Thursday, November 19, 2015

50. Personal Reflections

Today, November 19, 2015 is the 110th anniversary of my Dad's birth. Seventy years ago today, on his 40th birthday, he was settling back down in his hometown in Pennsylvania after years of uncertainty with World War II, training for War and the 11 months overseas with the 80th Medical Battalion/10th Armored Division.

He was now back at the pharmacy he owned. His wife of 18 months was with him. She was, I am sure, a stranger in a strange land, being a 32-year old Jewish woman from Brooklyn now in the (mostly Christian) wilds of North Central Pennsylvania.

Less than three years later in August 1948 their first child would be born eight months after Dad's mother died. Another three years and a second son would come along. Time would move quickly and unforgivingly for Harold and Dora.
  • August 1958 Dad would have brain tumor surgery
  • November 1959 he would sell the pharmacy
  • November 1961 Mom would discover she had colon cancer
  • February 1962, she would be gone.
  • Summer 1963 Dad would move to a Veterans' Hospital
  • December 1964, two weeks after his 59th birthday, he, too, would be gone at which point I was 16-years old.
I never had what could be called a "close" relationship with either of them. There wasn't time for a lot of memories to be built. Whatever memories were there were also sublimated in the grief and trauma of losing them both while still a teenager. Much of what I know about Dad is in bits and pieces. Until the past several years his war service was an uncertain bunch of seemingly disconnected facts and rumors.

I then opened my grandmother's diary for the first time. (Hard to believe, I know.) I soon began to discover a few more bits and pieces that actually corroborated the facts and rumors. I began to put a timeline together and do more research.
  • Yes, he "ran away" from home and got himself drafted
  • Yes, he was at Camp Gordon, Georgia with the 80th Medical Battalion/10th Armored Division where he met and married my mother
  • Yes, he was at the Battle of the Bulge
Thus I began to read more about the work of the 10th Armored including the campaign by campaign history- Impact: The Battle Story of George S. Patton's Spearhead Tenth Armored Division in Europe in World War II by Lester M. Nichols. I did more research on the Internet and decided I would do this blog series following Dad's journey in the war.

I come now to the end. This will be the last post in the series. Seventy years ago war was over. There's nothing else to report on the battles seen and wounded cared for. World War II as I said in a previous post remains the paradigm of a "good war." It was truly a world war with staggering casualties everywhere. It did truly save western democracy as we know it. It also began the breakdown between races when the Black American troops came home to find they were less accepted at home than in Europe.

Through these intervening seventy years much has changed. I myself am a product of the aftermath of World War II and then of Vietnam, causing a major shift in so many things American. The divisions raised in that war coinciding with the Civil Rights Movement and then Watergate are the precursors of much of the division we see active today. These posts were not meant to compare that time with this. Maybe we should. I don't know.

What I learned was subtle and perception changing.
  • This past 4th of July I realized that my deep and emotionally positive responses to the military songs and Sousa marches are to a great extent based in my Dad's war. I play "the caissons" as much in his honor as any other reason. The others remain symbols of the victory of World War II.  
  • I can see now in pictures I have seen dozens of times, in Dad's eyes, that far-away soul that has seen more than he ever wanted to. If his unit was part of the liberation of a Nazi Concentration Camp as seems to be the case, the inhumanity he witnessed would be forever etched in that soul.
  •  In other pictures of Dad with his comrades in the medical unit, there is a sense of brotherhood that Steven Ambrose wrote about so movingly in his World War II books like Band of Brothers. Whether it is standing outside a beer hall/restaurant or beside a Nazi war plane, there is a confidence that comes from having done something so awful, yet so important - and succeeded. And they did it together.
  • I have a better awareness now of why my Dad never wanted to talk about it. A medic involved in that winter hell of the Bulge would be a classic definition of PTSD, a word unknown at the time. Since all the other "rumors" I collected seem to be true, the stories of nightmares and not being willing to talk would probably also be true. As would his hair-trigger anger which was most likely made worse by the "startle-effect" common to PTSD.
  • Knowing how many from my hometown went to war in the 1940s I also have a better understanding of the world I grew up in. We were all surrounded by veterans. Most of us in my class were children of those vets. I am sure that colored more than just the patriotism that was bred into us. It also produced many fathers who had difficulty relating to anyone but their comrades at the local VFW or American Legion. Vietnam later brought the addition of drug abuse. WW II had its alcoholism I am sure.
  • I, personally, have been a pacifist my entire adult life. This isn't the place to go into the details of what that means and how that can- and does- fit together with my lifelong patriotism. I noted to a friend the irony of a pacifist following the end of World War II so closely. He commented back that it gives me the opportunity to again see why I believe what I do about war. 
  • He was right on target. I am as much a pacifist as I ever was. War is always an evil, even when it does good or even when it is necessary. We must never forget that. Perhaps because my Dad was already in his mid-30s when he got drafted and sent to war, it was not the self-defining vision late-teens and early-twenties would experience. The "glory" of war was forever tarnished for him in the snow and ice of the Ardennes. I remember a vague statement to that effect from his sister, my aunt, who took over the role of mother and father when they were gone. In the midst of her patriotism she indicated that some way or another, her brother had forever changed.
  • Since my Dad was a non-combatant, a medic, I learned from this vicarious family connection to the War that there are many ways to serve without having to carry arms. Being a non-combatant, even a pacifist, does not mean that one is a coward. There a many ways to stand up for one's beliefs and serve the country. My Dad did that. I never looked at him that way before.
  • I am proud of him and glad I did this. I met a side of my Dad that I never knew- and would probably have never known. To live that hell, then come back to his hometown roots and pick up where he left off, must have been a whirlwind of emotions. I don't know if he survived it or whether that all played into his own death before age 60. Losing his 48-year old wife after less than 20 years of marriage played into that as well, I am sure. 
  • In the end I am humbled by my Dad's service and the service of his many comrades. It was not what he wanted to be doing- none of them wanted that. But they went and did it. Many of them would say that they simply went and did what they had to do, then came home and tried to forget it. We cannot forget; we must not forget. There is a lesson of the greatness of the American spirit in their story- spirit, and courage, and humility.

I am honored to be your son, Dad.

Happy Birthday.

Thanks for your service and dedication.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

49. Keeping the Book Open- The Son of a Veteran

This is part of a series following my father's 10th Armored Division in World War II seventy years ago. He was a medic with the 80th Medical Battalion assigned to the 10th Armored, part of Patton’s Third Army.

For the past year I have been following my Dad's 10th Armored Division in the last year of World War II. I have done research and learned things that I never knew. In this next to last post in the series, I decided to think about this whole process from the viewpoint of being a son of a World War II veteran.

Today is Veterans' Day. For me it has always been a special day of remembrance. They have been called "The Greatest Generation" and their war has defined "good war" (if there is such a thing) for the past 70 years, at least two generations. The first half of the 40s became, for my generation, a "magic" time. It was World War II! We grew up with war stories, war movies, war memorials built. We celebrated the great victory well into the early 60s. Korea was a blip on the road of history. World War II was the big war, the war of our fathers.

They weren't the greatest generation to us, not as it has come to be used in recent years. They were the heroes who went and did what needed to be done and paid a great price for it. From the vantage point of the 21st Century, this is well two-thirds of a century ago. But for me, they are recent events. The war ended but three years before I was born.

Our lives were impacted in many silent ways by the returning vets. In small towns across the country these veterans were well-known, special people. Yet many, as in my Dad's case, kept it all bottled in. To question it, to raise any concerns was unpatriotic. We never thought about it. We never asked about what he, and so many others, suffered in their silent nightmares? What was it like to relive the Battle of the Bulge from a medical battalion? The horrors he must have seen are beyond the ability of anyone to imagine.

By the time I was old enough to think about these and ask the questions both he and my mother were gone. It was the mid-60s  and the times were changing. It is only in recent years, with the advent of the Internet that I have been able to trace the stories I never heard directly. In so doing I opened a book I didn't know existed. I found a way to be an observer from a distant place and see pictures of my Dad in new ways. I have posted some of them here over the past year.

I look at them differently today. I had been told that he would often have nightmares about the war in those days before it was known as PTSD. I can understand a little more about it today. Being a medic in such a horrifying place as the Battle of the Bulge would produce many traumas. I am sure he tried to return to "normal" but must have found it difficult. I remember his anger and wonder today how much of that might have been made worse by the memories. I also know and have been told that he was a caring person. He gave prescriptions on "credit" that had eventually to be written off when he sold the store but 14 years after the war ended.

In the health care of the 50s and 60s, my Dad was also cared for by the VA. He spent the last 16 or so months of his life in the chronic, nursing-type ward at the VA hospital in Wilkes-Barre. His brain tumor prevented him from taking care of himself. The VA did that for him and for us- his family. We received veterans' benefits and college support. The whole atmosphere, the ambiance of World War II was a unique and caring response. At least that is how I saw it as a recipient of the care and support.

His generation is passing away. According to the National World War II Museum "there are approximately only 855,070 veterans remaining of the 16 million who served our nation in World War II." That means there are only about 5% of the Vets still around. Nearly 500 of them die each day.

My Dad was among the older vets of his era, almost 39 when he arrived in Europe in 1944. He died 51 years ago, not yet even 60. But the youngest vets are now at least in their mid-80s. My generation is older than most of them were when I was a teenager. We are losing that intimate contact with an important piece of our American heritage and democracy. They fought a war in which there was to us a clear example of evil spreading across the world. Hitler and the Axis powers were terrifying, even to many sitting in the relatively safe borders of North America. In what may have been one of the more selfless acts in world history, 16 million Americans went to fight for the world's safety and security. They believed, a with a great degree of certainty that if they didn't, the world would not be safe for any of us in this country or for freedom and democracy. But they went and through grit and courage, fear and sheer force of will were victorious.

And then they helped rebuild their former enemies.

Perhaps when history is written in another 75 to 100 years this will stand out as the greatest moment in American history.

I have always known this at some level. One cannot grow up on the World War II movies and documentaries, books and stories without being aware of that. It is real today whenever I hear the marches of the different military branches. "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along (U.S. Army Field Artillery March)" still moves me.

This must be an open book for generations to come. These WW II vets set a standard that is not easy to match but their willingness to serve remains the archetype.

On this Veterans' Day, 70 years after the end of World War II, I will pause and give thanks for my Dad's service and for his generation that gave us an incredible model to follow in serving. There are many things to remember, but this is one we forget at our own peril.

(Below is my video for Veterans' Day 2015 in Memory and Honor of my Dad and the Vets of our American history.)

Monday, November 9, 2015

48. Home Life

The war is over. On October 20, 1945 my dad (Buddy) arrived back in his northern Pennsylvania hometown with his new wife of 17 months, 13 of which he was overseas. He was, no doubt, looking forward to settling down, working in his pharmacy, probably starting a family. He was nearly 40 years old. My mom was 32.

The next two entries in my grandmother's diary show the every day life they were coming back to. After a year in a war zone, it was well-deserved.
  • 10/25- Buddy and Dora unpacked his clothes
  • 10/26- Buddy, Dora, and I went to the game. Our team lost
The simplicity of it is striking when comparing it to the past year.

But that was not to last. The diary again tells the tale.
  • 10/29- Ruth [Dad's sister] called at 10.45 to say that they took Fred [her husband] to the hospital with a bad heart
  • 10/30- Dad [my grandfather] and Buddy went down to Ruth’s. Fred is better
  • 10/31- Buddy came home at 10. Ruth called at 11:45 to say Fred passed away last night
  • 11/1- Ruth and her father came at 2 o’clock. Then we went to the cemetery and bought a lot. O God.
Her son is home; her son-in-law is gone.
When it looks like life can go on, it changes.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

47. Home!

12 September 1945-
The 10th Armored departed for Marseilles, France, from which they sailed for home.
  • 9/17- Had a letter from Buddy saying he left for home Wednesday the 12th
  • 9/19- Letter from Buddy saying he would be home soon
4 October 1945
Tenth Armored traveled to US- USAT JW Andrew
  •  10/8- Buddy’s clothes came today
  • 10/12- Buddy called from Camp Dix at 10.00. Gee I was excited
Mid-October 1945
Upon debarkation in the United States, the 10th Armored Division was inactivated at Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia. After release, they were transported to a camp near their home, hence the call from Camp Dix.
  • 10/19 (Friday)- Buddy called. Said he would be here tomorrow.
  • 10/20- 1:45- Father, Ruth, and I went to the train to meet Harold and Dora
For the 10th Armored Division, the 80th Medical Battalion of the 10th Armored and my Dad- the war was over. They had done their job and done it with great courage and determination. It was time to be home and let life begin again.

I will have a couple more posts bringing this series to a close between now and mid-November. These will include some of my personal reflections on this past year of following the 10th Armored/80th Medical in the last year of World War II in 1944-45. It has been quite a journey for me.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

46. What Losses! What Compassion!

2 Sept 1945
Formal Japanese surrender ceremony aboard USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay; U.S. President Harry S. Truman declares VJ Day. The war had officially begun in Europe on September 1, 1939. Six years and one day later, it is over.

Families across the United States were now breathing easier for the first time in years. Even though we did not enter the war until the end of 1941, these nearly four years had caused changes and upheavals that would change the face of the country in ways unanticipated. That was still in the future. Now it was time for rejoicing and welcoming the troops home.

Across Europe- and most of the rest of the world- this was not the case. Europe was devastated. Cities were destroyed. More lives were lost than we can even begin to wrap our minds around. Here is a chart of these losses, civilian and military:

Total Deaths
% of Prewar Population
Military Deaths
Civilian Deaths


















From The History Place

Staggering numbers.We were impacted as a nation, of course. But look at the incredible devastation of other nations and the extent of a truly World War becomes apparent.

Poland lost 17.2% of its population, with 48 times more civilian deaths than military. Germany, too, lost more civilians than military personnel, 9.5% of its population. Then there is Russia. They lost more than 1/3 of their population with 13.6 million military and 7 million civilians lost.

Altogether the war took nearly 52.2 million deaths.

And the World War II Museum says this number is probably under-estimated. There may have been as many as 15 million battle deaths and 45 million civilians. Add at least another 25 million wounded and you have 85 million casualties. China may have lost as many as 50 million civilians. (Link)

These numbers are so outrageous that we cannot begin to put it into any context that means anything. Our minds cannot grasp such extremes. At least mine can't. No comparisons can be made that sink in. The deaths of World War II would be 7 New York Cities or 520 of Rochester, MN. Still not able to grasp it.

So I must leave it sit there. The carnage and destruction was catastrophic for a large part of the world.

But as a result it may also, after all was said and done, spurred one of the greatest humanitarian acts in world history. After the war, the United States, leading the Allies, did not punish the losers. It did not add insult to injury and hatred to misery. Instead we rebuilt western Europe and Japan through aid and personal support. The vanquished were allowed to regain their humanity. In Eastern Europe, where the Soviet dictatorship had iron-fisted control, that did not happen. Many of those countries have had 70 years of struggle. Our "Greatest Generation" was more than just a great fighting force- it was compassionate after winning. It may have been spurred by the desire to stand against the Soviets, but it was done in a caring and ultimately compassionate manner.

That may be the greatest gift they passed on.

Monday, August 24, 2015

45. Moving Out, Heading Home

Two more entries in my grandmother's diary from August 1945:
8/18- Sent Buddy a box of cigars and cigarettes
8/24- Had a letter from Buddy. He is in Paris
With the war ending in the Pacific, the possibility of needing all these soldiers for an invasion of Japan was over. Things began to move quickly. After a summer of relative ease and relaxation, the troops were gathering to come home. The "greatest generation" has done its work and it's time to enjoy the benefits they have so clearly earned.

Friday, August 14, 2015

44. The War is Over

This is part of a series following my father's 10th Armored Division in World War II seventy years ago. He was a medic with the 80th Medical Battalion assigned to the 10th Armored, part of Patton’s Third Army.

From my grandmother's diary:
Everybody is excited- the war is over with Japan.

In short, the troops will soon be heading home. Even with the several months of relatively easy occupation duty, I would guess that suddenly the world changed for the better on that other August 14, 70 years ago. The days of the 10th Armored are numbered.

And no one could have been happier than the men of the 10th and their families.