Three Faces of War
As Remembrance Day has ended and Veterans Day as well I post these stories again.
Three Faces of War
The first “face”:
My brother shared a powerful story with me this past weekend. When Eric and his wife Ruth Ann were living in Germany during his career with the Department of Defense they went to the village in France where our Uncle Clement Gentry had been wounded during the Second World War. The parish church in the village was having a bring and buy in the church hall. As Eric and his wife were walking around the town a terrible thunderstorm arose and they had to take shelter in the hall. As they were chatting an older gentleman came up to them and introduced himself noting that he had overheard them speaking American English and inquired as to why they had come to this particular village. My brother told him why and the older man asked if he could share with them a story from that time. They of course replied yes.
It seems that the old man was but a teenager when the Allied troops occupied the village and even though there was fierce fighting nearby the village was essentially spared. Two American chaplains who served with my uncle’s division came to live with the then teenage boy and his mother. Every time shelling could be heard the boy’s mother would send him to the basement and the wide eyed adolescent would complain bitterly that he “wanted to see what war was like”! It was winter and well below freezing for several weeks. One day the two chaplains were going to the nearest village some four or five miles away to minister to the wounded at a field hospital there. They asked the boy if he wanted to go with them. He eagerly said “please” and off they went. As they left his village he noticed that as was the custom before the war wood had been stacked on the side of the road. But something was different because the stacks were on both sides and at least 8 feet high. As the jeep continued its journey with the chaplains and the youth it became clear just what kind of “wood” was stacked so high. The chaplains stopped the jeep and told the lad to look closely. The “wood” was the frozen bodies of Allied and German soldiers. The American and British dead were on one side and the German dead on the other for as far as the boy could see! “You see, said the now older and wiser grown up, with tears running down his face, “I saw what war looked like and vowed never too see it again!”
The second “face”.
Uncle Clement had fought in North Africa, Italy and the south of France. He had numerous battle ribbons and several Bronze Stars and had been nominated to receive a Silver Star for bravery in one of the last actions he saw as a tank gunner. He was not awarded this metal and for this reason.
The war was over but just before the German surrender Hitler had forced young boys some as young as ten to “defend the fatherland”! Most of these children and that was just exactly what they were tried to surrender to the advancing Allied army. Many of them did become prisoners of war and my Uncle found himself guarding them on a prison train shortly after the Germans did in fact surrender. The train had stopped at one point and a young German “soldier” unarmed and frightened to death at the ripe old age of 13 decided to “run for it”. As my uncle turned to look from the train platform the teenager began to run. Clement fired two warning shots over his head but the frightened boy just kept running. It was then my uncle Clement made a decision that cost him his Silver Star. He refused to shoot the boy and let him get away instead. When he was asked at the military inquiry that followed why he did not kill the German as required by military policy, even though the war was over, my uncle told them that there had been enough killing and he did not intend to kill again! Who knows what happened to that German boy who escaped but because one person decided for life he had a chance he would not have had otherwise.
The third “face”.
When I was growing up war stories was not the common fare at family gatherings or over family suppers. My father had been spared the invasion of Europe because of bleeding ulcers that forced his discharge before the events of June 1944. Three uncles all his brothers however saw combat. One in Alaska at the beginning of the war and two in Europe. One would die in the third assault wave on the beaches of Normandy and the other, Clement, would survive the war in Europe though he had been critically wounded during the liberation of a village called San Pietro. Clement who would later give the gift of life to an enemy soldier of 13 was, as I indicated before, a tank gunner. One day just outside of San Pietro 16 tanks, 14 American and two British, waited for orders to go into the village and drive the Germans out. Clement was the chief gunner in a tank commanded by a Lt. Lee from Texas. Clement and these were his words “loved Lt. Lee”. Just before the orders came Clement was told he had to vacate Lt. Lee’s tank to be assigned as chief gunner for a different tank whose gunner had been killed the day before. Clement was furious and did not want to leave his beloved Lt. Lee. But orders were orders and he left. Shortly thereafter Lt. Lee’s tank was hit by an anti-tank shell and all of the crew were burned to death. When my uncle would, and it was rare that he did, tell of the war when he would speak of this lieutenant he would have tears in his eyes. It would be many years later in my life that I was to discover why and just what he meant by those tears and his words. My uncle was gay and in a time and place of such horror he lost the person whom he had come to love yet he could not share his loss or his grief except in a most guarded and hidden way. He kept his “secret” all his life. Is it so different now? I wonder.
In the midst of death and hatred and destruction there can be redemption and life. My uncle knew this as did the French gentleman sharing his story. I hope we can learn this but without the great cost of war as the school master.
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