September 19, 2007

The Biggest Event: Part II

For over ten years as an adult I pestered my father about his experiences in the Army during WWII. My grandmother often spoke of how he left the Army and never “got his medals.” We knew he received his Purple Heart after he was wounded; but, she was referring to his campaign ribbons and the like which he never bothered to pursue. It became my mission to see him get some recognition for his service, and to learn for myself, and for his grandchildren about his wartime experiences as part of our family history.

This was a difficult task as he wouldn’t tell me anything about it. For many years, he refused to say what division he was in, let alone where he fought, when he served, or how long he served for. The only information I had was that he was in North Africa and then in Italy. Dad was wounded in Italy as we found out when we were children, but he wouldn’t budge on any of the other details.

In the late 1990’s I scoured the internet and tried to come up with information about battles the Army fought in Italy. He let it slip that he enlisted in the Army when he was eighteen years old. That meant in 1943 he signed up for the Army. Dad lost his father when he was a young boy, aged thirteen, and he was largely responsible for working and paying some of the bills. He graduated high school and immediately went to the recruitment station, only to be told to come back when he turned eighteen a few weeks later. Joining the Army meant a steady income of roughly thirty six dollars a month; enough to help his mom and his siblings.

On September 2, 2001, dad suffered a massive heart attack. Mom was very sick at the time with Lupus, and my father walked around for three days with chest pains, alerting no one to his condition because he was duty bound to care for his wife. Such was the hardened war veteran, one of the “Greatest Generation,” to stubbornly resist asking for help as he was busy nursing the mother of his children. So instilled him in him was sense of loyalty, honor, and faithfulness to his ailing bride, that he went without medical assistance until the pain was too unbearable for him and he finally got help. He did what any reasonable person wouldn't do: he sneaked over to the neighbor’s house across the street and asked if one of them could give him a ride to the hospital to “get checked out.” Also, he insisted that they use his car so he the neighbor wouldn’t waste his own gas.

My parents had six children, five of them living on Long Island with him, two of them only minutes away. Any one of us could have hopped in a car and been there within a half hour to take him to the hospital. Yet, he didn't want to bother us. He simply told mom that he wasn’t feeling well and went across the street to the neighbors. When I heard this, I thought of him as an eighteen year old teenager, lying in the hot Italian sun, clinging to life with two bullet wounds in his body. Maybe he thought that if he could live through that, he could handle anything.

When he returned home from the hospital days later, he sat on his bed with my then two year old son clinging to his grandpa’s side. I asked him again for his discharge papers because I wanted to get him his medals. His response could be heard around the block as he replied “I didn’t get anything for valor. Those are just because I served.” After that outburst, I decided to wait a bit longer.

About a year later, I saw a program on TV about a project where children and grandchildren of war veterans were using video cameras to record the experiences of the parents and grandparents during the war. World War Two vets are dying at an alarming rate and I wanted to record dad's story as well because it was a part of our families' history. One part of me wanted to simply know where he fought and other particulars such as what unit he was in, etc. However, with the same morbid curiosity that one has when we peek at the scene of an accident as we drive past, I had to find out about the battle in which he was wounded.

I actually brought my video camera to the house one day, but I chickened out. Dad was in a foul mood, and since the second Iraq War began, he was even more reluctant to talk about combat as his heart went out to all of those young men and women suddenly thrust into battle. Once again, I needed to wait. Mom's health was deteriorating, and dad and the rest of us dedicated most of our time tending to her health concerns. It seemed I would never find out what happened to my father over six decades earlier. I had to live with the few scraps of details which were handed down to us from my grandmother and from my mother. It wasn't as if dad poured his heart out to them, but he pacified their curiosity over the years with a few anecdotes from his time in the Army.

One story I enjoyed which I often told my friends involved his experiences in basic training. Since my father was a city boy, raised in Brooklyn, New York, the guys in his platoon who were from the south and other remote regions of the country would often tease him about his inability to build a fire or use a rifle. Dad laughed at them, saying that he "knew something that they didn't know" and soon he would be the one laughing. Many of the men he went through basic training with were shipped to the Pacific Theater; but, the few who remained with my father learned in a very unpleasant way about payback.

As a boy, my grandfather often took my father and my uncles deep sea fishing. That meant that dad developed his "sea legs" long before he showed up to the army camp. It was an eleven day voyage to North Africa where he was first shipped off to. All that time, the guys in his platoon suffered with violent nausea due to sea sickness. At one point, so many men were leaning over one side of the ship, the boat was listing. Dad wasn't sea sick at all. In fact, he used that opportunity to stick it to the guys who teased him about his unfamiliarity with the great outdoors during basic training by eating his meals in front of them and asking if they wanted anything to snack on. According to dad, they all quickly apologized, in between dry heaves.

It was that story, and maybe one or two others which whetted my appetite to learn more. Finally, in 2005, I decided that enough was enough. I badgered my father about his service ribbons and medals saying that he should have them because they are part of his past. This time, dad gave up some crucial information, saying that he wanted the medals "If doing it would make me happy." Quickly, he told me that he was in the Texas 36Th Division, 141st Regiment, Company L. As far as where his discharge papers were, he "didn't know." Armed with more data than I had in my entire life, I booted up my computer and found a ton of information on the Internet. It turns out that was a single, handy resource where I found out nearly everything I needed to know: "The Texas 36Th Division Museum" website. From there and the related links, I pieced together where and when he served and the actions he was involved in.

But, missing in all of this was his personal account of the events. I wanted to hear him tell me about what he saw, where he landed, the people he met. With all of the satisfaction I had reading about his Division's history, I still felt left out. There was nothing else I could do. I resigned myself to the fact that he was never going to come around. In reality, it was none of my business what he experienced "over there." Maybe I was being selfish, probing, and too harsh on him. Obviously, his time overseas was too painful to recall, and a good son would let his father alone to keep his secrets to himself. Yes, they were secrets, those awful memories. I was reminded of something an old time cop I worked with told me when I was a young rookie working up in Harlem in the very late 1980's. He said :"There are things you tell your priest, things you tell your wife, and there are some things that will die with just you and your partner." Man, was he right about that. As I likened my own relatively benign history to my father's, I backed off for good.

In early November of 2005, my wife and I took the kids to my parents house for our usual Friday night visit with my folks. After dinner, my father discussed with me his views on the war in Iraq. In one breath he was talking about how to run an effective military convoy, in the next he began describing landing with his regiment in Salerno in 1944. He rattled off grisly details about being surrounded by Germans and men he fought with being killed as if it happened yesterday. He told me about how he and his buddies spent about two or three days in the home of an extended family in the country side. Being from Brooklyn, he spoke Italian and was able to communicate effectively with them to the amazement of his Italian-American GI buddies. When it came to combat, his retelling was personal, private, and not to be mentioned in this space. Still, he never talked about when he was wounded.

After about an hour, I felt exhausted. Dad stood up, walked into his bedroom, and emerged moments later with his discharge papers. He knew where they were all along. "Here," he said "get me those medals. They're for my grandchildren. Please, for my grand kids, while I'm still here." I took this document, which he denied having for years, and made it my mission to get him those medals.

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