As a kid growing up in 1950’s small town Indiana, I was proud that my dad had fought in the big war, but I had no idea how much horror, anguish and phyical suffering he must have endured. He’s gone now, so I’ll never know the details, but a few years ago I found some disturbing news in a library book about World War II. I looked up 90th Infantry Division in the index and began going to the pages that mentioned their activity. I was stunned at the number of horrific battles they were in, at the heroism, the significance of their campaigns and at the carnage. I hate that he had to endure it.
The 358th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division, put out a booklet that told the story of their march through Europe. It was rather clinical, doing little more than describing where they went and, briefly, what happened there. On one page, though, there was a backward checkmark (dad was left-handed). It was the only mark he made in the booklet, and I’ll never know why he put it there. It was at a paragraph with the heading The Jaws Close, and it read: “After Le Mans, the Division cut north in clouds of dust toward Alencon, following the Second French Armored Division and blocking to the West any effort of the German 7th Army to escape the inevitable and fast closing Falaise Trap.” Le Mans, Alencon, Falaise–these were names I heard recently while watching a program on the Military Channel about the Allies’ struggle to break out of the Normandy peninsula, and the raw footage was not pretty.
I had no idea how intense the fighting was. I had always imagined that after D-Day it was just a matter of gradually pushing the German front backward. I didn’t realize how long it took (a month, I think) just to get past the hedgerows, where the Germans threw their best fighters–frenzied paratroopers and Nazi SS fanatics–at our green soldiers, often appearing suddenly, within a few feet, blazing away with their burp guns and then disappearing again into the hedges.
The booklet called the hedgerow country “the ugly, bitter battlefield on which the Regiment was to fight some of its bloodiest battles.” I remember my dad speaking of the hedgerows. Strange as it seems now, his tone was always light, almost playful, when he described how he entertained his buddies by swearing at the Germans in their native tongue. The son of German immigrants, he would always admit with a grin that swear words were all he picked up from the “old country.” That was the only thing we learned from him about the hedgerow country. I had always imagined that it was a rather bussinesslike and somewhat respectful thing among soldiers, though they be enemies–the one advancing and the other gradually retreating, occupying positions so close that they could easily hear each other’s voices.
Normandy, of course, was only the beginning. As leader of a Ranger platoon, my father carried a rifle across Europe, from Utah Beach, through France, Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany and into Czechoslovakia. He only told war stories that were light or humorous. In fact, I can only think of two others. There was the time when he was in a bunker with some guys from another unit. I guess they were just hanging out, shooting the bull. A guy from my dad’s platoon came in, addressed my dad, called him “lieutenant.” The other soldiers looked at each other, and one said, “Jesus Christ, Roy, are you a lieutenant?” Because of snipers, officers didn’t display their rank on the battlefield, but I guess my dad felt kind of proud to be so easily mistaken for one of the guys. Then there was the story about trying to get some sleep in a deserted house and being awakened every hour by a cuckoo clock, until he grabbed his forty-five, opened the door, and blasted the thing off the wall.
I feel kind of guilty about having so many questions now, having never really made the effort to find out details when he was alive. As a kid, my world was a simple one, and I was busy thinking about myself. As an adult and war veteran myself, I was still self involved, but then I also had my own family and career to occupy my mind. On the other hand, if I had the chance to ask him more detailed questions about his experiences in the war, I still probably wouldn’t get much out of him. Well, there was one other time. The Christmas season after my mom died, I was sitting with him and some of his friends at the bar of his favorite tavern, when he mentioned that it was the worst Christmas he’d had since 1944. Through all the wonderful Christmases he gave my sister and me, there was never a hint of reflection back to that horrible time during the Battle of the Bulge when our troops faced not only a desperate, fanatical German counterattack but probably the worst weather of the century–nights so cold that troops slept in snowbanks to keep warm.
Only recently have I thought about the demons my father must have lived with. I had nightmares, gradually diminishing, for 15 or 20 years after returning from Vietnam, and I wasn’t even in the infantry. I was on a psyops field team in the Central Highlands for half of my tour, and when I showed up at an outpost or firebase, it was often just before or just after the action. I’d have to say I led a charmed war. And yet for years, I’d often dream about fighting Viet Cong or North Vietnamese troops in my back yard or a supermarket parking lot. I guess there’s something primal about even the possibility of facing the ultimate battle at death’s door that gets deep in your brain and keeps burrowing for a long time. But what must my father’s dreams have been like?
Here, finally, is what I’m getting at. Most of the men my dad’s age in Kendallville fought in that war. You would never know it. They just went about their business and raised their families. They were my friends’ fathers, the grocer, the pharmacist, the plumber, the mailman and milkman. I don’t think it was necessarily out of humility or modesty that they didn’t talk about it much or reveal many details. I think that, just like Death’s Door’s protagonist Jesse Yates, they were afraid to open the gate.
Combat veterans have lots of doors locked up tight in the deepest, darkest regions of their psyche, and I can’t help feeling that the creepy crawlers are a bit more firmly entrenched in the minds of Vietnam veterans. There’s no doubt in my military mind that those troops were as good as any this country has ever produced, and it’s to my generation’s everlasting shame the way those people were treated when they got home. From scared, apple-cheeked innocence to hardened veteran, so much changed in such a short time. The last thing they needed was disdain and rejection when they finally made it home.
Thankfully, Veterans Day is celebrated these day the way it should be. That might not be the case, though, if there was still a draft and still no healthy alternatives to the mainstream media.