|War and Warriors|
Almost every day, somewhere, there is war. I've been fascinated for a long time with WWII. I think because that war had such an influence on my parents, on that entire generation who produced the baby boomers and hoped they wouldn't see a war. Vietnam was right there for us to experience and our contemporaries avoided it or embraced it or fell into its vortex, but it didn't have any sense of resolution of right and wrong.
My father didn't go overseas. He wasn't in the best of health and it was late in the war before they inducted him. So we have pictures of him, thin and handsome, in a uniform. But he never got closer to harm's way than Bastrop. So what I heard about WWII growing up was about Mom and Dad hearing about Pearl Harbor on the radio after hunting a rabbit for something to eat, about Dad being a corpsman as they vaccinated long lines of troops and about rationing. But I developed a fascination with the European war in my twenties and bought stacks of books written during the conflict and just after, old decaying volumes by Ernie Pyle and Eve Curie and Howard K. Smith and many others, less well known. I loved books about individual soldiers and citizens. People in concentration camps or hiding or in the resistance or on the battlefield. I sometimes felt if I could read enough of these stories it would all add up and the whole thing would make sense. But really what happened is the more you read the more ridiculous war became. The people made sense individually in most cases, especially the ones who weren't leaders and madmen. But the whole conflict became more and more insane, reflecting in one shattered life after another.
In my first job out of college I made friends with a woman at work. She is slightly younger than I. We became friends on the strength of our love of travel and made trips together and with other friends over many years. After we had been friends for a long time, in fact around 1994, when she moved to Austin, I started hearing the stories of her father, Paul, and WWII. Seems he landed on Omaha Beach in 1944, not yet twenty-one. When I found out about this and I'd see him, I'd pepper him with questions. He hadn't always talked a lot about it but when his kids were grown he had taken an interest in finding some of his mates from that era. He and his family visited the D-Day beaches in 1995 and 1998. They planned to make a second trip back for the 55th Anniversary in 1999 and I vowed to go, too. When my friend's mother became ill, her parents cancelled but a few of us made the trip anyway.
We stayed near the beach on that trip and plowed through traffic in a rent car to see parachute drops and commemorations at Colleville-Sur-Mer. There were landing craft even. We saw a little plaque that Paul had been instrumental in getting the government's monument authority to put up to recognize his unit, the 146th Engineer Combat Battalion. It was attached to the monument for the 5th Engineer Special Brigade which is atop an old German bunker. When my friend brought her parents to Normandy, they had met other veterans. But some of the most interesting were actually enemy combatants. Somehow they started talking. My friend speaks German. One of them spoke perfect English. As luck would have it, these gentlemen were around for this anniversary, too, and my friend had arranged to meet up. So we got to know them a little. Especially a vigorous guy from England (yes, England) with his forty-something-year-old son in tow. Bruno came to symbolize in person what I'd learned from reading all those books: at the individual level war is not black and white.
Bruno's story was classic. He was seventeen and drafted and sent to Normandy. He wasn't on the beach that day. (The other German we met might have actually been shooting at my friend's father and his mates.) He was stationed inland. But he was captured soon after the invasion and shipped to the U.S. There he learned English. There were actually lots of German prisoners in the U.S. I had actually collected two books by Germans who were shipped here and escaped and lived here for a while before being found out and writing their story. Bruno's story took another twist when the war ended. His orignal hometown was no longer part of Germany. This complicated repatriation and he was intransit in England for weeks. The war was over and these guys were allowed to get out a bit, go to the pubs or towns I guess. Apparently he met an English woman. Later he came back to England and married her. Had children. And, by the time I met him, grandchildren. His son said to me, "The other kids in school would ask me if my dad was in the war. And I'd simply say yes."
When the 60th anniversary of D-Day was looming, in the early fall of 2003, Forrest and I committed to going to that celebration. My friend's parents would try to make the trip. This anniversary promised to be poignant as the men who were there and survived were succumbing to old age at a rapid rate.
And we did make the anniversary. There were no accommodations to be had on the beach this time even though we'd started the search early. We were lucky to have rooms in what we described as a truck stop (and the French called a relais) near Balleroy. Turns out Bruno was stationed near there. He had been in contact with my friend and, sure enough, before most of the parties arrive, Forrest and I and one other early arrival were sitting in front of the place having a drink and watching French and German re-enactors arrive in vintage U.S. vehicles (another phenomena that confuses the remembrance of war and enmity but that's another story) when who should drive up but Bruno. I approached him and sure enough he remembered me. Alerted to the arrival of my friend and her family he was stopping by to see if they were there. With him were two young men, late teens or early twenties. His very British grandchildren.
So we spent several days driving through hedgerows, visiting monuments, walking on the beach and such. My friend's father had long discussions of the war with a lot of people. Including Bruno. His granddaughter, his niece's daughter and Bruno's grandsons seemed delighted to find someone close to their age when we gathered for meals or drinks here and there.And all of us joined many thousands for the June 6 celebration at the American Cemetery at Colleville-Sur-Mer.
It turned out that the credentials we'd been issued fell into several categories: Veteran, Veteran companion (one per veteran only), Family, Friend. There were a few hundred seats for the first two, a few thousand for the family and thousands more beyond that. It was unusually hot and the security was unbelievable. (Jacques Chirac and Bush were there, not to mention Tom Hanks.) It turned out we would be herded away from Paul. We quickly decided, of course, that his wife would accompany him into the good seats with the one companion badge we had. We told them to stay in those seats when it was over and we would find them. This worried us. We looked at Bruno. What did his credential say? Veteran. We told him to go with them and stay put with them when it was over and we would all (including his grandkids) find them after.
We went back to the real cheap seats since we didn't all have family credentials. You couldn't see. There were flat screen TVs broadcasting the event but they were covered with plexiglass so actually you could only see a reflection of the crowd. It was blazing hot. Five years before we'd worn jackets against a cool wind. We opened backpacks and distributed food we'd brought. We waited and waited. Some of us went off to the restrooms and found that water was being distributed. We shaded ourselves however we could and finally started slipping under the ropes to sit or lie in the shade on the cool grass. The whole thing started very late because they didn't want to bring in the helicopters on a fixed schedule or something.
It was finally obvious that the line between the family and the friends section was permeable and that we were hundreds and hundreds of seats back from where we could be. We moved up. But we still couldn't see anything really. Nor catch sight of my friend's parents.
When it was over, we all went to the front and, as people vacated the front of the family section, Bruno's grandsons and I stood on the seats until we saw, there in the cordoned off section for veterans, Bruno also standing on a seat so we could see him. We managed to reconnect with Paul and his wifebecause they were still standing nearby.
When I think about that celebration now, I think about how confusing war is. How people who individually may find each other quite pleasant can be on two sides of it. May kill each other. I think of Bruno, sitting there with the U.S. and maybe some British veterans. About his grandchildren dozing in the cool grass near the chairs hundreds of rows back, not many feet from some of the over nine thousand markers for the Americans buried here. I think about the peaceful beach where we stood and watched Paul try to find just where they landed and just where he was pinned down in the shale. I think about the years between his several hundred days in combat and his return when he farmed and raised stock and Bruno was raising a family in England. Paul kept a stack of letters he'd written home to his parents in the closet. And Bruno kept a scrapbook. Inside was a postcard the U.S. Army sent to his mother to say he was a POW. And a notebook he'd found discarded in his POW camp that he'd flipped over and written out on the backs of pages the words to songs he heard so that he could learn English.
War is complicated and awful. And every person involved is an individual. Paul is a hero for going over the side of that boat (the ramp failed) and going up that beach at H-Hour plus three minutes but more importantly he is a good man, a grandfather. He and Bruno survived to raise some great children. Many did not. I knew that Paul's experience would make my understanding of this experience far richer, but I have to thank Bruno for tempering the concept of enemy.
Written June 12, 2005; based on journals and notes from 1999 and 2004.