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The dreams were always set on top of mountains, looking down into the eyes of German soldiers peeping over fences or rocks. Those dreams went on for 10 to 15 years after John Mason Rucker came home from his service with the Army during World War II.
A newly-minted 90-year-old (he reached the milestone on June 16), Rucker doesn’t dream about those experiences anymore. His memory, however, is still crystal-clear enough to recall his service in a war that was perhaps the most important in the past century.
“I think that World War II was the only war that threatened the United States,” Rucker said.
That’s why he didn’t fight the fact that he was drafted as a teenager. At the time, Rucker had been working on a farm to help provide for his family after dropping out of the eighth grade.
Rucker was enlisted in the Army and traveled to Mississippi for basic training. He made a couple of stops at other bases in the United States, then was shipped to England, where he would serve as a rifleman.
His role would take on a much larger historical context in June of 1944. While Rucker was not present on the Normandy beaches on D-Day, he and his group arrived two days after that famous battle began.
“When we got on that ship in Belfast, Ireland, and we were going across that water, I guarantee you could hear a pin drop because we knew where we were going (Normandy),” he said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen to us. And a lot of them didn’t make it.”
After surviving the storming of the beaches and the ensuing battle, Rucker was seriously injured a year later. He was shot off of a tank and knocked unconscious. Suffering from broken ribs, a broken arm, missing fingers and a head injury, he crawled to a hedgerow to get help.
“The only thing I heard was machine gun fire,” he said. “I don’t know how long I laid there until I woke up and figured it out. My helmet was off… I was just numb and 20 years old and scared to death.”
Battles were not the only memories that stand out to Rucker, both in dreams and in his everyday memories. The day a German soldier arrived at their camp waving a white flag sticks out in Rucker’s mind.
“There was one time we came back from the front line, and we were digging a trench, getting ready for night,” he said. “I looked up and this German was coming out of there with a little white flag waving. And when he came to me, he just got down on his knees … and they got a translator … and he said he wanted to give up. They told him that he’d have to stay there that night. So he started digging and then he started crying. He said he thought he was digging his grave. He said, ‘I have a wife and four children and one day I’d like to be back with them.’”
Although Rucker did not yet have a wife to come home to himself, he was still anxious to be back on American soil where he “felt free,” especially after suffering his injuries.
After Rucker was shot off the tank in July of 1945, he spent 18 months in various hospitals, both abroad and back in the states. Suffering from a blood clot close to his lung because of his broken rib, he ended up at an Indiana hospital, where he was finally released home.
Paying for a bus ride back to his parents’ home in Shelbyville, however, was not something Rucker was interested in. Instead, he hitchhiked.
“I was just happy I was coming home,” he said.
Good things were on the horizon for Rucker. He went on a blind date, where he met his eventual wife, Irene. It only took the couple five months to decide they wanted to be with each other permanently. They were married on the Fourth of July.
“We’re kind of getting used to each other now,” Irene said.
Rucker also fought for a job at GE upon returning to America. He had to go to two different doctors until one would tell the company that Rucker could work despite his right hand being in disrepair. The hand only has four remaining fingers, with his pinky sticking out at an angle and unable to function.
He spent 29 years at the company, providing for a family that eventually grew to three children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Rucker is now celebrating 67 years of marriage and 90 years of life – a life that is not marred anymore by the haunting dreams of German soldiers, but instead strengthened by knowledge of what he contributed to World War II.
“I’m just one little soldier,” he said. “But we made things happen. We didn’t let Adolf Hitler do what he wanted to do … We wouldn’t have been free if he had won.”