From left, painter Paul X. Rutz and sculptor Christopher Wagner work on a portrait of Bill Keys at Keys’ Portland, Oregon residence. A former Army scout, Keys was twice wounded and earned the Silver Star in Italy during World War II.
This article gets its title from a film. In Uncommon Valor, a Marine goes back to Vietnam and Laos to rescue his son ten years after he went missing. The story celebrates a small, fictional group of courageous combatants doing the right thing even after everyone has long ago abandoned the larger mission (keeping the Vietnam domino from falling to Communism). Released in 1983, the movie helped popularize the POW/MIA issue, one of many loose ends hanging off the hem of that war.
This portrait project sometimes feels all about loose ends. Working since January with veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, my partner in portraiture, Christopher Wagner, and I have become used to talking through the complicated echoes of those wars, the PTSD and marriage troubles and annoying exchanges with doctors at VA hospitals.
So a couple months ago it came as a mild shock to run across someone whose story of heavy combat is the opposite of complicated, a man who doesn’t talk about his combat experience as a series of negotiations about how to do the right thing in a swirl of competing tactical, political or cultural necessities.
Ninety-year-old Bill Keys is a proud member of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation, a man who lied about his age to get into the Army as a teen, and who helped liberate Italy from the grip of Fascism, earning a handful of medals along the way.
This man was shot by a sniper firing from the Leaning Tower of Pisa. No joke. Shot through the upper right arm. I measured the exit wound and painted an image of it. I measured the scars on his belly, too, from the incident that followed a few weeks later, in 1945.
Bill recovered from the Leaning Tower wound in time to rejoin his platoon in northern Italy and resume his duties as a scout, going around at all hours searching out German pill boxes and fox holes to give intelligence to his platoon on how best to defeat them. He snuck behind enemy lines with a partner, Herman, who spoke fluent German and somehow talked several Germans into surrendering.
On one of those excursions, a German machine gun nest got the better of Bill and Herman. Several rounds tore through Bill’s midsection, taking out his lower ribs, splitting open his belly, and dumping his intestines onto the ground. Herman hit the dirt and played possum while Bill rolled onto his back and used a handkerchief to wipe off his intestines, threading them back into his belly. As the German machine gunner lifted his weapon over the sand bags to change position, Bill (holding his belly closed with his left hand) used the toe of his right boot to steady his rifle muzzle. He shot the machine gunner between the shoulder blades and, when two other German soldiers poked their heads up to see where the shot came from, he killed each of them, too. One handed. Gut-shot and bleeding. Fifteen more Germans surrendered on the spot. Bill’s platoon came forward with stretchers, carrying him and Herman to safety. As soon as they made it to the triage area, Herman jumped off the stretcher with thanks to everyone for keeping him unscathed, while Bill underwent the first of many surgeries and the start of a two-year convalescence. He never saw Herman again.
I believe the story. I’ve read the citation that goes with Bill’s Silver Star, framed with other medals on the wall, and I’ve talked with a number of people who agree this act deserves another, bigger award. One reporter for the Oregonian is helping make Bill’s case for the Medal of Honor. All the right words are there: “ignoring his own wounds” and “singlehandedly” and “Nazis” and “liberated.”
The word “hero” never came up in our time working with Bill on his portrait. I’m sure he would have ducked the term, the way any honorable public servant would. Yet his story is so heroic, so good-versus-evil and so Rambo, were it part of a movie it would stretch even Hollywood’s cartoon limits of credibility. We’d have to cast a young John Wayne or Clint Eastwood and get Frank Capra to direct. We’d have to employ an orchestra with a big string section and audition an array of square-jawed men with short hair cuts to read solemn speeches about sacrifice for the country.
By contrast, when we work on the portraits of our Vietnam vets, to call their stories “complicated” is to barely scratch the surface. And so far, our conversations with Iraq and Afghan vets sound much more like our Vietnam era vets than like our representative of the World War II generation.
It’s easy to go too far and make sweeping generalizations from these encounters. We must remember the people who fought in World War II who came back with serious shell shock or who did things they’d rather forget, some never living down the crippling fear that caused them to freeze instead of firing their weapons, even to save their comrades. And of course Bill himself has simplified his story, long ago packing away any misgivings he had about his time in Italy.
Our cultural memory of World War II has allowed him to do so. In that war, men stormed beaches and hunted Nazis in the night. There were battle lines that moved in favor of the good guys, and it’s obvious who was the good guys. World War II was a sweet spot of maneuver warfare set between the entrenched attrition of the Great War and the hopelessly complicated anti-insurgencies that followed. Bill is the aging embodiment of that sweet spot, and that’s how we portrayed him.
Between Here and There is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher Wagner will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.