When 95-year-old Bryce Rumph was asked to lead Gillette’s 2020 4th of July parade as Grand Marshal, he had no idea what to expect.
“My pastor at First Baptist Church contacted the American Legion about me,” he said.“I didn’t know anything about it until they asked me to be Grand Marshal. I didn’t really know it would be such a big deal.”
Sitting in his well-worn recliner in a corner of his tidy living room in his house in east Gillette with portraits of family members covering the walls, Rumph talked about what an honor it was to fill the role.
Rumph’s granddaughter, Mandie Carr, who had missed seeing her grandfather in the parade Saturday, had driven up from their home in Aurora, Colorado, on Monday with her husband Ernie and daughter Cahle to take her grandfather out for a celebratory lunch. She’d been upset to miss seeing him in the parade Saturday and had reached out on social media to see if anyone had photos.
The WWII veteran smiled shyly as he’d done on Saturday during the parade, looking genuinely surprised when onlookers stood and cheered him on.
This is another chapter in his long life that began almost 80 years ago in a country on the verge of war.
Born in Miles City, Montana, Rumph’s family moved to San Diego at the start of World War II, so his father could go to work in a defense plant. He graduated early from a high school in La Jolla, California, then promptly entered the U.S. Army.
“I went to basic training at Camp Roberts in California,” he said. “It was supposed to be 17 weeks, but after Guadalcanal, with the war heating up, they cut it short by two weeks.”
After basic training, he was sent by train to Seattle, where, at age 19, he said, he and his fellow soldiers boarded a ship bound for Honolulu, and later Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, for jungle training. Eniwetok, he said, was later the site of the first U.S. atom bomb testing.
“When we left they sent us straight to Okinawa,” he said. Here he paused, gathering himself in attempt to stop the tears. They came. He wiped them away quickly as he spoke, apologizing repeatedly.
“They told us after Okinawa that we killed a hundred thousand Japanese soldiers,” he said, quietly. “That island was five miles wide by 15 miles long. So, you can imagine the slaughter.”
The nightmares, he said, have finally stopped now. But it took a long time.
After three years in the military, Rumph went to work as a surveyor for the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. All told, he worked 71 years as a surveyor, opening his own business in Gillette in 1978.
Prior to that, in 1956, while working as a government surveyor, he was sent to Lander for a project.
“I wondered what I’d do for fun in Lander,” he said with a smile, as if tunneling back in time. “Someone told me they had dances on the weekends. So, I went to one. I asked a girl to dance, but she wasn’t a good dancer, so I took her back to her seat.”
The next girl, however, could dance. This was Sharon Jean, who he later married in 1956. Sharon passed away in 2008 after 62 years together. The couple had two daughters, Susan and Connie. Now, he lives with Susan and her husband Gary.
At 95, Rumph looks like a man about half his age and has no interest in sitting idly, unaided and alone. He’d prefer to feel useful, he said.
“If somebody would hire me, I’d go back to work,” the spry veteran said.
In the meantime, he takes long daily walks by himself, often making the circuit around Burlington Pond. He also plays guitar daily and has the callouses on the end of his fingers to prove it, he said with a laugh, holding out his hands.
The honor of being chosen Grand Marshal for the parade is one that, like everything else in his life, he takes in stride without pomp and circumstance despite the attention from his family. When asked, he’ll simply say he did what his country asked him to do, just as his pastor asked him to lead this year’s parade.
More than anything perhaps is the pride and love from his family, the mark of life well-lived.
“It was a privilege to serve,” he said.