Veterans’ Day musings

Today is Veterans’ Day. Apparently, humans are fated to make war. Wars make veterans. We’ll never run out. I’ve been watching Ken Burns’ The War on public television for the last six weeks. During the early dark days of World War II, there was apparently serious worry by Allied politicians that they could conceivably lose the war. What would the world be like had that happened?

This and other recent sharp sticks to the memory, including watching a new Dutch film called Black Book, and an old British film called The Cruel Sea. A friend sent  a video, called “A Pittance of Time ” by Canadian Terry Kelly ( and click on “video”).  The deaths of war chroniclers Kurt Vonnegut and just now, Norman Mailer, and interviews today with veterans on the Alaska public radio show AK ( They all generate in my memory a swarm of free-floating bits of history, disjointed images, blurry personal experiences, possibly mis-remembered snippets of conversations, and questions I ask myself about war.

Warning: this will be a long one.

I was born on the North Pacific coast, in Astoria, Oregon on Dec. 2, 1942, five days short of a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In Europe the Germans lay siege to Stalingrad, where the inhabitants were eating rats if they were lucky. At home, what was thought to be a Japanese submarine surfaced offshore one night in mid-June, and shelled the beach near Fort Stevens, a coastal artillery and harbor defense installation across the bay from Astoria. My dad, who spent the war working in a shipyard that built wooden minesweepers for the Navy and was thus exempt from military service (we never discussed how he felt about that) told me that like other Astorians, he awoke and saw the shell flashes and heard the thumps. No casualties, but he said it made people nervous. “Damn Japs.” Likely the shells had been maladroitly aimed at Fort Stevens. There was general alarm on the West coast about a Japanese invasion. Much later, we learned that a Japanese general reportedly counseled against such a move, arguing “In America there’s a rifle behind every blade of grass.”

I made rubbings of gravestones in the little cemetery at Fort Stevens: artillerymen,  and coast guardsmen drowned in the Columbia River.

My birthday was also the day Enrico Fermi and his colleagues at the University of Chicago produced the first controlled, sustained atomic chain reaction in a primitive nuclear reactor, paving the way for the atom bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

The Vietnam War followed World War II by only about 15 years, depending on when you start counting, and the Korean Armistice had been signed in 1953. In 1961, I joined the army just out of high school, and volunteered for Vietnam. This was before the war became a political issue – who knew – and that’s where the action was. But the army apparently needed my particular training in Germany. My only remote hint of combat was during the brief period of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. I rode around northern Germany with the other guys in my detachment in the back of our truck, our M-14’s between our knees. We didn’t know where we were going, but rumor had it we would head west to Holland if the Soviets began to pour through the Fulda Gap. We were marginally and delusionally comforted by the knowledge we were a communications intelligence unit, not infantry, armored, or artillery. The crisis passed, though we later learned it came close to The Big One, and we went back to our secret work at our hut in the middle of the turnip field.

In Germany, days after I was discharged, I married a German woman. Sylvia’s father had died in action in World War II as a U-boat crewman in the North Atlantic. Knowing this gives new feeling to watching Das Boot or The Cruel Sea, both accounts of the desperate sea battles of the North Atlantic. From all accounts, her father was a good and decent man, doing his duty, which was torpedoing Allied shipping and sailors. Americans and Brits did their duty by killing German submariners whenever possible.

Fathers, brothers, sons, uncles in uncountable numbers fought in savage battles on the Eastern Front, and suffered terribly for Hitler or for Stalin and their invaded homeland. If you survived, you were a veteran. Hundreds of thousands, millions, of soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians on all sides just disappeared.

One of Sylvia’s relatives was taken prisoner by the Russians, sent to Siberia, and came home 15 years later. I don’t know how he got so lucky. On the other side, the Russians suffered beyond understanding. I knew an Estonian veteran who fought with the Russians against the German invaders, then somehow wound up in a refugee camp in Germany that was located right across the road from our military post. He said he was the only survivor of his entire regiment. He was lonely and wanted to talk. I wonder what happened to him.

He may have spun yarns, of course. Veterans do. Or the passage of time blurs the details. A Canadian friend and I were comparing tattooes. He said he got his on shore leave while on convoy escort duty in the grim North Atlantic campaign. Yet when his obituary was published, there’s a photo of him riding the hood of a jeep, playing his pipes, as Allied troops crossed the Rhine into Germany. Maybe he did both. He was a remarkable guy.

When I was in Germany in the early ’60s American soldiers had a problematic reputation among the German civilians, but I was accepted by my wife’s family even before we were married, tentatively at first, then warmly. My mother-in-law Ester, a wonderful and gentle woman, was a superb cook and delighted in feeding a refugee from the mess hall. Otto, Sylvia’s stepfather, was a war veteran of the German navy, loved opera in German, and talked of visiting occupied Paris on leave. I wonder how that must have been? When I was first in Paris in the early 1960’s, a lot of buildings still bore bullet holes, testimony of the fierce Parisian resistance in the last days of the occupation.

No one in my wife’s family, and no neighbor, no one, escaped the destruction of the war and its aftermath. They were good, kind people, and I loved them all. Did they know about the concentration camps? Yes, but they couldn’t do anything about it. The Gestapo was everywhere. Or no, they had no idea. “How could our nation of Goethe and Schiller be guilty of such things?” Or, in the case of one of Sylvia’s friends, “It was the Russians who were responsible for the camps.”

I’m in no position to judge. It could happen again.

After the army I was a student in Germany, and lived in a town outside Munich. It was close enough that I could ride my bicycle to what was left of the Dachau concentration camp. The sign over the wrought iron gate still read “Arbeit macht frei.” Work makes you free. I took a long solo bike trip from Munich to Vienna, Zagreb, and Venice. Everywhere were reminders of one war or another. Every town square in Europe has a monument to its share of each war’s dead. The “Gefallen.” I crossed the Inn River at Braunau, Hitler’s home town. No “Home of Adolf Hitler”  plaque noticed. Cycling along the Danube, I spotted a small sign that said “Mauthausen.” I knew of Mauthausen, but didn’t know it was here. I cycled up a long hill and found myself at the remains of another concentration camp, even worse than Dachau. Here, it was said, Himmler’s policy was “Death through work.”

I lived in Amsterdam, two canals from the Anne Frank house. I visited many times. When I was there, in the early 1970’s, popular feeling about the Germans was still evident, a generation after the war. When asked directions by a German tourist, it was the custom, even for children, to always reply, “Gerade aus.” Straight ahead. Germans occasionally found their car windows broken in the morning. I was glad I wasn’t a German, and I understood the motivation.

I rode my bike around the Dutch countryside a lot, and several times I peered behind tall hedgerows to find small, well-tended cemeteries full of rows of precisely spaced markers. The names represented a spectrum of the Allied countries of World War II. Free Polish airborne and American glider troops who died behind German lines after the Normandy landings, in battles including the ill-fated Operation Market Garden.

Today’s radio interviews with veterans included the reading of a loving and tender letter from an American soldier to his wife from France, Armistice Day 1918. I paraphrase: “It’s the greatest day there ever was. . . We’ll never have to do this again.”

There were several inteviews with vets who fought with the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, and helped push Germans north, out of the Appennines. They suffered terrible casualties. When I began climbing in the mid-60’s, ropes, crampons, clothing, and other gear, was primitive by today’s standards. Not a speck of Spandex then. But in their day in the 10th Mountain, those mountaineers were devising the break-through gear that we were glad to buy 20 years later at army-navy surplus stores. Nylon ropes, better crampons and ice axes and pitons. Down jackets and sleeping bags. Those veterans revolutionized the sport and created an industry after the war, making outdoor gear and founding ski schools, making first ascents, creating a culture.

I have three veteran friends, two my age, about whom I’m worried. One is a high-school classmate with lung cancer, induced by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. The Veterans Administration, possibly anxious to redeem its shabby reputation for serving veterans, including Agent Orange-injured soldiers, is taking care of him and his family. I regret years went by before I reconnected with Bob after high school.

Another old friend is the only army buddy with whom I did keep in touch, all these years. He has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. A curmudgeon with a sharp sense of humor, he and I have had some great times. I’ll visit Don and Shirley in Canada next month. He also spent time in Vietnam, but he maintains that what happened is he smoked himself to death.

There are, I understand, four World War I vets still living. World War II vets are dying in droves. And Iraq/Afghanistan vets are learning what it’s like to be home.

My young friend, in his 20s, returned not long ago from an extended tour as an infantryman in Iraq. His buddy was killed. He lost his fiancee.  He’s out of the army now, on the road, putting his life back together. He’ll be fine. He hates the war like poison.

According to a recent news item from The New York Times, “More than 400 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have turned up homeless, and the Veterans Affairs Department and aid groups say they are bracing for a new surge in homeless veterans in the years ahead.” One vets’ counselor in San Diego was quoted as saying “We’re beginning to see, across the country, the first trickle of this generation of warriors in homeless shelters. . . but we anticipate that it’s going to be a tsunami.”

And so it goes.

Published in: on November 11, 2007 at 11:01 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. A marvelously enlightening piece,that evokes memories of Regimental years.Two Pipers were ordered to the little coastal town of Saint Valery in France. A name familiar throughout my childhood, in Military History St. Valery is yet another feather in the cap of the Guiderian school. However to the Highlands of Scotland it was our very own ‘day of infamy’ the decimation of the 51st Highland Division.The place where Highlanders fought Panzer Tanks with sticks and stones in a ‘do or die’ delaying action against the avalanche of mechanised Ruhr steel.But for my part years later, in a time ‘when they were feeding them , not needing them’, we had played our Lament as the wreaths were laid,and were respectfully strolling among the white headstones. Our Regiment had not been present at that place having already been wiped out ten miles to the East.We passed through Gordons,Argylls and Seaforths when suddenly came to one stone that was different from the others, we glanced each other, and turned to face the stone, heads bowed without a word being said, and read,JOHN McWILLIAMS, 1st BLACK WATCH, PIPER, 22 Years,a poignant moment in a young life, for we were Pipers and we were Black Watch and were both 22 years of age.So every 11th of November I remember John McWilliams, and thank my lucky stars that I was born in the latter half of the 20th century.

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