Monday, November 12, 2007

Did you hug/call/thank/remember a veteran today?

My Uncle Harry joined ROTC in college, around 1939. He graduated from Santa Clara University with a BA in education in 1943, and joined the Reserves as American troops were dying in droves in Europe and in the South Pacific during World War II. This was roughly less than a year after Pearl Harbor, and two years before the war would be won. My uncle had no idea what he was getting into.

I'm unsure where he completed his training, where his troops trained, but I believe it was in the South. He was shipped off to England as a First Lieutentant of the 106th Artillery Division in September of 1944. From southern England the division was sent to Belguim on December 1st, replacements for the main line in Holland, Belguim and France. My uncle's division was stationed squarely in the Ardennes forest, a lightly guarded and very quiet part of that western front, for a slow orientation into combat. On December 16th, 1944, German Panzer divisions, the very last of Hitler's army staffed by old men and children, crushed the silence in the Ardennes, lambasting the unprepared and underprotected troops. Over the next month, the Germans progressed through the American line, producing a lethal 'bulge' in their line, cutting off supplies and causing confusion. It took more than a month before the allies succeeded in surrounding the Germans, and the Battle of the Bulge was over by January 25, 1945. In all, nearly 81,000 allied troops were killed in action and over 24,000 were captured*.

Somewhere between the initial onset of the battle and Christmas, 1944, my uncle was captured. Our best guess is that he was transported to a prisoner of war camp for officers called Oflag XIII-B in Hammelburg, Germany. Transported is a kind word. Most first hand reports by veterans of Oflag XIII-B and Battle of the Bulge captured state that they were marched through the cold of Germany to reach the camp. They were fed a diet of 1200 calories a day at first, cutting back to only 1000 calories a day by the time they were liberated. Malnutrition was the cause of disease (from the most simple infections, unable to heal without proper nutrition, to the more serious, like dysentery) and of course, death.

My uncle was always very quiet about his experiences in this camp. I know that he developed an appendicitis, or at the very least an inflamed appendix, while in this camp. A guard offered the medic a butter knife, and said, operate. I know that he was very proud that his camp was personally liberated by General Patton, although it is likely, but I don't know the whole story, that he, along with almost everyone Patton's army liberated from Hammelburg, were the victims of an ill-planned liberation, and were recaptured.

He did make it home. Skinny as hell, but alive, he returned to his family home in Trinidad, Co. His first question of my dad, his kid brother, was "what are your favorite songs right now?" My dad's answer? Bing Crosby's "Don't Fence Me In."


I don't care where you stand on war or peace or Iraq or Vietnam or Right or Left, I think we do stand united on this: We are singularly in awe of men who saw the worst things a man can see, and even moreso at their ability to come back home, to reintegrate, and to live lives without the horrors. My heart goes out incredibly to the sufferers of PTSD, even for the men who suffered from it before we called it that. My wish for veterans day is that the men and women who served our country are being served now, by us. That they receive good medical care, that their war wounds, physical and psychological, are healed. And that they never, ever feel unappreciated for their sacrifice, regardless of war or cause or president.

*Just because this blows my mind: 40 days, 81,000 dead. Not that either one is 'better' or more or less brutal, or more or less morally acceptable: compared to our current war in Iraq, that is 2,000% more dead in just 2% of the time our troops have currently been in Iraq. (source for Iraq number here)

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