Memorial Day brought up memories of my dad, Andrew Lawrence Andrews.
During World War II, Dad rose to staff sergeant (the highest noncommissioned officer) in the Army/Air Force Command. He never seemed like the kind of guy that would enlist in the armed forces.
Sergeant Thomas W. “Wally” Clarke was part of Patton’s outfit, a machine gun platoon in the 101st Infantry, 26th Div., Third Army. Wally kept a diary of the war and spent a lot of time writing letters home to his family.
Thomas connected with specialty publisher LifeReloaded, (www.lifereloaded.com) founded in 2004. The company takes people’s keepsakes and history, accounts and other information, and assembles them into a book. Wally’s recollections of the war - and his accounts of how Patton led Wally and his fellow servicemen in and through battle - have now been saved for posterity in LifeReloaded’s GEORGE S. PATTON’S TYPICAL SOLDIER.
My dad had keepsakes too. They never made it into a book.
What made Dad so atypical and unusual - to our family, at least - was through this horrendous war, which affected nearly every country in the world, Dad said he never heard a shot fired. Or a bomb drop. He saw only the aftereffects of the war.
As Dad aged, and dementia set in, an early stage of the dementia was paranoia followed by the “get-control” phase, in which the patient feels life has gotten out of control, so they desperately try to get back in control by “cleaning out.” They obsessively throw out what they perceive as “junk.” So Dad was cleaning out “junk” - and in the midst of that junk, we found he was tossing out his WWII photo album.
Dad, who lived alone late in life, kept a fairly large photo album (about 50 pages of photos and other items) at his apartment. His “album cover” was created from discarded windshield bomber Plexiglas material. During the war, Dad was a “skin” man - responsible for repairing and welding the aluminum “skin” on the bombers, the B17s (he always called them the “Flying Fortresses”), B24s, and more. There was a whole history of his life in the war in that photo album.
We recovered the album once from a trash bin and exonerated Dad, assuming naively that he would not attempt to throw it out again. We should have known better. On our next visit, the album was nowhere to be found.
While his stories were never made into a book, I can readily dig them up from my own memory.
As I noted, Dad said he never heard a shot fired. Literally. He was in back-of-the-line support and did not have to be part of heavy fighting. He would move as the support squadron would move, from Africa, at the start, over the Mediterranean, into Sicily and Italy. His campaign - and involvement in the war - apparently ended in Rome.
He remembers Rome at the time being a filthy place. But it wasn’t bombed - spared instead for its historical value, he believed. But other cities and villages were “saturation bombed” and were a horrific mess. Dad said the bombing went round-the-clock. Brutal devastation was everywhere.
Dad recalled the worst thing he had to do as a skin man in the war, and I am amazed it seemed to have had so little effect on his psyche (certainly not the psycho-dimensions the Dresden firebombing had on a young and impressionable Kurt Vonnegut Jr.). But I think Dad almost had Kurt beat for how bad this was:
As the planes returned from their bombing runs, Dad would have to enter the tail gunner section of the B17. Many times, there was blood splattered everywhere. Once, the soldier operating the machine gun was literally in pieces - brains splattered on the Plexiglas. An arm here, a leg there - Dad had to clean it all out, bit by agonizing bit. And he would have to do this, again and again.
When we thought we had it bad, as in enduring another day at school, Dad would retell that story. We grimaced every time. He was proud that he earned the right to the GI Bill, which allowed him to graduate from college and give us all a good life. (But Dad must be a bigger man than me just to endure that memory.) Yet Dad was a soldier, a damn fine one, who came back from that European theater of hell to a haven of family, a career, peace, a good retirement, and leaving us, finally, full of years, at the age of 85.
There were many gentlemen (and ladies) who served in that war who may have suffered countless horrors that weren’t recollected. Perhaps more happened that Dad didn’t want to talk about. That’s OK. But I wanted to mention he wasn’t alone in this - lots of other hands helped repair those bombers to carry out the task. Thanks to those who helped him and whom he helped. And thanks to all of our fine men and women who served in years past and continue to do so.