At the close of a divisive political campaign, two very real heroes came to mind last week. Bradford Freeman’s service during World War II is a story that has become legendary. The late Robert “Uncle Bunky” Williams devoted his life to helping children.
Last week, France honored Freeman by awarding him the French Legion of Honor. Williams did not receive an honor but something he would have rather seen than any honor — his beloved Cubs won the World Series. Those two men show us who the real heroes are.
The real heroes of America are everyday people like Freeman and Williams who put service to country and home above self-interest and risked their lives so that the rest of us might enjoy ours. Freeman served during World War II in the legendary “Band of Brothers” of Easy Company, 2nd Battalion, 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 101st Airborne Division. Williams, an Air Force veteran, turned down a job offer from Walt Disney Studios to work with children in Columbus, first as a children’s television personality and then as a child abuse and neglect investigator for the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department. They are prime examples of the tradition of selfless service found in veterans and active duty American airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines and in civilians such as law enforcement and other first responders.
Bradford Freeman quietly lives in Caledonia and is a genial, unassuming man. But he is one whose wartime exploits became part of a best selling book by Stephen Ambrose and an award winning television mini-series, “A Band of Brothers.”
Freeman lived history in the World War II European Theater during and after the Normandy Assault. His stories can range from D-Day to recollections of giving candy to children in newly liberated towns to meeting Prince Charles of Great Britain and now to being presented the French Legion of Honor. He recalls the addresses by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower to the troops on June 5, the day before the D-Day landing.
His stories are real and come alive as he tells them. I asked about the small metal clickers/crickets used as a signaling device during the D-Day airborne assault while talking with him one day last year. His answer was to pull one out of his pocket that was attached to his keys. The stories he tells are the real accounts from which history is written.
His unit parachuted behind enemy lines to knock out German artillery aimed at what would soon be the Utah Beach landing the night before the D-Day landing. In the nighttime confusion, they were dropped and landed several miles from their planned drop zone.
That turned out to be a blessing as the Germans were expecting an airborne assault to land in the planned drop zone and had set a trap. Easy Company with other units successfully destroyed the German artillery emplacements threatening Utah Beach.
In September 1944, Easy Company participated in a second combat jump during Operation Market Garden. That joint British, American and Allied operation was the subject of the book and the movie “A Bridge Too Far.” They helped hold off the German attack at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge in late December. They saw firsthand German death camps and labor camps with their untold horror. Then, as the war ended, the company was the first Allied unit to enter Adolf Hitler’s famed mountain retreat, the “Eagle’s Nest.”
The story of Easy Company is an amazing one and, when you hear Bradford Freeman tell it, you are left in awe. It’s no wonder Stephen Ambrose chose to write A Band of Brothers. Their selfless service makes it clear to all veterans and to those currently serving in the military why we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be fully repaid.
We also owe a debt of gratitude to our first responders and law enforcement officers. As an investigator with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office handling child abuse and neglect cases, Robert “Uncle Bunky” Williams did all he could to help and protect children. He devoted his life to helping children even before going into law enforcement.
Bunky went to work for the WCBI Television in Columbus in 1958, hosting the children’s program, “Fun Time.” The show was on the air in the middle of the civil rights struggle. Beginning in the early to mid 1960s, Black and White children both appeared on the show. It is a tribute to Bunky that the show was not only the first integrated children’s television show in northeast Mississippi, but one of the first, if not the first, in the entire state. He was offered a job at Walt Disney Studios early in his career but had turned it down because he felt he had a calling to help children in his hometown.
Uncle Bunky was always active wherever and whenever he could help children in need. For years, he also entertained countless children who were attending Camp Rising Sun, a camp for children suffering from catastrophic illnesses.
Until the day he died, Bunky got calls from people who, when they were children, had their lives saved or turned around by him.
The country seems awfully divided and bitter now. Maybe we just need to think of some of the real heroes out there. Uncle Bunky Williams was one and Bradford Freeman is one.
Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at email@example.com.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.