By Hardy Jackson
Going through my father’s books shortly after he died, I found a copy of Stephen E. Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers, which focuses on the role played by junior officers in the defeat of Germany in World War II. Daddy was one of those junior officers.
Every year, as Veterans Day rolls around, I think about what my father told me about his career as a soldier. And what he kept to himself.
When I was young, not yet in my teens, Daddy talked about the war. He told me about cavalry training at Fort Riley, Kansas, where I was born. And he told me that when the time came to go overseas they left the horses behind and the Army told Lt. Jackson that he would be in charge of a motor pool.
Then the Army changed its mind again, for in the fall of 1944, when Daddy arrived in Belgium, what they needed were infantry officers, and that is what he became. I also learned that, like every other lieutenant there, the odds were that he would be either killed or wounded before his first month was out.
Even when he talked about the war he did not talk much about combat, but the bits and pieces he told, put in the context of the story Ambrose tells, brought home what he and the others went through.
He told me about the rain (it was the wettest fall on record), the mud, the cold, the sleet, the fog, the lack of winter clothing (because the generals believed the war would be over by Christmas), and the snow. It would have been bad for a GI from Maine. Daddy was from Slapout, Alabama.
What seemed to bother him most were the dead animals – especially the horses, for horses were at the heart of the German transportation system. By the time Daddy arrived at the front, Nazi gasoline supplies were so depleted that they had even converted some vehicles to “wood gas.” He told of watching bemused as a German staff car stopped and the driver tore pickets from a fence to stoke the fire.
Daddy got there at a bad time (as if there is a good time to go to war). American victories that summer had pushed the front close to the Germany border and there enemy resistance stiffened. No one talked of “Berlin by Christmas” any more.
Then Daddy’s stories, like the war, became darker, when he told them at all. There was the night when, sitting in his foxhole, he heard a mortar shell land behind him. Then one landed in front of him and he knew the third would come in on top of his position. It did. It was a dud. Some saboteur, maybe one of Schindler’s Jews, had saved his life.
Then there was The Battle of the Bulge — the last great German gamble for a major victory. Ambrose compares it to Gettysburg, where the United States won by holding on. Daddy was right in the middle of it.
Years passed and Daddy talked less and less about the war. When my son, reaching the age where curiosity overcame discretion, brought it up, Daddy repeated some of the behind-the-lines stories, but said nothing about the actual fighting. Maybe he looked at young Will Jackson and saw the “Hitler Youth” who had been sent into the fray and from whom Daddy took a knife that he sent home as a sad reminder of those last desperate days.
Thinking all this through I recalled how Daddy never went to war movies, and if one came on the television he would change the channel. And though we often sat out at his Poutin’ House and discussed politics, not once can I recall us talking about Vietnam, when it was raging, or any of the other wars that have been fought since.
Whenever my father read a book, on the last page he would note the date he finished. When I got to the last page of Citizen Soldiers there was no notation. Either he had not read it, or he could not finish it. Too many memories.
But I wish he had, for the last paragraph is as fine a tribute to those Americans who fought in World War II, indeed in any war, as I have read.
“At the core, the American citizen soldiers knew the difference between right and wrong, and they didn’t want to live in a world in which wrong prevailed. So they fought, and won, and we all of us, living and yet to be born, must be forever profoundly grateful.”
“Forever profoundly grateful” to each and every one, we must be.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.