Capt. Joseph Graham was
with the U.S. Army’s 781st Tank Battalion. He led Company D. (Courtesy Graham family.)
On Monday at Good Samaritan Retirement Village
in Windsor, the French Consulate General – who will have traveled in from Los Angeles — will present the French
Legion of Honor medal to five living U.S. veterans who served in France during World War II.
Sadly, the medal for several years was in the works for another,
former 781st Tank Battalion captain Joe
Graham, before he died at age 100 in Palo Alto, Calif., last summer.
The plan had been for Graham to come to Colorado to accept the medal, and he
had also journeyed here in 2013 to be a part of the Northern Colorado Honor Flight trip to Washington D.C.
But now, his son, former Colorado State University
athletic director and 2016 U.S. Senate candidate Jack Graham of Fort Collins, will end up with his medal.
Joe Graham’s Europe tank duty, in Sherman “Easy Eight” upgrades
on previous larger models, took him and the 781st to France, Italy, Germany and Austria in what largely was an unrelenting
fight. As a captain, Graham led Company D.
“The thing that Ginger [Jack’s wife] and I were hoping for more than anything was that he would have
been awarded the medal while he was living and while he was healthy,” Jack Graham told me. “His health really
started to fail, I would say, at the beginning of 2018. It’s OK. ‘Pop’ knew he was getting the award and
he was thrilled by it. The fact that he never got handed the award is kind of secondary. He was proud of it.”
What will it mean for Jack
to have the medal?
he hard,” Graham, 66, said. “That part of my dad’s life, the four years he spent in the Army, were far and
away the most important and defining years of his life. For a kid out of Brooklyn, N.Y., who literally didn’t know one
end of a wrench from another, to become captain of a tank battalion and fight the kind of fight that he had to fight is such
a testimony to who he was as a leader and to his toughness. I’m not talking about physical toughness. My dad was a tough
guy, but he was mentally tough and disciplined. There was nothing he couldn’t do if he set his mind to it.
“He was asked to do things that were so
far out of his knowledge base, and he still did them really well. To me, it’s almost another chapter of his life. If
this is his book, it pretty gracefully ends the book.”
A tank from the 781st
Tank Battalion in Eastern France.
The point is, the World War II generation is leaving us. It won’t be long until all veterans of that era
are gone. It took a disgraceful amount of time for those of us among their offspring to fully grasp and appreciate their contributions,
but part of it was that for so many years, it just was a given. A matter of fact, a checkmark, a line on a list of accomplishments.
World War II veteran.
And so many of them shrugged, accepted, it even wanted it that way.
Hadn’t it seemed as if they all had done it, regardless of whether
that meant horrific combat or never experiencing battle?
Eventually, we caught on. In some cases, it was too little, too late.
Jack Graham began speaking more with his father
about the war after Joe’s wife and Jack’s mother, Janet, died in 1997. Joe was despondent. Jack challenged him
to write his memoirs. They ended up at the Smithsonian Institution.
“My dad and I spent countess hours toward the end of his life talking
about what he did in the war,” Jack said. “He had a graphic, vivid memory of everything that happened. Obviously,
that kind of experience is going to mark you indelibly. It did Dad. And he said to me two or three months before he died that
they went seven months without stopping. Seven months. And they fought every single day. When he told me that, it hit me between
the eyes. I cried like a baby.
“When somebody says something like that, you kind of go ‘wow.’ You think about what that life experience
must have been. Misery. What those guys had to experience. What they had to sacrifice. To go seven consecutive months without
a day off. A day off from war is kind of an oxymoron, obviously, but they went seven straight months, never sleeping indoors,
sleeping under their tanks in the dead of winter. My god, the sacrifices. It bowled me over.’
and former Colorado State University athletic director Jack Graham, center, sought the Republican nomination in the 2016 race
for the U.S. Senate.
Joe Graham was born and graduated from high school in New Jersey before the family’s home was repossessed during
the Great Depression and they moved to the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. After nine months of trying to land a job to help
support the family, Joe jumped at the chance to be an office boy at Travelers Insurance, at $15 a week, and enrolled in night
classes at New York University.
His Travelers bosses told him he would not be promoted, get a raise or be retained beyond two years. That was how the
Great Depression worked.
got them to change their minds: He was all the way up to $27.50 a week when he was drafted in September 1941, three months
before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war.
He had never driven a car.
His brother, Walt, joked that meant he would be assigned to a tank unit.
And, of course, he was.
Joe Graham graduated from Armored Officers Candidate
School in early 1943 and was anointed a 2nd Lieutenant, eventually to become a captain.
The 781st Tank Battalion landed in France in 1944. Supporting
the 100th Infantry Division, Graham and the 781st was in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle for the Rhineland, the Battle
for Southern Germany, and the Battle for Po Valley.
Graham came out of the war with a handful (or chest full) of medals, including the Bronze Star and
the Army Medal of Commendation.
After his discharge, Graham joined Insurance Company of North America and stayed with the
firm until his 1980 retirement. Eventually a high-echelon executive and the president of a struggling INA subsidiary he nursed
back to financial health, Graham was based at New York, Cleveland, Indianapolis, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and retired
to San Luis Obispo until moving to Palo Alto following his wife’s death.
His son, Jack, was a CSU quarterback in the early 1970s who then made
a fortune in the catastrophic risk insurance business and sold his company. As a CSU booster living in Boulder, he was frustrated
when approached to contribute to a Hall of Fame project in Moby Arena and instead asked CSU president Tony Frank for permission
to let him attempt to raise money for what he labeled a true difference-maker, an on-campus football stadium.
Impressed with Graham’s vision and audacity,
Frank talked him into becoming athletic director. The stadium was Graham’s vision and his baby. Frank did much of the
public campaigning and lobbying of the CSU system’s board of governors before the project was approved in late 2014,
but he and Graham — both strong-willed — had a falling out that led to Graham’s firing in August 2014. Graham,
the successful businessman, had little patience with the frequently cumbersome red tape of academia and didn’t try to
CSU, Graham staged an unsuccessful run for the 2016 Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat eventually retained by
Democratic incumbent Michael Bennet. He and his wife also have the “Ginger and Baker” restaurant
in Fort Collins. Finally, the Grahams purchased additional land around the couple’s home near Fort Collins and now have
horses; next they will add cattle to the 200-acre spread in October. Jack has become a gentleman rancher. “I’m
thoroughly enjoying that, doing physical labor and not sitting behind a desk,” he said.
When I asked Jack Sunday if one of his father’s stories
about that seventh-month advance stood out, his answer surprised me. It was not about valor. It was about what war is. It
not a good one,” Jack said. “They were moving and they were on a road on top of a dam or levee. It was a one-lane
narrow levee road and Pop was in front in a Jeep. They saw some Germans coming towards them in some armored personnel carriers.
The Germans could see that there was a line of tanks behind my dad. So they bailed. They got out of their vehicles and took
off running through a pasture.
“Dad got down and ran toward them and got what he called a Tommy Gun. He was spraying them. He shot a guy and
he came up on the guy and the guy was …”
Graham’s voice broke and he paused.
Then he continued.
” … the guy was 14 years old. The guy died in my dad’s arms.”
Graham paused again. “Sorry,
I have to pull it together here.”
He continued. “My dad told me, ‘That’s the first time I’ve told anybody that story.’
So it was cathartic. And you can imagine how how hard that would be to live with. My dad spoke fluent German. His mother (born
Elizabeth Kotzenberg) was German. The kid was crying for his mother. He and my dad spoke to each other.”
If only we lived in a world where medals weren’t
necessary. As long as they were, and are, a salute to the Americans who served.