It was about May when my mother received a call from a man named Donald VanHooser, then president of the 65th Infantry Division Association. Mr. VanHooser was calling to inform us of a 50th anniversary celebration that was taking place in Las Vegas in August and that my mother and I were to be honorary guests in memory of my grandfather, Private First Class Frederick C. Murphy.
Frederick was killed in action on the dawn of March 18, 1945 on the Siegfried Line at Saarlautern, Germany. This hardly seemed like something to be honored for, considering the countless thousands of American lives also taken in World War II, but Fred died under slightly different circumstances.
He was a member of an elite club in the United States military. A club that during World War II had a membership of 292 and a total of merely 2,116 since the Civil War. My grandfather was a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor, "the highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States of America. " And even under those circumstances, he was slightly different from those other members of his "club" because Fred was a medic and carried no weapons.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." I have always believed this quote by St. John was written with my grandfather in mind and his citation for his actions shows the truth in that statement. It was recorded as follows:
"An aid man, he was wounded in the right shoulder soon after his comrades had jumped off in a dawn attack against the Siegfried line. He refused to withdraw for treatment, and continued forward, administering first aid under heavy machine gun, mortar and artillery gun fire. When the company ran into a thickly sown anti-personnel mine field and began to suffer more and more casualties, he continued to disregard his own wound, and continued to help the injured until he stepped on a mine which severed one of his feet. He struggled on with his work, refusing to be evacuated and crawling from man to man administering to them. He was killed by the blast of a mine which he had dragged himself over while trying to reach another victim. With indomitable courage, and an unquenchable spirit of self-sacrifice, and supreme devotion to duty which made it possible for him to continue his tasks while barely able to move, Pfc. Murphy saved many of his fellow soldiers at the cost of his own life."
I had read that citation hundreds, if not thousands of times before Mr. VanHooser called that May. It had always sent chills down my spine to think I was related to a man who was awarded the Medal of Honor, not for killing, but for saving lives during the war. I had heard the stories about my mother - who was born two months after Fred died - being awarded the medal posthumously. I had seen the medal, the citation, and the flag that was draped over his casket, and I had been told of the various schools, buildings and even a boat that have been named after him. But that day last August as I boarded our plane at Logan, I was starting to think that maybe I had missed something all of the these years. Maybe there was something deeper than medals, citations and a name on a school. I had no idea what it was, but I was going to find out.
We arrived at Las Vegas and were met by Mr. VanHooser and another gentleman, Mr. Foust, who had also been in contact with mother. We set out for the hotel weaving our way through the desert heat and the mazes of casinos, hotels and more casinos. I must admit, that during the car ride I was becoming a bit skeptical about this whole thing. Here I was, a seventeen year old in Las Vegas, the city that comes alive at midnight, spending a week with a bunch of people who are all old enough to be my grandparents. Luckily, those were my last doubts.
As soon as we arrived at the hotel we were greeted by twenty people in the first thirty seconds - and that was just the tip of the iceberg. The amazing thing was that ninety percent of the people there said something to the effect of "It's a pleasure just to meet you. Your grandfather was a REAL hero in my eyes." This really impressed me and half of the time it felt like I was Fred with the amount of attention that I was getting. These people treated me as if I had been there on the dawn of March 18, 1945, saving lives. It was definitely impressive, to say the least.
From there we went up to the "Hospitality Room" where we were introduced to at least 200 more people. Mr. VanHooser called for the room to be quiet and introduced my mother and I, and told everyone a little bit about Fred. When he was through, we got a standing ovation. A standing ovation! Meanwhile I'm thinking athletes get standing ovations, the president gets standing ovations, but not the daughter and grandson of a Medal of Honor winner. From there it only got better.
Every meal of every day we had invitations from various ex-soldiers who wanted us to eat with them, or at least go to the casinos for a little while. I had men coming up to me with pictures of Fred taken during the war and giving them to me. These pictures had been saved - if not guarded - for the last 50 years; but they didn't hesitate to hand them over to us. There was really a sense of camaraderie like none I've ever seen before. Towards the end of the week, I even had a man come up to me and say, "It's an honor just to shake your hand." That left me utterly speechless.
Our last night there they held their annual banquet. Again, my mother and I were introduced to the group (now totaling about 600-700) and received another ovation. After the dinner and the changing of their president, we met with a small group of men who were in the same Company as Fred. It was there that a man named Carmine whom we had been with throughout the week informed me that he had witnessed my grandfather's actions. His words were truly from the heart, and I could tell that it had taken a lot of courage for him to discuss this. He told me of the horrible fighting that night, and how Fred was ahead of him in a gully when he hit the first mine. He heard him refuse the evacuation offer, and saw him crawl towards another man when he hit the second mine. It was then that he heard him say "I can't go on. . .my wife. . . my family." It hit me like a ton of bricks, I had been so caught up in the prestige of the award, that I had overlooked the most important aspect of my grandfather; he was simply a man. A human being with the same feelings and fears that each of us has, whether we have won the Medal of Honor or not.
So the next time I hear the words Las Vegas, I won't think of gambling, show girls, or casinos. I'll simply think of it as the city where I met my grandfather, Frederick C. Murphy.