Each stone holds a story…
This is the story of G.I. Joe & Lillie...
It’s 8 a.m., and the iron gates have just opened for the day as he drives into the heart of Virginia—Arlington National Cemetery. Today promises to be beautiful spring day with the sun casting it’s warm rays upon the blue sky.
He parks his car in the visitor’s lot. He gets out of the vehicle and turns back to grab the one item that was left on the passenger seat. It’s a book. One that is more valuable to him than anyone can imagine.
His first stop is the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier. Twenty-one paces, twenty-one seconds an about face and twenty-one more paces, the Honor Guard counts. It reminds him of the twenty-one gun salute in honor of each of his parents at their internment. In the silence of the morning, he stands watching in awe. He bows his head and sends a silent ‘thank you’ to all who have served and to all who have died. Just before he leaves, he sends another prayer up to God, for those who are serving ‘over there.’
“Let them be safe in your hands, dear Lord...” he prays.
The early morning dew gives the freshly cut green grass an extra shine this morning. It reminds him of the shine upon the shoes of the Honor Guard. He knows exactly where he is heading and he doesn’t need a map to get him there.
“Worshipful...It’s worshipful, it’s sacred ground and you feel it. You feel it...” solemnly shares Joe Bonsall of the Oak Ridge Boys. “That sign that says ‘around you is the bivouac of the dead’ and you feel it.”
Bivouac indeed. He has been here several times before, but this time its different. He is on a mission. A mission to deliver the end result of a promise that he had made so many years prior.
The snow white rows of endless tombstones seizes his heart each and every time he walks upon these hallowed grounds. Each stone holds a story. If only every story could be told…and every face put upon the names that grace these stones.
Just up a hill and under a tree, is one snow white tombstone that he knows their story all to well. Graced upon its face are two names—Joseph S. Bonsall and Lillie M. Bonsall—his Father and Mother.
Each stone holds a story and this snow white stone holds two stories that became one. This is the story of G.I. Joe and Lillie...
He had always known that his father had been in war. To many nights he awoke with a start as his father would relive the memories he so wanted to forget.
“I remember him getting up from nightmares, yelling and screaming and running down the hallway shooting…” shares Joe. “My mother holding him in her lap in the hallway up there—a little two story row house. I remember my mother holding him and rocking him in the hallway and just being in a cold sweat. Really I didn’t even know if he was going to die sometimes, he was in such a mental state.”
They called it ‘shell shock’ back then. Today, we call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, and his father suffered from it. It is no wonder he had shell shock for Joe Sr., also known as G.I. Joe, was a hero in World War II. His tale is one for the history books as he endured the carnages of war on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. D-Day plus fifty. Fifty days he had fought with his unit in the hedgerows of France. Fifty days of endless fighting, then came the breaking point.
G.I. Joe had witnessed the horror of his Lieutenant get killed. The scene so horrific made G.I. Joe rise up and storm the enemy with anger and all he had. The enemy fought back, filling G.I. Joe’s body with bullets and shrapnel; leaving his body full of fragmentation. For nearly four days, he had been left for dead. Someone from the next wave of troops found him still alive. He was just twenty years old.
“I was a pretty young guy.” shares Joe. “I found all the medals up there in the drawer and wanted to know about ‘em. And he would say ‘they don’t mean anything. Just put ‘em back there. I didn’t deserve any one of ‘em.’ That would be the extent of it.”
Amongst the medals that G.I. Joe had been awarded were The Silver Star, The Bronze Star and The Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters. The two oak leaf clusters signified that he had been awarded the Purple Heart three times for wounds sustained while in combat.
Now back in those days, you weren’t a true American unless you took part in the War Effort. Ms. Lillie was willing to do her part as she joined the Women’s Army Corps., WAC. Corporal Lillie’s story is another for the history books. It is then that this story continues…
“Because of my mother’s influences, I would say that I have tried my best to be a good vessel for patriotism and for America and the flag.” shares Bonsall. “My mom taught me well there. My mother was the kind of woman that cried when the flag went by, you know what I mean? It’s hard not to be influenced by that.”
The war was almost over and Lillie was one of the brave Americans to help usher the wounded home. Early one morning she walked into a hanger at Mitchel Field. At the time the hanger was filled with wounded soldiers waiting for their paperwork to be completed. There were soldiers sitting down, standing up and on stretchers.
Across the hanger, Lillie saw a soldier sitting in a wheel chair all alone. She thought that he might need attention and walked over to him. As she got closer, the soldier winked at her and said “Hello, Doll.” The conversation led to a kiss that eventually led to the marriage of G.I. Joe and Lillie, six days later.
“My mother was so patriotic. She loved the soldiers. She loved this country. She loved my father, she stuck with him through thick and thin and she was a good mother on top of all of that!” tells Joe.
In 1999, Joe Bonsall captured the story of his parents in a song he wrote called “G.I. Joe & Lillie."
The Oak Ridge Boys recorded this beloved ballad for their album Colors. The album consists of twelve beautifully recorded patriotic songs including two other Songs For Soldiers called “An American Family” and the title cut. It is “G.I. Joe & Lillie” that we are honored to nominate for the Spirit Award’s Spirit of America Award. The song has also been nominated for the Song of The Year as well.
“Oh my God, it was the most incredible thing!” replies Joe about his parent’s reaction to the song. “They were both down their crying. At least they got to hear the song. They never got to read the book. But they did hear the song. In fact several times after that big concert, I would visit them at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Veteran’s Center and I would sing it to my mother and father. I would sing it to them. Just me and them in the room. Mother would always want to hear it. She would want to hear that and ‘Never Hurts To Hurt Sometime’ the Oak Ridge Boys hit. She loved ‘Never Hurts To Hurt.’ So therefore, she saddled me with that.
I’ve got to tell you, singing ‘G.I. Joe & Lillie’ live for a long time was so hard for me. It was so hard, because if I could do the song and not see them I was okay. I had to play tricks with my mind as I sang the song. I had make it like it was just like any other song, sing it with feeling—like I would do it like any other meaningful song, but not see them. But if I was singing that song and all of a sudden I could see them—like a vision of them came across my mind’s eye as I was singing...oh boy that was hard!”
The journey and actions that G.I. Joe and Lillie took through the war was only a small part of their lives. Throughout his life, G.I. Joe would endure countless surgeries to remove all the remnants of war that ravaged his body. At the age of thirty-nine, G.I. Joe suffered a major stroke that took his voice and part of his body. Through it all, Ms. Lillie stayed with him. She loved him beyond what many can even imagine.
Their story of hope, love and survival was captured in a book called G.I. Joe & Lillie. Written by their son, Joe Bonsall, the book is a page turner that will make you want to read it over and over again. Their story is one of many that make up the vast history of American survival. A story of an American family that endures war, far after war is over. More so, it’s a real life story about true love.
He has reached his destination. Over 400,000 snow white tombstones with over 400,000 stories are located on 624 acres of beautiful hallowed ground. As he nears their tombstone, his heart fills with pride as his soul still trickles with sorrow. His mission is done, as he places the book upon the headstone.
“There you go mommy...I have written yours and daddy’s story…”
They just don’t make them like that anymore, not like…
G.I. Joe & Lillie
(This article was printed in the May / June 2017 issue of Strictly Country Magazine.)
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