From prisoner of war to serving Patton

Old Glory is prominent at the Hickman home, decorating the countertops, cutlery and coffee cups, but the one that flies on the flagpole has been doing so since the flag-raising ceremony hosted by Hubert W. Hickman and his six children and many grandchildren on a warm Memorial Day 1987.

Hickman was the oldest of 16 children, and his love for America goes beyond that Memorial Day. He put action to his love of country by enlisting in the U.S. Army during the summer of 1942 when he was 17 years old.

After boot camp in Florida, he was deployed to North Africa, where he was a machine-gunner for the 34th Infantry Redbull Division, one of the most prolific fighting forces during World War II. His brother, Ruben, would join him in the Pacific theater a few months later.

The division officially is credited with having 517 days of continuous front-line combat in the European, Italian and North African campaigns, with Hickman’s division having amassed 611 days of combat with the enemy.

The 34th Division suffered 3,737 killed in action, 14,165 wounded in action and 3,460 missing in action, for a division total of 21,362 battle casualties. Casualties in the division are considered the highest of any division in the theater when daily per capita fighting strengths are considered.

Red Bull soldiers were awarded 10 Medals of Honor, 98 Distinguished Service Crosses, one Distinguished Service Medal, 1,052 Silver Stars, 116 Legion of Merit medals, one Distinguished Flying Cross, 1,713 Bronze Stars, 51 Soldier Medals, 34 Air Medals, with duplicate awards of 52 oak leaf clusters and 15,000 purple hearts.

Being a machine-gunner meant you were the target of the enemy.

Many times, he would put his helmet on a stick and poke it out of his foxhole to tempt the opponent, allowing them to identify their location, which would allow Hickman to then silence their threat.

The proof of his success was the helmet, complete with the holes, he brought home.

Hickman was surrounded by the enemy while out on scout patrol in late 1943 and taken to a work camp, also known as Stalag 7a, in Moosburg, Bavaria.

After a few weeks of being a POW there, with nightly solitary confinement in a hole in the ground, and daily labor of railroad detail, he and his Sgt. Zeke escaped into the countryside.

After borrowing civilian clothes from a local farmer, Zeke and Hickman separated. Hickman worked his way back to the front lines, where he hooked up with a British battalion that then reunited him with the Americans.

As an escaped POW, the Army sent him stateside to Georgia in early 1944, but that didn’t keep him from re-enlisting and going back to Europe to protect American supply ships in the Mediterranean.

Some of the allied Russian soldiers thought they had a right to these supplies, and Hickman let them know with his rifle that they were not. This got him in trouble with his superiors and, in the spring of 1945, he was facing a court-marital until Gen. George Patton stepped in and offered a compromise.

Hickman was demoted from sergeant to corporal, but he was promoted to one of Patton’s personal horsemen and remained right so up to the untimely death of the famous general in December 1945.

In early 1946, Hickman came back home to his wife and family in McCreary County, Ky., and slowly transitioned back to civilian life – which was helped by sleeping with a rifle across his chest for nearly 3 years. His wife, Nellie, convinced him to take the bullets out at night so she could sleep, too.

In 1952, after he answered an ad by the Webster Foundry Co. in the McCreary County Record newspaper, he packed up the Hickman family and moved to Tiffin to join his wife’s parents who had gone on ahead of them. He left the foundry after a few months and got a job at Whirlpool in Clyde because the pay was better and the hours were fewer. He moved into the house his youngest son Rick now owns in 1966, and he retired from Whirlpool in 1976.

Hickman and his wife were married for more than 60 years until Nellie’s death in 2004. He then joined her four years later, in March 2008.

The later years of his life were spent with three weekly trips for dialysis, first in Toledo, then at Davita Seneca County Dialysis in Tiffin. Seems the war was beginning to affect his health, but it never dampened his spirit. He would participate in Memorial Day parades, and few trips to Ann Arbor to honor POWs of WWII.

Hickman didn’t have any reunions because the casualties within the Red Bull division didn’t leave too many members left to reunite with. He was laid to rest in his uniform, with full military honors, in Fairmont Cemetery.

All his medals, including two Bronze Stars, are locked away for safe-keeping. He shared these stories with his six children so they would know the horrors of war, and to appreciate the freedom he fought for them to have.

Often, the Hickman children didn’t understand the significance of their father’s heroics until other veterans and service members would stand and salute once they were informed Hickman was a member of the Red Bull division.

To them, he was a great father, but to America, he was a great soldier. To this author, he will always be a very bright Star Behind the Stripes.

John Schupp is an assistant professor of chemistry at Tiffin University. Email him at