History

A Memorial Day tribute

Today is the day we honor the men and women who died in our nation’s wars. I’d like to honor three very different World War II vets today by telling you my recollections of them.

I don’t remember Mr. Roberts’ first name, and only learned it at his funeral while I was in college. I don’t recall how I met him – it was probably because he and my dad shared an interest in woodworking, and Dad took me up two doors to meet him one day. I was fascinated by this man who built simple but beautiful wood jelly-bean dispensers, and I spent hours watching him turn wood for his dispensers on the lathe in the back of his garage. Mrs. Roberts used to let me pick strawberries from their strawberry patch when they were ripe, and that’s probably why no house has ever felt like a home without a strawberry patch.

Mr. Roberts had been a pilot, navigator, or bombardier in B-17’s over Europe during World War II. I don’t recall which of the three, and like most veterans of WWII, he usually got quiet when I asked him about it and didn’t talk much about the war. I do recall having the opportunity once to look through his log book while I was in high school. It had every run he was ever on, and while he was never shot down, he wrote down whenever he lost men out of his plane, or equipment. He wrote down how many planes went out and how many came back – and the returning number was never the same as the leaving number. He flew over France, softening up the German emplacements before D-Day. He bombed industrial targets all around Germany, and while I seem to recall that he was one of the bombers over Dresden, I can’t be sure that my memory isn’t just playing tricks on me so many years later.

Poppy was my aunt’s father, related to me by marriage. I didn’t really know him that well, and I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember his first or last name – everyone just called him Poppy. But after my junior year in college, I went to the family beach cottage in Fairfield, Connecticut for a couple of weeks of my summer vacation. I’d just finished a class that changed my life in ways I’m still discovering: HIST143 – The History of Fascism and Nazism, taught by renown historian of Nazi Germany Jackson J. Spielvogel. I happened to mention my class and how angry I was after reading about Holocaust deniers in a New York paper. Poppy overheard, and there began a couple of days of connecting with a man who I’d not been friendly with before and on a level I never expected.

You see, Poppy spoke Italian, and he’d been in the Army moving up through Italy, and once Italy fell, his unit was sent on into Germany. And he was with one of the battalions who liberated one of the camps. I don’t recall which one it was or where, but I will never forget him talking about how he felt looking at the few emaciated survivors, the showers, the ovens – the smell. And I was spellbound as he gave me a piece of his personal history that made my life-changing class seem to pale by comparison. It seems he had a camera with him, and he took pictures of the camp himself. And he’d given presentations in his high schools (he was the superintendent of schools in a New Jersey district for decades) on his own personal experience upon liberating the camp. And once he even had to bring in the Holocaust-denying parents of a Holocaust-denying student who had become disruptive in a World History class to educate them about the reality of the history that he himself had seen. Partly because of that class and partly because of Poppy I have zero patience for Holocaust denial.

My grandfather, Ed Bachman, is still alive, but he’s 95 or so and suffering from terminal dementia. But before he grew senile and demented with age, he told me a few stories of his time in the Navy in the Pacific. He told me about training to jump ship in basic training – you jump straight down feet first with one hand covering your crotch and the other plugging your nose, and as soon as you hit water and your head breaks the surface, you swim away from the ship lest you get sucked down with it.

Before the war he was an undertaker and embalmer, but in the war he was a Pharmacist’s Mate aboard ship, probably because he already knew his way around chemicals and needles. He said that never saw much action, and if I remember correctly, he was aboard a tender. But toward the end of the war as the marines were preparing to assault Japan’s main islands, he’d been reassigned to a hospital ship in preparation for the invasion. Then Truman dropped two bombs, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki, and the war in the Pacific was over. Grandpa came home and went back to work in the funeral business.

I remember telling Grandpa when I was in junior high or high school and fascinated by The Manhattan Project that I thought it was horrible that Truman would nuke Japan. Grandpa didn’t get angry, but he told me why I was wrong before quietly leaving the room. You see, Grandpa was sure that, while he was still technically a Pharmacist’s Mate on the hospital ship, he wasn’t there to dispense medicine to wounded marines – he was there to embalm the dead for the long trip home. He pointed out that the allied military expected to lose at least a half-million men in the process of invading Japan, more than had been lost in Europe and the Pacific combined up to that point. He pointed out that, if dropping two bombs saved a half-million American marines, then it was worth it even though he agreed that it was horrible what had happened to the civilians who’d been in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These three men all taught me something that informs my opinions on war today. Don’t go to war if you can at all help it, but if you absolutely have no choice but to wage war, do it completely and without hesitation. War is mechanized murder and it’s immoral even if it is sometimes necessary. Innocent people die. But if you allow fear of killing the innocent or of the “political fallout” from asking your citizens to sacrifice for the war effort to slow your execution of the war, you only make the war worse. Geneva conventions aside, there are no rules in war save one – win fast and win completely. The only thing less moral than war is allowing it to continue forever.

On this Memorial Day, I honor Mr. Roberts, Poppy, and my grandfather for all they taught me over the years.

Image Credits
US file photo
United States Holocaust Museum (Dachau crematorium with human remains)
US file photo

8 replies »

  1. Beautifully said, Brain.

    Two of my grandfathers (through the miracle of remarriage i’ve had three) served in Europe during WWII. My step-grandfather was always happy to reminisce about the war; he read books about the war, met with his unit mates on anniversaries, etc. I got a beer stein he “liberated” from some house in Germany after surviving the Battle of the Bulge and marching into Das Vaterland.

    My maternal grandfather never talked about it much. He was in his 70’s before he let my grandmother present his decorations and memorabilia in a frame. I guess he didn’t feel so great about having to march to keep up with Patton’s 3rd Armored Division and nearly losing both feet to frostbite. His feelings are probably best summed up by what he said to me when i contemplated joining the military, “Lex, don’t get involved with that chickenshit operation.”

    Neither my father nor stepfather (nor any of my six uncles) went to Vietnam. But my best friend’s dad did at least one tour…and iirc, he might have done a second. He was a door gunner in the 1st AirCav. He had to find a way to live without alcohol after he came back, but he did it. He didn’t talk about it much either and i don’t remember any particular sense of pride about his service. The few stories he did tell were mostly macabre: carrying a giant screwdriver to smack ARVN troops on the head and knock them out of his chopper at the LZ so they could get out of fire; his pilot who made little mines out of Coke bottles to collect ears that he sewed to his helmet netting; that sort of thing. Everyone kind of wondered why he didn’t hunt deer (avid duck hunter and fisherman), and all he said was that there was no challenge in it for him. As i grew older i came to the conclusion that he’d probably shot enough large mammals in Vietnam to last a lifetime. They say that a lot of men who see combat never shoot another soldier, or never see the enemy that they hit. My friend’s dad wouldn’t fall into that category. He’d have seen them all fall, and probably killed hundreds and hundreds.

    I guess that the WWII vets could be comforted by being part of a great liberation campaign fought against unabashed evil. The Vietnam vets had no such illusions, even while they were fighting…as exemplified by the standard phrase for them, “It don’t mean a fucking thing.” Nihilism in service of your nation.

    I respect anyone who’s had to face the horrors of combat. The luckiest of them lose only their innocence and psychological comfort at a young age. Those that lose an arm or a leg, the ones who drift off into the thousand yard stare or suffer night terrors…much less the ones that never get back to their family should serve as warnings to the political elite that war has costs not measured in territory won or lost. They don’t. And so we’ll have another generation of Americans like Steve’s dad who will have to make their way in the world burdened by the horror of combat even though it don’t mean a fucking thing.

    For some war is a great game, for others it’s hell. Rest in peace those that fell on all of America’s battlefields. For those that made it home, may they find enough peace to get on with life. And for those that send bright-eyed young men into battle for less than existential reasons: may you never know a good night’s sleep; may the sound of a car back-firing return you to the violent deaths of your buddies; may your soul be tormented and your family torn apart. The Bushes and Obamas (to name just two) of this world deserve to spend eternity in a rotten foxhole that reeks of death and terror .

  2. Yeah – good lesson in there. War should be the last resort. But if you have to fight it, fight to win. Fight to win quickly. Fight to win unconditionally. It’s wonderful that our society has become more civilized when it comes to the horrors of war – I mean, if you don’t care about things like “collateral damage” and civilian casualties, you represent a culture that probably doesn’t deserve to survive. But sometimes all that humanity leads you to half-measures that are counter-productive in the long run.

    Very complex. Horrible to talk about, even think about. But thanks for the remembrances. So many soldiers never came home. And some of those who did didn’t come home whole….

  3. Brian, I read this from a ink on Carolyn’s face book page. I am so gald you had that encounter with my dad, O.John DiSalvo, aka Poppy. You have witten a very profound reflection on war. My dad never glorified his participation. He promoed the flag and patriotism, but in his soul, he was a pacifist. He had no love for the army, but knew it was his duty to support his country in times of danger. He won a purple heart for getting all his men (he was a first sargent) safely home without injury. From the notes I read and the pictures I saw, it was clear his men respected and trusted him.
    Thank you for this beautiful piece.

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