story: Marla Cantrell | images: Jami Coleman
The small black-and-white photo of a cross erected in Belgium in the 1940s is what Jim Grady remembers most about his father. The image shows up in Jim’s birthday pictures, tucked inside the frame of a larger picture that’s on the wall just behind him. In the foreground is Jim, who’s turning three. He’s smiling, blowing out his candles. But when the camera’s put away, he asks the question he always asks: “Where is my dad?”
Jim was two years old when his father died in a German prisoner of war camp in the last months of World War II. It wasn’t until he reached school age that he realized there were other children just like him. “A lot of kids were in the same situation as me, who lost their dads in the war,” he says, recalling several of his Fort Smith classmates. “We knew about each other, but we didn’t talk about it a whole lot.
“I did know that my dad, Staff Sergeant James Russell Grady, was in the Army, 422nd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, out of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and that he was captured on the first day of the battle, along with 3,000 other soldiers, toward the end of 1944. The Battle of the Bulge was the culmination of World War II, and my dad was twenty-seven, probably a little older than many of the soldiers. I was told he was a cook. I don’t know how long he was in the Army; I never thought to ask.”
The household Jim grew up in was decidedly female. His mother worked at the Dodson Avenue Pharmacy. His grandmother, often ill, lived with them intermittently. And money, he remembers, was especially hard to come by. “We didn’t have a car until I turned sixteen,” he says.
What he did have were three uncles, each married to his mother’s sisters. They made sure Jim learned to play baseball, that he knew the basics of car repair, that he had someone to go fishing with. “I was an only child. Uncle Carl, Jack, and John were married to my aunts Dora, Cora, and Flora. They weren’t blood relatives but these three men loved me,” Jim says, and the tears start. “I’m thankful I had them.”
As the years passed, Jim researched the war, trying to piece together what happened to his father. He had his father’s hat, one of his dearest possessions, that he kept with him always. He had the notice brought by two officers who parked down the street and walked solemnly up to his house, letting his mother know that on March 6, 1945, Staff Sergeant James Russell Grady died. At the time he weighed only eighty-five pounds, and he had pneumonia.
The winter that began in 1944 was the coldest on record in Germany. Jim imagines his young father struggling to keep warm. Maybe he had one wool blanket to help. Jim will never know.
What he did know was that he needed to see the hallowed ground where his father was buried. This June, accompanied by his wife, his daughter, Jami Coleman, and her family, he traveled to Belgium to see the land of his father’s last days.
When they arrived at Ardennes American Cemetery in Neupre, Belgium, a light rain was falling. Jim looked around at the white crosses, the lush grass, the carefully manicured grounds. “It seemed like the Garden of Eden,” he says. They were met by two officials who briefed them on the battle that claimed so many of the Allied forces. “Sixty-five thousand died,” Jim says, “and 5,300 are buried here.”
The officials also took the time to place an American flag on Jim’s father’s grave. They then took sand from Normandy Beach, where many of the Allied soldiers arrived to fight, and smoothed it into the carving on the cross, so the family could easily read the inscription on the stark white marker.
It was overwhelming for Jim. “I stood there and I felt like I’d been there before,” he says and begins to weep. “Dog-gone it,” he says, but the tears won’t stop. “It had been sixty-eight years ago and it was still hard. I felt so sorry, so hurt for my mother.
“My mother’s buried at the National Cemetery in Fort Smith, at his memorial. His name is on the front and her name is on the back. I took a picture of it before I went over there. People sometimes ask me why I didn’t have him brought home. Well, first of all, I was two when he died; I never thought of it. But now that I’ve been, I’d never do it. My father belongs with these men he fought with. He belongs with the men he died with.
“It feels like you’re on sacred ground there. It’s serene. Not a blade of grass out of place. It’s an honor to have him there. There’s so much thought that went into Ardennes. My dad’s on row 33, right on the end. If you went up in a plane and looked down from the air, all the headstones form one big Greek cross.”
Jim looks away for a second. When he starts talking again, he speaks of the kindness of the Belgium people. Townspeople adopt the graves, coming regularly to visit. He thinks of those visits often, of the strangers who honor his father while he’s 5,000 miles away.
When the day was done, Jim was weary. The visit had taken a lot out of him. But touching the stone that showed up in so many of his earliest memories made the trip worth everything. He felt as if he knew more about his father at that moment than he ever thought he would. And during the entire visit, his mother kept coming to mind. She finally remarried twenty-seven years after his father’s passing. “She married her first boyfriend, who’d lost his wife to cancer.” Jim smiles. “That was good for her,” he says.
As for Jim, his life has been remarkable. He married Margaret fifty years ago, and the couple has three children: Paula, Jami, and James Russell Grady, who’s named for Jim’s father. “I did the best I could with the kids,” Jim says. “I tried to be a good father.”
He’s been much more than that. His daughter Jami says he coached their softball teams, was their spiritual leader, and biggest supporter. He taught his children to be honest, and faithful, and to hold dear the family they’d been given.
One day, Jim says, he’ll see his father again in heaven. He imagines what it will be like, the reunion of a son to a father he never got to know on this earth. There will be plenty of time then, he says, to get to know the man who is a hero to Jim. Who is a hero to every one of us.