Gary Harmon Columnn November 13, 2008

Like most vets, WWII hero says he’s anything but

When Joe Graham enlisted in the Army in 1943, he was young and smart and looking for action.

“I knew everything,” said Graham, now 83 and much wiser.

The New Jersey native could have waited to be drafted, but he enlisted that August as soon as he could, the day before his 18th birthday, and the Army reciprocated, inducting him at Fort Dix as soon as it could.

Graham’s wish for action was fulfilled far more quickly than anyone might have suspected.

He was on the second wave of the invasion of Normandy.

Designated a replacement, he realized while wading through waist-deep water filled with the bodies of his dead countrymen exactly why replacements were needed.

Graham survived Normandy and he has five stars on his World War II service ribbon that denote his service in five campaigns in the European theater.

He also has a Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

This week, Americans remembered veterans who have served in the nation’s wars. This column remembers those who earned Purple Hearts.

He’s no different than anyone else who wore the uniform, Graham said.

Anyone would have done what he did.

“There were many, many guys who did a lot more than I did and got no recognition for it,” he said.

His Purple Heart was awarded for his actions in France one day, when he and another soldier were sent to rescue another American who lay wounded in the field.

The rest of his unit had found cover nearby, but the wounded man lay exposed to enemy fire, his legs and back seriously wounded.

Graham and another soldier volunteered to get him and made their way about 200 yards, picked him up and began the return trip.

That’s when the Germans fired their mortars.

“One mortar shell hit right next to me,” he said.

“That made three of us on the ground,” Graham said.

The blast damaged his hearing and sent red-hot shrapnel slicing across his abdomen, leaving about an 8-inch scar. A chunk of shrapnel remains inside him today.

Graham and the other soldier hoisted up their compatriot and got him to an aid station. Graham then returned to his unit, he said.

Graham’s Bronze Star stemmed from his time in Belgium, when he and others were detailed to drive behind enemy lines and collect a dozen wounded soldiers hidden in a farmhouse.

The trip in, he said, was uneventful, as was the return ride.

“It was no big deal,” Graham said. In fact, “It was something that happened all the time.”

On the other hand, the soldiers waiting for help, “They thought it was a pretty big deal,” he said.

With the German surrender, he was sent back to the United States and was mustered out of the Army.

Graham made his way into law enforcement and worked in security for the casino industry in both Atlantic City and in Las Vegas.

He retired to Florida, but his home was destroyed by Hurricane Wilma and he and his wife, Edie, then settled in Grand Junction.

His wartime experience, he said, was nothing special.

“It was war,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to try and make me a hero, which I am not.”

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