They Never Said a Word
Tom Brokaw wrote a book about the “Greatest Generation” and it received high acclaim and attention. He talked about it on a number of shows and there was a special reverence toward those who came through the days of the depression, hard times, and World War II. Those were a special time in history. A time when about 55,000,000 were killed in one form or another. Tom Brokaw never served in the military although his father was in the Army.
These service men came home and help build America’s industry and economy. They got married, had children, built businesses, and today are slowly passing from the scene leaving their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren with little information.
I have known a few of these and know of others. They all, with a few exceptions, never talked about their experiences. My father went into the military in 1944 but the war ended before he went overseas and he never saw combat. He was in France and Germany during his stay.
My father was passed over by the draft board for a time because his twin brother was already in. Fortunately, they both made it back safely. My Uncle James and Uncle Jimmy were in service and Uncle James was wounded in action. He told me, the only time I ever heard him mention it, that he was “lucky” because he was only wounded and not killed like a lot of his comrades. He received a Purple Heart.
My Dad’s twin was in the signal corps traveling with Patton. He mentioned two things about his service to me: On one occasion they set up a radio base in an abandoned farm. The soldiers found the stash of wine and he laughed at how they had a lot of trouble with some of the guys indulging in it too much. The other situation was not a laughing matter as he was involved with the follow up on The Massacre at the Ardeatine Caves, 24 March 1944. I looked up some information on the events for him some years back that took place in Italy when the Germans killed 335 civilians and left their bodies piled in the man-made caves. That had made a lasting impact on him.
The District manager for our largest supplier for many years served in the Army as a captain. He was the only person whom I ever heard making any “bragging” type comments. When asked about his military service, he would reply that “I was hired to kill Germans and I was good at it”.
But, most veterans of combat that I have known rarely spoke of it, if at all.
When Gary Francis Powers was shot down by the Russians in his U2 Spy Plane, most Americans had never heard of a U2 and certainly never seen one. When I got home from school that was all over the front page of the paper and I could not wait to show this “secret” airplane to my dad when he came home from work. When I showed him the article his reply was, “I’ve been working on the U2 project for 8 years.” He had never mentioned it before and never mentioned it again. He worked for the Air Force for 30 years.
A young man came to Atlanta to work for our main supplier. He had just come from serving in the Marine Corps. While serving at Guantanamo Cuba, he often served on sentry duty. One evening a man cut his way through the fence and was making his way across the field. The young Marine called his CO and reported the infiltration and asked for instructions.
“Fire a warning shot over his head and see if he stops”, was the reply. So that is what he did but the man kept coming toward the base. He reported that to his CO. “Shoot him”, was the order.
So, that is what he did. He killed a man that he had never seen before. He was still struggling with that when he started calling on me. I don’t know if he ever got over it.
The pastor at our old church flew fighter-bombers in Vietnam and flew over 300+ missions. Not the usual resume for a preacher. One of my former customers never mentioned the fact that he flew F4’s in Vietnam. I learned it from his obituary. My neighbor across the street flew cargo and refueling planes. You would never think of him as a pilot today. Another fellow that I came in contact with, who raised peaches and dabbled in politics a lot over the years, flew with the Flying Tigers. Again, I learned that from his obituary. A lumber company and building supply owner flew B17’s and crash landed after his plane was all shot up. You would never know. Most just never said a word. Another of my neighbors served with the Wolfhounds in Vietnam and you can read about them all over the Internet. Nearly all of my uncles served in one capacity or another but they rarely spoke of it.
I think that most did not feel that blowing people up, killing the enemy, and watching their comrades die was anything to brag about. There was a reverence toward it all and they felt that their families would be better off not knowing some of the things they had seen and done. It was something they had been called on to do, they did it, and they wrestled with their demons for the rest of their lives while trying to put it behind them. There were a lot of men who suffered “shell shock”, as it was called then, and people shook their heads at how sad it was to see them that way. Today, we call it Post Traumatic Stress and still seem to do little about it. Maybe we really don’t know how, even today.
Today, we have thousands who served in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places around the world who carry the scars, inside and out, and who try to go about their days as any normal person would and sometimes there is difficulty in doing so. They have been through too much and seen too much and hurt too much.
That brings me to John (Not his real Name. He did not want his real name used)
I first met John when introduced to him by my friend Bob at Bob’s office one day. I don’t really know how Bob knew John. But it turned out that John liked to shoot doves and do some hunting in general and that led us to have some meals together, laugh at some jokes, and pop a few caps on the dove field. I did not realize that John was the same age as my Mother. I met his wife on many occasions and she was a sweet lady and we went over there for dinner and had lunch with them a few times.
As people go, they were the “salt of the earth” type people. They never seemed to accumulate a lot in the way of worldly possessions but they enjoyed life. John was not a macho type guy and would not appear to have a “mean bone in his body”, as my Grandmother would say. He was one that you could not picture with an M1 Rifle and a battle helmet on, for sure.
One day, some time back, John called my friend Bob and asked if he was going to be around his office for a while, he wanted to come by. When he arrived, he had something wrapped up in a cloth. He told Bob that he wanted to give it to him.
Bob unwrapped the cloth and found it to be a German Luger pistol. Not a commercial copy but a “real McCoy” German Luger from World War II. John said that he wanted Bob to have it because if he left it for one of his sons the others would be upset. This way, they would never know about it or where it went. John had brought it home from the War. Bob promised to keep it in trust for the present time.
Now, Bob had never had any real conversation with John about being in the War and I am not sure that he even realized that John had been in service. So Bob asked how he came by the Luger.
John replied in a matter of fact way that he had taken it off of a German officer that he had killed! John had killed somebody!? Are you kidding? This man was a salesman, for Goodness Sakes!
It seems that John’s outfit captured some Germans and the officer in the group was not searched very well. While the Americans were giving the Germans some food and hot coffee, the German officer pulled out his Luger and shot one of the Americans. John, in turn, shot the German and kept the Luger pistol.
So, John had killed a German officer. Under the circumstances, you could see how that would happen. Bob commented to him that he had never thought about him actually shooting anyone and that having to take a life, even in combat, had to be tough. Johns reply was somewhat startling. He, in fact, had shot many Germans.
One night, he was on guard duty watching a rock wall fence downhill from where his company was dug in. There was an opening in the fence and the Germans were trying to get through to flank his camp. One after another, one of the enemy troops would come through the opening trying to reach the other side of the clearing. One after another John shot them. Between 20 and 25 that night alone. Shooting one German officer was not actually that big of a deal! It was all in a day’s work for John. The officer was not the first and would not be the last. And, no one would have ever guessed it. He had never said a word.
How did these men do these tasks? How did they get to a point that they could shoot one enemy soldier after another. Were they driven by the fear that if they did not kill the other guy they would get killed? Were the driven by their concern for their buddies? Were they doing it for their Country? Did it actually get to be fun? Did they get a rush pulling the trigger?
Most of the men that John shot, he probably did not get “up close and personal” with. They were several yards away and you could not see the look in their eyes or hear the last breath leave them. But, the German officer was different. He was right there. Up close. And, many would say, he asked for it! He had done the unthinkable….shooting at a group who were now befriending him and treating him humanely. But John kept his Luger all those years. Why?
That event touched John in some deep human way. Probably in ways he did not acknowledge or understand. Maybe, parting with that gun was the last of the demons that John had lived with all those years. Now, in the waning days of his life, he may can sleep a little better! The last ghost was now gone from his closet. He never said.