Bill Brothers is a distinguished and highly decorated veteran of the Korean War. He was involved in combat missions that were fierce and often deadly. You might think that such violent and traumatic experiences could embitter those involved in the front lines of battle. However, on the contrary, Bill is the most humble of souls. His gentle demeanor and appreciation for daily living has its source in a devout adherence to his treasured Catholic Faith. Here is his inspiring story.
Bill was born on May 19, 1928, the fourth eldest in a family of three boys and three girls. He was baptized at Blessed Sacrament Church in Providence, Rhode Island, where he later made his First Holy Communion and Confirmation as well. Bill and his siblings were educated by a religious order of sisters known as the Faithful Companions of Jesus, who were stationed at Blessed Sacrament Elementary School. In fact, to this day, Bill is extremely proud of how well he studied and learned the Catholic Catechism. He continues to cherish the infallible truths and ineffable beauty of the Catholic doctrine it contains.
Before leaving to serve his country, Bill fondly recalls his visit with Mother Catherine at Blessed Sacrament Convent. She gave him a pair of rosary beads, a scapular medal, and a small missal to take with him. Those became very cherished items, especially whenever Bill was engaged in battle. Whenever there was a little break in the combat action in Korea, the Chaplin would say mass for Bill’s infantry outfit. In Company B, Bill recalls that three-fourths of the platoon was Catholic. The opportunity to attend mass and converse with a compassionate and caring priest was invaluable.
February 14, 1951 is a date that will remain forever etched in Bill’s memory. At the time, Bill was just twenty-two years of age, serving as a corporal in the Army’s 2nd Infantry. He was a member of the B Regimental Combat team in the 23rd Regiment. On that fateful Valentine’s Day, Bill’s combat team was engaged in a dangerous battle in which the United States was attempting to control a small hill in the Chip Yung Nienen region of Korea.
Suddenly, a bullet tore through the middle and trigger fingers of Bill’s right hand and blood was profusely pouring from his wounds. At that very moment, Bill’s squad leader, Lieutenant Fenderson, fell to the ground as a bullet ripped through his shoulder. At this point, Bill’s M-1 rifle was no longer operable. Without a moment’s hesitation, Bill took his lieutenant’s carbine and continued firing at the enemy, even as a prodigious amount of blood was flowing from his badly injured hand.
Bill was initially treated in a mobile army surgical hospital tent in Korea. The tent was so crowded that it was necessary to place the deceased victims on the ice and snow outside in order to make room for the wounded soldiers. Meanwhile, vast numbers of Chinese soldiers surrounded Bill’s battalion of 800 men. It took five days for the United States to finally break through the Chinese troops and ultimately win the battle.
After Bill was initially treated to stop the flow of blood, he was flown to a hospital in Japan where he spent two months recuperating from his wounds. He endured a number of skin grafts to successfully repair his badly damaged fingers. Toward the end of his stay at the 118th Station Hospital in Fukuoka, Japan, Bill was informed that he would be awarded the Purple Heart medal. Yet, for some unknown reason, Bill never received any honors for his bravery in combat. However, in his own words, Bill “never went hunting for them.” In May of 1951, after being discharged from the hospital and enjoying a short period of rest, he dutifully returned to his combat assignment for seven more months.
Finally, in December of 1951, Bill returned home to his beloved United States. He can still recall the welcome sights and sounds of patriotic Americans cheering as his ship sailed under the glistening Golden Gate Bridge. That’s when it really struck a chord with Bill, and he realized that those harrowing experiences were all worth it. He was proud to defend a just cause for his family, his nation, and above all, God. Still, Bill would have to wait almost fifty years before receiving the recognition he so richly deserved.
In 1998, Bill’s three grandchildren demonstrated their love, affection, and appreciation for their grandfather by purchasing a brick for the Korean War Memorial in downtown Providence. The words “we love you, Papa” were inscribed on the brick. As Bill stood before the monument, he commented that he wished he had a service medal to give to his eldest grandson, Johnny. This brief statement immediately sparked an idea and initiated an intense research endeavor. Bill’s son-in-law, Representative John J. McCauley from Providence, contacted United States Senator Jack Reed’s office. Senator Reed’s staff began the research necessary to verify Bill’s years of service and his worthiness to receive special recognition. After months of research, the National Personnel Records Center notified the Army that a total of six medals should be issued to Bill.
So it was almost fifty years later, in October of 1999, that Bill was finally awarded six prestigious medals in front of an enthusiastic, cheering crowd. This group of well wishers was much like the one that greeted him near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco when he returned home from the Korean War almost five decades earlier. Only this time, after the passage of so many years, it was even more meaningful as a gathering of 300 neighborhood friends and family members assembled to pay tribute to their hero, Bill. The six medals Bill finally received in recognition of his selfless bravery include the Purple Heart; the Korean Service medal with two bronze stars; the National Defense Service medal; the Combat Infantryman badge; the Good Conduct medal, and the United Nations Service medal. An officer with the Rhode Island National Guard presented all of these medals to Bill, who was truly overwhelmed by the outpouring of affection and love he experienced that day.
It is obvious that Bill exhibited great courage and selflessness on that cold February day in 1951. Yet, those extraordinary virtues did not magically appear all at once. Such admirable traits are a result of the Lord’s supernatural grace and Bill’s willingness to cooperate with God’s plan, regardless of the cost. When you ask Bill what is most important in his life, he will immediately tell you that it’s maintaining a daily, consistent relationship with the Lord. Throughout his trials and tribulations, which include two bouts with colon cancer and severe back pain, Bill remains cheerful and grateful for God’s many blessings.
Bill recalls how his intense experiences in combat have ultimately strengthened his faith in God. Bill comments, “If you lived a thousand years, you could never forget it.” He shares those memories with a fellow soldier named Jack Willis, who now lives in Mississippi. Every year, on February 14th, Bill and Jack engage in a very special telephone conversation, sharing those stories that are indelibly impressed upon their memories.
Soldiers like Bill are willing to make even the ultimate sacrifice for love of God, family, and country. During wartime, courageous souls suffer serious injury or even death as a martyr because they are defending the ultimate causes of freedom and justice. Humble souls like Bill do not seek prestige or self-glorification either. Ultimately, everything they do is for the glory of God. Role models like Bill remind us of our ultimate destiny- to be with the Lord for all eternity. We should all thank God for humble souls like Bill.
Anne Marie is an alumna of Pat Robertson’s Regent University, where she received her CAGS and Ph. D. in organizational leadership. Her dissertation, accompanied by a practical curriculum guide for teaching virtue to students in Catholic middle schools, is entitled Catholic Witness: Educating for Virtue. She has had a number of journal and on-line articles published in the field of music education and the realm of Catholic spirituality.