My dad was a World War II vet. Like many others, he was traumatized by combat, and by a nine-month imprisonment in a German POW camp. He came home to a country that expected him to forget the horror he saw, the starvation and brutality he experienced, and the losses he incurred. There was no such thing as post-traumatic stress disorder and no treatment. As a result, he struggled his entire life to be “normal.”
It has taken decades for me to process my dad’s losses, his post-trauma behavior, and his memories. My family lost Dad from Parkinson’s disease in 2002. He was almost 80 years old and lived as full a life as possible, but the effects of the physical abuse from his imprisonment, as well as the strain of combat, finally took him. As we lose this special generation, the sacrifice and the triumphs of their World War II experience should never leave us. Many of the stories are personal.
Such is the story of Pvt. Ernest Charles Pugh.
My first memories of Ernest, now six decades old, are from the Pugh family home in Mayland, Tennessee, in the early 1960s. They were a loud, gregarious, seemingly fun-loving family. When Dad was with them, they engulfed him with their larger-than-life personalities and their love. The anger from his war memories, which he often exhibited at home, dissipated in their presence. They were a family of seven remaining brothers and sisters, and their matriarch, Mrs. Maud Pugh, emanated a love and affection toward my dad that was palpable. Dad seemed to fill a hole in her heart, and she and her family seemed to heal a part of his. The connection between them, while unspoken, was strong. Being a youngster, I wasn’t sure why.
Our visits to the Pughs from our home in Maryville, Tennessee, always included a visit to the cemetery. Dad would stop at one grave, eyes misted and visibly choking. Mrs. Pugh would comfort him. My parents continued to visit the Pughs over the years and the Pughs visited us. Eventually, Mrs. Pugh passed, and her children as well. The remaining family were post-World War II children and the memory of their uncle, Ernest, faded. As I got older, I remembered his name, the visits, and one other thing, a place that was etched in my dad’s memory: Saint-Lô, France.
My dad, Charles Stephens, and Ernest met in 1943. They were both infantry soldiers and were well aware that their future would likely include combat in some faraway country. The two had a lot in common. They were children of the Great Depression—both born in 1922. Both were from rural mountainous areas in Tennessee: Ernie from the Cumberland Plateau, Charles from the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. They were both from large families and were poor but knew how to live off the land. Firearms, hard work, and survival were something they knew well. They thrived in the Army. For the first time, they got regular medical and dental care, unlimited food, new clothing and shoes, haircuts, and a paycheck—most of which was sent home to their cash-strapped families.
During 1943 and 1944, Charles and Ernest traveled. As part of the 137th Infantry, they trained at Camp Rucker, Alabama, and guarded what the military considered the vulnerable coast of California at San Luis Obispo. While in training on Tennessee maneuvers in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, 90 miles from Ernie’s home, Dad went on leave with him to the Pugh home. Ernie was married and spent most of his time with his young wife, while Charles bonded with Ernest’s large family. Several months later, after completing advanced infantry training, the two men scaled cliffs in North Carolina, then traveled to New York, where they embarked on a two-week ocean voyage to England.
Crossing the English Channel, they entered combat through Omaha Beach, on the coast of France. They traveled inland through a weary, war-torn country. They saw some combat in the beginning days, but their biggest challenge was ahead. They would relieve stressed and depleted soldiers to take a town the Germans had held since 1940 and where they were solidly entrenched. It was to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Normandy campaign: the battle for Saint-Lô.
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The 137th found itself in France just north of and outside Saint-Lô, in a small village called La Meauffe. Saint-Lô had been devastated by repeated bombings by the Allies on D-Day in a failed attempt to remove the entrenched German army. Soldiers and the devastation of war filled the area. The American GIs fought for their lives against stubborn, better-trained, and experienced German soldiers.
On July 12, 1944, two platoons were trapped in La Meauffe on a sunken road—and surrounded by Germans. A small squad went to provide cover fire for the platoons so they could escape the German onslaught. Charles Stephens and Ernest Pugh were members of that squad. With the others, Charles, a light machine gunner, and Ernest, a rifleman, provided cover gunfire. But as the two platoons escaped, the squad became trapped. They were low on ammunition. Ernest volunteered to provide cover fire so the others on his squad could escape. As he repeatedly fired toward the Germans, the infantry soldiers escaped to safety. The enemy surrounded Ernest. He had no way out. He continued to fire his weapon, fighting for time for his fellow soldiers to retreat.
“After the platoons had successfully withdrawn, Private Pugh volunteered to cover the withdrawal of his own squad,” Ernest’s Silver Star citation reads. “As the last elements of his squad withdrew, enemy infantrymen rushed his positions. He succeeded in killing three of the enemy before he himself was killed.”
Dad was one of the last to withdraw, and he left knowing he could not save his best friend. Survivor’s guilt would follow him for the rest of his life.
Dad never told us the details of Ernest’s death, but over the course of the 60 years since I first heard his name, I found his history. I realized what Dad had lost and gained that day. Dad lost a best friend, a piece of home, and his innocence. He gained his life, the will to live and to survive under horrific conditions, and a love of freedom. He understood the gift of life. Ernest was one of many in our military who willingly sacrifice, then and now creating a legacy that lives on.
Dad once spoke tearfully of going back the next morning to see Ernest’s body. He said Ernest looked peaceful with the dew on his face.
Dad, however, had no time for grief. The coming months were difficult as the infantry made its way through France, retaking town after town.
“Mom I can now tell you some of the places I’ve been in and fought in,” Dad wrote home from the front on Sept. 28, 1944. “I was in the battle of St. Lo [Saint-Lô], Martain [Mortain], Jesse Vire [Tessy-sur-Vire], Orleans, and Chateau Brienne [Châteaubriant]. I can’t tell you the other places or where I’m at now, but things are going to get hot before long. I hope and pray I come out of it all right.”
Two days later, on Sept. 30, the German army took Dad prisoner. Nine months later, after being starved and severely beaten to unconsciousness, he was liberated from Stalag VII A near Moosburg, Germany, in April of 1945, weighing fewer than 100 pounds. He was discharged from the military in October 1945. He had survived, but at a cost.
Shortly after, he spent weeks with the Pugh family finding some healing for his own body, soul, and mind; shedding many tears, but also sharing memories, love, and laughter.
In researching my dad’s journey through World War II, I have gained an understanding of him. He walked the fields of his home, gazed in wonder at the mountains, and loved large. He had known starvation; he fed those less fortunate than he. After surviving in a POW camp in one of the coldest winters in living memory, he wanted warmth. He valued his freedom, he loved life, he believed in the United States, and he never failed to vote. He revered those like Ernest who gave him all those things by giving up their own lives.
During World War II, more than 100,000 Silver Stars were awarded. The Silver Star is a commendation for gallantry and self-sacrifice in the line of duty. Ernest didn’t just save my dad’s life; he enabled me to have life. Heroism of this kind is felt generationally and so should be honored that way. I know I am forever grateful for what he has given me, and he will live in my heart as he did in Dad’s.
After I read what Ernest did, I knew his story needed to be told. I attempted to reconnect with the Pughs. I finally found them—nieces and nephews still in Cumberland County, Tennessee, who remembered Ernest through their grandmother, Mrs. Pugh, and through my dad. They said she spoke of Dad often, and that she treasured the memory of her son. The Pugh family and I shared memories, pictures, and tears for heroes long gone, but not forgotten.
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Ernest Pugh’s Silver Star citation ends with, “The gallant actions of Private Pugh, whose self-sacrifice enabled his comrades to withdraw from a precarious position, reflect the highest credit upon his character as a soldier and upon the military service.”
Rest in peace, Ernest Charles Pugh. We will remember.