A Life: Donald J. LaBounty, 1922-2014; ‘He Was Very Philosophical Without Knowing What That Was’
Evette LaBounty, right, cleans a mounted walrus jaw with its ivory tusks on June 20, 2006, while Donald LaBounty looks on in their home in Enfield, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Donald LaBounty is poses for a photograph while serving in the Army during World War II. (Photograph courtesy of the family)
Enfield — Don LaBounty didn’t dwell on the past or complain about his hard childhood or his time fighting on three fronts in World War II. He never said much about the cancer that was killing him.
He didn’t have enough energy to waste on what was done, and besides, he was too busy trying make things better. Whether it was bringing a construction project to fruition, giving a hand to friends or family or just turning discarded scrap metal into creative yard art, that’s where he wanted to put his efforts.
“When things were broken, you fixed it, and you didn’t toss it out. That was his life’s mantra and just how he looked at everything,” said Craig Staenglen, who is married to LaBounty’s granddaughter, Angela Staenglen.
“I had only known him since 2005, and he was fascinating. He taught me a lot, and I was just in awe of the things he could do. I wish I had had more time with him before he died,” Craig Staenglen said last week.
Don LaBounty died March 9 — the day after his great-grand daughter’s birthday. He was 91.
“I really believe that he waited until it was after my daughter’s birthday, so she wouldn’t always remember that he’d died on her birthday,” Angela Staenglen said. “That was the sort of person he was, putting other people ahead of him, even though he was in a lot of pain. He asked me the time, like he’d been waiting. It was two hours after midnight. He sort of smiled and just slumped down and died.”
The smile was LaBounty’s hallmark, and it was often accompanied by a mischievous wink. He kept anger and frustration to himself, and family and friends don’t ever remember hearing him say anything bad about anyone.
They remember a talented, self-taught guy, who could dissect blueprints as well as an engineer, was a skilled welder and metal worker and who loved to find a bargain, fix it and resell it. But mostly he was about his family, being a good father, grandfather and a husband in a marriage that lasted just shy of 72 years.
LaBounty liked a good joke, but mostly listening to them. He didn’t mind poking a little “good” fun at others or himself. He was keen to learn and very talented at solving complicated problems — automotive, engineering or the human sort — and didn’t let the lack of a formal education stand in his way — he dropped out in the fifth grade to help support his family.
He was born on a farm in Irasburg, Vt., one of nine children. His mother died when he was around 5 years old, and his father wasn’t able to care for all of the children and keep the farm running, so LaBounty and his younger siblings were placed with relatives and other families.
“He essentially grew up with no mother or father, and he had to drop out of school to work on the farm. Basically, he was handed this dirty deal, and instead of dwelling on it, he just went with it,” Angela Staenglen said.
When he was 19, he enlisted in the Army. It was Sept. 29, 1942, and the United States’ part in the war was just getting cranked up. He was an excellent skier, and when he signed up, he was told that he’d be part of the ski troopers, able to serve with some of his buddies who also were in the unit.
Instead, he was sent to Camp Croft in South Carolina for boot camp and infantry training. That’s where Evette Dube joined him in December, and they were married, shortly before he shipped out.
However, skiing wasn’t on the agenda, his daughter, Ilene E. LaBounty, said.
“He never forgave the Army for not putting him in the ski troopers. That was about the only bad thing he ever said about his time in the service.”
In fact, LaBounty never told many stories about his time in World War II, or spoke much about the horrific things he’d seen and done.
He was like that, and like many others who fought in the deadliest military conflict in history. They put the war behind them and moved on.
Most of his friends and family aren’t even sure which unit he served with, but they do know it wasn’t a cake walk for him, more like a “slog through hell,” although he never said that.
According to his service record and his unit’s history, LaBounty took part in some of the worst fighting of the war.
He served with the Army’s First Infantry Division, the legendary Big Red One, and with the headquarters company in the 26th Infantry Regiment, the heralded “Blue Spaders,” said a spokesman for the American Legion post where LaBounty was a member and his military information is listed. The units were featured in the 1980 film The Big Red One, starring Lee Marvin.
For LaBounty, there was little time to get used to being in battle. He joined the unit in early March 1943 in the heat of the North Africa campaign and fought intensely until May when Tunisia was secured.
By July, LaBounty and the Big Red One were battle-hardened veterans and fighting again in the mountains of Sicily. When that campaign was over in November and the island was in Allied hands, the unit returned to England to train for a few months before the European invasion. They were among the first to hit Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, a mission that in the first hour resulted in 30 percent casualties in some of the division’s units.
The division fought on for six months through France and into Germany, getting only a brief rest before plunging into the Battle of the Bulge. The Big Red One kept fighting for the next four months in the most intense battles, breaching the Siegfried Line, crossing the Ruhr and the Remagen bridge, moving into the mountains of Czechoslovakia until the war ended in Europe, records at the U.S. Army Center for Military History show.
Sixteen members of the division were awarded the Medal of Honor. LaBounty received two Bronze Stars with two Oak Leaf clusters.
The Blue Spaders bore the U.S. national colors at the Allied Victory in Europe parade and members were given the honor of serving as guards at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, a duty that LaBounty asked to be relieved of, said his cousin Leslie St. Pierre. “He said he’d had enough, and they let him come home.”
It wasn’t the only assignment LaBounty had refused, his daughter, Ilene LaBounty, said.
Toward the end of the war, LaBounty had been ordered to execute two prisoners, boys about 12 or 13 years old who had been recently drafted to fill the depleted German ranks.
“He told his commander he couldn’t do it. That was one thing he couldn’t live with. And he was let out of it. I was always proud of him for that,” she said. “He could have gotten in a lot of trouble for refusing to do it.”
The only other story his daughter remembers hearing about the war came from LaBounty’s training period, she said.
“They were marching in these wool uniforms down by the beach, and it was really hot. The officer let all them men strip off their uniforms and go swimming in the ocean. It was the first time he’d ever been in the ocean, and he was surprised that it was salty and couldn’t believe it. The rest of the men gave him a hard time (about being a naive hillside farmer) after that. And he said he never cared for the ocean from then on.”
He never said much about the fighting except to say “the good Lord rode on his shoulder,” said Robert Lacroix, a nephew who owns Shaker Valley Auto Sales.
Or that he was “goddamn lucky,” St. Pierre said.
After the war, the LaBountys — Don, his wife Evette, newborn daughter Ilene and later, son Clifford — moved around the country, working on government construction jobs in Los Alamos, N.M., at the Savannah River Plant in Georgia and for the Tennessee Valley Authority in Tennessee. In 1979, he worked on building the dual towers and ski jumps for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. He also spent many years as a foreman for the Atlantic Roofing and Skylight Co.
After he retired, he didn’t slow down. He and Evette restored antiques and sold them from the barn behind the house. He’d take road trips all over the country to pick up cars at auction for his nephew Robert Lacroix.
“He really loved going to get the cars. He never complained, and I think what he liked about it was meeting the people,” said his friend and driving companion Raymond Pare. “It was always a pleasure to be with him.”
In 2009, Ilene LaBounty accompanied her father and a group of veterans who returned to Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
“He opened up a little about the war after that,” and they got to know each other better during the trip.
“He was very philosophical without knowing what that was. He was talented and imaginative, but never prideful and down played his abilities. He had a very dry sense of humor, but was never hurtful toward anyone. He’d get a twinkle in his eye and that cute little smile that let you know he was pulling your leg,” she said.
“I was proud to have him as a father.”
Warren Johnston can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3216.