Wednesday, June 7, 2017
The Old Vet Goes Home
Melvin Rudolph Sexton, September 29, 1923, June 6, 2017
The picture is from September, 2016, perhaps one of the last moments when Rudy looked "like himself." By his birthday celebration at the end of September he was noticeable thinner, fading. But it was a slow, slow march to yesterday, the 73rd anniversary of D-Day. Rudy was a sergeant in the 35th Infantry Division, known as the wagon-wheel division. He walked on to the beach in early July, '44, then walked all the way to liberating a German concentration camp in April of '45. He was at the Battle of the Bulge, and in many other engagements. He wasn't one to talk about that year much, in the thirty plus years I knew him. He told a couple of stories that affected him deeply. In one, he was the last man on a deuce and a half going out on some patrol or errand, and was shoved off--"we don't need you this time" someone told him. And that truck was hit by a shell and all of the guys were killed. Another time he was dug in for a night, perhaps this was in Belgium in December or January, but he never said. There was a barn door nearby and he pulled that over his foxhole for more cover. A shell went off on top of it. He was close to the men. For many years after the war he visited the parents of a good friend who'd been killed. They lived up in Pennsylvania. He made it back, and probably always questioned why. He met his wife, a beautiful, feisty girl who'd been very briefly married to a tail-gunner who'd flown off and gotten blown up in the air. They found his body in the Alps years later, then decided it wasn't his body, then found him again. Lucile was buffeted by all this, as was Rudy. She got breast cancer in the '50s and survived. She and Rudy became very devout Southern Baptists. He worked for the Rural Electric in eastern North Carolina, rising to be its director. She worked at the Court House in Tarboro. They were life-long Democrats, and Rudy was fond of saying that he'd rather give the tax money directly to the poor folks that needed it, rather than to Republicans who would just keep it for themselves. The Civil Rights Movement turned Tarboro Republican by the late '60s. It didn't change Rudy's party. He and Lucile remembered Roosevelt, just like my folks did.
I met Rudy in the winter '83-'84, and told him I wanted to marry his daughter. He was just 63 then, ten years younger than I am as I write. We were always friends, and he was pleased I'd "joined the family." That was probably one of the very last things he said to me, in the last dwindling weeks. It was a long march, this last year. Rudy was from start to finish a man who could take care of business. As his body and mind failed, he held on to the basic principle of his life until the very last--and so was tormented by the sense that he had to "fix" things, but couldn't exactly figure out where to start, what to do to get things back on the right track. He became so anguished by this feeling of just not being able to make things better that he couldn't drift off to sleep at night. He'd always taken good care of himself, never smoked, jogged, played golf. After he retired he learned how to play guitar. His heart was the very last thing to go. Except for the part that he lost when Lucile died in 2000, a delayed casualty of the stress of Hurricane Floyd passing over Tarboro the fall previously. Lucile and Rudy made a great team. He was unable to find some effective way to cope with her loss. He grieved until his memory faded.
We're left with the irony that his passing is a great blessing to him, and nonetheless leaves in all of us a great hole. I'm so glad to have known him all these years, and to have been a part of the Sexton family.
From Wiki entry on the 35th Division in World War II:
Actions during World War II
The 35th Infantry Division arrived in England on 25 May 1944 and received further training. It landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy July 5–7, 1944 and entered combat on 11 July, fighting in the Normandy hedgerows, north of St. Lo. The division beat off twelve German counterattacks at Emelie before entering St. Lo on 18 July. After mopping up in the St. Lo area, it took part in the offensive action southwest of St. Lo, pushing the Germans across the Vire on 2 August, and breaking out of the Cotentin Peninsula. While en route to an assembly area, the division was "flagged off the road," to secure the Mortain-Avranches corridor and to rescue the 30th Division's "Lost Battalion" August 7–13, 1944.
Then racing across France through Orleans and Sens, the division attacked across the Moselle on 13 September, captured Nancy on 15 September, secured Chambrey on 1 October, and drove on to the German border, taking Sarreguemines and crossing the Saar on 8 December. After crossing the Blies River on 12 December, the division moved to Metz for rest and rehabilitation on 19 December. The 35th moved to Arlon, Belgium December 25–26, and took part in the fighting to relieve Bastogne, throwing off the attacks of four German divisions, taking Villers-laBonne-Eau on 10 January, after a 13-day fight and Lutrebois in a 5-day engagement. On 18 January 1945, the division returned to Metz to resume its interrupted rest.
In late January, the division was defending the Foret de Domaniale area. Moving to the Netherlands to hold a defensive line along the Roer on 22 February, the division attacked across the Roer on 23 February, pierced the Siegfried Line, reached the Rhine at Wesel on 10 March, and crossed 25–26 March. It smashed across the Herne Canal and reached the Ruhr River early in April, when it was ordered to move to the Elbe April 12. Making the 295-mile dash in two days, the 35th mopped up in the vicinity of Colbitz and Angern, until 26 April 1945 when it moved to Hanover for occupational and mopping-up duty, continuing occupation beyond VE-day. The division left Southampton, England, on 5 September, and arrived in New York City on 10 September 1945.
Total battle casualties: 15,822
Killed in action: 2,485
Wounded in action: 11,526
Missing in action: 340
Prisoner of war: 1,471