I remember World War II. Let me fill you on how I recall what happened. Be aware that my recollections are entirely accurate because I was there.
I remember World War II. There were lots of countries like Sicily and Northern Africa and Omaha Beach. D-Day is definitely something I will never forget, because I was there.
I remember maps with an X written on them on the border of Germany near Aachen. Of course there were war letters to and from home. Long letters, many written in pencil. It must have required sharpening the pencil several times, probably with a combat knife. I remember letters that had to say “Somewhere in France” or “Somewhere in Belgium” or maybe just “Somewhere.” In the letters you could only talk about people back home and it was easy to think about everybody back there, but it was also hard to block out what was going on in the trenches. I will never forget how you had to say you were going out to work in the dead of night instead of saying you were going to fight a battle in one of those “somewhere” places. Security mattered.
“A letter written just before D-Day wasn’t likely to create a security breach when it arrived two weeks later, was it? Come on, now.”
“Hey, I didn’t make up the rules for censoring written communication. Those were the rules for those fighting in Europe. The Pacific had different rules.”
“So… what about the powdered eggs?”
The powdered eggs. Ah, yes, those were pitiful excuses for food, especially for a person who loved to eat. Eggs with only water to turn them into a gelatinous mass nobody wanted to eat. No wonder when the war was over, it was easy to crack a dozen eggs into the spider (another name for a cast-iron skillet used back then, if that term is new to you) and devour them all, helping them down with coffee with real milk and a few slices of toast. Nowadays when I look at the egg beaters and other artificial products like them, I remember the wartime eggs and I cringe. Eggs, any eggs, are more than just the fragile oval shapes we buy in cartons.
I remember all the men who drove mine detector trucks at night, waiting every second to be blown up. No devices to detect mines other than human bodies and trucks, apparently. It was part of the war, though. You could die by a bullet or by mine. No wonder there were so many letters to write, because nobody could sleep much.
In addition to the men and their trucks, I recall the women who loved them. The women would not have known about what the soldiers were doing, what trucks they were driving, but who believed the soldiers, their soldiers would come home. Women who would have gone crazy had they known the horrors taking place. Women who would have dropped everything and gone to fight alongside the men.
Nobody knew how long the war would last. Nobody wanted the war. Why were so many people involved in doing something they hated? The answers to these questions are not pretty and the heart aches to think of that.
There are tinier memories of being shot at and ducking in time, just like in a Western movie, maybe, although of course it wasn’t quite the same. There were the little injuries that, if they’d happened back home, would have been extremely painful. However, since they only happened during wartime, they were inconsequential. That includes having a thumb smashed by the back gate of a mine detector truck. Ironic that the truck’s gate would end up being more dangerous than all the mines. Ironic and… fortunate. I remember how fortunate that felt afterwards, even if at the time it hurt like hell to have a crushed thumb and still have to manage a weapon properly.
“Do you remember anything about PTSD?” (Changing the subject.)
“No, nothing. That wasn’t around during the war. Some people used the term shell-shocked. I’d have to check to see if it is the same thing. I’m not sure what it was. Some reflex reaction, maybe? It did come home with the soldiers. I have proof, am proof.”
I remember Luger pistols. They were the ones used by the others. I think they even stopped making them in 1948, but I can’t personally confirm that. I do know that more than one Luger made its way across the ocean as a souvenir, although weapons aren’t something I admire much. Usually a soldier got his hands on a Luger because he was able to pick one off a dead German. (Weren’t there any good Germans? Of course there were. I know that. There were families who were as horrified by the war as anybody else, farmers who opened homes to foreign troops at the risk of getting killed for it.)
I remember seeing the swastika on flags and spitting at it out of disgust. A lot of Nazi flags were probably burned or otherwise destroyed right on the battlefields, or at best left to rot. A lot, but not all.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I know that some of those horrible flags, like the Lugers, headed back with the winners of the war.”
“Why did they want them?”
“Ugly as they were, I guess being able to walk away with a flag, like with Lugers, was a symbol of survival. It’s kind of hard to say.”
Not all that I remember about World War II has to do with war, you know.
“I don’t quite comprehend. In war, what else IS there besides war? The whole world is a war. There are no boundaries.”
“That is not entirely correct. I can explain, if you’d like me to.”
“Please do, because I’m having trouble following you.”
Well, I remember things like black and white television. There were many movies with airplanes that dropped bombs and got shot at. Sometimes the airplanes crashed and we knew there were no survivors. I know I didn’t feel any pity for the planes flown by the enemy troops. Is that wrong of me?”
“No, but why do you remember the movies and how can you say they were part of the war?”
The screen was not large and there was no blood red color anywhere in the scenes. A lot of the time the shots were of the planes flying, engines deafening, all screaming in the languages of the pilots. One plane sounded like another, although by the outside it was possible to know who was flying overhead. I never liked planes. Not then, not now. Plus, all the films looked pretty much alike, and had the same plot: Kill or be killed. The films were boring, actually. Well, not boring to one who can been right there, looking up at the planes and their bombs like I had been.
“All right, so what’s your take on malaria?” (Changing the subject again.)
“Malaria? It’s a bitch of a disease. It really hurts. Grown men cry when it hits, and it does, over and over. Military officials said soldiers could get it in their home towns, stateside. It would be interesting to see statistics for malaria cases in the US from 1941 to 1945. After 1945, there were a lot of cases. Imported from Tunisia, probably.”
I remember the cigarettes of the war. Chain smoking was allowed as long as it didn’t take away from driving and shooting. Tobacco was as good a food as the powdered eggs. Sometimes preferable. Most likely the cigarette companies made a killing - that’s a bad pun, I know - for those four long years.
Another part of the war I remember distinctly is the VFW. I am fully aware that the VFW I knew was instituted in April of 1946 at the Moose Hall on Cuyler Street. That’s in Palmyra, just for the record. Now if you don’t know what VFW means, you’ll have to look it up because I don’t have the patience to explain what everybody should know. Especially the W. I know the VFW like it was my family. I knew barbecues and clambakes and stomping about like they do in square dancing. There weren’t a lot of children, as I recall, but the participants knew the meaning of a word I’ll mention shortly.
“Why not say it now?”
“I’m getting to it. The memory needs a bit of greasing sometimes, or has to gather up a few loose pieces. It’s the only way to piece the puzzle together.”
“All right. Please go on.”
I need to remember the war canteen now. It was made of tin or some light metal, but hopefully not lead. It was definitely useful during the time in northern Africa and in the Sicilian heat. It saved lives, probably. The wonder is that there were places to fill it with drinkable water, since soldiers didn’t have a lot of choice regarding water sources and when they might reach one. I remember that after a long work shift - remember, “work” is a euphemism - a beer might have seemed a better choice, or even ten beers, if the shift had been an especially grueling one. I never knew how much beer was actually consumed, but imagine it wasn’t a lot. What I do know is that a lot of something was drunk before the disembarking at Normandy. Canteens got to come home, too, like flags and Lugers, but they could be put to good use. They were great for hunting and for working at jobs where the sun beat down, even if not quite as strongly as in Africa.
Note: As far as I know, that canteen still has water in it. It would be interesting to test it and identify which language it speaks.
If we are going to remember the canteen, battered and bruised by war, then the binoculars also deserve a mention. I recall how heavy they were, but they still worked. They probably saved lives more than once. Knowing where the enemy is seems essential to survival. They would come back home with soldiers because of their role in knowing where to shoot or where to drive the mine truck.
“Is there anything else you remember from the war? You’ve mentioned a lot of things, but surely there’s more. After all, it was going on for four long years.”
“Well, maybe so, but a person can only remember so much, and then the rest is made up or incorrect. It’s better to list just what was really part of the war.”
“But you talk about things that weren’t really part of World War II, and you really haven’t said much about what you recall for the actual fighting.”
“You don’t think powdered eggs, a tin (?) canteen, binoculars and malaria aren’t war recollections? I beg to differ with you.”
“Just try a little harder. You might be able to bring the war to life if you can picture more things from the key moments. Historical things. Things that matter and end up in books about that time. Guts and blood on the ground, shrieking missiles. You said you remember movies about all that.”
“You’re right. I also haven’t said anything about the buddies that stopped by to have a glass of wine or two (no more than that; it wasn’t very good wine). The wine was drunk in the chilly back room with no insulation where the washing machine was because drinking wasn’t allowed elsewhere in the house.”
“So Lugers and swastikas were allowed, but wine wasn’t?”
“Those were the rules. Take the buddies to the back room, sip a bit of cheap wine, reminisce. Or try to forget. Which would you do? With a war buddy, what procedures do you follow to keep from going all the way back onto the front and getting shot at? Can you ever really forget what you had to do in order to survive? I know I can’t. I also don’t feel like going back through all the bloodied, blown-apart corpses, some belonging to buddies who never finished the fighting and some (happily) belonging to Nazis. Is there really anything new to say about war? Why do you care about things of that nature?”
There is at least one more thing I remember, so it ought to be told. It has to do with meeting the United Nations in a car. I think I must have been close to twelve and the war drove right by my house. It opened the car door and said, “Get in,” so I did. Oh, maybe I should mention this was in western New York. I should also explain that the United Nations were symbolic of peace, so when they were introduced as being the UN, I knew it was about the war. Without that, the United Nations wouldn’t exist.
In case you don’t know the history, the UN was founded in 1945, the year the truce was finally declared. It was supposed to maintain international peace and provide security against dangerous forces. Clearly it has become as ineffective as its predecessor the League of Nations, but the intention was good. Plus, I rode in the same car with the United Nations, or part of the organization, at least. The persons riding in the car commuted to the factory and they were from all sorts of places, places that had been at war and were now home, happy survivors. They were the UN because they were Italian, Armenian, German, Puerto Rican, and so forth. They had all made it to the day peace was declared and they were gleeful fellow passengers. I remember them well. The war was in them, in the car, surrounding me. I can guarantee it.
One of the last times I remembered the war in a certain way was at the cemetery. The owner of the Luger, the swastika flag, the binoculars, the canteen and a few other items not mentioned here, was at the cemetery too. The owner had never talked about the war, and was not going to talk about it at the cemetery. The talking was done by the twenty one guns that thundered and deafened. Guns that struck me in the chest, the heart, the lungs. Thunder that has never ceased. I know guns and I knew those guns. They had been in my mind before I was aware of the world. Aware of World War II.
“What are you trying to say? You’re not making much sense right now.”
“I’m making perfect sense. I think you know that. The minute I said I remembered D-Day, it should have been clear.”
Because I really do remember the war, I lived it, it is imprinted on my mind as well as on all the letters home. Letters that should have been impossible to write, but were written. Letters that should never have reached their destination, but reached it. Letters that should be smudged and wrinkled after a pencil stub wrote them, pages upon pages. How could I ever forget all those words that spoke of love and cartons of cigarettes and asked after the health of the people stateside? The war, like the car of UN representatives, like the now lost or pawned Luger and Nazi flag, is in those letters. Love that was better than the best powdered eggs, but also was shortened by all the cigarettes needed to light the way.
Because I have the war, the Somewheres, the map with an X near Aachen marking the spot of a planned invasion, the envelopes and the dozens and dozens of pages written in a cursive to die for - I have all of these on the high shelf in my bedroom closet. Since I am not Pandora, I am not letting anything out. Nothing. That’s because sometimes I think only people who survive D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Aachen in September 1944, the Ruhr and the Rhine, only they understand the meaning of solidarity. That is something we do not need to say out loud.
To make this perfectly clear:
Merriam-Webster defines solidarity as: “unity (as of a group or class) that produces or is based on community of interests, objectives, and standards.” I’ve offered you a pretty good list here, don’t you think?
“I think I might understand a little better now.”
“I hope so. Why do you think you understand?”
“Because you are obviously your father’s daughter.”