Those Like Him

The following is the first in a series of articles associated with the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America. Kirk Bohls is the second vice-president of the Football Writers Association of America and was named the 2011 Texas Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. Bohls has worked at the Austin American-Statesman since 1973, including the past 18 years as a columnist. The Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America was created by the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl in June 2012 “to honor an individual and/or a group within the realm of the sport of football.”

By Kirk Bohls

Leon Bohls rarely talked about the war, and he wasn’t even in harm’s way for the most part.

Many of those who have served our country kept their emotions, their doubts, their fears to themselves long after their time in the military, and my father was like that. Some suffered in silence, and some have had trouble dealing with what they saw or what they had to do to survive. But all understood the sacrifice that was necessary in time of war, the ultimate sacrifice in far too many cases.

My father hadn’t been on the front line, and he didn’t fly bomber missions. But he worked on many of those planes that did in World War II and lost friends in that conflict during his time on with the Army’s 99th Bomber Group on bases in North Africa and Italy.

So it’s with special pleasure that I was privileged to serve on a panel that has selected the recipients for the inaugural Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America for their devotion to country. The goal for the award is “to honor an individual and/or a group within the realm of the sport of football that has created, developed and/or produced a program which provides care, concern and support for past or present members of the United States armed forces and/or their families or a player, coach, administrator or staff member who has served in the military.

My father played football for three seasons on the freshman and B-teams for the University of Texas from 1931-1933 and helped prepare a varsity led by Ernie Koy and Harrison Stafford. He’d been a star running back and kick returner for the Taylor Ducks where he earned the nickname “Leaky” for the way he leaked through defensive tacklers.

I have very few keepsakes from my father, but I still have the khaki Army laundry bag he used during the war and think of him often whenever I use it to deliver my dry cleaning. I also have the small, grainy picture of a 30-something Leon Bohls as he stood in front of the Roman coliseum, one of the few items that my dad kept from the war.

Until my three brothers and I found the 13 Bronze Stars he earned that he privately kept in the chest of drawers in his bedroom and never spoke of. But that was my dad.

He did keep a diary of his days overseas, but the entries in his journal were succinct and offered few details.

“Christmas, 1943 - Mission … no bombs dropped. Rain, wind and snow”

“December 29, 1943 - Two Wellingtons blew up taking off on runway”

“January 9, 1944 - New B-17G arrived, assigned to crew”

“January 13, 1944 - First of twelve consecutive missions”

“January 24, 1944 - Raid to Safir, Bulgaria; into Romania; Lt Hoover lost; 2nd Bomb Group lost 6 planes”

Leon Bohls understood sacrifice and commitment and devotion to country and community. And he lived his life that way for 94 years as the proud son of a cotton farmer in Taylor, Texas. My dad was in many ways emotionally detached until later in his life, stoic and old-fashioned, stubborn and disciplined but giving and grateful for a life well lived.

He did keep much of the mail he received overseas, including a letter my grandfather wrote to my dad in Italy on the eve of the war’s end on May 11, 1945. It offered a snapshot of ordinary life back home, a lifestyle that he and his fellow servicemen protected.

My dad’s brother Alvin and wife Ruth had delivered another baby boy. My grandfather said the baby chicks were doing fine for the most part although a few hadn’t survived. The bluebonnets were still blooming on the roadsides, and the sweet corn was tasseling. Rev. Krueger had given another excellent sermon Sunday past.

“If this nasty war would only be over,” my grandfather wrote, “ the boys that are over there two or more years surely should come back and let the British and Canadians do a little more; not only the yanks. May the dear Lord protect and save and keep you in his gracious care and bring you home. Love, Mom & Dad P.S. “Ate our first peaches today on the tree up front.”

Once he returned home, safe from the dangers of war, Leon Bohls knew to give back and did his entire life as he delivered a message of service and responsibility.

Leon Bohls didn’t get that letter until he returned home from overseas. Once he came home, he served his family and community with distinction as well as he did his country. He led the local Boy Scout troop and was president of the Little League and the local school board, the church vestry and probably several other organizations I didn’t even know about. But it began with service to his country, and it is in that grateful spirit, that we honor those like him with the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America.