August 11, 2005
Old Cowboy, New Tricks: Lessons from Bill Bricker’s Adventurous Life
By F. Josephine Arrowood
Octogenarian William Bricker doesn’t typically practice inverted postures, but he does turn on its collective head some stereotypical notions of what it means to grow old in youth-obsessed America. In appearance, the white-haired, tanned Glen Arbor resident blends in with many a retiree as he negotiates his three-wheeler bike or white Beetle convertible through town. But beneath his mild appearance beats the heart of a cowboy, passionate teacher, decorated Marine veteran, and fun-loving world traveler.
Like so many of his generation, Bill’s life was shaped by world events far beyond his midwestern hometown of Winnetka, Illinois. The son of a baker, Bill came of age during the Great Depression. At the same time, war was afoot in both Europe and the Pacific, and although the United States was not yet officially involved, young men were required to register for the draft.
“You knew you were living on borrowed time,” he remarks. “Every month, you looked for the letter in the mail telling you to report to the Army. When my number came up, I raced over to the naval air base and joined the Marines instead.”
“At first, we never thought we’d really kill somebody,” says Bill. “Our training put us in the mindset of killing Japanese; the dummies all had Japanese faces, we had to yell things at the targets while using the bayonet.”
November 1944 saw Bill aboard the U.S.S. Wharton, heading for the South Pacific islands of Peleliu (Palau). He recounts the initiation of the Marines by the Navy servicemen running the ship. The “rites” included tomfoolery such as walking along the rigging clad in little more than combat boots while sighting through toilet paper roll binoculars, kissing King Neptune’s daughters — “two of the biggest, fattest, ugliest, hairiest Navy guys they could find!” — and diving into the water, being sprayed with fire hoses, and shouting, “I’m a clamback!” The initiation eventually became a slugfest when some Marines wrested the fire hoses from their tormentors and blasted them, which Bill witnessed from high in the rigging.
The young officer’s initiation into war’s realities was a more serious affair. After landing on Japanese-held Okinawa on April Fools’ Day 1945, the Marines discovered that their opponents had left two-thirds of the island empty, fleeing to the mountainous terrain at one end. Using artillery mounted on railroad tracks in caves, the Japanese poured a constant, lethal rain of fire on troops trying to cross the wide valley below.
Bill’s account of the battle that ensued is as vivid as any Hollywood film, but without the gloss. “You know, in the movies, all the soldiers are shown as grown men, which is false,” he notes. “In my platoon, only one other soldier besides myself was over 21. My ‘runner’ was only 15 years old. He was from a poor family in the South; his parents had lied to get him into the service.”
Bill credits a cheap watch with saving his life during the assault on the cliffs. After an initial dawn attack by U.S. ships at sea firing long-range missiles, and Navy pilots bombing the caves from their Corsairs, the infantry was set to charge uphill at 8 a.m.
“I took two-thirds of my men (about 25 soldiers) up a long narrow hill. We were running, falling, crawling, getting back up and running again, with flamethrowers, machine guns, and other gear. We got to the top, which had been flattened by our artillery earlier. One of my fellows was killed as he dug his foxhole right above me. My runner had the radio strapped on his shoulder; when he took it off there was a bullet hole right through it — and his shoulder. So we couldn’t communicate with anyone.”
When they looked down and saw all the rest of the troops begin their charge, Bill realized his watch had been running 20 minutes fast. So many were killed, he says, including the entire remainder of his platoon.
Dug into foxholes, with no radio, his little group was forced to play a very tense waiting game through that long first day and into the night, enduring sniper fire, combat fatigue, and psychological warfare from the Japanese.
“I had two men in every foxhole, with one keeping awake at all times in case of attack. At some point in the night we heard voices calling: ‘Marines! Tonight you die, Marines!’ I went from hole to hole to check on my men, talking all the while so I wouldn’t be shot by them.” In one hole, he discovered that his machine gunner had dug himself down six feet deep; he had, Bill says simply, “cracked up.”
Later, they heard voices again, and Bill decided it must be a couple of Japanese soldiers setting up a mortar. He and another man crawled downhill with grenades in each hand. When they threw them, the flash lit up the night to reveal about a hundred combatants, who had been receiving instructions from their officers.
“I don’t know how I got up the hill; I must have flown, “ he recalls. The soldiers came after them, screaming, “Banzai!” — a kind of suicide charge by the young troops, made fearless by opium and saki.
When a grenade exploded behind Bill, his right arm took the brunt of the blast. For the next two days, with the injured limb tucked uselessly into his shirt, he was forced to fight with his left hand. Later he would receive the Purple Heart (wounded in action) and the Silver Star (valor on the field of battle), but he never regained the use of his arm, except for a finger and his thumb.
He says somberly, “Back then, we just fought hand-to-hand, face-to-face. We took no prisoners. You got them, or they got you.
“One of my jobs was to do a daily death count of both sides. [To make sure they were dead] we were to bayonet each one once in the belly. One of my men came running to me and said, ’Spider’ — my code name — ‘I can’t do it! There’s a beautiful woman down there!’
“He took me to a spot where a woman lay, with long hair flowing. She had been a ‘comfort girl,’ either a Korean or Okinawan woman forced into sexual slavery,” for the Japanese army’s use. They found two other women on the battlefield that day.
Bill then tells the story of the last man he killed, and how it altered his life.
“There was an officer wounded on the ground, and after I killed him, I collected his pistol, and a bunch of photographs. That was a Marine tradition, to get ‘souvenirs’ off the bodies — things like guns, knives, personal mementos. Later, after the heat of the battle, I was completely worn out. Then I looked at the bloody photos for the first time. They showed the man with his wife, a baby, and other family members.
“That was a day of revelation for me,” Bill states, the distress on his face still strong after 60 years. “Suddenly, I realized this was a human being, not just a rat to be killed. After that, I became anti-war.”
Bill spent the next 18 months in hospitals, battling gangrene in his arm, and the doctors who wanted to amputate. The medical men also attempted surgeries to reattach his severed nerves, but with little success. Bill notes this time as a nadir in his life. “Ididn’t know what I could do, or what I wanted to be,” he says. “And no one talked about my war experiences; they thought they weren’t supposed to.”
“The day I left the hospital, I ran into a man who changed my life,” he recalls of the new chapter that was to open up for him. Wendell Wilson had recently founded the Teton Valley Ranch in Wyoming, and offered the young veteran a job teaching children to ride horses. Bill was able to use his Marine captain skills to teach, organize and encourage youngsters in a new way.
“Being in the hospital for so long creates a lot of doubts in your head,” he remarks. “Going to a beautiful place with physical challenges, like horseback riding, hiking, and mountain climbing, changed my outlook. I owe a great debt of gratitude to [Wilson].”
How did a man with a paralyzed arm learn to be a bronco-busting cowboy? Bill smiles gleefully as he reveals that bronco riders use only their left hand for reining their mounts. Traditionally, a cowboy would keep his right hand free to wield a rifle or lasso while riding the range. Bill competed often as an amateur, winning prizes like Pendleton blankets, belt buckles, spurs, and other prizes donated by local merchants. A spectacular photo shows him in the rodeo ring, riding high on the neck of a wild mule, looking impressive — until Bill reveals, laughing, that he was in the process of being thrown from the animal.
Through college, a 37-year career teaching physical education in the Winnetka schools, 50 years as a Boy Scout leader, and long past the time when most would have gone to pasture, Bill spent 53 summers at Teton Valley, teaching all things Western to generations of children, “from those who loved horses to those who were terrified.” Boys and girls ages 10 to 15 learned responsibility by brushing, feeding, saddling and mounting their assigned mixed-breed quarter horses. Riding lessons included barrels (clover pattern), poles (slalom), and roping, and Sunday was rodeo day.
The ranch, near Jackson Hole, became a mecca for the wealthy and famous as well. Some of Bill’s students included Land Lindbergh, the son of pioneer aviator Charles Lindbergh; young Bill Paxton; and a son and nephew of King Hussein of Jordan — complete with bodyguards. The movie Shane, with Alan Ladd, was filmed there, and Bill recalls chaperoning young female campers to the set to see their “dreamboat,” only to come away disappointed upon meeting a short, middle-aged actor whose wife, Bill laughs, “looked a lot like their own mothers!”
In the fall of 2002, Bill was riding his bike in Glen Arbor when a car struck him. The accident fractured his hip, among other injuries, and left him unable to continue his life’s passion, teaching at Teton Valley. “That was my favorite thing to do in the world,” the cowboy sighs. “I miss the horses, but I’m grateful for the long time I had there. I’ve made a lot of lasting friendships,” including his favorite horse General, given to him a few years ago by the ranch’s current owners. Last summer in Montana, a mutual friend arranged a reunion with Land Lindbergh, whom he hadn’t seen in 40 years. Bill travels regularly to see other ranch alumni, and this spring completed grueling back-to-back journeys to both Honolulu and Munich, Germany, invitations that were “just too good to pass up!”
At 85, Bill still seeks adventure, mostly right in Glen Arbor. He has tried storytelling at the Beach Bards’ bonfire, plays cowboy guitar, kayaks on the Crystal River, shows evidence of a strong green thumb in the garden, defeats The New York Times crossword puzzle every Sunday, and enjoys gatherings with extended family.
He mentions a movie, Pass It Forward, whose plot involves the idea of bestowing the blessings or gifts that one has gotten in life to another beneficiary. Bill’s own transformation at Teton Valley Ranch inspired him to create a scholarship fund for campers. In addition, he plans to leave the bulk of his estate as a charitable trust to the ranch, so that future adventurers can learn not only how to be “plumb Westerners,” but also learn about themselves, what they‘re capable of, and hopefully, pass on their own legacies someday.
Posted by editor at August 11, 2005 12:02 PM
Mrs. Linklater comments: Funny. This article never mentions why he left his job as a teacher. Or any of the boys he invited into his tent when he was a scout leader. Or any of the kids who were in his troop who ended up committing suicide.
Link to archived comments made about the original article [now deleted] posted by Mrs. L on 11/28/12 HERE: