Monday, May 26, 2008

Normandy, or How to Change a Man

Memorial Day, 2008

Lately I've clued you in to some of the horrors of my childhood, but I can tell you that knowing something about my father's life would have helped me to understand him more. Much of what I'm writing here I learned long after Dad was gone and some of it is speculation based on what I do know to be fact. My brothers were the only ones allowed to know this kind of stuff while Dad was alive, and they only knew it because they worked long hours on job sites with Dad. Occasionally they would ask and he would give them just a little information.

And you know, I still have a soft spot for Dad, because he was my father and because there were some really good times, too. Those good times are just hard to remember sometimes, as I go through therapy and this inside-out soul renovation that started when Mom died. Dad was a musician who played on stage with some famous people, but that lifestyle fed his addictions and didn't pay the bills. So he went into construction and eventually owned his own large contracting company. Not bad for a man who had a third-grade education and Army vocational school.

The picture on the right is of him coming in for a landing, I don't know when or where, but I like to think that this is a photo of him parachuting into Normandy, behind enemy lines because that is what he did on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was a paratrooper on his second tour of duty with the Army, in either the 82nd or 101st Airborne (this is how little information I have at this time). He was also a 22-year-old kid from south Georgia, one of ten children, dirt poor, and barely educated. It was a day of glory for him, but it was also a day in which he dropped out of the sky, unprotected, a light pack and a rifle strapped to him, and infiltrated the enemy...pretty much alone. It wasn't as though a wall of soldiers went in shoulder-to-shoulder. He was ripe for the picking as he landed. He never said a lot about it, but here is what the Army's 82nd Airborne history page has to say about it:

On June 5-6, 1944, the paratroopers of the 82nd's three parachute infantry regiments and reinforced glider infantry regiment boarded hundreds of transport planes and gliders and, began the largest airborne assault in history. They were among the first soldiers to fight in Normandy, France.

By the time the All-American Division was pulled back to England, it had seen 33 days of bloody combat and suffered 5,245 paratroopers killed, wounded or missing. The Division's post battle report read, "...33 days of action without relief, without replacements. Every mission accomplished. No ground gained was ever relinquished."

That definitely can give a person a new respect for the soldiers, and for my father. I don't know of any heroic things he did, but in my mind, living through that was heroic. Survival and bravery was heroic. Stepping out of the relative safety of that plane was heroic.

He did survive that day, and later that year, he found himself stuck in Bastogne (which leads me to believe he was with the 101st), surrounded by enemy forces in the Ardennes Offensive (the Battle of the Bulge). Gen. George S. Patton's 3rd Army came in and joined forces to push back the enemy. (I personally saw the holiday card that Patton gave to all of his troops that year. Dad carried it in his wallet until the day he died. It disappeared with much of his other stuff [and money] when one of his sisters visited his small apartment after he died.) Dad also carried the little black New Testament that was provided to him in the Army. It gave him some comfort.

The Battle of the Bulge was ugly. The troops were stuck there in one of the coldest winters ever to strike the area. Their rifles froze up, forcing them to engage in hand-to-hand combat, killing their fellow men with bayonets on the end of those rifles. For a man raised in a Christian home, I can't imagine how he felt looking into the eyes of someone else and taking the man's life. The ground was also frozen so solid that the soldiers couldn't dig foxholes to hide in. During one skirmish, my father had to resort to using the body of one of his buddies as a shield. It changed him. He came home after V-E Day a distant, angry man. He wore several combat ribbons and a Purple Heart because of the shrapnel buried in his neck from mortar rounds and grenades going off nearby. I wonder how many times he was sure he was going to die? I wonder what he was thinking while he was lying in wait for that death, freezing?

My mother knew him before he went away, and she said he was a nice boy. She never expected the kind of life she was going to live with him. He came home different, but by then she had broken up with her other boyfriend and promised to marry Dad. He drank a lot and was violent. He had night terrors. He often seemed detached from his surroundings. Now they called that post-traumatic stress syndrome; then they called it shell shock or battle fatigue, and they believed that you could get over it and get back to fighting. When the fighting in Europe was over, however, Dad was left with nothing and no one to fight. So he became reactionary and violent. It's hard to believe that the handsome man on the left in this picture could turn into such a tightly wound man.

I've often wondered if the other man in the photograph was the buddy whose body he had to use as a shield. I'll never know now, because he is gone and I was a dumb kid when he died. Well, I had turned 20, but I wasn't the kind of 20 year-old who had ever had to take up a rifle against my fellow man. I was a Baby Boomer, given so many privileges that my parents never knew. Despite all that we went through with Dad, I'd like to honor him and his peers today. They deserve our thanks and praise, and they are disappearing at a rapid pace. Soon, there will be no more left to tell the tale and it will fall to us, the children of those fighting men.

Thanks, Dad, for your service. You really were a hero, and I forgive you.

Peace - D

p.s. - No, I can't watch Saving Private Ryan without tearing up. The first 20 minutes of it in the movie theater? I sobbed.


Daryl said...

Reading your post brought Saving Pvt Ryan to mind .. the opening sequence of DDay was horrific .. I get chills now as I write this thinking of it .. to think your father parachuted into that .. heroic indeed and understandable how he felt after the war .. all that time being in an aggressive defensive stance .. its sad the veterans didnt get the help they needed to rejoin the 'real world' .. much the same is happening today .. you'd think we'd have learned something from the past.

Thanks for the compliment on the new photo header .. I spent hours, literally, working to get it the right size and centered .. LOL.. I took that photo this past October when I went w/visiting gal pals on a boat tour/ride of Manhattan .. that was taken as we returned to the pier on the Westside... in color its really something to see but I decided b/w was better for a header .. :-Daryl

Jay said...

My Dad was in that conflict too. I'm not sure where he was on D-Day because he was in the Intelligence Corps and not allowed to let anyone know, and later, well, he still kept his secrets - as many of them did. I do know that he was often doing reconnaissance in enemy territory, and was likely to have been in the thick of it once the battle started that day. He was fortunate to come through the war unscathed, both physically and mentally. My Grandfather, in WW1, was not so lucky. He suffered his whole life afterwards from the effects of mustard gas. What little I know of his part in the war is just horrendous. Poor guys. They did indeed give so much.

Momma said...

Daryl - Yes, I've only ever watched the opening scenes once, in the theater. I have never been able to watch it again. No one in the theater moved during those scenes. Terrible.

Next time I want to change my design, I'm emailing you. I have no clue how to work with these templates!!! (sense the frustration there?)

Jay - I'm glad your father came out rather unscathed. War is hell, said Gen. Sherman, and it is one of the truest statements ever spoken.

That is one of the reasons I always sign off like this: Peace - D

Burgh Baby's Mom said...

Incredible story. Thank you for sharing it!

Josie said...

Omigosh! The sins of the fathers, hey? He went into battle a boy, and came out a very wounded man, and his family suffered as a result. This must be cathartic and therapeutic for you to be able to write this, and to understand the man he became, and how it affected you.

I have a feeling he would be very proud.

Lavinia Ladyslipper said...

A powerful, truly moving post. What a tribute. It's one of the most maddening aspects of the human condition, in my opinon, how we can harbour so many different, often contradictory feelings for the same person. We can detest them, feel pity for them, not understand them, acknowledge their brilliance or bravery, and wonder forevermore why we saw their worst sides. Why?

I haven't got the answer. It sounds like you are on a journey toward understanding, and overcoming....all my best wishes for strength to you.

Lori said...

I was so glad to find this post and have something to contribute. I thought of you tonite because of a license plate I saw ... "Momma"

I appreciate your story and this post so much. I love Saving Private Ryan but I sob throughout most of it. I am always so amazed at those men - young boys, really - who faced such incredible horrors. I am always reminded of the WWII vets that have been so supportive of the portrayal of what they experienced. They all say it's so realistic. It makes me cry even harder.

As someone who has spent most of her life trying to understand her own father - I think you have given your own Dad a great gift. You see him as the human being he was, and you see him for ALL of who he was. The good, the bad, the heartbreaking.

Isn't that what we all wish from our children? To see us as a whole - not just who we were as parents, but who we were inside - intrinsically? (forgive the spelling errors - it's late)

My relationship with my own dad finally evolved when I saw him with clearer eyes. When I realized who he was was a direct by-product of his history long before I showed up in his life.

And once again, your writing has me cheering. Bless you and your sweet heart, and bless those boys who were part of an extraordinary piece of our history.

the mother of this lot said...

It's a miracle any of them survived. God bless them all, wherever they are.

Momma said...

BBM - I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Josie - Thanks for saying that, Josie. I hope that he would be.

Lavinia - Yes, I never expected to be on a path like this, but we rarely control what life hands us. We just have to trust God and go with it.

Lori - I think that's very true. I would like for my kids to know me inside and out, because I know what it's like to wonder about it. I want them to know me NOW, while I'm alive, rather than surmising things, as I've had to do.

MOTL - Indeed. I got to see quite a few in the parade yesterday. More on that tomorrow.

Peace - D

Akelamalu said...

What a wonderful tribute to your Dad. War changed lots of soldiers and not for the better unfortunately, but they deserve our homage.

Jennifer H said...

I just read an article about the increase in suicides among soldiers, and it's alarming, especially when there's so much help that should be available. War is a terrible thing, and it's impossible to say how it changes those who fight.

This was a thoughtful tribute to your father and to all his complexity.

Dave Baldwin said...

Hi Momma,

Great post about your father!

True combat veterans don't talk about their experiences. It's too difficult. I suspect a lot of the guys who hang out at the VFW and swap war stories are not men like your dad. Many of them were stationed stateside or for some lucky reason were never forced to kill anyone.

On the USS Princeton, I got to know hundreds of Marine officers, both Huey pilots and platoon leaders. Altogether, I spent one year eating meals with these Marines. I cannot remember a single occasion when any Marine officer volunteered information about what was really going on in the I-Corp area where the ship was stationed. They would talk about baseball or girl friends or hookers or getting blitzed on their last R&R. What was happening on the beach was too horrible, I guess.

The Princeton was a major medivac station off I-Corp. It served as a hospital and a morgue. I can remember seeing 70-80 body bags on the hangar deck laid out in a neat row. It is very sobering.

I don't watch movies like "Saving Private Ryan." For those who have not been to war, a movie like "Ryan" can put things in the proper perspective.

Momma said...

Akela - I don't know if you've spent any time at the Pearl Harbor memorial, but it's one of my favorite memorials. I always tear up when I'm there. Dad wasn't in the Pacific theater, but I believe that at least one of my uncles was. Again, he didn't talk about it.

Jennifer - I can't imagine what these guys go through (and women, now). It's amazing that any of them survive and go on to lead anything like a normal life.

Dave - I think you're right. Now, my dad did hang out at the VFW when he was younger, but according to Mom, it was just so he could drink until he passed out. I guess the other vets there could understand. Once he sobered up, he never went back.

Peace - D

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