You take a lot for granted when you’re 21. You’re pretty new to this whole adulting thing, but the world is your oyster. Maybe you’ve got your own place and you’re making money. You eat whatever you want, stay up as late as you want, and you still run around like a rabbit on crack. You feel immortal. When my grandpa was 21, he probably felt anything but immortal; he was headed off to war.
On Monday, December 14, 1942, Cedar County, Iowa sent 52 young men to Camp Claiborne in Louisiana, one step closer to the battlefields of foreign lands. Among them was my grandpa. The next day’s newspaper included photos of the men right before they left town. Grandpa is the one with the red arrow:
Look at those faces. They’re determined, yet scared shitless. They knew damn well what they were walking into. They were leaving the comforts of home to go fight against enemy combatants who probably just wanted to go back home, too. It’s unnerving to wonder who in this photo didn’t come home.
Grandpa served in the army as a corporal with Headquarters Battery, 928th Field Artillery Battalion of the 103rd Infantry Division. After almost two years of training in Louisiana, the 103rd left for Europe on September 11, 1944. They landed in Marseille, France more than a month later on October 20. Their mission took them up through northeastern France and into Germany, where they pushed their way through Stuttgart to Ulm.
Once the job was finished in Europe, the division returned to the continental U.S. on September 10, 1945 and was inactivated 12 days later at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey.
When Grandpa came home, he brought with him some Nazi trinkets and the beginnings of shrapnel-induced hearing loss. Both stayed with him the rest of the way. He returned to farming, raised five kids with Grandma, and passed peacefully in 2010, some 65 years after war’s end. I reckon the veteran who returned to Iowa was a different man than the young buck who left for training a few years earlier.
I wish I could give you a staggering account of Grandpa’s war experiences: battles he survived, buddies he made, harrowing encounters with a dangerous enemy. But sadly, I can’t. You know all of the info I mentioned above? It all came from online research. Grandpa didn’t talk about the war. Like countless other veterans, I don’t think he wanted to relive the horrors of combat. And I don’t blame him. Would you want to live that nightmare even once, let alone hundreds of times over the course of your existence?
I had a million questions I wanted to ask my grandpa when he was alive. Did he kill anyone? What was it like to march on foot through Europe? Did he think he’d make it home alive? Out of those million questions, I asked zero.
In the 32 years my grandpa was in my life, I could never bring myself to ask him those questions. I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to send him to a place mentally that he didn’t want to visit. When we first learned about war in elementary, I wanted to ask him. When one of my classmates brought their veteran grandpa to talk to the class, I wanted to ask him. When I became enthralled with World War II history as an adult, I wanted to ask him. But I never did.
I experience regret about this reluctance, but if given a mulligan, I don’t know if I could do it differently. I don’t need to ask those questions to know he went through hell. I know he witnessed atrocities that would make Stephen King blush. I’m confident the pre-war and post-war versions of him were two distinctly different people. That war changed the course of history not only on a global level for nations, but also on a personal level for people like my grandpa. I honor Grandpa by being extremely proud of his service, even if I don’t know all the details. He exhibited untold bravery that I’m not sure I could even muster up.
As Memorial Day approaches, this topic reminds me that we need to be careful with how we celebrate our veterans, both those who perished in combat and those who made it home. We need to honor, not worship. There’s a fine line between blind idolatry and honest-to-God respect. If we whitewash our veterans as flawless gods who did no wrong, we are doing them a disservice. If we remember them as fallible beings who rose up in an hour of need to defend the lives and rights of other fallible beings, then we are doing them justice, and we are keeping the lens of history unobstructed.
I have but one request this Memorial Day: don’t be superficial in your admiration. If you plan on posting something on social media to commemorate the occasion, please ensure that your respect is deeper than just surface level. If you post “Happy Memorial Day!” before going off to get plastered on a boat somewhere, at least have the decency to read up on the horrors of war or watch a documentary to see how brave souls deal with war when it’s a firsthand experience and not just a droll chapter in a high school textbook. For the love of God, World War II encompassed more than 30 countries and resulted in 50-85 million fatalities. Those soldiers deserve more than just a cute “Thank You Veterans!” post on Facebook.
I’m fascinated by World War II history, and you might be, too, if you pinpoint something that really speaks to you and brings history to life. Listed below are some of my favorite war books and documentaries. I hope they spark some interest for you not only on Memorial Day, but all year round. We need to be familiar with history (personally, nationally, and globally) to prevent ourselves from committing the same damn mistakes over and over again.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand: This is the book to start with if you’ve never read anything else on war. It follows every chapter of Louis Zamperini’s life from childhood to old age, including two-plus years as a Japanese prisoner of war. This book shows that, for Zamperini and others, the war didn’t necessarily end in 1945.
Where the Birds Never Sing by Jack Sacco: This is a smooth read about the 92nd Signal Battalion and their push through France and Germany. Sacco details the battalion’s travels and experiences, notably being among the first American troops into Germany’s Dachau concentration camp.
The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan: Ryan’s classic follows the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. A soldier’s survival on that day relied on pure luck more than anything else.
The Last Battle by Cornelius Ryan: This chronicles the events of the battle for Berlin, the pivotal fight that sent Nazi Germany to its rightful grave. Ryan describes not only what was happening to soldiers, but also what the civilians of Berlin faced at the same time. It’s an eye-opener because it reminds you that every German wasn’t a monster… and every Allied soldier wasn’t a saint.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer: A comprehensive history of Nazi Germany from beginning to end (spoiler alert: it lasted way fewer than a thousand years).
The Nightmare Years by William L. Shirer: Shirer (a Cedar Rapids, Iowa native) details his firsthand memories of living in Europe and covering the Nazis for American media in the 1930’s. He interacted directly with top Nazi brass, giving him insights into their personalities that you won’t find elsewhere.
WWII in HD: A phenomenal History Channel documentary of original color footage. This series of seven-plus hours follows 12 different Americans through the war. The color footage compels you to see war as soldiers experienced it instead of feeling distant while watching the typical black and white footage.
Hitler in Colour: This documentary uses color film to show Hitler’s rise to power and eventual destruction.
Japan’s War in Colour: From the same producer as the Hitler documentary, this one recounts the war from a Japanese perspective.
The War: A Ken Burns Film: No one makes war more personal than Ken Burns, especially in this seven-part series.
Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution: Not for the faint of heart, but I believe documentaries like this should be required viewing to ensure that humans never commit these atrocities against other humans ever again.
Downfall: Okay, okay, this one isn’t a documentary. But this mesmerizing film chronicles the chaos in Hitler’s bunker during the final days of the Third Reich. Be prepared to read subtitles, as the entire movie is in German.