Doug Robinson: WWII taught man to fight poverty

Published: Monday, Nov. 12 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Like most men of the greatest generation, Sterling Meldrum was not a man who talked much about the war or how he felt about it. He simply put one foot in front of the other and moved ahead.

A farm boy from Tremonton, he went to war for reasons some might consider quaint now. He fought in Italy, won medals for valor, saw things that both scarred and inspired him, returned to Utah and never left again. He raised a family, taught school, quietly supported the poor, served two missions for his church — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and worked hard to the very end. Just a few days before he died in 2010, he was mowing his lawn at the age of 85.

He was a man who never drew attention to himself, a man's man with one soft spot: He never got over "Brownie," the man who died in his arms on the battlefield of Italy.

"He was a very good man," recalls Alan Meldrum, one of Sterling's four children. "He was stern, disciplined, honest and tough."

According to statistics from the Veterans Administration, World War II vets are dying at a rate of 680 a day, which makes them a dwindling resource. Only about 1.5 million remain from the 16 million soldiers who served for the United States. Time is running out to collect the stories from men such as Meldrum.

A couple of years ago, on the occasion of his son's eighth birthday, Alan asked his father to tell his grandson of his war experiences. He told Brownie's story.

"That was the only time I ever saw my dad cry," Alan says.

His real name was Lyman Lish, and no one ever knew why he was called Brownie. They both served as radio operators in the 10th Mountain Division and struck up an instant friendship. Like Meldrum, Brownie was a farm kid — from McCammon, Idaho — and the only other man in the outfit who shared his LDS faith. Brownie talked frequently about his wife and the baby girl he saw only once, during a quick furlough. Their friendship was forged in hardship. They trained at Camp Hale, Colo., where, for five weeks, they endured 30-below temperatures in the mountains near Leadville. In January 1945, they were shipped to Naples, Italy, to fight a German stronghold in the homestretch of the war.

They stuck together and stood out as boys who didn't smoke, drink or cuss. Once, some of their fellow soldiers got drunk with several Italian girls and made "amorous" advances. Observing this from a distance, Meldrum and Brownie intervened and walked the girls home.

As the war unfolded around them, they were struck by the poverty. As farm kids, they had never known hunger, but now it was everywhere. They were appalled, especially by the sight of the starving children who would wait by the trash cans for leftovers American soldiers discarded. Brownie and Meldrum began eating only half of their meals so they could give the rest to the children, which was no small sacrifice, since they were scant rations to begin with. They vowed that after the war, they would do something to help the poor.

On the battlefield, they did their duty as the division advanced north to Verona and the Alps. One night, Meldrum was one of three men assigned to find a machine gun nest. They found it only when one of the other men got his head blown off. Meldrum called in the position to the artillery, which destroyed the nest. Eventually, the 10th crossed Lake Garda in amphibious vehicles and entered Benito Mussolini's villa, with the Americans grabbing the dictator's stash of fine liquor. By then, Brownie was no longer with them.

On April 15, 1945, three weeks before the war ended, the division was digging foxholes to protect themselves from shelling. "Dad got his foxhole done before the others, which was just like him," says Alan. "He never took a break when there was a job to be done. He did things fast. He did that with everything."

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