« The distance to the past | Main | Your Friday rainy season thread »

June 15, 2011


somehow, my father escaped the glory of being sent to Vietnam to die for his country's ego. my existence thanks the draft board for managing to make that happen.

I don't have time to go read TNC's thread. I do have family memories, having understood from earliest childhood that WWII was a central memory for my parents' generation, both the ones who were "in the service" and the ones on "the home front." One of my uncles was awarded a Silver Star in WWII. Another uncle was killed in Korea, October 15, 1952, having been seriously wounded the previous summer and sent back to the front when his leg healed. My dad wasn't in combat; he was stationed on a submarine tender and spent several months in Japan once the war had ended.

In every household of my relatives during my childhood there was, on one or another piece of furniture, a formal portrait of the uncle who died in Korea -- he was in uniform in the portrait. In almost every household of anyone's childhood in my generation there was a similar portrait of someone who had gone to war and not come home.

But never mind the family stories for now, what I really want to do is pick up on this from Doc's post:

Almost all of the men who had been in active war zones refused to talk honestly about their experiences, and most never talked about it at all except with fellow vets. The upshot is that many families -- maybe even most -- have a mystery, a hole in their center: the men's experiences *changed* them, but they can't or won't say how.

Something that happened recently in Maine makes me think that there’s something worse than coming home from the war and not being able to talk about it except with other vets.

A">http://www.onlinesentinel.com/news/they-were-so-in-love_2011-06-07.html">A week and a half ago a man in Maine shot and killed his wife in front of their two children, then got on the highway, and after a long police chase, shot and killed himself. One of his relatives said:

...she and other family members noticed a change in Nathaniel after he returned from Iraq a few years ago. He didn't talk about his deployment to others, she said.

"He went to war, and he came back, and he was a little different; a little standoffish," Ducharme said. "He was more reserved, almost like all the kid had grown out of him; he had to be so serious."

I have often thought about the way the Depression and World War II both came to be the near-universal experiences of an entire generation, and the way my generation had no such common thread. Now our country has been at war for ten years, yet the price being paid in lives lost or irrevocably changed is being paid not by nearly every family on every block, but by (relatively speaking) very few of us. And unlike my dad and my uncles, the people coming back from the war now are not coming back into a world where their experience (and that of their families) is widely shared and recognized. Nor are they coming back and finding the help they need in the aftermath.

I don’t know why people do what they do. I don’t know this family, and I don’t know if anyone will ever know if going to war and coming back to carry the memories alone had anything to do with this man’s descent into horror. A few days later another man in Maine killed not only his wife and himself, but their two children as well. As far as I know, he hadn’t been to the war, so who knows.

Too much sadness.

My dad spent two years on Guadalcanal after the fighting was over. He spent most of the time there hanging out, playing ball, doing a little work every now and then, going to USO shows (Ray Milland came through once), and so on. In May 1945, his company sailed up to the Philippines for a while and on to Japan after the surrender. Dad was home by November. He mustered out right away and kicked himself for the rest of his life for not staying in: "I could have retired as a major" he used to say.

My dad loved the military, mostly, I think, because in his experience he really didn't have to do much actual work. I'm not saying he was lazy--he wasn't--but he figured out within a few years of gettng out that working nine to five as an inurance adjuster was too much work for too little money, especially when you have a wife and three kids. Trouble was, he kept on doing that for another 30 years, to the dismay of the aforementioned wife and kids. Too bad he didn't use his GI Bill bennies like his pals did, who became an architect, a dentist, and a CPA. Dad never bettered himself that way, and wound up living a generally unhappy life, I'm afraid.

My father spent WWII working in engine rooms on ships. He signed up for the Navy when war looked inevitable because he was not by God going to get drafted into the Army and serve in the infantry.

His brother, my uncle, whom I never met nor knew, did serve in the Army, worked reconnaissance duty, and was killed. Some time after the war, my grandmother wanted to go to Europe and find where he was buried, but I think my father talked her out of it. She, my grandmother, was the beneficiary of his life insurance policy, and the proceeds did let her buy her own house. A weird trade, certainly, a son for a house, and one I'm sure she did not want. Of my father's nine siblings, Cecil was the one he was closest to.

My step-father joined the Army well before Pearl Harbor because he knew he'd get fed. He had operated heavy equipment while working construction as a civilian, so they gave him a tank and told him to learn how to drive it. He did so, they made him a sergeant and gave him the job of training other drivers. He hit the beach in North Africa, his tank hit a mine, he was captured and spent most of the rest of his war in a prison camp. He was liberated toward the end of the war and went back into tank duty in Europe.

My father-in-law served with a supply unit in the Phillipines. The only guy in his unit that died did so by drowning in a river. Some said it was an accident, some said suicide. The thing my father-in-law was most proud and pleased about concerning his service was that nobody in his unit was killed by arms.

The father of a very good friend was a tank commander in Europe. He killed a lot of guys, and still has nightmares, almost 70 years later. He actually wrote a book with a younger English guy as co-author about his time in WWII. As part of the research for the book, he revisited the places he'd been during the war. He was kind of hoping it would help him lay some stuff to rest, but apparently it didn't play out that way. He has a beautiful over-and-under German shotgun / rifle combination that he took off of a German civilian who tried to kill him. He's the only guy I've mentioned here so far who's still alive, but he's fading pretty fast.

My next door neighbor is old enough to have served in WWII, but he is just a really small guy, less than five feet tall, and the service turned him down. It made him feel very badly at the time, and for some time afterwards.

I have an uncle who served during Korea. The guns gave him some serious permanent hearing loss, but other than that he was fine.

I have the Bible that my old man took with him through WWII. Inside is a cheaply printed sheet that were the orders for the day on the ship he was on at Iwo Jima. On the back are his handwritten notes from the day, a kind of diary. He writes about what he's hearing announced on the ship's loudspeakers, vs what he can see. Apparently, the announcements were presenting a much more positive view of the battle than the reality. His comments were, basically, "they're lying to us".

I'm sorry for his sake, I guess, that Shelby Foote didn't get to participate in direct combat. I can tell you that a lot of guys would have been pretty grateful to trade places with him.

Most guys went because they had to and because it was actually vitally necessary that they go and they understood that. They did what they had to do, whatever that was, and then were god-damned glad to come home.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
--— Atatürk 1934

(from Wikipedia)

Russell's story of his grandmother reminds me of this. Lofty sentiments, and I guess there's something to be appreciated in former enemies becoming allies. Too bad so many mothers had to lose their sons first.

OK, this is truly dumb. (= I am truly dumb.) I can't get to the comments in question. I can read TNC's article, but when I want to look at the thread, I have to log in, which I faithfully try to do. Even "changed my password" a couple of times. And Disqus keeps saying "You're not allowed to access this site."

I've done everything obvious (to me). Can someone suggest something not obvious to me that might work?

yeah, my father the storyteller, who will talk your ear off about his life and experiences, says almost nothing about his three years in Saigon.

The contrast with everything else he's willing to talk about -- he'll more readily talk about discovering his brother-in-law's suicide when coming home from work one day as a young man -- is stark.

My grandfather enlisted in the Army shortly after the Pearl Harbor bombing, and spent his first couple of years stateside before hitting Europe in August 1944 as part of the 379th Regimental Combat Scouts, under Patton's 95th Infantry Division. If you aren't familiar with the 95th Infantry, read up on them. They participated in some of the fiercest, most dangerous fighting across Germany in those early months of the Europe invasion.

Everything I know about my grandfather's service, I know secondhand, from my grandmother and from my father who, as a Vietnam combat veteran, was the only person to whom my grandfather would speak of his experiences. He simply never, ever, ever talked about the war, except to show us grandkids a bullet wound in his left calf.

Similarly, Dad never talked about his Vietnam experiences for years, partly because a lot of his service was classified for a long time, but also because it just wasn't something he wanted to talk about. It's only in maybe the last five years he's been comfortable telling me about any of it, and I kinda wish he hadn't.

From this Germans perspective, there is much silence, too. Granted, I never met my grandparents because they died in the 1960s and my father, born 1930, was a few months too young and not healthy enough to be conscripted due to a bad case of rachitis. But my father was driven of / fled Silesia (close to Wrotzlaw) in 1945 or 1946 and he only told me that he was transported by train in cattle cars, separated from his family, which he met by chance in Karlovy Vary. Ironically, the only time I heard him tell something more of his experiences was when he visited his hometown in the 1990s and, with the help of an interpreter, talked to the people living in the small farm where he was born - they had been driven off, too, from what is now Belarus (somewhere around Lwów).
My significant other's grandfather served in WWII in North Africa - when he returned after WWII and one or two years as POW, he converted to Roman Catholicism and also kept silence on his war experiences - except to vocally object when my father in law joined the Bundeswehr during the 70s.

While the silence that accompanies post-combat is probably universal, I believe that the notion of missing the opportunity is something that is, while not uniquely American, is particularly concentrated by the US experience in WWII. I'd be curious what it is like for a place like Russia.

My impression is that the longing for participation in the war (particularly WWII) is something that is rather attenuated in the UK. The UK side of my family is rather interesting in that regard

My mom's father served in the trenches in WWI and I'm told that he swore he was never going to do anything like that. When the volunteer call up notice for the Home Guard came in, he handed the notice to my step-uncle, who had the same name, and off he went at the age of 16, where he was with all of these WWI vets who insisted he have what was his first pint of bitter. My step-uncle later went on to be a navigator in Liberators on U-boat spotting duty out of Bermuda. He suffered a collapsed lung and had one of the first lobectomies. More about that later.

My grandmother first married an American in India who ran an ironworks there. He died of scarlet fever and it was decided that their son would be raised by family in the US, and he was a B-17 navigator in the 306th Bomber group, and the incident where he was lost was part of the plot for the Gregory Peck movie 12 o'clock high. Though my mother didn't grow up with him, he visited the family a number of times after the 306th was stationed in Thurleigh and his loss always seemed to cast a somberness over my mom. I think it was because after the war, the family of one of the crew who was lost with him offered to sponsor my mom's family to immigrate to the US. Unfortunately, the immigration officials didn't allow the uncle mentioned above to come because of the severity of the operation, so the family made the difficult decision of splitting up the family, with my uncle remaining in the UK and my mom and grandparents coming to the US. I suspect that my mother imagined what it would have had an older brother in the states who she could have related to, which is why the loss weighed on her. When I first got her hooked up to the internet, she began to research and found that he had volunteered to be a navigator in another crew in order to get his missions for rotation back home and was able to contact someone who was on his original crew. I don't want to extend that to all of Great Britain, but the scale of loss seems to make the idea of 'missing out' less prevalent.

The Japanese side of the family presents its own take on the notion of missing out. My grandfather apparently was the only son and was sent to Hawaii to avoid conscription. Family stories have him being very happy about the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor. While that may not be true, after the war, he refused to pay rent, arguing that Japan had won the war and was hauled in front of a judge. Apparently, a number of issei in Hawaii had difficulty believing that Japan had lost the war. My father was a bit too young to serve, though a few of his classmates lied about their age and joined the 442nd Combat Regiment and then had student deferments thru the Korean war. Two uncles ended up getting drafted and one served in combat in Korea. However, the Korean experience doesn't seem to generate the same longing to participate that WWII did, probably because it seems much more pointless and open-ended. And again, at the risk of extending my family's experiences to all Japanese-Americans, there seems to be a little bit less of the idea that it was a glorious opportunity missed. That may be because of the No-no boys and the Nisei who resisted registration in the Selective Service, which is documented in Eric Muller's Free to Die for Their Country and the documentary Conscience and the Constitution and even if a group doesn't consciously know about it, there seems to be a group memory about these sorts of things.

To circle back up to the top, this isn't to dismiss TNC's observation or to deny that boys and young men often romanticize war, but to note that in some ways, it partakes of a particular kind of American exceptionalism.

Following on from LJ's remarks, I seem to recall - no, I have no links or citations - that the sense of having missed out on the US Civil War (1861-65) and its opportunities for "glory" and demonstrations of manliness was found among many volunteers for the Spanish-American War a generation later (1898). It ties in, one suspects, to the USA being mercifully free of foreign invasions for so long (basically since the War of 1812), an experience shared by relatively few Europeans.

I seem to recall - no, I have no links or citations - that the sense of having missed out on the US Civil War (1861-65) and its opportunities for "glory" and demonstrations of manliness was found among many volunteers for the Spanish-American War a generation later (1898). It ties in, one suspects, to the USA being mercifully free of foreign invasions for so long (basically since the War of 1812), an experience shared by relatively few Europeans.

You saw a similar attitude among the class of 1914 who were nostalgic for the wars of 1866 and 1870.

My father served in the British merchant marine in WWII. I think it's fair to say he's been reasonably open and honest with me about the experience. Not that he talks about it a lot, but when he has talked about it (usually mocking some Hollywood film as a start) he hasn't been shut off.

Maybe that's why my views of war are what they are? I had a father who hammered home, repeatedly, that war isn't glorious ("War is death, destruction... men screaming as they die"). This is a man whose favorite war movies have titles such as "Oh, What a Lovely War" and "Gallipoli." He thought the opening ~10 minutes of Saving Private Ryan was pretty good and then it got silly.

He regularly mocks the mentality of an acquaintance of his (via the local senior center) who is a US Marine vet, who's all gung-ho the Marines have never lost rah rah all the time. Anybody like that who gets on TV talking like that, he immediately mocks.

Yeah, I think Dad did right by me on this score.

In contrast, my grandfater (mom's dad) enlisted in the Marines (underage) toward the end of WWII, but was on a ship in the Pacific when the bombs were dropped. He never saw combat. He's bellicose as all hell.

I should note that my dad's service wasn't combat-free. The merchant marine took a horrific beating. My dad had two ships torpedoed out from under him. He saw men screaming as they died. I suppose, then, that his non-silence is unusual. Or it's just been long enough that he's ok with talking about it. I don't know if he was reluctant to speak of it back in the 60s, say.

who's all gung-ho the Marines have never lost


@Rob in CT. I know of a few former Marines that aren't that gung-ho about combat, because they are all combat veterans. On a layover in Cleveland the other day, I talked with a Marine 'Nam vet and he told me he had trouble keepin' in touch with his squad from the '68 siege at Khe Sanh.Most of his buddies since then had died , a few commited suicide or were now alcoholics. He managed to track down two buddies that were still together for the most part. My own service was in the Marines in the 80's during peacetime. Having served under 'Nam vets and growing up with uncles who were WWII vets that never said anything about combat I'm very glad that I don't know any of what they experienced. I remember back when I was stationed in Okinawa the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General A.M. Gray addressed our squadrons. He said to be prepared at a moment's notice to go into a combat zone, but he also added don't ever wish to go,you spend five minutes in combat and you'll never want to see it again.

I was using that one guy as an example of what Dad routinely mocks/derides: gung-ho-ism. I'm sure there are LOTS of Marines who aren't like that.

My sense of this -- gleaned from many hours reading veteran lifewriting for my dissertation -- is that US attitudes towards military service shifted after WWII and then again after Vietnam and the Gulf War.

WWII was, for the most part, seen by the public as a just war against a barbaric enemy that attacked us unprovoked. The men who volunteered were supported by a generation of parents for whom war was a healthy expression of moral character.

Vietnam was fought by the children of the 'Greatest Generation' and gained a measure of its ambivalence from the WWII combat veteran's reticence to glorify war and the sense of futility that followed in the wake of the US experience in Korea. The national sense of betrayal is amplified by the sense that the sons of WWII vets never got a chance to live up to their fathers' legacy and that the public never properly got behind them like they had their fathers. That sense of betrayal went deep.

The Gulf Wars have been fought by the children of the Vietnam generation and they have become a sort of vicarious redemption for the US military and veterans, but this is not, and cannot be, a national redemption because an all-volunteer force draws a bright line between the brave patriot and the dirty hippy. It's a mess and it leaves a deep division in its wake. I fear for the seeds of all this.

These sorts of discussions always leave me wishing I could create a syllabus for blogs so I could assign Studs Terkel's The Good War and a few other books as required reading.

My father was drafted -- or enlisted just ahead of the draft -- in WWII. He didn't want to kill anyone, so he studied like crazy to be admitted to the medical corps. I don't know what his formal rank was, but his job was dogsbody: fetch and carry, assist the surgeons, whatever. He developed a fine hand for sewing up injuries, and was assigned those that took lots of stitches and patience, and might make a world of difference in terms of a scar: faces and hands.

He never saw combat, but the poverty he saw in the Philippines affected him deeply. He often spoke of giving his meals to native children and making Jello in the medical lab to tide him over. I suspect it made him a much more compassionate person, and as a civilian he chose to give generously to charities that took care of children... and to adopt a child (me) that her birth parents couldn't afford to raise.

soldiers' families in those areas experienced WWII directly, so the men's experiences would have been much less of a mystery, their trauma was part of a society-wide trauma.

Indeed, around two thirds of the casualties were civilians. The numbers for Vietnam are similar.

My father-in-law was in the army when WW II broke out. He ended up in the 442 Regimental Combat Team. While he was nominally with the motor pool, he definitely saw combat -- like everybody else in that unit. (There was a good reason that they collectively won more medals per capita than any other unit in the war.)

He doesn't talk about it much, beyond saying that the guys who didn't come home were the real heros. But I know that, now in his 90s, he is troubled by bad dreams (combat flash-backs) all the time.

I just wish we could convince him to accept help in dealing with that. But even just taking sleeping pills so he can sleep thru the night (which does seem to help) he gets twitchy that he shouldn't be taking medication for it and stops again.

My dad was in WW II. He volunteered for an easy job, bomb disposal. We have several pictures of him sitting on or next to bombs. One where he is straddling a 500 lb bomb, with a hammer in his hand. He said that bomb had its timer so close to the skin all you had to was listen till you found it, then smash it.
He went ashore in North-Africa and Anzio. He told very few stories. Didn't like Patton but spoke highly of Mark W. Clark ( hence 2 of his sons Clark and Wayne). I only saw my dad cry twice- once on his death bed and once in 1971 when we visited the US Military Cemetary at Anzio. One of my Italian uncles said my dad cried every time he visited that cemetary.
My mom had much better war stories. Born and raised in Rome, she remembers the face of the British pilot that fired his guns at her and her sister Anna. She says Anna still does not like to go outside. But, of all the stories she told mom never told us her part. After she passed away, I found out from one of my cousins, my mom smuggled messages in and out of the jail where the Germans held people, most of whom were to be shot. One of her brothers was there;and she was a ticket agent for the rail road. She would get tickets for guards or officers and they would let her visit.
both of my parents tried hard to keep me out of Viet Nam. My dad was there too mostly in and out from the Phillippenes.
But, thats another post about another War.

dr ngo: "but when I want to look at the thread, I have to log in"

I'm stuck right there, as I don't know why that would be. The page of comments is on the web. The only reason you should need to log into Disqus is if you wish to use it to post. The comments are on this page.

Gary: Thanks to you I returned to the same page (I'd been there several times before), but now, assured by you that the comments were somewhere there I tinkered with my settings until - lo and behold! - they showed up.

So - thanks.

By the way if you want to read an excellent account of a battle go to www.mishalov.com/death_ia_drang_valley.html.
It is a speach then a more detailed account of LZ Albany. The next day after LZ-X-ray by Jack P. Smith. He was the son of well known journalist Howard K. Smith.
The second part is the account it is not for the squeamish.

Vietnam era vet here. Joined the navy to avoid having to carry an m-16 in country. Very conflicted about wanting to support my country but doing it a completely wrong war. So I made the middle of the road choice. Was sent half way around the world from Vietnam but ended up for a couple of months in a navy hospital filled mostly with wounded Marines. We talked about the war, about fighting, about the horrors, the things that almost never get discussed. There is a reason for that. Most of these people only want to forget, but can not. And good or bad do not want to inflict those memories on others. I was not there but I can say with firm conviction that most people don't want to know, even second hand, what those people saw. And did. You might think you do, but you really don't.
The problem with that is that the lessons don't get learned.
We all say war is hell.
The best I can tell is the real hell is the memories that never seem to go away.

My dad was an Army missile radar tech during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The only two things he had to say about it were

1) Staying up for days on end while governments decide weather to trade nuclear missiles was the worst experience of this life.

2)AVOIDING something like that is a worthy goal. If we were hell-bent on military service, he would understand, but we should definitely try to find something we liked that wouldn't involve going to war.

My grandfather and his brothers were drafted during World War II. Neither of them were especially anxious to serve, but this being a time of national crisis they accepted the circumstances and shipped off to basic.

My grandfather spent most of his time in the army lying on his back: while in basic, he managed through no fault of his own to contract pneumonia, recover from that only to break his leg, and recover from that only to get pneumonia again. The army approached him and said, "Listen, if we give you a medical discharge, will you just go home?" He accepted it and came back home to marry my grandmother.

One of his brothers was an airplane maintenance tech for the Air Force and was attached to a fighter squad from '44 to '45, but from what I understand he never saw combat first-hand, just the aftermath of it patching up the planes that came back after each skirmish.

His other brother wound up completing his basic training just in time to be shipped over to the European front for the invasion of Normandy. He was one of the guys running up the beach, and watched most of his friends get cut to pieces by German artillery. He came home after his tour was over, married, raised a family, and never spoke a word to anyone about what he saw or did.

My grandmother was always offended by that for some reason. She never understood why he never talked about what happened over there, even with his own brothers, and it irked her to no end that the only thing he would say to her when she brought it up around him was, "If you weren't over there to see it, you don't have any business knowing about it and I don't have any business telling you."

It breaks my heart to think he feels that way, but at the same time it's a perfectly reasonable and understandable sentiment. Without a common frame of reference, and so many of his friends killed or wounded in action, who COULD he talk to about this? I've no doubt he'll carry it to his grave.

Well, at least for me, it is just as well WWII ended when it did. My parents — both in the Army, my father having just returned from Europe and my mother awaiting assignment to Japan — married two days after VJ Day.

I have a friend here in Mexico who said his mother wept bitterly on VJ-Day. She worked a third shift factory job and knew that the end of the war meant the end of the only economic independence she would ever have in her life. Mexico was not a particularly important military ally, but being directly unaffected, but — besides supplying labor, raw materials and food to the allies — had rapidly industrialized to meet war time needs. Third shifts were a war-time measure, as were women factory workers.

My friend's mother was not the only woman for whom the war meant the end of independence, and would have seen the end of the war as a tragedy.

The comments to this entry are closed.