Oct/Nov 2008 Travel

Memorial Day

by Elizabeth Mack

I wanted to go for my father. The few war stories he had told of D-Day and Battle of the Bulge—landing on Utah Beach; liberating POW camps; finding grateful French villagers—bored me as a child, but as I grew older they fascinated me, and I always wanted to know more. He was stingy with this part of his life, the years before I was (as he would put it) "not even a tickle in his spine." My father would tease me with bits and pieces of his experiences during World War II, but when faced with questions, he withdrew and turned silent. Much has been documented on Vietnam vets returning home only to plunge into a freefall, grappling with depression and nightmares and worse, but little has been noted about the aftermath of victorious war vets. Victory has its perks. Parades of ticker tape, flag-waving citizens, and traffic-stopping kisses were the norm for World War II vets. But after the victory celebrations and homecomings, any war vet must soon reconcile the horrid tasks they were asked to perform with a life they find vaguely familiar.

It wasn't until five years after his death that I decided to make the trip to the battlefields. We flew into Brussels Belgium, my husband and I, on a rainy September day. The baroque buildings in the city took on the same gray as the sky. Cathedrals and palaces we passed were like an antique photograph, differing shades of dirty brown and charcoal. The clouds sat heavy over the city, trapping the stale smell below. We filled ourselves with waffles and chocolates and warm Belgian beer. This would be our resting place before the journey to Bastogne, the site of Battle of the Bulge where my father had fought when he was barely old enough to drive. Of all the battles he fought in during the war—Africa, Normandy, Rhineland—he talked of Bastogne and The Battle of the Ardennes the most. For some reason, Bastogne had held a special place in the catalogue of his war remembrances. As a medic in the Third Army under General Patton (whom he caustically referred to as "the son-of-a-bitch") it was his job to go into the battlefields to recover and treat the wounded, quite a leap from his civilian occupation as a seventeen-year-old messenger boy. I suppose his experiences as a WWII medic made him less than sympathetic when I sledded into a car and broke my collarbone at thirteen.

I had always said I was close to my father, but as the end came nearer, I had no tangible proof, no private stories shared only with me, no secrets from his past only I would know. He had lived a lifetime before marrying at thirty-six and having three children. By his mid-forties he had a disabling heart attack and was forced to retire from his job at the fire department. He had been ill since I was nine years old—over three fourths of my life. The man I knew was weak, frail, not the young war hero of World War II I had seen only in pictures. Maybe, I thought, if I could learn what he was before, when he was young and healthy, when he was, as my grandma used to say, "full of piss and vinegar," I would know the real him, not the ailing middle-aged man too feeble to wash his car. It all began just wanting—needing—to know his story. I knew his health was failing in the years before his death, and I felt a sense of urgency to know this part of my father's life, this living history. He wasn't alone. America's World War II veterans were dying at the rate of over a thousand a day. A day. Patience and tact flew out the window with time. As he grew more feeble, my inquiries became more frequent.

I waited, as I always did, until my brother and sister left for the day and my mother was out of the room.

"What did you do in the war, Daddy?" My playful question was met with an equally blithe response, masked in gruffness. "I learned how to march." Never looking up from his newspaper, he sipped at his coffee. His smug grin was too cute to be irritating; he was an expert at avoiding this line of questioning.

"Really, I want to know what you did in the war. Tell me."

Too much. Too far. The smug grin vanished and was replaced with the blank stare, an expression I had become familiar with. His face never left the protection of the newspaper, but his eyes stopped reading. I was embarrassed I had crossed the line I knew was there. The war and his memories wasn't something I would ever be able to steal out of him.

"Your father doesn't like to talk about it," my mother used to warn me after a round of my interrogations, "it's too depressing for him." War anniversaries would come and other veterans would reunite, commemorating their victories and toasting the dead, but he withdrew into his own private microcosm. The TV was turned off. No news bites, no veteran interviews, no D-Day or even V-Day remembrances of any kind in his house. As I grew into my teens I began to connect the dots of the war and Dad's moods. His jovial, happy-go-lucky temperament suddenly veered into a morose darkness. We tiptoed around each war anniversary like broken glass. He was invited year after year to his Army unit's reunions, but he refused to reminisce.

I secretly rummaged through old war photographs: Dad in his dress uniform right out of boot camp; Dad on the German and French border standing under a hand-painted road sign that read, "You are now leaving Germany, 'THANK GOD'"; Dad's battalion liberating a POW camp, bodies upon bodies of skeletons, their charred remains burnt and hastily buried in mass graves where the soldiers found them. Is this what haunted my father? Living in a world of routine carnage peppered with the occasional poker game? Finding lime-sprinkled piles of emaciated bodies, followed by a dinner of pork-and-beans? He wrote to his mother, my grandmother, on the back of the black and white photos. He described the gruesome scenes with his teenage misspellings; "This shows what the Germans did to the ones who where sick or couldn't do any work," describing a pile of bodies. Another picture of gunned down prisoners, with American GIs standing, weary, in the background, "We where just 20 minutes too late." On the back of every picture, the "h" in where crossed out and corrected to were, obviously by his mother. On one of the dozens of pictures, my grandmother replied, "Good for you! You spelled it right. You win the gold medal!" Even a boy at war must practice good grammar.

I had to go for my father. I wanted to see where he had fought, where he'd slept, where he learned to smoke. Why did he roll his cigarette between his index finger and thumb, slowly and purposefully, as if it were his last? Why had he chastised my brother for calling his rifle a "gun"? Why had he hated so much to remember? I could learn all the history I wanted from a book, but I wanted the details, craving a piece of my father's life that I knew nothing about. Perhaps I wanted a part of my father that no one else would have. He was well into his sixties but still a few years from death when I tried one last time to get some answers. We were at the kitchen table where most important issues were dealt with. The memories were fogging over but still within reach. "I killed Germans." His tone was deliberate. "One was so close I saw the blue of his eyes." He came out from behind the morning paper, surrendering with a matter-of-fact expression that seemed suspicious, but I listened, mesmerized. "I saw he was young—no more than a teenager, like me. And I shot him dead." His aged face was blank of expression as he purposefully looked into my eyes. "Is this what you want to know?"

Yes, this is what I wanted to know—details—but I was ashamed I had pried too far. It was the last time we spoke of the war, now almost ten years ago.

We left for Bastogne, Belgium, at daybreak. The train station was empty except for a few early commuters. After a two-hour train ride from Brussels, we boarded a bus in the small town of Libromont, a thirty-minute ride through the countryside to Bastogne. The bus was full except for the very back seat where two dreadlocked girls lay across. As we worked our way to the back of the bus, the French-speaking girls moved to one side, and we sat beside them. I said, "Merci," in bad French, and they forced a smile.

The scenery was a sharp contrast from Brussels; classical buildings and ornate palaces were replaced with steepled churches and simple farmhouses. The sky cleared as we made our way slowly through the Belgian countryside. We passed rolling hills with autumn colored trees that still held their leaves; deep emerald fields of grazing sheep dotted the landscape. Small cottages decorated the roadside, with thatched roofs and picket fences I had only seen in Thomas Kincaid paintings. Wildflowers scattered the countryside; it was as if I were looking through the bus window at a mural. The driver left us off on the north edge of town. We walked several more blocks to reach the center of Bastogne and the town square.

Bastogne was a small but bustling town of thirteen thousand. It was and still is a road and rail junction in the heart of the Ardennes Forest. In the center of the town square we found the crowded tourist office. Thankfully, we met a friendly English-speaking worker. "You'll find historical points of interest all over town," she said. "The Mardasson Memorial is about a mile out of town, an easy walk from here." Her English was as good as my own. Mardasson is the local name of the memorial. We left the tourist office with points of interest in hand and started on our way.

By this time the clouds had broke. Warm sun filtered down and felt good against my skin. I remember my father's stories about the weather when he was trapped here with his company—the Army's 84th division—a hodgepodge of snow, blizzards, fog and rain. It would have been later, December and January—days he and his division were trapped here with no sign of the sun that would have made airdrops possible. The riflemen exhausted themselves wading through drifts of snow. Soldiers lined their clothes with newspaper for added insulation. The story has been made famous by "Band of Brothers." "We called ourselves 'The Battling Bastards of Bastogne,'" he had said with much pride (I never remember hearing that reference in any movies), one of the few times he shared his war secrets. He would have only turned twenty the spring before. This life I imagined him living seemed make believe—a sharp contrast to the man I knew who couldn't shoot a deer, the man who made his children cry out in mock pain as he pretended to spank us with "the strap" (never used) to convince my unknowing mother he was punishing us for our frequent misbehavior.

Outside the tourist office on the opposite corner of the square was a large, bronze bust of the American general who refused to surrender Bastogne to the Germans, Brig. General "Nuts" McAuliffe (and who the town square is named for). The story goes that German officers under the flag of truce delivered a message from the German commander demanding the surrender of Bastogne. After receiving the message, Brig. General McAuliffe replied, "Nuts!" which was his official reply to the request of surrender. When the one word message was delivered to the German general, the message had to be interpreted. Apparently he didn't like the response, and the siege continued. Beside General McAuliffe's bust sat a Sherman tank that protected the main road into town.

We left the square and headed south out of town towards the monument. I wondered how the city had changed over the last fifty odd years since my father was here. I was thankful the road was empty except for us; the tinny clank of cowbells kept the silence from becoming overwhelming. Open fields that surrounded each side of the road seemed undisturbed. The beauty of the Ardennes Forest encircled us, the dark green of the forest in sharp contrast to the blue of the cloudless sky. Photographs I had seen from the war showed the same open fields and countryside, only in black and white images, snapshots of a decimated battlefield dotted with ragged soldiers caught in still life, trees split in two from bombs or machine guns, void of the color and vibrancy that were evident now. My father had experienced it at its worst—I knew I was seeing it at its best.

I was walking the same road my father marched some fifty years before. My mind was swarming with questions: Was he afraid he would die? How was he able to write home? Could he see past the war to notice the beauty of this place? As I began the long walk up to the monument, I stopped at each statue, each plaque—every memento I could find I meditated over like a medium trying to channel the dead. The sights and smells of the town were familiar to me, the people friendly—our languages continents apart, though it was as if we'd been acquainted in some other time. The wind of the road, the line of the trees, the shape of the landscape—it was as if I had been here before. Could I be experiencing what Carl Jung referred to as "the collective unconscious"? Did I inherit, as some believe possible, the "codes of life" from my father—subconscious data that links us to the past of our ancestors, like eye color or freckles? Were thoughts and experiences from my father permeating my reality? The further I traveled into the details of my father's young life, the less I was anchored in the reality of the present. History was lulling me into a distant abyss as I carried my father's war wounds with me. Is this what my father fought against? A daily struggle to hold reality tight while the past creeps up from behind? The magnetic pull of memories so thick you can't hold them back until finally you let go and freefall into an unknown?

After my father died my mother talked of his depression and anxiety when recalling his life in the war. "He had terrible nightmares," my mother said. She described the many times they were both asleep in bed, when he bolted upright and pounced on top of her, gripping her by the hair with one hand as he held her down, choking her with his forearm. He screamed something sounding like German, over and over. Finally, he relaxed his grip and she slowly pushed him off, never awakening him from this suspended consciousness. Nights like this weren't infrequent during their forty-year marriage. Memories of the war hovered over him like a ghost, and though he had been gone over five years when I made this pilgrimage, I still felt the need to release him from his demons. Perhaps he had needed forgiveness, to make peace with the war and what he had done— and what it had done—to him.

As we made our way over the crest of the first hill, I could see the Battle of the Bulge Memorial in the distance. Huge cement columns decorated the top of Mardasson Hill. We made our way up to the monument on top of the sloping hill, the view spanning miles. An American M10 tank sat outside the entrance to a small museum that held relics of the battle. Inside, WWII-era uniforms were displayed on mannequins, their chests limp with medals. Polished rifles were displayed alongside the fake soldiers; German and American stood side by side. Faded pictures of GIs and Nazis in and around Bastogne were displayed along the walls. Playing inside a small theater was a continuously running movie of the battle for Bastogne. I had seen almost every war movie that had been filmed, every documentary on the Bulge, but this footage was some I had never seen before. I was transfixed by the black and white images. American soldiers in and around Bastogne, their tired bodies propped up on their rifles, wearing dirty faces with forced smiles. I studied the footage intently as I listened to the French commentary. I analyzed each face on the screen, dissecting each set of eyes, every nose, each smile, desperately hoping to find the young face of my father, a face I wasn't sure I would recognize.

The movie ended and I went back outside where the towering monument stood. The memorial was in the shape of a five-point star with each state's name engraved around the top of the adjoining walls. I stood in the center of the open star. Ten granite columns loomed over me, each engraved with a recounting of the famous battle. The first column read:

...For the people of Belgium, it was the final
stand against an enemy who for nearly five
years had violated their soil and vainly tried
to crush their national spirit.

As I moved around to read each column, I began to understand the enormity of what I was witnessing. The battle lasted just over one month. The Americans lost nineteen thousand soldiers in and around where I was standing. More than forty six thousand Americans were wounded. Over one hundred thousand Germans were killed, injured or captured. Two thousand plus civilians were killed in the bombings. How did my father survive this? Why?

Along the inner walls were the names of each military unit who fought here. My husband took a picture of me under my father's Third Army insignia. In the center of the star's marble floor was a beautiful spray of live flowers over which lay a large bronze plaque with French engraving. From my poor French I could make out, "IN MEMORY OF THE AMERICAN LIBERATORS OF BELGIUM," along with the dates in Roman numerals. Looking around, making sure no one was watching, I removed a red carnation from the spray of flowers, carefully enclosing it in a tissue, tucking it away in my purse. I would later return home to Arkansas and lay it under my father's military headstone in the country cemetery where his ashes were buried.

I climbed the stairs to the top of the memorial. All I could see for miles was rolling pasture surrounded by the dense green of the Ardennes Forest. Was this where my father saw the German's blue eyes just before he shot him? Could this be the place that came alive in his nightmares? My father fought against the pull of these memories for over fifty years. Just before he died, he cried to my mother that he was afraid he wouldn't be forgiven for all he had done in the war. As I stood on the same soil where his nightmares were born, I said a silent prayer appealing for my father's peace.

Back to the north, Bastogne sat isolated and tranquil, the sun glinting off the church's aged tower. I reluctantly left the memorial and we made our way back to town. On the road back to Bastogne was what looked to be a concrete road marker. Painted on the four-foot tall concrete post were blue stars encircling the rounded top, with a bright red flame coming out of the blue ocean bottom. Painted in white letters were the words "VOIE DE LA LEBERTE 1944." 1944 Liberty Way. This was the final marker of a series of kilometer stones that followed a route from Utah Beach on the coast of France—the first point where the allies landed—to Bastogne, Belgium, the sight of Hitler's last major offensive and the largest land battle of World War II that would soon bring an end to the war. It seemed fitting to be standing at the end of the long road.


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