Walter Stovall knows a thing or two about many things.
He knows you can’t keep a good man down. The World War II veteran, affectionately known as “The Godfather of Houston Street,” by many in downtown San Antonio, realizes a lot of his life may be in the past, but is far from forgotten.
East Houston Street’s Godfather was born in Houston on August 30, 1921. Some of his neighbors and friends intend to celebrate with Walter this afternoon at Houston Street Bistro as the debonair gentleman turns 90 today.
“Walter may be a little older than most of us,” a beautifully manicured lady, from a nearby office who regularly greets him at the Gunter Hotel Bakery sidewalk café on her way to and from work, recently said. “But his mind and memory is sharper than all of us.”
As Walter would say, who am I to disagree with such a lovely lady?
The last several years I’ve had the honor of sitting and visiting with Walter almost daily as he tends to his favorite vantage point on East Houston Street.
Walter lives at the Majestic Towers, above the Majestic Theater, and likes to walk across the street several times a day to position himself so he can see everything.
“You meet some of the best people here,” Walter grins. “Pretty ladies, tourists, great neighbors, some interesting people of all religions, races and… well…did I mention pretty ladies?”
Walter can, and will talk about anything, but it’s never boring. His polite and intelligent conversations come from an almost encyclopedic mind.
I’ve learned more about life, love, family, politics and war, just being blessed to listen to him talk with hundreds of people and in one-on-one dialogue the past few years.
Almost 70 years later, Walter still remembers the day when he thought he was dead.
It was a February 3, 1945, and Walter was serving with the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division, Company F, in New Guinea and during the invasion of the Philippines.
In two days, C-47's dropped 1,999 paratroopers and 1,292 bundles of supplies on a target area of little more than one square mile. Fighting was fierce and it was necessary to get U.S. reinforcements near Tagaytay Ridge near Manila.
Walter’s company was among the first 915 paratroopers flown in forty-eight Douglas C-47s of the 317th Troop Carrier Group.
FIRST TROOPS ENTERED THE PLANES AT 3 AM
“There was not much else I could do but wait until they told us to jump, so when they told me to jump, I jumped,” laughs Walter. “I couldn’t see anything. Just went down.”
“Really all you can do is wait and go down and listen for firing,” Walter’s face turns serious. “But we didn’t know where it was coming from or who was shooting at who.”
“It didn’t take us long after we landed to gather our supplies and regroup,” Walter recalls. “We were dropped early in the morning, as we had left at night.”
Official documents indicated the first transports took off at 7am, even though the troops first entered the planes beginning at 3 am. Protected by an escort of P-61 Black Widow night fighters, they were flown over Mindoro and eventually followed Highway 17 to Tagaytay Ridge.
“The ridge itself was an open space some two thousand yards long and four thousand yards wide, plowed in places, and had been mostly cleared of Japanese troops by local Filipino guerrillas.”
“The entire regiment was assembled within five hours of the first lift landing in the drop zone,” the official record states. ”After clearing the ridge of any remaining Japanese defenders, the division began to advance towards Manila, reaching the Paranaque River by 21:00 on 3 February and encountering the beginning of the Genko Line, a major Japanese defensive belt that stretched along the southern edge of Manila.”
AGAINST 6,000 JAPANESE SOLIDERS
“This defensive belt consisted of approximately 1,200 blockhouses between two and three stories deep, many of which had naval guns or large-caliber mortars embedded within them, as well as entrenched large-caliber anti-aircraft weapons, machine-gun nests and booby-traps consisted of rigged naval bombs. The entire line was manned by some 6,000 Japanese soldiers.”
“They always told us to stay spread out from one another so we would not be a target, and if we were, the injuries to the group would be minimal,” Walter said. “The next morning we started marching before dawn to Manila.”
The official account states they headed “north on Highway 17th toward Manila. A 25 mile dash brought them to the important bridge of Imus, before the enemy had time to destroy it. After a brisk fight, the bridge belonged to the 511th.”
The men of the 511thmarched forward, capturing more bridges, and pushing further into what would change Walter’s life forever. Facing these brave men, the next day, was the “Genko Line,” designed to defend Manila against a full-force landing of U.S. troops.
Throughout the night, and with little sleep, the 511thpoured 1000 rounds of artillery into the Japanese’s positions. Walter recalled the next day.
I MUST BE DEAD
“We were spread out and I had my machine gun and full pack on,” Walter recalls. “I was the second person in the line and I guess we were fairly far apart or more of us would have been killed.”
All roads to the area were heavily mined. The Japanese had placed five and six inch naval guns, 150 millimeter mortars, 20, 40 and 90 millimeter anti-aircraft cannon to defend all approaches.
Something exploded near the first troops on this shuttle-foot line, throwing them all to the ground.
“I thought to myself, ‘this is it, am I dead?’” said Walter. “”I must be dead.”
Walter chuckles when he tells the story, but his face remains serious.
“I looked down and my leg had been hit, there was blood all over,” he said. “I reached down and didn’t realize what was going on but apparently some blood colligated.”
“I grabbed the mass of blood and said ‘My God, they shot my privates off.’” Walter laughs. “Well, if that was the case, I might as well have been better off dead.”
Although relieved his “privates” were intact, Walter lay dying with blood spewing out of a leg vein.
USED MY BOOT LACE TO TIE THE VEIN TOGETHER
“A medic or someone came over and used my boot lace to tie the vein together,” Walter said. “They kept pressure on it and the next thing I am in a kind of make shift hospital closer to the beach area with shrapnel in my leg and body.”
Walter considers himself lucky.
“I looked around and there were men without eyes, or legs or arms,” Walter says. “I still have pain to this day, but I learn to live with it, especially my sciatic nerve.”
The 511th sustained a total of 289 killed and/or missing in action causalities during these campaigns.
While Walter and two of his buddies were healing in the hospital, they continued to hear news about the 511th.
By Feb, 23, they had rescued over 2,000 prisoners, including many Americans, from the Japanese Los Banos prison with a surprise dawn parachute raid and machine gun attack.
“We just couldn’t stand laying there anymore, hearing about our friends fighting, and seeing some of them come to the hospital with their bodies shot up,” Walter tells. “We decided we were going to go back.”
I THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD
Although Walter tells the story humbly, he and his two comrades literally escaped from the hospital and within a few days, talked themselves into transportation back to their company.
“When the sergeant saw us walk up, he said “Hell, I thought you were dead,’” Walter laughs. “Well, if you want to fight that bad, grab you guns and get your selves up that mountain, he told us.”
“Oh boy, now that was tough,” Walter explains. By now the 511thhad orders to secure the area and rid the country side of any remain Japanese forces. “It was raining on and off, it was wet, slippery, and just plain miserable trying to climb those mountains.”
"Some days we didn't have anything to eat," Walter explains. "And if we did, it was usually this leather type chocolate ration that I guess kept us alive."
“We didn’t really have any business there….we should have been in that hospital,” Walter is solemn. “But, we were young, and we needed to be with our buddies.”
Today, Walter is not too keen on any war.
The experience of seeing death all around, hearing and feeling rounds of bullets flying over his head, and slipping, crawling and wallowing through mud to stay alive, forged an impression about the reasons, causes and decisions about war.
Later, Walter married Shirley, “a pretty girl, and a smart one” who he met in Houston.
“Someone told me, if you want to have a good marriage, get as far away from your families as you can, Walter,” he laughs. “And that is what we did.”
Shirley and Walter were married for 46 years, and lived in Fort Worth, until her death of cancer.
“That was another life ago,” Walter says now. “It’s all over now and that is how life goes.”
It is obvious to any regular patron of East Houston Street, that Walter is a favorite of all the ladies.
“How can we not love him?” asks Olga Kucerak, a neighbor in the building. “What’s not to love about Walter?”
Throughout the day, if the weather is tolerable, some of the most beautiful women in San Antonio stop by to greet and exchange pleasantries with Walter.
“Oh, I know my place and I know who I care for, but I have to admit it is nice to get this attention,” Walter grins.
About 14 years ago, on a trip to San Antonio from his home in Fort Worth stopped by a shop along the San Antonio River.
“As soon as I saw Kathy, I was immediately attracted to her beauty and smile,” Walter recalls. It was near Valentine’s Day, and upon learning Kathy had not received a Valentine’s card, he promptly arranged to have flowers and a card sent to her.
“I asked her out and we went to dinner,” Walter lights up. “My life suddenly got better and we never looked back.”
Walter and Kathy married in a little church in Castroville, just 30 minutes west of San Antonio, and the couple still spend occasional weekends there together.
Walter continues to share lots of wisdom, some I can’t write here about, but I can keep to myself, or in my heart. Among my favorites are his secrets to living a long life and about women.
“The secret to living a long life,” Walter reveals, “is to enjoy the pretty women. They are beautiful creatures, and I just love them, and, well hell…they are just nice to look at.”
“The hardest thing you will ever do as a man, your entire life, Jack, is to try to understand a woman,” he says. My heart starts to beat a little faster, as I prepare for his words of wisdom.
“Don’t even try. It’s not going to happen. Just forget it.”