Despite nearly dying on French soil during the Allied invasion of Normandy and a book’s worth of other harrowing wartime experiences, Joe Bredeson had never been as scared as he was before a talk he was to give a group of sixth-graders at Troy Middle School in 2006.
“The reception that Joe received from the sixth-graders not only amazed him but amazed me,” his son-in-law, Robert DeBard, said. The students were indifferent at first, unimpressed by the old man in a wheelchair. The theme of his presentation was “the price of freedom.”
Bredeson told the students he had been offered a full ride to play football at the University of Wisconsin, but turned it down to fight in World War II. Of the 143 men in his company, only 10 came home.
“It started with a girl coming up to the stage and hugging him,” DeBard said. Then, an entire row of students got up to embrace Bredeson. It changed his life; he began speaking at events in western Ohio, and eventually DeBard, now a resident of Ninety Six, persuaded him to share the story of his service for a book.
This month, “The Gift of Significance: GI Joe’s American Story of War” won in the memoir category at the annual IndieReader Discovery Awards in New York.
Bredeson died in 2017 at the age of 96. Before his death, he was able to read the first draft of the story he had kept to himself for 60-plus years.
“I knew that he was in the service but I didn’t know anything about it,” said DeBard. “He kept very quiet about it, which is typical for that generation.”
Bredeson’s son, Jack, said that he knew maybe 20% of the story before the book came out.
“It was somewhat of a shock to me,” Jack said.
DeBard insists the book is not “a puff piece, a tribute to Joe.”
“This was a GI in war and what was the war like for these GIs,” DeBard said. As a reconnaissance sergeant, Bredeson “faced as rugged a war experience as I think anyone could do.”
After Army Ranger training, Bredeson was assigned to the 101st Airborne, the “Screaming Eagles” who flew in behind enemy lines on D-Day. He parachuted into a flooded bomb crater where, carrying 70 pounds of gear, he would have drowned if not for a French resistance fighter who lived in a nearby farmhouse.
War took its toll on Bredeson and he was eventually sent to an “exhaustion center” in Paris. What psychologists now call PTSD was then called “exhaustion” or “battle fatigue” and its victims were looked down upon. Bredeson himself called the exhaustion center a “looney bin” and was deeply ashamed to have been sent there.
One day, after he was deemed well enough to venture outside, he went to a perfume store. Months earlier, a beautiful French woman there had tossed him a flower as American troops marched in Paris after its liberation. Despite some trouble — she did not remember him or speak English, and her parents were vehemently opposed to their dating — they eventually married and moved back to the U.S.
DeBard said there were some aspects of Bredeson’s wartime experience that he was reluctant to explore, especially his time in the exhaustion center.
“When he talked about the looney bin, he would almost put it in quotations,” DeBard said. “But he said, ‘Bob, that’s the way people felt, that’s the way people treated me, that’s the way I treated myself. ... We were the losers.’”
Growing up, Jack didn’t realize that his father’s peculiar, depressive moods were PTSD.
“It constantly nagged him during his life, but you couldn’t tell,” Jack said.
Despite his reluctance, Bredeson ultimately agreed to work on the book so that people who read it would understand the price of freedom, DeBard said.
“While we can sit around on the 75th anniversary (of D-Day) and we can cheer for those old cadres that were in Normandy,” he said, “the fact is that most have avoided service, and (Bredeson) felt like the price of freedom is the willingness to defend it.”
When Bredeson was on his deathbed, DeBard told him that he would do everything he could to promote the book and his story. He said winning the memoir award at the IndieReader Discovery Awards “affirmed that I have done something that I said I was going to do for Joe.”
Jack, meanwhile, is glad to have learned who his father really was.
“My wife and me visited the cemetery this morning, and it brought back things I wish I had said,” Jack said. “It just makes me proud that he was my dad.”