This is what sometimes happens when boys go off to war.
December 1944, the Middle-Rhine Highlands. Late afternoon and there had been a reprieve in the shelling. The American tanks had formed a perimeter on the plateau, awaiting the next wave of German bombing and cannon fire. The clackety-clack and hissing, cramped quarters and an hour of waiting all weighed on the two men in tank A-153, an M4A4 Sherman with a Continental engine butressed in a welded hull.
Ollie Nichols cut the engine. “Let’s catch a smoke,” he said to his gunner Abe Benson.
Benson lifted the hatch and climbed out, greeted by a crisp penetrating breeze that stung his face and hands.
Nichols, popping his head out of the tank, glanced across the open field to the bombed out farmhouse where three other American Shermans had lined up. He, too, quickly emerged from the tank, leapt down and joined Benson who was now standing alongside a small shed that served as a windbreak, cupping his hands to get his cigarette lit.
The two men inhaled deeply, sucking on their cigs, Nichols exhaling through his nose and Benson practicing smoke rings. The shell whistled in, slamming the earth with a thunderous explosion, flinging shrapnel in all directions, one piece striking Oliver like a sword-swipe that entered his face at the molar of his right lower jaw and sliced diagonally across the bridge of his nose at an angle, departing inches above his left temple.
Benson was over him almost immediately, hands pressed on the ruined face, hot with the sticky blood pouring from the wound.
Nichols writhed briefly then settled into a state of shock as Benson removed his jacket and pressed it tight on the fissured features. The two men had become brothers these past months and he would do whatever it took to save his friend. He needed to reach a radio, but also needed to stop the bleeding. It was an impossible situation.
An American soldier suddenly appeared from around the corner of the shed and seeing Benson’s pale, distressed expression quickly assessed the the situation.
“Call a medic!” Benson stammered. “Use our radio. And bring me a towel There’s one just inside the hatch.”
By some miracle the blood-flow was stanched, and Ollie Nichols survived. Plastic surgeons repaired the upper half of his face with new skin so that after the war his forehead and everything above the line on his right cheek had the pink coloration of a newborn baby’s bottom.
As an older man Oliver displayed a remarkable cheerfulness and generosity of spirit. The lower half of his face had the appearance of worn and weathered leather. The upper half of the face still maintained a surprisingly robust youthfulness.
When we visited my grandfather’s younger brother in Ohio I was still young and had not been properly trained, staring at that severe diagonal scar. Oliver’s eyes twinkled. I wasn’t the first to stare. “Do you like badminton?” he asked.
The sky was blue, the grass green. When I later learned the story it made an impression.
In remembrance: Jesse Newman — Though wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, he lived a good, full life.