My dad always respected people in the service, especially those who “saw action.” This probably started from a guy named Grandpa Mallach, a Civil War vet in my dad’s hometown. He showed my dad how to whittle a whistle from a willow tree branch, the kind soldiers used in Civil War battles to signal to each other. When Grandpa Mallach died, the ground was so cold they had to blast dynamite to create a grave. The town turned out to watch a horse-drawn carriage carry his casket to the cemetery. My dad’s dad Carl was in World War I, but I don’t think he saw any action or went overseas. But I do recall Carl being a uniformed military man. And, my dad became an Eagle Boy Scout.
So when World War II rolled around, it seems as though some strong seeds towards the military had been planted.
Like most guys, my dad tried to enlist. He was greatly disappointed in failing the eye exam, as he was legally blind without his glasses. But he wasn’t ready to let a little rule keep him out of “the shooting war.” So he reinlisted, cheated on the eye exam, and became a soldier in the Army.
He was in battle for a little over 30 days. Nasty watching-guys-die-before-your-very-eyes kind of battle. Killing other guys kind of battle. Watching guys get hit with mortar rounds. Feeling bullets buzzing by your ears. Fishing dogtags out of foxholes. Watching Americans die from friendly fire. Watching your friends running scared to escape, and right into enemy fire. All in the freezing cold.
He got captured by the Germans, and spent about 6 months in 3 different prisoner of war camps. He said this was worse than combat. It was a different kind of battle. I think combat was more a physical battle, and being a POW was a more mental battle.
Between combat and camps, it’s amazing he came back on one piece, literally and figuratively. The fact that he came back, and was happily married to the same woman til the day he died, and raised five great kids makes the feat even greater. He had a good professional career, had hobbies and friends and golf and fun. But it wasn’t without challenges. Supporting five kids is a lot of work. But he did so with grace and aplomb, with goodness in his heart, in a positive, levelheaded way. To me, this was all rather remarkable.
Most remarkable of all though, is something that I’ve guessed: that he did all this despite living with the war every day. I really can’t see how anyone could experience what he did, and not think about it every day. That’d make 57 years of living with war in his head and heart, and he never really let it show. I can’t imagine.
My assumption is that anyone who has seen significant battle has lived with the memory every day. Those people deserve our respect, today, and every day.