January 28, 2016
Yesterday, a fine man, a brave soldier, a loving husband and father, a staunch Democrat, and a dear friend was laid to rest in New Castle, PA. Albert T. Padula was 91 and he fought with my father, Virgil N. Brown, along with over 550 men in the 278th Field Artillery Battalion, during the World War II.
My dad, a Minnesota boy, had been plucked from his original unit and sent to officer training school. Forced to leave behind the friends he had joined with, he was redeployed to the 278th. That’s where he met Al and the rest of the men of Battery C, where he served as a Sergeant, then First Lieutenant.
Just before Dad’s death in May 2003, in Courtenay, British Columbia, Al reached out to talk to him and had several of the other ‘guys’ from Battery C called Dad, too. I know that gesture meant the world to my father. Taking the time to stay in touch was one of Al’s gifts.
Curiosity to know more about that period of my father’s life, a period he never said much about, led me to seek out these men a year after my dad died. In 2004, my friend, photographer Cheryl Hatch, and I traveled from Seattle, WA to Hershey for one of the reunions, which had been held almost yearly since the end of the war. Al was especially welcoming to everyone and was the center of the festivities, supplying us all with ample portions of his homemade red wine.
Affable, easy-to-talk-to, Al was a great story-teller with many vivid memories of the war. He loved my dad, and I know my dad loved him. They both had such beautiful, tender hearts. Younger than my dad, Al was just a teenager when he joined the army, and he had grown up the hard way—on the field of war.
Photo © Cheryl Hatch Luanne Brown and Al Padula
Al shows me a framed picture from the past. This is the day we met. Fast friends from the beginning.
Al, a Technician 5th Grade, told me once that he had been really ‘pissed’ at my dad for taking him off the 240mm Howitzers they hauled around and fired. Dad made him the cook of the unit. I can only guess it was because Dad saw in Al the ability to get things done. Al told me how he had to create meals for dozens of people out of things he would find along the way, combined with the not-always-palatable rations.
Photo © Cheryl Hatch 2004 – Field photos of how the 240 mm Howitzer worked. The 278th fired 6008 rounds from seven of these cannons, which had a range of 14 miles. The 278th fought in four campaigns: Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes-Alsace and Central Europe. The photo is from a special exhibit honoring the 278th FABN at the Pennsylvania National Guard Military Museum, Fort Indiantown Gap.
Al told me about the hard times, the sad times, and the truly horrific times. He told me about the cold and the mud and the noise. But some of his best stories were about the good times; like the time they found an abandoned cow in the field, mooing from the pain of not being milked. My dad, a farm boy, got the job done and they feasted on the results.
Once, Dad ‘liberated’ a big cask of wine—or two—and ‘authorized’ an impromptu party. Al said he’d never forget the sight and sound of that French wine barrel being rolled down the cobblestone street by my dad. It gave him a hearty chuckle every time he told the story. “Oh, man. Did we have fun,” he’d say. And they deserved it.
“Your dad always treated us like human beings,” Al told me once. “Not like some of those other g. d. officers with their noses up in the air.” Like Al, my dad had a penchant for caring about others. Maybe that’s why they liked each other so much.
Then there was the time they came across two boys—escapees from the Dachau Karlsfeld sub-camp about 10 miles from Munich, and gave them shelter, food, and a safe place to stay for while. The boys, who spent had six years in various concentration camps, bunked in Al’s tent. But that’s not my story to tell. One of the boys, now in his 80’s, Walter Plywaski, tells the story beautifully and movingly. Please, read it here.
In 2006, I went to another reunion, with my husband, this time. We all took the bus on a day trip from Hershey to Washington D.C. to see the WWII Memorial. There seemed to be a variety of opinions—from ‘too little, too late’ to humility, awe, and gratitude. It was such a pleasure to be in the presence of these fine men and their families. And it was thanks to Al and Ted Herman, the grandson of Sergeant Samuel L. Herman from Battery A, that it happened.
Ted became a dear friend to Al, and to all the remaining men in the battalion, and did the leg work to keep the reunions going—especially as the once strong legs of the older men grew weary.
Photo © Cheryl Hatch – 2004 WWII memorabilia belonging to Sergeant Sam Herman.
Photo ©Cheryl Hatch 2004
Two members of the 278th explore the Pennsylvania Memorial at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery.
Al and I had spoken not too long before his unexpected death, as we frequently did. Our conversations always started the same way: “Brown!” he’d say. “Padula!” I’d say. And we’d laugh. We talked about subjects like our families—he always had loving and appreciative words to say about his wife, Cathy, and he was so proud of his daughter, Cheryl’s accomplishments, which included creating the wonderful website that honors all the men of the 278FABN.
Al would tell me about his political actions—back in the day—and now. The principles of liberty and justice still raged in his heart. These were the things he and his fellow soldiers fought for when they were barely men. He never abandoned his principles or his fellow soldiers. Not only did he keep in touch with me, he kept in touch with all the guys he served with. As they succumbed to the ravages of age, he would call me and say, “Well, Brown, we lost another one.” Then, he’d tell me their name and share an experience or two about each person. I know he took each loss hard.
Photo © Chery Hatch 2004 – 278th FABN reunion attendees, Fort Indiantown Gap Museum
In our conversations, Al had strong words for political parties, pundits, and demagogues who used tall tales and lies to advance their own ‘money-grubbing’ agenda. He knew how the American system of politics worked. He understood that we each had to take responsibility for how our country is run.
He was informed about the issues and where local and national politicians stood on the issues. He voted and believed we all had the responsibility to vote. These were sacred things to him. He, and the men he fought with, had stood up for these freedoms. They sacrificed their youth to keep the world free. They believed they had done something important for their country. I believe it, too.
Photo © Cheryl Hatch 2004
The men of the 278th FABN exhibit, with pride, the 2004 citation in honor of their service from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Al loved to laugh and we never had a phone conversation that didn’t leave me chuckling at something he said. Never one to mince words, he called life as he saw it. Life was tough, but so was Al. He became a hero to me. And I will miss our conversations more than I can say. I cherish him for the wonderful man he was and for the link he provided to my father.
Rest in peace, dear friend. Job—well done.
Photo © Cheryl Hatch 2004 – Al Padula and Luanne Brown
To Cathy and Cheryl, I send my sincere condolences and those of my family. We may have lost a hero, but you’ve lost a husband and father. I send my love to you both.
Thank you, Ted Herman. You gave the gift of remembering and respecting what these fine men did for our country. I know Al thought the world of you and your family and hoped that somehow you would carry the memory of the 278th forward after they were all gone.
My sincere thanks to Cheryl Hatch, of Isisphotos, for accompanying me on my first trip to meet the men of the 278th FABN in 2004. Your photos are amazing and a wonderful tribute to these brave men.
Top photo of Albert J. Padula © Cheryl Hatch 2004