Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Son Remembers His WWII Dad

When I was nine or ten years old, my father took me to a college basketball game. As the clock ran out, a trumpeter in the pep band thought it would be cute to mark the demise of the rival team by playing Taps.

Dad was not amused.

“Shut up!” he roared.

The trumpeter played on, oblivious.

Dad got to his feet, fists clenched.

“I said, ‘Shut up!’” he bellowed even louder.

Embarrassed, I cringed in my seat. I’d never seen Dad this upset. But most people in the noisy auditorium were unaware of my father’s wrath. His anger was drowned out by cheers, and by amused laughter at the cleverness of the Taps-playing trumpeter.

Later, Dad explained to me that his strong emotions went back nearly 15 years when he was an officer on Gen. William Woodward’s staff during the 104th Infantry Division's assault on Nazi Germany. Under the leadership of Major General Terry Allen, the "Timberwolves" fought through Holland, Belgium, and into Germany, seeing unbelievable carnage.

Some men had become numb to it.

Dad told me about seeing a couple soldiers carelessly tossing dead bodies into the back of a truck to be hauled away from the battlefield. As Dad watched, a passing officer angrily chewed out the men:

“These are soldiers of the United States Army,” the officer yelled, “and they will be treated with respect!

Whenever Dad told that story, his voice would catch.

Fast forward. Spring, 1995 – fifty years after the Nazis surrendered, and some 35 years after Dad’s anger boiled over at that basketball game. His emotions were still raw as we sat together on the back porch of my home in suburban Atlanta.

Over the course of three days, I held a small Radio Shack tape recorder between us as he talked about his life. Not surprisingly, his days in combat with the 104th took up most of the eight hours I captured on tape.

Dad was a shy man, placid, slow to anger; rarely did he show much emotion of any kind, except laughter – he loved to laugh. So, it was unexpected when, during a taping session, he suddenly broke down and wept.

He’d been describing the day he came across a group of Timberwolf infantrymen who’d been caught in a crossfire and slaughtered.

“If it hadn’t been for those guys in the infantry,” Dad said, swiping at his tears, “I never would have survived the war.”

Dad died in 1996. I went in his place to the 56th Timberwolf reunion in Atlanta Aug. 28 to Sept.3, 2001. There I had a chance to relay his appreciation of the infantry to several of the Timberwolf veterans I met: George Bacon, Emmett Burke, Jess Carpenter, Robert Clark, Warren Colglazier, Art Decker, Mel Falck, Albert Fontana, Walter George, Vern Gilbert, Warren Jershky, John Rison Jones, Jr., Dick Karst, Matthew Kiley, Earl Lutz, Art Mason, Dick Matthews, John Montgomery, Navy Myers, Herbert Orton, Ernest Peters, Warren Pugh, Paul Radlinsky, Floyd Shockley, Art Sorenson, Charles Todd, Robert Tresnak, Phil Tretola, and Keith Zimmerman.

And I listened as many of them talked about sphincter-tightening experiences. The memories were old, but the tears were fresh.

One told me, “Think of the worst you could go through -- then double it.”

Another said he wrote down his story, but hid the manuscript in a safe deposit box for his children to read after his death.

“It’s too awful to talk about,” he explained, “plus none of them seem very interested in what I did during the war.”

One infantryman recounted the shock and horror of finding the bodies of some of his closest foxhole buddies “dead in the street.”

“I just shut down completely,” he said. “My emotions turned to ice. Suddenly, I had no one I could talk to.”

“Could you pray?” I asked.

“I could until [the] Nordhausen [concentration camp],” he replied. (On April 11, 1945, the 104th liberated the Mittelbau-Dora camp in Nordhausen, Germany. The bodies of 5,000 starved prisoners were stacked like cord wood and the few hundred survivors were like walking skeletons.) He told me it took years, and the help of several understanding people, to restore in him a semblance of faith.

“How did the war change you?” I asked several of the men I met.

“It made me mean,” one man confessed.

Some said it took years, and the patience of long-suffering spouses, before they were able to overcome their anger -- anger they didn’t even know they had until others pointed it out to them.

During my time with these men, I tried to resist my journalistic instinct to probe. Mostly, I listened. It was a rich experience. An experience, I fear, will be lost forever if more of us don’t encourage these men to tell their stories for history.

I’m glad I went to the Timberwolf reunion. For awhile, at least, it was like being with my dad again, talking about the days when he was young and freedom was at risk.

John DeDakis is a Senior Copy Editor at CNN in Washington, D.C. His father,
N. George DeDakis, remained in the Army Reserves after WWII, retiring as a Colonel in 1960. He practiced law in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and died May 29, 1996 at the age of 88. His son was with him at the end.

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