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."
This time, it saved his life. While everyone was relaxing, Meldrum received what he described as a spiritual impression to jump into his foxhole. Almost simultaneously, there was an explosion and a ball of fire where he had been standing. Afterward, he climbed out of the hole and held Brownie in his arms as Brownie died.
"He always talked about Brownie, not so much the combat," Alan recalls. "My dad said Brownie was a man of class and distinction. He said: 'One day, Brownie told me I was the best friend he ever had. I felt honored, because Brownie was the best friend that I had ever had. To this day, more than 50 years later, he is still the best friend I ever had.' "
True to the vow he made with Brownie, after the war and for the rest of his life, Sterling paid 10 percent of his income each month to charities ?— after he paid tithing to his church and taxes to his government. He never discussed this with anyone; it was only later, after he was gone, that Meldrum's widow, Shirley, told her children.
"He felt like his life was preserved for a reason," Alan says. "He wanted to serve his country the best he could when he returned and help those in need. He never forgot the poverty he saw."
After the war, he earned a master's degree in English and taught the subject at West High for 35 years while also serving in the Air Force Reserve. He once told his children: "When I enlisted in the Army, I knew that there would be hardships and sacrifices, and that I may have to give up my life. I thought about this hard, and was willing to die for my country and my God. More specifically, I wanted to help the many people in Europe who were being subjected to tyrannical leaders, poverty, abuse and loss of personal freedom, and I was willing to sacrifice everything to bring joy, love, peace and happiness into their hearts."
During the war, he vowed never to leave America again if he made it home alive. He said it was his way "of honoring my country, and my Heavenly Father, who allowed me to be born here."
He never did leave American soil again, even when his wife won an expense-paid trip to Scotland a few years ago.