me at the train," Bahr said. "He told me, 'These people are very bitter.' His father said, 'You S.O.B. You're the bastard who killed my son.' I said to him, 'Here's your flag.' He said, 'I don't want that goddamned flag.' "

At that point, Bahr said, he lost it.

"I said, 'You ain't getting that goddamned flag!' "

The funeral director calmed him down, but few of the families knew that Bahr, too, had been in combat. He'd seen young men die in World War II and would see more in Korea. Bringing them home for burial etched emotions deep into his soul.

"You don't really understand combat 'til you've been in combat," he said. "It was a prerequisite (for being a military escort)."

He once had to stop a grieving mother from jumping into the grave with her son after they lowered the casket. Another time, he and another escort teamed to take home twin brothers who had been killed moments apart by the same enemy soldier.

"(The service) was in a town of 1,500," Bahr said. "According to the police, there were 1,600 people at the funeral."

The Army did nothing at the time to counsel Bahr and the others on the emotional trauma they brought home with them from the war, let alone preparing them to deal with the families as military escorts.

"There were times when you'd just want to go someplace and cry," he said. "At times I thought, 'How inadequate am I to try to do this?' There was no psychologist -- nobody to give you insight. So you drank. I'm not proud of that."

Married and a father, one day at home he accompanied the family to church. He knew he had to preempt his self-destruction.

"I realized I had to stop (drinking)," Bahr said. So he did.

His military escort duty left him with mixed emotions.

"I have some wonderful memories and met some wonderful people," he said.

Conversely, when his duty ended, he was a buck sergeant with a family and needed a promotion to upgrade his pay. He could do that by signing on for a tour in Korea beginning in July 1950, as did most of the other 300 military escorts at Fort Sheridan.

Once there, though, he said he shut down emotionally. He performed his duties in reconnaissance, but got close to no one. He knew a buddy today could be in a casket tomorrow, to be taken home someday by a uniformed military escort wearing white gloves and a black arm band.

"I didn't make friends," he said. "I didn't talk to anybody. I'd go from one day to the next, and it was a good day if you made it 'til the next."

Captured by the North Koreans and Chinese, he escaped and found his way back to his unit about a month later.

While in Korea, he ran into a soldier he had known from Fort Sheridan who was among the many military escorts invited to Bahr's wedding in 1948. They were the only two escorts still alive from that day. All the others had died in Korea.

"And of the 300 men who were military escorts, maybe 50 survived the Korean War," Bahr said.

Which is why, now, Bahr won't attend Memorial Day services at the national cemetery in Santa Nella or anywhere else. He's endured too much death and brought too many young men home for their final salute. To this day, he remembers the sadness of each service as if it happened yesterday, handing yet another folded Old Glory to yet another grieving mother.

" 'This is your flag presented to you by order of the president of the United States and a grateful nation in memory of the supreme sacrifice of your son,' " he still can recite without pause.

"You took your hat off. You touched the casket. You gave the final salute. Then you backed away."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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