Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Veteran's Day Salute to Sergeant Lewis Ensor

Today is Veteran's Day, 2014 and I salute my great-uncle, Lewis Ensor.  Here is just a part of his story.

Sergeant Lewis E. Ensor, Company K, 148th Infantry, 37th Infantry Division, Pacific Theater of Operations 1941-1945

 I was soldier returning from duty in the Persian Gulf and took a trip with my dad to a hilltop overlooking his home town of Sherburne.  Atop that hill, his uncle, Lewis Ensor, lived in a little white farm house that gave a commanding view of the Licking River Valley below.  I had been to Lewis' house many times and talked with him quite often as I ate lunch at the Sherburne grocery store while on break from working on nearby farms, and I always knew he was a combat veteran.  He never really talked about his service until that day dad and I visited.  But first, a little background on my great uncle.

Lewis Ensor was born on May 4, 1918.  He was raised in the Bethel and Sherburne areas of Bath County and worked as a farmer.  He and his family had plenty of struggles as Lewis grew older, but they remained close and humble.  He entered his military service in 1941 as an infantryman and eventually became part of the 148th Infantry, 37th Infantry Division.  The 37th would take Lewis Ensor halfway across the world and into the mouth of Hell.

As dad and I sat in the living room, Lewis stood up and told me, "I have some stuff to show you".  He retrieved an old box and sat it down on the table in front of us.  When he opened the box, I saw a pile of old, black and white photographs depicting soldiers in battle and some of the horrors involved.  As he picked the pictures up, he started talking about the scenes unfolding in the paper.  For the first time, my great-uncle was opening up about the war.  He showed me group pictures and identified specific people; telling me who made it through the battles and who didn't.  
"We had to kill those Japs", he said.  "We had to kill them or they'd kill us.  If they didn't shoot us, they would sneak in our foxholes or tents and slit our throats while we slept.  So we had to kill them.  It's what I had to do."  I could see in his face that he was very passionate in what he was telling me, but also was trying to justify what had to be done for survival.  

Lewis told me about one incident on Bougainville Island where his men were pinned down by gunfire coming from a Japanese gun emplacement on a hill above them.  Soldiers couldn't move one way or another, nor could they emerge from their dug in positions without being cut down by the machine gun fire.  Mortar rockets rained down all around them as they fought to survive the carnage.  A slight lull in the machine gun fire gave a slight advantage to the men of Company K, 148th Infantry and a break was found in the Japanese flank.  Lewis and a couple of men were ordered to seize the moment and take his mortar and rockets through the flank and try to knock down the enemy gun emplacement.  He told me they had to crawl most of the way to keep from being cut down and when they finally secured a location, he and his men sat up the mortar and launched rockets into the enemy position.  The intense firing was halted when the enemy position was destroyed by the rockets of Lewis' mortar and the men pinned down were able to advance and secure the hill finally.  I sat there listening to him recount this; the look in his eye was wandering into a steady stare as the moment flashed back into his mind and out of his mouth.  I was in awe, but dad was even more in awe as he had never heard this ever before.  That was just one incident of Lewis' experiences, the only one he really told me about in detail. One thing he told me that will always stick with me is that they were "wore out, bloody, running low on hope and ammunition" when he looked up and saw the American flag waving on a hill above them.  "That flag gave me and my guys the feeling that it was going to be alright, and it was", he said in a low voice.  As we wrapped up our visit, Lewis told me, "Now when I'm gone, I want you to take care of all this for me".  I told him I would and we left.  On the way home, I was curious to find out just where all Lewis had been, but in 1993, the advent of the world wide web was in its infancy and I had to report back to Germany soon after.  My research plans got put on hold for a number of years.

Some of Sgt Lewis Ensor's awards
Fast forward to 1998.  My great-uncle Lewis Ensor was in failing health and dad helped him out by making it possible for him to live closer to us in the senior apartments in Owingsville.  The once strong man who had fought off the Japanese so boldly had become ridden with arthritis and was frail.  In the early 90's, Lewis had a recurrence of malaria that he had contracted in the jungles during the war, but recovered after a few weeks, but he was far more frail this time.  Eventually, Lewis had to move to a residential care facility in Owingsville and eventually passed away on July 16, 2001.  I kept my promise to him by taking the box of pictures and other items such as foreign money, military instruction manuals and other mementos he had kept.  Among the items were a few award ribbons and his discharge papers.  For the first time, I could really see what all my great-uncle had accomplished as a soldier.  Another document I found was the award citation for a Bronze Star Medal that detailed his account of the fight for the hill on Bougainville Island he told me about.  Dad and I noticed that some of the ribbons Lewis should have had weren't there.  Also missing were his medals.  After a few phone calls and some help from Danny 'Greasy' Belcher, we were able to get Lewis' medals and other awards.  I had no idea how decorated he was; two Bronze Star Awards, a Purple Heart, Combat Infantry Badge, among other awards. 

The red and white patch is the 37th Infantry Division's unit patch
About two years ago, I decided to take Lewis' medals and display them in a case.  While doing that, I researched the history of where my great-uncle served.  His infantry division was deployed into the Southern Pacific as part of the 'Island Hopping' campaignHe was assigned to Company K, 148th Infantry, and saw action in New Guinea, then at Bougainville in 1943.  He and his unit moved through the Solomon Islands and onward to the Philippines.  Lewis participated in the Battle of Luzon in the Philippines and was wounded in combat; hit by a bullet and piece of shrapnel that lodged in his jaw, leaving a scar he carried with him.  Lewis returned to duty but faced no further direct combat after he recovered from his injury and was discharged in 1945 as a sergeant. His display case is sleek and an oblong rectangle to accommodate his funeral flag dad has kept. It is a fitting tribute to a man who came from humble beginnings and was thrust into manhood as a combat infantry soldier.

I look at all the men and women who served our great country and sometimes think to myself, "wow, I'm part of them."  Hearing veterans talk about their experiences in combat makes me ever so grateful for their service and sacrifices both emotionally and physically.  I, too, am considered a "combat veteran" but don't see myself as such.  I did not see the horrors of war, I didn't rush through a hail of bullets to save a fellow comrade, nor did I march triumphantly into Baghdad like others who followed me.   My 'combat' tour was during a cease fire contingency operation post Desert Storm, and is nothing comparable to what the soldiers in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the tank battles of the Saudi Deserts, Iraq or Afghanistan have seen.  I call my tour of duty the 'push button war'.  I have friends and people I watched grow up around me come home from the modern day wars fought who are enduring post-traumatic stress and aren't the same as they were before they went off to war.  It used to be an honorable thing to say to a returning veteran, "welcome home", but maybe we should add, "how are you doing? I'm here when you need me" to that greeting.  My great-uncle's story is just one of many, many others who served, and I was lucky enough to hear him tell it in person.  If your loved one is a veteran, be it combat or peacetime duty, let them know they are appreciated for their service; not just once a year, but every day you have with them.

Carry on, soldier...
 Sergeant Lewis E. Ensor, US Army
K Co., 148th Infantry, 37th infantry Division
Term of service:  1941-1945
Pacific Theater of Operations
Solomon Island Campaign, Battle of Bougainville & New Guinea
Battle of Luzon, Philippines

Awards & Decorations:

The Bronze Star Award with one Oak Leaf Cluster
 The Purple Heart
Army Good Conduct Medal
American Defense Medal
American Campaign Medal
The Asiatic/Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze campaign stars
World War II Victory Medal
Liberation of the Philippines Medal with one bronze campaign star
Combat Infantry Badge
Rifle Marksmanship Badge
Army Lapel Pin