Earl Cragon Baggett, known to all of us as Cragon, is a relative by marriage who has played a vital role during my entire life–continuing to this day. He married Mary Shelton, one of my mother’s half nieces, soon after the U. S. entered World War II.
He was drafted into the Army in August 1942 and was part of the first U. S. land invasion of Europe near Salerno, Italy, on September 9, 1943, entering into a prolonged bloody battle with the Germans that began before the landing force made it off their boats. During a heavy firefight in rugged mountains on January 27, 1944, Cragon was wounded in his right side by a piece of shrapnel. He was recuperating in a station hospital in Naples when I was born, with Mary helping attend my April Fool’s Day birth. Shortly after Mother got over the shock of learning that I was a boy–she had desperately wanted a girl to be a sister to Nolen Robert–she and Daddy gave me the first name Earl, in honor of Cragon. I could not have been named after a more honorable, noble person.
When the war was over, Cragon and Mary lived about a half mile from us. A few years later, in the early 1950s, they built a new house even closer. It was in sight of our front porch about a hundred yards away, near the edge of the woods across the road from our house, and along a gravel road to our east that ran perpendicular to the road in front of our house. Soon there was a well-beaten path between their house and ours, and Nolen Robert and I were at their house so often that Cragon and Mary became almost like a second set of parents to us. In recent years Cragon has laughingly recounted our childhood visits this way to other family members,
“When they would come over to our house, we’d usually offer them something to eat. Nolen Robert would stand back and say he didn’t care for anything, but E. B. would always say ‘Sure!’ He’d eat at the drop of a hat whether he was hungry or not!”
Funny, I’m still like that today. Cragon and Mary took me to the Memphis Zoo when I was nine years old. Two hundred miles from home, this was the longest trip I had ever taken and it made a lasting impression on me. Memphis was the largest city I had ever seen. Seeing live zoo animals and reading about the parts of the world they came from made me realize that those animals had traveled much farther than I ever had. Maybe I could go to some of those countries someday. [And indeed I did.] The zoo’s gardens, ponds, lagoons, and unusual trees, so different from the ones I knew in Montgomery County, made it seem like I was far from home. And in my experience at the time, I was.
Cragon and Mary never had children of their own, but they had a deep lifelong affection for children. After I became a teenager and young adult, they helped raise two other children, a girl and later a boy, who each spent several years with them while their families dealt with serious personal hardships.
My brother Nolen Robert’s granddaughter, Diane Nunn, who he unfortunately never lived to see, invited us to her wedding in June 2010. I felt like I was representing him at her wedding, but his absence was sorely felt that day by many of us in attendance, over thirty years after his death.
The day after the wedding we visited Cragon, then age eighty-nine. His wife Mary, my mother’s half niece, was in a nursing home in a steady, sad decline from Alzheimer’s disease. Cragon sat on a sofa that had several framed photographs and certificates on the wall above it. The most prominent was a photo of him in his Army uniform, tilting slightly to the right due to the shrapnel that had hit him in the side during a German firefight in the mountains of Italy in February 1944, with his Purple Heart also displayed in the frame. Another photo showed him in his uniform, standing with Mary, arms around each other, upon his return from Europe just before the war ended. He was tall and handsome, and Mary was beaming with a radiant beauty.
Cragon was eager to tell us about riveting memories from the war, more eager than normal. He recounted a particularly gruesome scene, one that I had never heard him tell about before, involving one of his fellow infantrymen who was standing near where a large German shell exploded on the beachhead a few days after their landing in Italy. The soldier was screaming in agony and Cragon was the first person to reach him. One of his legs had been blown off above the knee and the rest of his body was so badly burned that he appeared black all over, even his teeth. As Cragon knelt over him, the soldier begged Cragon to take the soldier’s pistol and shoot him in the head. Cragon said,
“No, buddy, I can’t do that. You’re going to be okay. We’re going to get you to the medic. Just keep hanging on.”
Cragon said, still with deep emotion sixty-six years later,
“I found out the next morning that the soldier died that night. The war was awful. I saw some terrible things. There’s no way to really describe it.”
We sat in silence for a time.
As we were about to leave a few hours later, Cragon got up from the sofa, walked into another room, and came back with a large manila envelope in his hand. In it was a copy of a manuscript he had written in his own hand. He said it was about the war and that he wanted me to read it and let him know what I thought.
I read the twenty-three page document on a two-day road trip back to Texas and called Cragon as soon as I finished it. What he had written was impressive. When I asked him how long it had taken him to write it, he said he did it in about two weeks. That was impressive, too! He said he had given a copy to his nephew, Blaine Baggett, an award-winning filmmaker and author who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who planned to get Cragon’s story published.
Later in the summer another manila envelope arrived from Cragon. In it was a published copy of Uncle Cragon’s War: A Memoir of World War II and the Hard Luck Division by Earl C. Baggett. Cragon’s nephew Blaine had included a vivid, touching introduction to the book that says in part,
“There has always been a kind of restlessness and sadness I sense about him. After reading his memoir, I begin to understand why.
Uncle Cragon would be the first to tell you that his wartime story is just an ordinary one that could be told by millions of people who experienced World War II. That is what makes his story so important. He did not want to go to war. He declares he was not a hero. He did his job, suffered great hardships, saw terrible things, and somehow managed to survive when most around him did not. “
When I looked at the book, my pride in being named Earl, after Cragon, caused my chest to swell. Here he had produced a memoir, start to finish, in two weeks that would outshine anything I could write about my own life. Cragon always said he was not a hero, but he has always been a hero to me and countless others whose lives he has touched.
Cragon’s achievement at age eighty-nine was a big stimulus to me to put together stories I had begun writing about my life nearly a decade earlier, complete the story—such as it is—and get it out as well. So Cragon, that extra parent, has a hand—and a big one at that—in the stories on my blog, as he still does in my life. Cragon also appears in my story about fishing.
So I’m thinking of him today. I’ll call him before the day is over to thank him for his service and for all the things he has done for me. He has enriched—and continues to enrich—my life beyond measure.
If you know a veteran, thank him or her, too.