Dickey, Bertrand Veteran

Former South Attleboro resident Bertrand Dickey, who turns 100 today, has a crystal-clear memory of the horror he and fellow soldiers faced during World War II. An interview with Dickey can be found at www.thesunchronicle.com/local_video. (Staff photo by Mike George)

When Bertrand Dickey looks through the window of Room 5 at Grandview Nursing Home in Cumberland, he sees baseball players. They emerge out of his still vibrant mind onto a patch of land just on the other side of the glass where a baseball field once stood.

It's where he, his brothers and school chums played ball more than 80 years ago.

Those were good times, said the former second baseman, who, as a young man fielding ground balls in the dusty days of summer, could hardly have imagined he'd be fielding questions from strangers at the same place, eight decades later, in the dwindling days of age as the tumult of a life well lived settles quietly around him.

Big crowds lined the field back then, the first years of the Great Depression, he said.

They loved the games. It gave them a respite from the dreary and desperate times of the 1930s.

But unknown to the young ballplayer and baseball fans, times were soon to get even worse.

Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were moving to conquer and kill, actions that were soon to spark the holocaust of world war.

War would soon become Dickey's reality and the reality for millions like him.

While the former South Attleboro resident couldn't see the future back then, he has clear eyes and a memory that can only be characterized as crystal for a man his age.

He can see the past, and it's a long past.

Dickey turns 100 today - Veterans Day.

Not many have the physical and mental strength - or the sheer good luck - to live so long and so well, especially veterans like Dickey, who somehow managed to crawl out of the cauldron war, surviving constant violence and the mental anguish that comes with it.

But he's a member of what TV journalist Tom Brokaw dubbed "The Greatest Generation." And he not only survived, but thrived.

He was already old, 29, when the war began for America in 1941 - old for a soldier, that is, and the Army was not interested.

So, Dickey, married and employed by a bakery, kept on with his life, working hard and hoping for a child.

But as the bloody buzzsaw of war ripped through Europe and the Pacific, his days as a civilian were numbered.

The military began to draft older and older men, and at 31, Dickey was inducted into the Army and trained for combat.

He won a marksman's badge and was assigned to drive trucks, which made him a bigger target when he ended up with the Army's 21st Infantry Regiment on the beach at Tanahmerah Bay, New Guinea, in April 1944.

The 21st's mission was to wrest an air base from the dug-in Japanese.

Dickey's job was to drive supplies to soldiers on the front, and it was dangerous work.

"We were shot at when we got off the boat. We got shot at from the trees and when we were hiding behind the trucks and the other equipment," said Dickey, who was called "Pops" by his fellow soldiers - teenagers, 18 and 19.

According to the regiment's online history, Dickey's unit succeeded in capturing the air base and Japanese soldiers despite monsoon rains and tough terrain.

Many died.

Dickey lived, but he did not escape unscathed.

It was not enemy fire that nearly ended his life. It was actual fire.

He was among a group of soldiers ordered to clear brush by setting it ablaze with gasoline.

Some of the gasoline he poured onto the brush exploded, engulfing him in flames.

He ran for it, fanning the flames, but two fellow soldiers tackled him and smothered the fire in a blanket, bringing Dickey's time on the front lines of war to an end.

When he finally awakened after surgery in an Army hospital, he remembers hearing someone singing a "holy song."

So he asked a nurse, if he was in heaven.

"Honey, if you're by me, you're not in heaven," he recalled her saying, laughing at the memory.

After many blood transfusions and operations to repair bad burns on his left arm, chest and face, he pulled through and made it home to his loving wife Beatrice.

The couple, childless before the war, had their daughter Linda, in 1947, a surprise baby after 10 years of marriage.

The family jokes that all the new blood from the transfusions helped generate the youngster.

She visits often, and today is hosting a party for her dad.

Family from far and wide are coming in.

While they're celebrating Dickey's birthday and sharing memories from the 98 years of his life that he was not a soldier, they and the rest of America will also be remembering him and millions of other veterans for the sacrifices they made when they were soldiers.

Those sacrifices are something that can never be fully known to those who didn't experience them, Dickey said.

Nightmare memories will always plague those who did.

His message for Veteran's Day is as clear as his 100-year-old mind.

"Honor the soldiers," Dickey said. "You can talk about (the war) and talk about it, but you had to see it."