“The First Battalion’s home. So run to your home Virginia girls and fix your hair with pins; and give them tea and kisses but don’t ask them where they’ve been.”
That’s from a Civil War song; “Of fifty soldiers sent to war, five return: the survivors of the First Battalion.” For generations vets have refused to talk about where they’ve been. Perhaps they know that for us, never having been there, no words avail to recreate the horror experienced when a man turns his soul to war, and all that truly means. If the person he’s talking to has had that experience, there’s no need to explain; if he hasn’t, no sense trying. To hear a tale is not the same as understanding it; there are some things we simply cannot know from the neck up.
My father was secretive about his role in World War II. I don’t know why it’s true but this reticence seems to find common denominator in those who fought that war. He had a prominent scar under his jaw acquired during the war. “Mule kicked me,” he would parry my inquiries over the years.
My buddy Ted is the same way. Pacific Theater. The Second World War. On of thousands of Gut-scared young men harnessed fearfully to their honor summon a reckless courage and run down the off-ramp of a troop carrier into lethal ordnance. ‘Courage is only fear that has said its prayers.’ Seeing your fellows for whom Death has come quickly, floating face-down in the blood-churned water. Others gasping and weakly flaying their way in the sea; for them Death is coming at a more leisurely pace. Bill had to leave them there and get to shore; war permits neither quarter nor mercy.
Ted always snorts when I bring up Normandy. “One landing?! We took all our islands that way. Rifle over your head…” Being of less than average height, it was easy to imagine seeing nothing of him but his rifle overhead, all else below water, his feet searching hopefully for a rise so he could breath, and be shot at, again.
It took me years to get Bill to open up about his experiences. But there’s something about a soft summer evening, a long-trusted friendship and a kitchen table that permits the loosing of stories long – too long – untold. I have spoken to him about those days for fifteen years; it took that long for him to give me a few realities.
Bill headed a Recon group; first ones in, get intel, stay alive if you can, get out. He told me of two huge brothers – new recruits to his small group- eager to engage the enemy, “Bring them on!” There was a terrified company clerk who jumped at his own shadow, and was often the butt of their humor. That night, their encampment was discovered and over-run. At the first gunshot, the brothers dropped their rifles and ran off in terror. Morning came, Bill took inventory of his group. He heard a soft sobbing. The skinny, terrified clerk sat in his foxhole, his arms hugging his knees, crying. The butt of his rifle had been smashed by a bullet, but beside him in fatal disarray lay four enemy who would never fight again; dead by the hand of the terrified clerk. One was shot; three others knifed. His will to survive had summoned a warrior from deep inside him. His job now done, the Warrior had left, and the little clerk sobbed and shook.
Where Bill fought, the enemy would learn American phrases like, “Help me!” or “I’m injured. I can’t make it back.” Screamed piteously in the dead of night, American GI’s would respond, crawl out of their foxholes to save a comrade only to find themselves ambushed, helpless, and finally, dead. The best way to stem this homicide was to return the favor. GI’s would wait until sun-down, remove any rattling equipment, set their knives between their teeth and go hunting those who hunted them… and cut their throats. Why knives? Firearms – muzzle flash – make you a target in the darkness. Bill did it; had to if he wanted to survive. But how many enemy had Bill killed?
It was not the first time I’d asked. In years past, Bill would always make a joke or deflect my question, never answering. Tonight the time had come for answering this long-evaded question. Through the open window a soft wind blew, and a hoot-owl questioned the night sky. Bill looked out at the sound. Quietly, suddenly, Sabrina touched my elbow. “Look!” she whispered.
Bill sat at the table, his forearms crossed. But finally he had answered this oft-asked question. From his right hand, four fingers extended straight. He turned and looked impassively at me. His mouth jerked slightly, he blinked hurriedly several times, and looked back into the night.
So Bill and other vets let their devils sleep. But how do we learn the true price of our heritage but from individuals of such reticence to tell it? By gentle persistence, by friendship, and by the genuine respect and knowing that they have been places we have never been, places we could never know, and were we wise, places we would never want to be. War is never-cost free, most especially for those who participate in it face to face.
So when we meet someone such as these, we should go softly, respectfully into their company. We might think we fully understand their words, but here I caution against such presumption. We will never know – truly know – what they’ve been through. What it cost them to preserve our wonderful America. On Wednesday Nov 11th make it a point to seek out a Veteran and thank him for the life we all enjoy.By Lucky Garvin [email protected]