After Pearl Harbor, like everyone else in America, my father felt it was his patriotic duty to do everything he could for the war effort—gasoline rationing, war bonds, victory gardens. Only he was the son of German immigrants which meant he couldn’t save enough gas, buy enough bonds, or raise enough vegetables to NOT have his patriotism questioned. German-Americans weren’t rounded up and put in camps like Japanese-Americans. Nevertheless, they lived under a cloud of suspicion that, in my father’s case, made a high school hell. One friend stood by him, Gary. “He always had my back, and he could hold his own in a fistfight,” my dad used to say. The two of them became inseparable–“Jared and Gary.”
At seventeen, my father lied about his age to “join up” and become a paratrooper, Gary followed, not because he needed to prove his patriotism but because he needed to prove he could do anything Jared could do. The rest of their story is summed in two letters:
(sometime in 1944)
Fourteen quit today, including that guy from Aberdeen. They are all going to get court-martialed tomorrow . . .. My mind was made up last Saturday to jump because if you could do it, so could I.
It wasn’t half bad. I was number eleven and we had a lot of chatter. They just kept pushing and all you had to do was go with the rest. They even pushed a guy who froze in the door out! One guy froze on the other plane, and they pushed so hard three went out head first.
All the instructors seem to think this is a pretty good class, but declare, up and down, the bunch you were with was the worst.
Dear Sweetheart (meaning my mother):
First of all, I just got a telegram from you, thanks, darling, it lets me know that you were thinking of me that day.
Now you wanted to know about Gary. It isn’t anything very good, and it still scares me to think about it. All there is to know is that I found him lying about four or five feet in front of the glider. With him were two other officers. Everything around there, including them, was filled with dozens of holes. He was just torn to pieces from the hot shrapnel. His glider had landed about a hundred yards from a huge clump of woods and the woods were just filled with German artillery, so you can tell he didn’t have a chance.
The spot where I landed was maybe three miles away, on a good guess. I met some kids who said they’d seen Gary, so I set out looking for him and it wasn’t long until I found him . . ..
My father talked about Gary and the crazy things they did as kids. I don’t remember him talking about the war.
When I mentioned that to my mother, she shook her head. “At first that was all he did. He went over and over some of the same stories,” she told me. “Horrible things. Details. Smells. He remembered lots of smells. Dead bodies smell sweet, he said. He talked and talked and talked and then one day, he just stopped. But surely you must know that he was in the worst of it.”
I knew, but only because I’d gotten my information from other sources. My father was a paratrooper in the 17th Airborne. The first action he saw was made famous in the movie, A Bridge Too Far. Later his feet were frozen in the Battle of the Bulge.
“Oh, he had so much trouble with his feet when he first got home,” Mom continued. “The only thing that helped was some 100% wool socks that we got from the army surplus store. We couldn’t find them anyplace else. His feet were so tender, he couldn’t stand to have anything rub against them, except those socks, and he couldn’t stand to let them get cold.”
Later she told me that during the Battle of the Bulge, he found a small bundle of straw in an abandoned farmyard. He wrapped it up and carried it with him. “That little bit of straw made such a big difference,” she said. “At night he scattered it in his foxhole, or wherever he was, to help keep himself warm. Next morning, he would gather it up and take it with him. He said that he would pick up every little piece—every little straw.”
War on the level of literally hanging onto pieces of straw is never depicted in movies like A Bridge Too Far, which is why my father never saw that movie, or any war movie. He had no desire. He saw his action at Bastogne and Flamierge. In Operation Varsity, when the British 6th and the American 17th jumped over the Rhine River, he was one of only nine in his unit who survived.
Paratroopers expected high casualties. Sometimes they ripped holes in their chutes, so they’d drop faster. You risked breaking your neck, that way. However, if you floated above an enemy position too long . . ..
There were no good choices.
When the US got involved in the Viet Nam conflict, my father didn’t want his sons going to war, which again called his patriotism into question. By that time, he was involved in local politics, running for county commissioner. Must have seemed like high school all over again.
This is a blog about stories. The point here is obvious–you need to know the whole story. Ask. Don’t make assumptions.