Grandpa completed high school and was working on the construction of an airport in Laurel, Maryland when he was drafted in 1942. In Ohio, several boys from around his home were also drafted. One boy from Lowell, Ohio, had never spent a night away from at that point in his life. It was well into WWII before the army stopped taking whole neighborhoods or all the boys from one family to make a unit.
He went to Camp Wheeler, Georgia , for thirteen weeks of training then to Camp Edwards, Massachusetts, to join the 36th Infantry Division. He left New York Harbor on April Fool’s Day (how we do enjoy irony) 1943.
It took thirteen days on the U.S.S. Brazil a former luxury liner to land in Oran, Africa. He trained in North Africa until September 1943. Based on what he saw in North Africa, he will not eat goat meat to this day, not that that has been a major family issue.
His unit left North Africa and landed on the beach at Salerno, Italy on September 9, 1943. I remember him telling a story about soldiers sitting in the landing boats resting their chins on their rifle barrels. Either the impact of the waves or landing slammed their heads down and the gun barrels pierced the chins of some of these men. Grandpa said that on landing he confirmed General Sherman’s words that “war is Hell.”
They proceeded to Monte Cassino, Italy where the Germans were in caves and dug into the mountains. One night the Allies fired 750 artillery pieces at the mountain. Grandpa said the phosphorous shells looked like fire running down the mountain. On the night of my brother’s funeral, Grandpa told me a story about watching a headless torso roll down the mountain illuminated by that fire. It landed just outside the trench he was in. I think he was trying to share something about death, about seeing things that are horrible, tragic and unreal. Things you shouldn’t have to see. He did not often or willingly tell war stories. More often than not they were non sequitors, but something that he needed to say.
On January 22, 1944, his regiment was forced across the Rapido River and captured. We seem to only associate the miserable inhumane boxcar rides with the transport of Jews to the concentration camps, but Grandpa and his companions took a similar ride in the cold without food to Stalag 4B. He said by arrival almost all were afflicted with dysentery. They had a short stay at Stalag 4B then went on to Stalag 2B by the Polish border. They were then sent to Stalag 3B where they were supposed to be traded for other prisoners, but the Normandy Invasion cancelled that plan and they were sent back to Stalag 2B and the work farm.
There are a lot of little stories from the work farm. A guard holding a gun to his head out in the fields. The night the Germans wanted to punish the Russian prisoners by turning loose one of their dogs in the Russian barracks and then next morning when those barracks’ walls featured the skin of a German Shepherd. A standard meal time reminder at our house for those who chose to complain and not eat part of their dinner was the story of how Eddie fought the rat in solitary for the rights to a rotten onion.
He and the other prisoners were forced off of the work farm in a sort of death march in January of 1945. He spent the rest of his time as a prisoner, walking and riding away from the advancing Russian army. Somehow Grandpa and his buddy Kowalski managed to spend much of their time riding. He and his buddies used to get together at least once a year for P.O.W. reunions. I remember meeting those guys and watching them enjoy each other’s company. Grandpa is one of the very few of that group left.
Germans left the prisoners at Stalag 10B where British forces arrived around May 1, 1945. Grandpa had spent a total of 17 months as a prisoner of war. He went to Camp Lucky Strike and then a liberty ship home.
On July 3, 1945 he married my grandmother Billie Drumm. The army was kind enough (sarcasm) to sponsor two weeks of recovery in Miami Beach, Florida. Somewhere I have the copy of the papers stating the skeletal weight he was when found and the various health issues that remained.
From August to November of 1945, he trained soldiers for Japan at Camp Adair, Oregon. He was discharged in November of 1945. He is certain that if they hadn’t dropped the atomic bomb, he would have ended up in Japan.
I don’t even know how to reflect on this and make it align with the man I grew up around. These are stories we see in Spielberg movies and hear about in history books as if no real person did these things. I’m glad I have my Grandpa to tell these stories though. He is a good and kind man despite what he has had to see and had to do. I’m going to steal a little Kurt Vonnegut, also a WWII veteran, quote now: “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”