When Hugh Smith lifted the bandaged body of Joe Mann from the battlefield near Best, Holland, in September 1944, he didn’t know he was carrying a former high school football rival.
“All I knew was that he was the guy that jumped on the hand grenade,” said Smith, known as “Smitty” in the corridors of the Evergreen Fountains retirement home in Spokane Valley where he resides with his wife, Anita.
Twenty-three years and thousands of miles separate Mann and Bruce Grandstaff, the two men for whom the Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center will be officially renamed today. What binds them is a dedication to the service of country for which both men lost their lives and earned the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor.
Grandstaff’s daughter Tami Grandstaff-Chamberlain lives in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood with her two children, descendants of the North Central High School graduate who on May 18, 1967, died in battle in Pleiku province near the Vietnam border with Cambodia. Surrounded for hours by hundreds of armed enemies with a squad of just 30 men, Grandstaff fired tracer rounds to guide friendly helicopter fire and decimated a machine-gunning crew with grenades. Eight men fighting with Grandstaff credit the platoon sergeant for saving their lives.
“We’re being overrun – place the artillery on top of me. I’ve got eight men left,” were Grandstaff’s last radioed words to command, conveyed in a letter informing the family of his death in battle.
“I never forgot my daddy,” Grandstaff-Chamberlain said. He is buried in the Honor section of Greenwood Memorial Terrace in north Spokane. Three years ago, words etched in granite describing his heroism, composed by Grandstaff-Chamberlain in collaboration with the Fairmount Memorial Association, were installed near his grave. His medals and honors, including a Purple Heart and the Medal of Honor, will be brought from their display case at North Central to the naming ceremony today.
Grandstaff-Chamberlain said the commemoration is one answer to a prayer she said over his gravestone, a simple plea for help that also led her from her home in the Dallas/Fort Worth area back to her father’s hometown. She wanted her children, Molli and Michael Bruce Chamberlain, to learn at the same schools as their grandfather. It’s taken Grandstaff-Chamberlain a lifetime to deal with the grief birthed that day when she was 6 years old and a baby sitter said her father was dead.
She’s nervous to deliver remarks at the dedication this morning but feels compelled to share her father’s story of sacrifice with a younger generation.
“I never dreamt all of this would happen,” she said.
Mann, a Reardan native, has long been honored at home and overseas for his heroics on Sept. 19, 1944, in Operation Market Garden – an ultimately failed attempt to put the Germans on their heels in the Netherlands and end the war before Christmas. Smith said he grew up about an hour from Mann in Almira, Wash., and the two would square off in six-man football games in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
They met again following Mann’s self-sacrifice.
Injured in both shoulders from enemy gunfire while trying to take a bridge near Best, about 40 miles west of the German border, Mann refused to leave the front lines. When Germans began lobbing hand grenades, called “potato mashers” for their resemblance to the kitchen tool, at his position in a counterattack, Mann covered one with his body because his arms were pinned by slings.
“If they could still go back, put their arm in a sling or something, they’d go back,” said Smith, who served with the 101st Airborne division as personal guard to medics during campaigns in Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge and guard duty near Adolf Hitler’s Austrian chalet. “They didn’t get a free ticket.”
A monument in Best was erected in Mann’s honor, and the Netherlands still celebrates the liberation from Nazi rule. Back home, an Army reserve center in Hillyard, operating from the 1950s through 2011, was named for Mann, and a memorial was dedicated in his honor at Greenwood Terrace in 2008.
For Grandstaff-Chamberlain, the renaming is a validation for her father’s heroism in Vietnam that has been a long time coming.
“Vietnam’s left us with a scar that’s taken a long time to heal,” she said. She’s doing her best to heal that scar with spoken words and a picture collage of her father, including one of her as an infant dozing on a grinning Bruce Grandstaff’s chest. Grandstaff-Chamberlain is also attending online classes to earn a degree in social science, with plans of helping those like her daughter, who has Down syndrome, and children who have lost a parent in combat.
“I have a feeling that this is not really an ending but a beginning,” Grandstaff-Chamberlain said.