MONROE, Mich. — As the fighting raged around him during the Battle of Italy, the man known as Sun Flowers was hunkered down in his foxhole, firing at the German enemy.
It was the middle of World War II, and the Italy invasion was pivotal for victory.
For Flowers (yes, Sun is his given name), Italy was a dichotomy: beautiful countryside, rich history and wonderful people. But it also was a horrific battlefield and death surrounded him.
With mortars raining down, Flowers decided it was time to get out of the foxhole, so he scrambled away. Another soldier took his place just as a shell exploded in the very spot he vacated.
"I jumped out of the hole and another guy jumped in the hole after me," said Flowers, a 91-year-old Monroe resident. "And he got killed. If it would have been me in there, I would be gone."
Although his memory may be fading some, Flowers still remembers his serial number and that he was a member of the Buffalos. That means he was a part of the famed 92nd Infantry Division, an all-black unit that dates back to the Civil War and played a vital role in the Italian conflict.
Known as the Buffalo Soldiers, the unit was the only black division that saw infantry combat in Europe.
"It was rough," Flowers recalled. "Everybody was tough."
He was a young elevator operator living in Jackson, Miss., when he was drafted into the Army. A black man in a mostly white military, Flowers doesn't have any memories of specific racial incidents.
"Everybody was nice," he said.
Basic training was in Kentucky, and soon he was on a train heading to New York. From there, a ship took him to Italy where he spent two years. He was able to visit Rome, drink a little bit of vino, or grape wine as he called it, and fell for one of the beautiful native women.
"A lot of the guys got married," he said. "Not me."
He learned the language and can still repeat a few words. The countryside was beautiful, but the fighting was brutal. The Invasion of Italy was between 1943 and 1945, and it took a year before the allies could enter Rome. The 2008 movie "Miracle at St. Anna," directed by Spike Lee, focused on the Buffalo Soldiers and their role in the invasion of Italy.
Almost 125,000 allies were killed in the campaign but Flowers escaped injury.
"I never got wounded," he said. "I don't know how, but I didn't."
That doesn't mean there weren't close calls, and one particular event stands out in Flowers' mind. He was getting ready to open his can of sea rations when a German bullet did it for him when it struck the container.
"I went to open the can and something went 'bing,' just like that," he said.
Flowers said he earned three medals but can't seem to find them. But he is proud of his service.
"Sure, I'm proud," he said. "They trained me to fight. I didn't know what I killed, but I was shooting at them."
He came home "safe and sound" and met his wife, Mary, at a laundromat. His father had already come to Monroe to work in the paper mills, and soon Flowers and his wife followed. They've lived here for decades and have been married more than 60 years.
He started in construction but later worked 27 years at the Ford plant in Monroe.
Dave Shepard, a Monroe native, looks in on Flowers, who used to be friends with Shepard's grandfather, the late Rev. Clay Holland of the Temple of Prayer Church.
"He helped take care of my grandfather when his eyes got bad and he couldn't read the Bible," Shepard said. "Mary read to him."
Flowers spends his time taking care of his wife, cutting the grass and cooking up some pork neck bones. He also donates to the wounded veterans because his service is a part of his life that he won't forget.
"I love the veterans," Flowers said. "It's in my heart."
Information from: The Monroe Evening News, http://www.monroenews.com