Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part story about Ralph Garrett. Part two will publish Jan. 22.
Ralph Mullendore Garrett of Cleburne was born in Bethany, W.Va., on Christmas Day, 1923 — maybe 200 years too late, he jokingly says.
A rugged outdoorsman who lives at Sand Flat in a sturdy home he designed and built with his son, the 88-year-old is also an accomplished woodcarver. His work reflects humor, history and the beauty of nature in detailed relief.
“I was the oldest of four children,” Garrett said. “Our father, Ralph W. Garrett, was a college professor and our mother, Lella, was an accomplished art teacher. I felt at a very early age that they had hopes that I would become a minister.”
But such a choice could not be made by a parent for a child, he said.
The family lived in Bethany until he was 11. Garrett loved to read and sensed that he was very good at it. But he was sick a lot as a child and missed a great deal of school.
“I got behind in math and never seemed to catch up.”
When the family moved to Cisco, Garrett played basketball and softball, but never football.
“My mother wouldn’t let me,” he said. “She was afraid I would get injured, and we didn’t have the money to pay a doctor.”
His father suffered from asthma and his health got worse. Suspecting that he might have tuberculosis, he isolated himself upstairs in their home. Garrett became the man of the house.
“I guess that’s when I began to learn how to do things with my hands. My mother had taught me from an early age how to appreciate art and create things. Now I had to take real responsibility. When I was 13, we made plans to move to my maternal grandparents’ farm in Indiana. I knew we had to have a trailer to move our things, so I went to work to make one.
“When it came time to think about the cover for the wagon, I drove Mother to the general store [I had my driver’s license] where we bought some metal wagon sideboard pockets designed to hold wagon bows — like a Conestoga wagon. Then, I measured and my mother sewed a canvas cover.”
He said they knew it would have to be waterproofed, so they mixed hot paraffin into gasoline and kept it in near-boiling water to keep it liquefied while painting it onto the canvas.
“The gasoline evaporated and we had a cover that would be protected from the rain. I drove most of the way on the trip.”
He has memories of spending time in New York City while his father worked on his doctorate at Columbia University. The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., fascinated him. There was so much to see, study and learn.
His freshman and sophomore years in high school were spent at Franklin High School, where he made the first team in softball and basketball.
In 1939, the family moved to Fort Worth, where his father joined the faculty as a professor of history at Texas Christian University. Garrett attended Paschal High School.
“It was great for me. I made first team again in softball and basketball. I worked at Leonard Brothers as a sacker, carrying groceries out to cars, making 11 cents an hour.”
After graduation from Paschal High in 1941, Garrett enrolled in TCU.
“While I was there I had the opportunity to attend a national seminar as a business administration student and was chosen sheriff of TCU’s Ranch Week, leading a downtown parade with the Tarrant County Sheriff.”
After one semester, he took a 532-hour mechanical drafting course at Technical High School taught by an engineer at Convair. He was employed by Texas Electric as a draftsman.
Another kind of draft called him into World War II.
“I was assigned to Camp Wallace, a coast artillery base near Texas City,” he said. “I finished basic training and was being trained as chief of section on 40-mm anti-aircraft artillery. I decided I would rather fly than walk and received permission from the commanding officer to take an Air Corps cadet test.”
Garrett passed the test and was sent to Central Washington College of Education where he took many classes and learned to fly in primary training. At Santa Anna Air Force Base he said he “washed out” as only 20 percent of the cadets were chosen for further training.
At Lowry Field near Denver a general order was issued that all personnel from the ground forces not actively in pilot training would be returned to the ground forces.
“At Camp Atterbury, Ind., while assigned to the 106th Infantry Division, I was assigned to Headquarters Company 424 Regiment on kitchen patrol my first day there,” Garrett said. “I had a talk with the mess sergeant and told him I could cook. He got it OK’d by my commanding officer, and I was in.”
He grinned, “Cooks had the best deal in the company: three days on duty, two days off, and a permanent Class-A pass with a semi-private room.”
In Banbury, England, he found that preparing a Thanksgiving meal for troops was an enormous job.
“Our stoves wouldn’t handle all of the turkeys and pumpkin pies, so we used a large community bakery during off hours after the English were through with their work there.”
After shipping out of Liverpool in many small boats, the soldiers reached a landing at LeHavre, France. Spending a rainy night in a large waterlogged field, they were then loaded on trucks to go to the front lines near St. Vith, Belgium.
“I was unfortunate to be placed on an open truck (one of only a few with no cover.) Our barracks bags and all other gear were in trailers behind the trucks. Everything got wet, then froze, before we got there.”
The 422nd and the 423rd regiments were placed on the front lines while Garrett’s 424th was behind in reserve.
“We had only been at the front for six days when the Germans broke through the lines on Dec. 16, 1944. The Battle of the Bulge was the largest, most deadly battle in the European Theatre. The 422nd and 423rd regiments were all captured, wounded or killed.”
In an International News Service “News of the Day,” Pfc. Ralph Garrett was written up as a survivor of the 106th Division’s Massacre some 67 years ago.
It read, “Pfc. Garrett was a cook in Headquarters Company in the 424th Infantry, 106th Division and was surrounded [by Nazis] for eight days at St. Vith, before being relieved by the U.S. 7th Army.
“Garrett had frozen feet, one of only 800 soldiers out of 14,000 in the division who escaped death, injury or being taken prisoner.”
Life would begin again for Garrett, working on his family’s Hood County farm. He’d find a wife, raise a family — and accomplish whatever he wanted.
Larue Barnes may be reached at email@example.com.