I’m writing this on Election Day, but rather than thinking of the bitter, divisive mess of this campaign cycle, I’m thinking of Veterans Day — and of the men and women who serve to make this country great, despite the politicians.
More specifically, I’m thinking of three brothers who served in World War II, and the painful stories they took with them to the grave.
In August 2012, we had a Miller family gathering to celebrate the return of my Uncle Ralph to Ohio. After retiring from his optometry practice in Sugarcreek, he and my aunt had moved to Colorado, where they lived for 24 years. But, at 89, the lure of “coming home” was strong, and so they moved back to Walnut Creek.
As we gathered after the meal, my Aunt Marilyn asked my dad, then 85, Uncle Ralph and my Uncle Robert, then 92, to share a little bit of their experiences during World War II. She didn’t ask them ahead of time, because she was afraid they wouldn’t agree. They had, after all, seen horrible things, and some wounds are best left closed.
When they started speaking, the room filled with four generations stilled, as we all tried to soak in the words spoken. The words left unsaid.
Uncle Robert was drafted and entered the Army on Nov. 18, 1941 (an older brother, my Uncle Blake, was also drafted, and my Aunt Lola remembers him having to go to Columbus, but no one is quite clear as to how or why he exempted). Robert left for England in August 1942. “There were so many ships in the ocean, you couldn’t see the end of the ships, so many troops were leaving the United States.”
After a brief stay in England, he headed to northern Africa, and was part of the invasion of Oran, Algeria, in late 1942, and crossed the Atlas Mountains, pushing northward.
Then, during the invasion of Sicily in the Battle of Gela, on July 11, 1943, Uncle Robert was aboard the troop transport Liberty Ship US Robert Rowan, which was also heavily laden with ammunition, when two bombers hit the ship. The captain scarcely had time to give the order to abandon ship, when, as Uncle Robert put it, “our ship was blown up and we were blown out of the water. My buddy from South Carolina, he could swim like a fish, and he kept me afloat.” They were about a mile from shore.
They finally got plucked out of the water “in a duck,” and “we hit the shore without any ammunition, shirts or any equipment,” Uncle Robert recalled.
And in the reserve that was characteristic of the afternoon’s recitation, he added, “so it was kind of a rough time.”
He continued through Sicily, to Naples, and northward through Italy, was part of the invasion of southern France at Marseilles, and fought in Belgium, then Germany. “The war ended on May 8, 1945, when I was in Stanzach, Austria.”
He left Belgium on Sept. 14, 1945, headed for home, and recalls hitchhiking from Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis to Massillon, where my Aunt Mildred and her husband lived.
At the same time Uncle Robert was in Northern Africa, my Uncle Ralph was drafted in the Army when he turned 19 in October 1942. He had basic training in Indiana, then traveled across the country to Camp Cooke, California (now Vandenberg Air Force Base).
After training there, they crisscrossed back to Camp Shanks, New York, a.k.a. “Last Stop U.S.A.,” because it was the final stateside stop for 1.3 million soldiers who were processed through this staging area to the European Theater of Operations. “They took roll call about three times a day, so nobody would take off and go AWOL,” Uncle Ralph recalled.
Once aboard the ship, “it was the first time I had smelled diesel fumes,” he smiled. The Atlantic crossing took him 18 days.
Landing in Bizerte, Tunisia, “they told us to get off and move out about a mile and dig fox holes.” That night, a German plane came over, and the English started shooting anti-aircraft guns at the German.
“The shells were exploding up in the air and pretty soon the shrapnel was coming down,” Uncle Ralph said. “I thought, ‘this is a heck of a place to be in a fox hole,’ so I crawled over under a vehicle.”
He paused, clearly remember that night with more detail than he could share, and simply said, “And that took care of that.”
Like Uncle Robert, Uncle Ralph moved northward from Northern Africa, through Rome, Italy, and to the eastern port city of Bari, which Allied leaders thought was relatively safe from an air strike. But on Dec. 2, 1943, “a bunch of German bombers bombed the heck out of Bari,” Uncle Ralph said.
The raid took only 20 minutes, but 17 Allied ships were sunk and another eight were damaged, causing Bari to be dubbed the “second Pearl Harbor.” One of the ships that exploded, the John Harvey, was carrying “unofficial” mustard gas bombs, a fact that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill kept secret for many years, although the gas was mentioned in official American records.
At the same time my uncles were getting discharged in 1945, my Dad was chomping on the bit to serve, too. My Grandpa Miller wouldn’t let him enlist early, but right after he graduated from high school in 1945 and turned 18 in June, he joined the Navy. “I said I was going to have a place to sleep all the time, so I joined the Navy,” he laughed.
After training at the Great Lakes Training Center in Chicago, he shipped out to Bremerton, Washington, outside of Seattle (“That’s where I got my tattoo,” he said, pointing to the two-inch anchor on his forearm.). Once his troop ship left there, “we didn’t know where we were going.”
The war was over in Europe, but Japan was still fighting. The day Dad’s ship arrived in Guam, Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan, and then, three days later, the second. Part of Dad’s duties was to guard the Japanese prisoners on Guam. “They’d do anything for a cigarette,” he remembers.
They say war is hell and I have no doubt that these three brothers, now all deceased — and many others like them, in every conflict before and after WWII — experienced something the rest of us cannot imagine.
By the time you read this, we’ll know who our next U.S. president is. It is my profound hope that whoever serves our highest office will remember the sacrifices our Armed Forces made, and continue to make — and will work to build, not tear down, the great nation these men and women fight for.