World War Two was a presence in our home when I was young. My dad served, was wounded, and returned. It was the biggest and most concentrated experience of his life.
My dad was a storyteller, but all his war stores were humorous tales of incidents along the way, or descriptions of enduring exhaustion and cold, or brief, dry, cool descriptions of the techniques used to clear a town or take a pillbox. He went through some of the worst fighting in the war, but his stories were essentially bloodless.
These were not the kind of gung-ho stories that would lead to hero worship. He didn’t consider himself a hero, anyway. He was just one of millions who went where he was sent and did what he was given to do; that was enough.
I can see him in memory, telling his stories. Even as a child, I could see the pain in his face. He had to tell the stories – he couldn’t keep them in – but he kept the horrors shut up behind his eyes. I don’t know how much he told my mother when they were alone, but I do know how often her nights were disrupted by the terrors that came to my father in his dreams.
He joined the First Infantry Division as a replacement after D-day and fought his way across northern France. His view was a soldier’s view – a road here, a village there, this particular house, that particular pillbox. I don’t think he ever had a global picture of where he was. He left combat in an ambulance before the assault on the Rhine. He always said that wound kept him alive. He had an almost superstitious belief that he would have died on the Rhine.
He was there for the entire Battle of the Bulge. Roughly two hundred thousand American and German troops died in a small corner of the Ardennes forest. You can see windrows of the dead, in history books, in grainy black and white photographs. He never talked about that, although he was eloquent about the cold and the exhaustion.
The wound that sent him out of combat came under incongruous circumstances. After the Battle of the Bulge was over, his group had captured a stash of German weapons. The lieutenant in charge wanted to try them, so he, my father, and some other privates took a panzerfaust – a German antitank weapon – out to an open field. My father put it on his shoulder and pulled the trigger.
My father always speculated that some Jewish prisoner in a munitions factory had sabotaged the weapon, in hopes of taking out a German soldier. No one will ever know. The weapon exploded an inch from his head, and he spent the remaining months of the war in a hospital in Paris.
More next post.