“Patton slapped that guy for sure.” It’s amazing what you learn when you interview a piece of history.
That’s what it felt like, speaking to 95-year-old (as of December 20th of this year) Orien Earl Haguewood of Hemet. “As a matter of fact…he slapped at least two different men,” Haguewood recounted. “I served under General Patton, fought under him…but I never actually met him or even saw him,” said Haguewood.
Haguewood has the natural temperance of someone who has seen much, accomplished more…and does not need to brag. His cadence belies the fact that, at heart, this is still a young man from Ozark, Missouri who was doing his best to serve his country in a time of need. “I never thought of myself as anything but a soldier: sure as hell, not a hero. I served under General Patton throughout the Africa campaign, and did the best I could.” The best he could was pretty spectacular. “We chased Rommel every doggone day. We chased him throughout Africa…into Sicily…and right up into Italy itself.”
With complete humility, Haguewood turns his left shoulder slightly so I can see my first ever Purple Heart. Up close: on the breast of the man who won it. It was a humbling experience. It is kept company by three “good conduct” medals, and several “combat” and “disabled” veteran medals. But he’s no hero…not much. “See, we had Rommel-The Dessert Fox they called him…well, we had him on the run.
We outnumbered him. The Germans, they had these Teller mines. They only weighed 12 pounds…so they didn’t do much damage. But the Germans, knowing we were on their heels daily, they did everything they could to stop us. So they’d stack 10, 11…maybe a dozen of these mines in one hole.
That really did some damage.” “Some damage” is as much of an understatement about the effect of the mines, as Haguewoood makes about his years of service. Reluctantly he recounts the day when a dozen of these stacked mines did “some damage” to his tank. “Well now, the explosion ripped off the escape hatch, and put me in the hospital.”
After some prodding Haguewood tells of how the escape hatch-turned-shrapnel sheered his back, ripping off “a quarter-inch or more of skin, from the base of my spine to my neck. My ribs were partially exposed. Another eighth of an inch or so…and I’d have been dead on the spot.” With characteristic understatement, Haguewood recounts how the medics used an entire tin of “some powder” to staunch the bleeding, and then rushed him to an army hospital in Italy. “It was run by all US personnel, but boy, I have to tell you…those Italian nurses were somethin’ else,” Haguewood recalls with a wink and a smile.
It surprised me to learn that his injury was not the most harrowing of experience of the war for Haguewood. “I followed orders and was a good soldier, but the thing that haunts me…that stays with me to this day…was the boys…they were little boys.” Boys? Little boys? “See,” Haguewood continues, “toward the end of the war, we were really overpowering and outmanning Rommel, and there was little he could do. From far away, his men fought as hard as they could. But then, several times, when it was apparent that we’d had a group of them overpowered and surrounded, they dropped their weapons and held their hands up.
As they walked forward in surrender, it was only then that we could see that his fighting “men” were little boys…eleven, twelve years old. They were little boys…kids…” Haguewood’s voice trails off in tears, and suddenly his face takes on a faraway, saddened look, and he is once again on the battlefield, facing the horrors of war…
After the war, Haguewood came back to California and joined the aircraft industry, working for all the major and minor companies in California.
“To this day, I machine all my own aircraft parts to exacting tolerances.” He still flies as well, showing off an aircraft that he built along the same lines as one of the Wright brothers airplanes. When pressed for advice on how to live a happy life, Haguewood snaps back quickly, “Your health. I’m happy everyday…and that’s part of good health. I never complain I eat lots and lots of vegetables…and I’m happy every day.”
Whether or not they know it, millions of Americans enjoy happiness and the freedoms they enjoy today because of heroes such as Orien Earl Haguewood. “I don’t consider myself a hero. I was just a soldier serving his country. I did the best I could under General Patton’s command. That man was a hell of a fighter and a terrific battle planner. But no, I don’t consider myself a hero.” After almost an hour of conversation, I found out one thing about Mr. Haguewood with which I could disagree: Earl Haguewood is a hero.