“America’s Greatest Generation” was Tom Brokaw’s term to describe the people who endured the Great Depression and fought in WWII. My parents were part of that generation.
Recently, I rediscovered a small box of my Father’s possessions (he died in 1999) that helped me remember his experience in WWII. To his generation, WWII was a “good” war: just, necessary, winnable. The box contained four things: 1) a discharge document from 1946; 2) the two “dog tags” my Father wore during the war; 3) a piece of my Mother’s jewelry from that time; 4) a number of half-dollar coins including two from the 1940s. These items generated the following memories for me.In December of 1944, I celebrated my second birthday. My Father was on a government sponsored trip. His room and board were paid for, as was his clothing and equipment. Everyone who went with him had the same agreement. It was WWII and they all had been drafted. Deferments had delayed my Father’s entrance into the Army: he was married, had a child (me –doing my part for the war effort), and was working in a defense related industry. The war needed many more men. Their effort would be required until the conflict ended or they were seriously injured or dead. Of course, I understood none of it. My Mother did understand it and, as a young woman, it made no sense. Her husband was 31 years old and, now, he was going to war.
Dad got there after Normandy’s beaches were occupied and the unaccounted for hedgerows had almost ended the invasion. But he would not miss all the action. Fighting began; time passed; progress was made; the Ardennes, site of an important battle in WWI, had been reached. The army paused and spread out their defenses. No one knew the largest and bloodiest battle on the Western Front –as well as the largest battle ever fought by a U. S. Army—was about to begin.
Hitler, the German leader, had seen his defenses fail to prevent an invasion. Now, he risked large quantities of men, his beloved Panzer divisions (tanks), and Air Force in one large Offensive. American defensive positions were not equally manned. Hitler picked the weakest point, and thanks to poor weather (limiting visibility for the Allies Air Force), threw everything into the attack. The Allied line was breached (ie, the American line had bulged) and soldiers fell back. Knowing they needed reinforcements, they chose to make a stand at the city of Bastogne. The city was important to Germany because if it was taken, good roads would enable their troops and tanks to make significant progress throughout Europe.
The Americans knew the importance of a victory. More important, they knew without reinforcements the battle was lost. An officer unknown to my Father and other troops would give them their final orders. Standing in front of a large group, the officer hesitated before speaking. Then, shaking his head from side to side, he said: “Oh, hell, it doesn’t matter. You’ll all be dead in 2 weeks anyway.” Everyone was silent. And with that, The Battle of the Bulge began. Bastogne had to be held.
The battle lasted from December 16, 1944 to January 25, 1945. Weather was brutally cold. Meals for the American soldiers were eaten standing up in the snow or sitting on ice blocks which encased discarded weapons or frozen bodies –in time, some were American, some were German. (see above) As time went on, meals were served out of the back of trucks. Men put their plates under a tarp covering the back of a vehicle, felt the portions of food dumped onto plates, and took them out to see an unrecognizable mass. It seemed to be raining/snowing at every meal. Some men looked at their food, getting wetter by the second, and hesitated. Older men, like my Father, said: “Eat it now. It’s not going to look any better or be any warmer if you wait.”
They ate; they fought; they were wounded, or died, or they survived –physically colder than they could imagine. Weapons froze up. Tanks and trucks had to be run every half hour whether in battle or not. They froze solid if you waited too long. Weather improved and the Allied air force dropped supplies (mostly ammunition) and paratroopers. Casualties mounted for both sides. Allied reinforcements arrived (ie, soldiers, Patton’s tanks). Bastogne held. The German plan had failed. Eisenhower moved forward. His goal: drive the Germans straight back, until the Allies reached Berlin –or the war ended.
The Russians, coming East, were driving for Berlin, too. They remembered the cost for them to throw back the Germans at Stalingrad: a total of 1.7 – 2.2 million men (German and Russian) killed and injured. The Germans (soldiers and civilians alike) would pay dearly for the destruction of that Russian city. Germany was being squeezed.
Less than 2 months later, another important battle took place. As the Germans retreated, they destroyed bridges spanning the Rhine river. By early March, 1945, they had destroyed 46 of their 47 targets. The only bridge remaining, the Bridge at Remagen, was minutes from demolition when the Allies discovered it. (see above) It was guarded by 2 machine gun towers which had to be dealt with by crossing open ground. On March 7, 1945, American forces –General Patton’s tanks and infantry (of which my Father was a part)—crossed the bridge. The last enemy to attack Germany by crossing the Rhine was Napoleon. Before him, Caesar. For weeks afterward, as many troops, tanks, and weapons as possible entered Germany by this route. It was felt that this lucky encounter and subsequent victory shortened the war by weeks or months. One individual said it was the greatest military triumph since Normandy. (A 1969 film, The Bridge at Remagen, told the story of this event. My Father saw the film. I asked him if he liked it. His reply: “It wasn’t like that at all.”)
Near the end of WWII, Concentration Camps were found to be more than a rumor when Allies discovered their existence. My Father spoke of the first camp he and other soldiers discovered. Its name was Bergen-Belsen. He saw gas chambers with bodies still in them …open pits with bodies that had not been covered with dirt …bodies lying where they fell when people died. (see above; Anne Frank and her sister, Margot, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945) The German soldiers who did not have time to flee were captured. They were told they had to properly bury the dead and there was no choice in this duty. They dug or they died. Residents of the near by villages who claimed they had no knowledge of the camps were taken on tours of the facilities. They were given “booklets” that explained why the Allies were so upset with what was done at the camp. (My Father brought home such a booklet. As an older child, I did not know why the booklets were in German. Later, I realized these were given to German citizens. There were pictures of each of the camp’s facilities. One photo showed General Eisenhower’s reaction as he toured the camp.) When American soldiers arrived, they gave their rations to prisoners who eagerly ate the food. They vomited immediately because their systems could not process it.
Some American soldiers were given new duties. My Father was such an individual. Prisoners (in my Father’s case, they were captured Russian soldiers, survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and gypsies) were put under his care. He made sure they got proper food, clean clothing, and adequate medical care. When my Father left the camp, the people he helped gave him a gift: a letter opener colored gold and shaped like an 8 inch sword. My Father wondered what German officer’s desk held the letter opener before it was turned into a gift by a camp resident.
After V-E day (Victory in Europe) on May 8, 1945 and V-J Day (Victory in Japan) on September 2, 1945, life changed for American soldiers. First, they were told when they were going home. The decision had been made that they would be going home in reverse order: those who arrived in Europe on Normandy’s beaches would go home first, everyone who came later would go home later. Second, they were informed no additional training would be necessary for them because they would not be going to fight in the Pacific theater as they were told earlier. Third, they could, in addition to their remaining duties, travel free in Europe –in uniform—until it was their time to leave for home.
My Father knew where he would go: France. When he got there, he had a ring made for my Mother. It had no gold or silver, and it contained no precious gems. It was round, made of metal, and its top was larger and flatter, and inscribed: “Paris, 1946.”
And what was my gift? In late December, 1946, for my fourth birthday, my Father came home.