My father told me about his combat experience in World War II just once when I was a boy. I must have been under ten, and we were in a car at night. My clearest memory of what he told me is the story of the deer his unit killed with their carbines, and of their delight in the fresh meat.
Now that he’s in his 70’s, I hear many of his stories: the strange composition of his division, the 99th, and what the German general who couldn’t cross the Elsenborn Ridge said about the 99th after the war; what my father did on the Danube that got him a Silver Star nomination, and how he lost it when he fell asleep on guard duty in a rear area. Sometimes, my father seems to be hiding other stories, such as what he traded his coveted cigarettes for while he was in Paris.
The stories started to flow in 1995, when he went on a trip with other members of the division to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the 99th’s first major engagement. The American veterans were astonished that, so many years later, the Belgians greeted them like heroes. When my mother describes the cider and chocolates, her face—now half-paralyzed—still lights up. After that trip, my father began to talk about his experiences, and he hasn’t missed the division’s annual reunion since.
My parents live in Texas, so when the 99th’s reunion brings them close to Baltimore, I find myself among the division’s aging alumni, their wives, and their grown children. The 99th is a skeleton operation now, providing support services, and is no longer a combat infantry unit. As a consequence, when the Division Association meets, nearly all of the members are well into their 70’s. Unavoidably, the number who can attend is smaller every year. At the closing banquet, they bring out the bottle of champagne in a chest, with which the last man is supposed to toast his lost comrades. My father told me that he and a friend have agreed that, when only the two of them are left, they’ll drink it together. “It wouldn’t be as much fun to drink it alone,” my father said.
For my father, there are already times when the meetings seem terribly lonely. I heard about the first absence that night long ago, when I was a small boy. According to the first version my father heard, Dean, his boyhood friend, was standing—standing—in his foxhole, reading a letter from his girlfriend, when the artillery shell landed, killing him instantly.
“The first thing I thought,” my father said, “was ‘How could he have been so stupid?’ I was furious.”
My father was just 20.
The other absence hurts more now, because it’s more recent. Dick, my father’s foxhole partner—the man with whom he slept in rain and snow, who kept him alive and was kept alive by him—is absent. Alzheimer’s has taken Dick from my father, something the Germans tried and failed to do.
My father usually tries to get out of telling his stories, saying others should speak instead. Twice, he was in a rear area because of injury: once, because of a fall that injured his back, and once, because of a minor wound. As a consequence, he wasn’t with his friends at the battle in the area of the Remagen bridge. To him, the fact that he lay in the snow for a month in the woods of Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge, and suffered permanent damage to his feet from frostbite, or that he was nominated for a Silver Star when the division crossed the Danube, can’t make up for his absence when G Company of the 395th had their third great battle.
All of the men say similar things: that others should speak; that each of them did nothing special; that someone else was the hero. The 99th was badly outnumbered when the German veterans made their push for the Dutch coast during the Battle of the Bulge. Someone kept the Germans off the Elsenborn Ridge, but to hear these men tell it, none of them had much to do with it.
The men of the 99th laugh a lot at the reunions, but, when they tell the serious stories, there is always that subtext of guilt. G Company’s former commander—still called “Captain” by all the men—told me about the time, in a quiet area, when he arranged for the company to have a rare hot meal. As the first group gathered in a walled garden, a hidden German observer called in an artillery barrage. Of course, the Captain couldn’t have known there were any Germans around, but he still lacerates himself for those deaths.
Why do they all seem to feel guilty? They were part of the effort that closed the German concentration camps and liberated the grateful Belgians. Moreover, they had little choice but to fight. Still, I think that, by their lights, they have committed two terrible sins. First, they all killed other men, or tried to. And, unlike so many of their friends, they are still alive. Each year, the burden of that last crime increases.
The 99th is on a final, teaching mission, and my son is among their students. The lessons creep in, among the family gossip and war stories, and he learns them without realizing that I have put him in a classroom. He is coming to understand that young men, strong enough to walk from the Atlantic coast to southern Germany while carrying a heavy automatic weapon—that is, young men like him—all become old. That these old men have gone ahead of him and know about things he will encounter, even if he never has to lie in the snow with a rifle in a forest in Northern Europe. That there are good leaders, who are loved by their men for the rest of their lives, and bad ones, who, in their egotism, can order impossible assaults for a photographer’s sake, killing their own unnecessarily. That war is something not to be sought with glee but is such a terrible thing that even the victors suffer from it for the rest of their lives. That what he will remember of his wars is his love for his friends, and whether or not he failed them.