Lilas and Sean Riley reminisce about the late Paul Riley, Lilas’ husband and Sean’s grandfather, whose many medals for his service in World War II arrived for his family this past spring. Photo by the Faulk County Record
By Garrick Moritz, Faulk County Record
Before post-traumatic stress disorder was a medically verified psychological condition, returning veterans had three methods to deal with the time they’d spent in war.
Silence. Time. Distance.
“Paul never talked about it,” Lilas Riley said of her husband, who had served in World War II. “If I hadn’t known he’d been in the war, and won medals, I would probably never have guessed it of him, because he almost never said anything about them or why he won them. He was always very patriotic, and I know he was proud of his service, but he never wanted to talk much about it.”
Nowadays Lilas spends most of her time in Arizona, but she flies back home to Faulkton a few times a year to visit her family and friends. She sat down at the kitchen table with her grandson, Sean, to look over the medals her husband earned a lifetime ago.
“Last time I was back I went to see Red Vetter down at the Veteran’s Service office,” she said. “I told him about Paul’s medals, and how he never did actually get them. He said that it might take a year or more to get it done, but it took less than that. I told him to send them to John’s (Lilas’ son’s) house, and they arrived this past spring, and I know John was very happy to get them, as we were all very pleased. Red does a good job up there at the courthouse, and you can tell him I said so.”
Paul Riley, who farmed in Faulk County for many decades after his military service, was part of the 120th Infantry Regiment of the 30th Infantry Division—a famous division, nicknamed “Old Hickory” after its famous historical commander, President Andrew Jackson.
Riley was awarded four Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, service medals for Africa and Europe and D-Day, and medals for good conduct and honorable service. They were delivered to his family this spring.
Here is some of the conversation the Faulk County Record had with Lilas and Sean. (It has been edited slightly for readability.)
Sean: Grandpa was quite a character. That good conduct medal made me smile.
Lilas: When folks would ask him how he got a Purple Heart, well he had a regular response ready. He said that he was carrying a radio pack, and that he’d been shot in the back, so you knew which way he was running. And that’s all he said, though I’ve worked out that he was probably in Italy when it happened. I know he carried the shrapnel in his back to his grave, because it was too close to his spine to get it out. I know he recovered in England. He used to make jokes and tell stories about the English nurses, none of which you should put in print.
But he was pretty quiet about all of it. I wanted to travel, see some of Europe, but his response was always, ‘been there, done that.’ Finally I convinced him to go on a Highlights of Europe tour that (Sen.) Tom Daschle had arranged for vets. As we went on the tour he finally opened up just a little, and I found out that he’d been to most of the places we went to on the tour. He’d been in most of the major battles, the liberation of Paris, the Argon Forest, the Battle of the Bulge, D-Day at Omaha Beach. He said that on D-Day his sergeant told him and his squad to crawl on their bellies up the hill where they landed to get to a German machine gun nest. When they got there, he said, there was nobody there, empty because the Germans had run.
Sean: That’s the Riley luck coming into play right there.
Lilas: Once in a while a new movie would come out and he might say one or two things.When he saw George C. Scott as General Patton in that film, he said that the character was spot on, just like Patton down to his pet dog. And I remember after John and Lori went to see “Saving Private Ryan” several years back, that Lori came home and hugged him real tight, saying how lucky we all were that he survived that horrible day.
Sean: Sometimes grandad would talk to his sons about the war. I know Dad was always asking him questions about it.
He told Dad once about the time he spent as a stretcher-bearer. Grandpa said that it was the biggest mistake he’d ever made in his life. Grandpa and a buddy of his volunteered for stretcher duty, with the idea that it would be lighter work. They thought it would be an easy job. Well, it turned out to be easier on the body, yes, but much harder on the mind. The screaming, the dismemberments, the dead and dying having to be hauled off, and the specially nasty shock when he would find somebody he knew.
Lilas, after a moment: I’d never heard that story before. Of course, it sounds just like him.
He told me a story once about when he was in Europe, and after three weeks on the front they’d rotate his division out for R&R. They slept in beds and he got to have a shower for the first time in weeks, and lo and behold he ran into a friend from back home. Floyd Griffith was his name, a friend he kept in contact with well after the war, and they had been in the same division and just never recognized each other what with all the dirt.
Sean: Infantry guys usually get the hard job, and they’d had it rough for two wars in a row, in World War I with the trenches and gas, and in World War II grandpa and the guys had to figure out anti-tank technology on the fly. Nobody had ever used tanks on such a wide scale before, and the Germans pioneered it, and they had the best tanks on the ground.
Lilas: Paul always used to say that the Germans would have won the war, but for the fact that they ran out of gas. He said that when it was over, the tanks just sat there, out of gas and abandoned.
I’d only been going out with Paul for about a month before he went to war. We got married three days after he got back. At the time he had $300 to his name from his mustering out pay, and I had five cattle to my name. So we used to tell folks that I married him for his money, and he married me for my cattle.
We went on to have two great boys, Paul Jr. and John, and they had great families of their own in turn. He tried to lead and teach by example, and he was honest to the core. I can only think of two times that I ever saw him get angry, and he never took that anger out on anybody, he just never worried about anything. Mostly I think it was because he was content with his life, and so he didn’t need to worry.
Sean: I think grandad taught all us kids two things. The first was the value of being true to yourself, and then love what you do for a living, because if you do, the rest of your life is a cake walk.