This morning, Henry McMaster dropped by my table at breakfast, opening our conversation by saying, “Are you blogging somebody over here?” Which I took to mean that he was somewhat wary of talking with me after this incident. Or maybe he was referring to this piece involving his protege Trey Walker.
In any case, we didn’t dwell on the subject, but moved to something more important. Henry, apparently seeing I was reading the paper, mentioned The State‘s series this week about the survivors of the Battle of the Bulge. He immediately fixed on the very thing that always fascinates me about that battle — the day-to-day, routine human suffering apart from the combat. He said something like, “And we think WE have it tough sometimes…”
Indeed. As one who has never been tested by combat, but have certainly thought a lot about it, the thing that I’ve always found most intimidating about it is not the actual shooting part. Yeah, if you survived something like the landing at Omaha Beach, you’d be marked by the trauma for life. But in my own imagination at least, that part would be easy compared to the day-to-day misery of living in the field in harsh conditions.
And what the men trapped by the German blitz in the Ardennes went through is an extreme example.
This Bulge reunion is a particularly poignant event for my family, because when I first heard about it, I had thought of how we might be able to bring my father-in-law here for it. But he didn’t make it. He died in January. And when I told y’all about it on the blog, I wrote the following:
My father-in-law, Walter Joseph Phelan Jr., lived a full and worthwhile life. I was thinking yesterday as we mucked through the ice and snow about some of the far-harsher hardships he endured along the way. He was there in the Ardennes in late 1944, the coldest winter in Europe in a century, when the massive, unexpected German attack came. He was a member of the ill-fated 106th Infantry Division (like Kurt Vonnegut). That means he was right at the point of the German spear, right where it smashed through the Allied lines. A friend fell right beside him in the snow, victim of a bullet he felt was meant for him. If he had been the one it found, I’d never have met my wife, and our children and grandchildren wouldn’t exist.
Like Vonnegut and thousands of others, he was captured and held in a German stalag in the last months of the war, when the Germans didn’t even have enough food for themselves, much less for prisoners. After that experience, he never wanted to go to Europe again, and didn’t.
The coldest winter in Europe in a century… That detail from Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers has stuck with me ever since I read it. Some of our troops, such as members of the 101st Airborne, were out in that, living in foxholes, for over a month. Every morning, as they stirred, their clothing would crackle as the ice that had formed in it overnight would break. In many instances, they couldn’t build fires for fear of revealing their positions.
I find the idea of soldiering on under such conditions inconceivable. Even if you weren’t killed, or captured (like Mr. Phelan), or wounded (like Bill Guarnere, who lost a leg in an artillery barrage), how on Earth did they not break? Many did, of course. But who could blame them.
Right now, I’m reading With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge. Many have noted that for the Marines in the Pacific, the entire war was just as miserable as what the Army endured at the Bulge — only it was mud and blood and jungle rot rather than sub-freezing temperatures — and such books as this one and the one I just finished, Bob Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow, present compelling evidence to that effect. As Sledge wrote of Okinawa, the Marines lived day after day in “an environment so degrading I believed we had been flung into hell’s own cesspool.”
There was a passage Sledge’s book that sticks with me, about how after that experience, the veterans had trouble relating to the rest of us back home; they had to struggle “to comprehend people who griped because America wasn’t perfect, or their coffee wasn’t hot enough, or they had to stand in line and wait for a train or bus.”
People like me. I just notice my coffee has grown cold as I was typing this. As I go to replace it with hot, I am mindful of the privilege, and those who suffered and died to make my life so easy.