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
, 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." England
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.