November 10, 1917 was the year of my father’s birth. Today I celebrate him posthumously as a WWII veteran. Our country asked young men regardless of race, religion or immigrant status to jump off warships in a foreign land to fight for people they had never met. They did. Many perished immediately as they landed on the shores of Normandy, others died in battle while those that survived the hell, we call war suffered mentally with the memory of their wartime experiences. We asked everything of these young men. We rely on our military personnel to protect all that we hold dear. We honor them today and always.
My father was a GI (general infantry) in the 5th Infantry Division nicknamed the Red Diamond Division. Landing in Normandy in 1944. He marched across Europe. His journey included the Battle of the Bulge right through to the Occupation of Germany. Remarkable. A hero. My dad.
As children we learned of some of his wartime experiences, but the darkest moments were his only. He shared some lighter moments and anecdotes mostly. Once in a very great while and maybe on a day he felt particularly burdened the horrors of war were exposed through his words. Sometimes just the daily details of being a wartime soldier. A helmet becoming a washbowl. Food rations. A happenstance in France when they came across an abandoned property with an ample supply of champaign and were drunk for days. A dramatic moment while retrieving his Catholic religious metal my grandmother had given him before he deployed. Noticing it was missing from around his neck as his regiment was about to head out on a maneuver, he returned to camp to locate it. This action, this moment saved his life, but others were not as fortunate. A GI in a foxhole during an attack mentally breaking, suffering. My father physically protecting him, and his dignity. We learned about the permeating smell of death as he marched through post battle villages. He maned the heavy artillery shooting into the night not knowing who or how many were on the receiving end just designated the enemy. My father silently struggled with his responsibility in the reality of war.
I knew him always to have a sparkle in his eyes and mischief in his heart. Even in his final days and moments he found the strength to blow me a kiss while at his bedside. The sparkle was fading but a glimmer always remained. No complaints about dying as he understood life better than most as he had seen the worst in life and in humans. He often said that the world would be a better place if it were run by women as men were given to war and women nurture.
In the late 1990’s while living in London for my husband’s work we traveled to Germany and paid a visit to the Hofbräuhaus in München. A famous family tavern in Munich where Bavarian music plays and beer flows freely. Our children were grammar school age at the time. We were able to travel easily throughout Europe from our home in London. I cherish those family adventures. At the Hofbräuhaus we shared a table with an older German gentleman. I could not help but wonder if he had been a soldier in the war as he appeared to be of similar in age to my dad. We did not share the same language and communication had its challenges, but he played a simple game with our children at our table transcending the spoken word and relying on the universality of human connection and understanding. Smiling, laughing and enjoying our time together we did. Enemies no more even though the wound and curiosity remained. I inscribed my name under the old heavy wooden table with a message to my father who had been at the same tavern many years before during a very different time. I wanted to document our shared history and celebration.
My father provided our family with maps of his march across Europe for posterity. He highlighted his exact route in Nazi-occupied Europe. My father loved a neon yellow highlighter. Notes and messages to my siblings and myself were often if not always decorated with yellow or pink highlighters. The intensity of the colorful emphasis still brings a smile to our faces. I used a highlighter during my college years to better understand and remember the key points in my Western Civilization textbooks while he actually lived it. Each strike of his highlighter on the map brought forth a moment in time that history will never forget.
Did he relive the many nightmares that marching across Europe brought him daily? I believe he did, but he sheltered those around him from it. He was an amazing, brilliant and accomplished man. A loving father and grandfather to his last breath. He fought for us all and I cannot let his efforts be in vain. He loved America and taught us daily about the cost of freedom. The importance of protecting democracy. Our democracy…
We have an opportunity to protect our country now. Our democracy. Our citizens. Perspective is key…
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” — John F. Kennedy
Please wear a mask…