World War II stories aren’t the same anymore.
I’ve been reading novels and watching films about the Second World War for decades, but lately I find them to be more upsetting than I once did.
They remind me of my father, who was a WWII veteran himself, and just how awful the war must have been for him.
He told me some incredible stories about his time in the army, and I loved hearing them, of course, even when he repeated them over and over. I couldn’t get enough.
But I’m starting to see the darker side of his stories, the things he didn’t tell me.
He’s been gone for several years and I’m only now getting some idea of how much he must have suffered during those terrible days, when he was just a young man in his twenties.
He must’ve been in constant fear, dodging bullets, scrambling for shelter during artillery attacks and witnessing his friends getting killed. That fear—and a lot of good luck—probably kept him alive.
My father was part of the generation that was supposed to put down the rifle, pick up the briefcase, and return to civilian life as if they had all been away on a camping trip.
This is absurd, of course. How could you possibly go through these horrible experiences and emerge unscathed?
That’s just a fantasy that politicians and civilians like to tell themselves so they don’t have to think about the damaged people walking among them. And it makes it easier to sell the next war.
On this Father’s Day, I’m thinking of a story my father told me many years ago while we were driving down the BQE one night.
He and his platoon had gone out on a night patrol somewhere in France, I believe.
Friend or Foe?
As they walked through the dark woods, they saw the silhouette of a soldier up ahead of them. They weren’t sure who the guy was and then he asked them what time it was—in German.
Realizing the enemy was just a short distance away, one of dad’s buddies who could speak German responded in the soldier’s native language.
“He thought we were Germans,” my father said, “and he walked right up to us.”
My dad paused at this moment and when he spoke again, his voice was somewhat subdued.
“Yeah,” he said, “they cut his throat.”
Did you catch that? My father had shifted from the first to the third person, from “we” to “they” as if distancing himself from this gruesome killing.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that these GIs had no choice. If that soldier had yelled, the whole German army could’ve come charging in after him.
I guess that’s why wars suck so much for the people actually have to fight them. Decent people are forced to become savages just to stay alive.
My father was ready to do his job. He had a particular hatred for snipers, whom he considered to be cowards who would kill a few soldiers to slow down an advance and then do the old “I surrender” routine.
But I think this incident was different. This really wasn’t combat, where you’re trying to kill somebody who’s trying to do the same thing to you.
This poor bastard just got careless and it cost him his life. That could happen to anyone at any time in any war.
I wish I could’ve talked with my father more openly about his experiences during the war, but I doubt if he would’ve responded. He wanted to look strong to his family, which is perfectly understandable, but so terribly unnecessary.
Perhaps we would’ve gotten along better if I had a better sense of what it was like for him. But it’s too late for that, so now I’ll say what I always say at this most important time of the year.
Happy Father’s Day.