Battle Buddies: Veterans remain friends 70 years after war's end

Published on Tuesday, 8 July 2014 23:43 - Written by Emily Guevara, eguevara@tylerpaper.com

Every day, without fail, Homer Garrett and Chuck Bice take a walk around the cottage and sit in rocking chairs on the porch.

Garrett and Bice, both 90, have been friends for more than 30 years. But their connection began long before that, almost 70 years ago.

Both men served in the 300th Combat Engineer Battalion during World War II. But they didn’t really cross paths because they were in different companies.

“He was in A Company, and of course I didn’t like A Company,” Bice said. “We were in C Company.”

After basic training at Camp White near Medford, Oregon, the men shipped out to Europe and arrived in England in December 1943.

They traveled on the Queen Mary, a luxury liner that was converted to a troop carrier during the war. The journey took several days, Bice said.

They stayed in England with their work concentrated in the area of bridge building.

“We were the best bridge builders in the Army,” Bice said.

In the waves of soldiers that descended on the beaches of Normandy, Garrett didn’t make it to land. His ship, Landing Ship Tank 523, was blown up in the water. He had stayed on top of the ship and survived the explosion but was hospitalized for 10 months, primarily in England.

He had broken his pelvis in two places, cracked his right ankle, cracked two ribs, broken his jaw and teeth, according to an account on the WWII 300th Combat Engineers website.

Bice had arrived in Normandy a week before Garrett. He said the Army had divided their battalion on purpose.

Once in France, Bice and his comerades layed mines. Bice said the battalion was attached to the 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division and 76th Infantry Division.

Wherever they found a weak spot in the line, the soldiers went to that spot and laid a minefield in support of the troops.

In the course of 18 days — working day and night — they built three bridges including a pontoon, Bailey and timber fixed bridges.

All the while, they dodged shells from the Nazis. Bice said the guns were camouflaged, so they couldn’t see them, but they heard the gunfire. And when they heard it, they ran and hit the hole. By that time the shells would land.

Bice said, at the time, they had a new major who stood on the bridge even when he heard gunfire. Bice said the officer told his soldiers, “I’ll court martial the next man who runs to (the) fullest extent of the law.”

Well, the next time the men heard gunfire, they ran and hit the hole. Their major stayed on the bridge and was killed instantly. The executive officer who stood next to him was severely injured, Bice said.

From that point on, no one had to tell them when to run to the hole or not, he said.

He said he didn’t think much about fear while serving, but just did his job.

“You didn’t run from fear,” he said. “But you run for safety. It wasn’t that we were scared, but we weren’t stupid enough to stand there.”

From France, Bice and his fellow soldiers moved north to Belgium where they fought in the Battle of the Bulge. From there, they went to Germany. They stayed in Europe through the end of the war. On Nov. 11, 1945 he was discharged at Camp Fannin.

Garrett was discharged before that after returning to the U.S. on a hospital boat and recovering at hospitals in the states.

Garrett said when his wife was still living, they talked about visiting Europe, but once she died those plans ended.

Bice said he would like to go if he could stay for a month, but he isn’t planning a visit.

When the men returned to civilian life, Bice worked as a market manager at supermarkets and in private business. Garrett worked for Mobil Oil in different parts of the state.

Although the men were not in the same company in the Army, it was through Battalion reunions that started almost 40 years ago that their friendship grew.

The more they talked, the more they got along, and they became good friends.

Garrett’s wife died 14 years ago this November, and he has since had a mild stroke. Macular degeneration is causing Bice to lose his eyesight.

Although both have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they decided the Watkins-Logan Texas State Veterans Home was a good place to be.

Garrett moved into a cottage in August and Bice followed soon after in January. They live in the same cottage, each with their own room. All of the cottages have 10 private rooms, each with its own bathroom. But residents share meals at a dining-room style table and have a living room and front porch.

Bice said his children sometimes ask what’s so special about their friendship.

“They don’t understand,” he said. “When you train, eat, sleep, fight with guys, it’s (a) closer bond in some ways than family.”

Garrett was a bit more humorous in his response.

“He’s a wart,” he said of Bice. “My kids think more of him than anyone in the world.”

Regarding their service to their country, the men remain proud.

“It’s great,” Bice said. “We had a purpose and a plan, and the plan was to defeat the enemy not just play with them. … It was a great experience.”

Garrett said it’s hard to find words.

“It’s nearly indescribable. I think it’s the greatest country in the world,” he said as tears formed in his eyes. “And that flag that flies, it’s my flag.”