Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Salute to Lance Corporal Ainsworth

This past June 12 marked the 90th birthday of one of the unsung heroes of the Battle of Normandy. 67 years ago, a young man named Ainsworth went ashore in Normandy as part of the East Lancaster Regiment. He was not destined for high command—he made lance corporal twice and private on three occasions. However, as anyone with any knowledge of military history knows, it takes *all* kinds of people to win an award.

Ainsworth was a big man and a very talented amateur boxer. His greatest contribution to the war effort may have been his extraordinary gift for sneaking up behind German soldiers and capturing them. The fact he grabbed guys and took them back alive no doubt made him popular with his battalion’s intelligence section. I'm not sure exactly how many he captured, but it was enough to make him famous within his batalion for it. If you want to know how good he was, consider this: he’s still alive more than 66 years after the war ended. Need I say more?

Before the end of the Normandy campaign, his luck ran out: a blast from an artillery shell injured him badly enough to get him discharged from the Royal Army. Of course, in combat, luck is a relative thing: I’ve heard that he and the company cook were just about the only survivors of that outfit.

I once saw a picture of the senior Mr. Ainswroth with his late wife. I noticed two arms, two legs, no eye patch. He had a career teaching school, and he fathered three children. I thought to myself, Well, apparently the Krauts did not hit anything too important. In the US armed forces, any injury serious enough to get one out of combat but not cripple you for life is known as a “million-dollar wound.” Sounds like that’s what Lance Corporal Ainsworth got.

I’ve never met Mr. Ainsworth, but I’ve heard quite a bit about him because he had a son named Phillip who managed to attend Hartford College, Oxford, and while helping out with the Ohio State summer program there, managed to win the heart of a Ohio State co-ed named Diane Spring. I was tapped to be best man the day after St Patrick’s Day, 1978. That is one summer romance that turned out very well indeed: 33 years and two children later, Phil and Diane are still together.

Most of my American readers are familiar with Ed McMahon’s prize patrol giveaway: once a year, he’ll knock on some randomly (?) selected household and give them a check for ten million dollars. My readers will please forgive my bizarre sense of humor, but it has occurred to me that Private Ainsworth was a battlefield philanthropist for the Germans he captured. Anyone who’s ever seen Saving Private Ryan might have the smallest inkling of what a living hell combat in Normandy 1944 must have been like. In that situation as a German soldier, would you rather have a) all the tea in China b) all the gold in Fort Knox, c) all the Rockefeller money d) all of the above or e) a free ocean cruise to a POW camp in Canada where you’d get three meals and a bed for the next year? (all-time creditable towards German pensions).

I usually call my friend Phillip right before Christmas—December 24 is his birthday—and I think of his dad and the fact that somewhere in Germany, there are probably still a number of elderly men getting to celebrate Christmas with their families because LC Ainsworth took a prisoner didn’t kill them (any of those guys ever go to the trouble of sending Phil’s dad a Christmas card? Those ungrateful Kraut bastards!)

I’ve heard that only one German soldier, a soldier in the Waffen SS, who resisted, and LC Ainsworth had to kill him. I’ve also heard that’s an incident that haunts his dreams to this day.

I’ll probably never get to meet Phil’s dad. If I do, I’d like to say, Congratulations for making the world a better place. The destruction of Nazi Germany is one of the noblest causes man has ever fought for (I’m proud of the fact my father and uncle both fought in that conflict). What I’d say to him is if killing a man haunts him, then he should be glad he is not a complete sociopath. There are people who actually enjoy that sort of thing, and they are very scary creatures indeed. It’s a shame that German soldier passed up a chance at life, but that’s the choice he made. A whole lot of men had to die to win WWII.

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