Gathering the dead: letter to a WWII veteran

I have this image of my grandfather trolling a World War II battlefield in Italy, boots spattered with mud and blood and a dozen other kinds of filth, surveying a desolate reality.

It’s after the skirmish’s last shot has been fired. It’s his turn to work now. He and a few other U.S. Army soldiers weave between greasy fires and smoke that stains their clothes. They spot an American facedown in a puddle, head bobbing in what seems like flagons of blood.

Grandpa raises his hand up, beckons to an olive-colored transport truck behind him. It trundles over the uneven terrain and stops just before Grandpa and another guy pick the stiff up. The face is shredded, probably from a mortar blast, burning, thin razors of shrapnel buried in a dozen bloody holes.

Grandpa and the other guy hoist the body into the truck. Wet gears in the undercarriage shift and click. The truck moves on. The men follow.

The image isn’t quite a detail-for-detail factual account. Really it’s just a dramatized projection based on what little I know about Grandpa’s WWII service. I know he was in the Graves Registration Service, now called Mortuary Affairs. I know he and others in his unit were tasked with the collection, identification, processing and burial of dead bodies following battles.

I know, at one point, the highest incidence of post traumatic stress disorder was within GRS/MA ranks. “Shade It Black,” an account of just how far an MA soldier can fall, was published earlier this year. You can see an interview with author Jess Goodell here.

It’s interesting to know there’s someone else who fell down the same rabbit hole Grandpa did and is willing to talk about it. I want to know if anyone could make it all the way back up.

Not to say Grandpa couldn’t have; not to say he took the fall at all. He was jovial all 24 years I knew him. He never had flashbacks, never melted down at the sight of Old Glory during Fourth of July parades or military events. He never talked about his time in northern Africa or Italy at all. The lock on that part of his mind was some kind of high-intensity alloy no key or methodology could crack.

I have a theory about why. I have to imagine soldiers on the ground in that era saw glimmers of heroism and honor – little snippets of those things military recruitment ads would have us believe are constant and frequent – between the explosions and splashes of blood they saw daily. Grandpa got no silver lining. He only saw the bodies, what men looked like when they were broken and inside out and beyond fixing. Imagine seeing life’s complexities wither before you every day like that. Imagine having to tell families of so many strangers and friends their son or brother or lover or husband or father had died on a battlefield so far away.

I’d be left with two choices after three years of that kind of life: be committed or bury those memories so deep light would ever be able to touch them. I think Grandpa chose the latter, for his sanity and for ours.

And now, like most people in this journalism gig would, I’m left wishing I knew every appalling detail.

I think about Grandpa quite a bit more during this particularly red, white and blue time of year. I have all the letters he wrote to his folks during his military service, imparted to me after he died in 2007. I also have news clippings, old mess hall menus, yellowing 6-cent stamp books.

I’ll never forget this line he wrote in 1945 when the war was close to ending: “Sat in lawn chairs smoking cigarettes and almost felt like civilians again.”

I’m not sure any of the letters contain the really bad stuff he undoubtedly saw. Someday when I get the right amount of gumption, I’m going to take a trip back in time with every letter, try to get a few glimpses of what he did see and feel like sharing. I guess I feel like there’s not a whole lot I can do for veterans beyond genuinely appreciating their willingness to fight for their family and complete strangers, and the only thing I can really try and do is empathize with what I know. I’m just not sure any civilian can ever look a battle-scarred soldier in the eye and say, “I understand. I get it,” with honesty.

I feel we owe it to them to just listen.

Happy Fourth, Grandpa. Miss you, wherever you are.

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