War StoriesPosted: January 28, 2008
My daddy went to war, long before he was my daddy. Uncle Sam sent a letter saying he had to, only he wasn’t at home to get it because he was in Mobile working. Grandpa sent him a telegram, telling him to come home now, that he had to report to the draft board the next morning. So the young lad rode the bus to DeKalb all night, and Grandpa picked him up at the station and took him to sign up for the army.
He was in the army for three years and in the war for fifteen months, but the war stayed in him a long time afterward.
Fifteen years later, he bought a big map and sat in his chair and studied it. With a yellow magic marker and a deliberate hand, he started marking across it. He connected dots of towns with names like Cherbourg, Mars-la-Tour, Metz, Bastogne, Trier, Crailsheim, Ulm, Augsburg, Mittenwald, ending at Berchtesgaden, near Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. He traced what he could remember of his route with the A Company, 80th Armored Medical Battalion, 10th Armored Division, Third Army, under Blood and Guts General George Patton.
I watched him, lying flat on my stomach on the hardwood floor, leaning up on my hands, putting the bottoms of my feet on the back of my head.
Before he marched through all those towns, and a hundred others, he trained at Camp Gordon, Georgia, with all the other boys he’d serve alongside, and they all went on “Tennessee maneuvers” together. Tennessee maneuvers was when the division practiced for real war near towns like Lebanon along the high bluffs of the Cumberland River because it was like the terrain in Europe where they’d be fighting. Dad talked about Tennessee maneuvers all the time, till we were sick and tired of hearing those two words.
“When I was on Tennessee maneuvers…”
“Oh no, Tennessee maneuvers!” My sister and I would shoot up and zoom to the door.
When Dad embarked for France, he was in the first division to sail from the United States directly to the European mainland, but the boat he was on ran aground in the New York harbor and the convoy went off and left them. If you ask me, that wasn’t a good way to start. I felt sorry for him because when he left the base, he and Mama had only been married six days. She watched him go away in the back of a big brown truck. He was twenty-two.
Dad was a sergeant, a front line medic in charge of five ambulances. He told the ambulance drivers where to pick up the wounded and where to take them. He rendered first aid on the front lines — gave plasma and morphine to torn, mangled bodies and watched men die. There was real blood and guts there, and he had to eat, sleep, and live with it all. He was baptized in it. His stories came, short snippets streaming from his memory, the words of an ordinary soldier who knew his part and not the big picture. As a post-war child, I had a duty to listen to stories that happened along that yellow line. Some were funny and some made his face go gray.
His unit first saw combat at Mars-La-Tour, when his ambulance was hit by German planes. Dad said he jumped out and hit the ground and his driver jumped on top of him with heavy boots. “I ran to the back of the ambulance to check on my men, and when I opened the door, one fell to the ground, dead. His head was half blown off by a shell that had gone through the roof.” That’s when Rainbow took off running down the road as fast as he could, like a jackrabbit in low cotton. “We just watched him go, there wasn’t a thing we could do. We never did see Rainbow again.” “You didn’t tell on him?” I asked. “Naw.” I figured they’d probably all had a hankering to go with him. Dad said they named the hill they were taking Rainbow Hill. “I knew ’bout how long it would take those planes to turn around and come back again, so we jumped in the ambulance and I directed my driver on down the road a bit, and we hid behind the wall of a church where they couldn’t hit us.” I figured war could make a man get down and pray.
The Rainbow story made me glad I was a girl. Because I couldn’t bear to look at a dead friend with only part of a head and brains showing. Knowing I might be next. I knew right then and there if I had gotten drafted into a war, I’d escape the fighting and dig a deep hole in the woods, get it in, and cover it with twigs and branches, hug my knees, and stay put till the treaty was signed. I also knew that if every soldier felt like Rainbow and me, our country wouldn’t win any wars.
Dad said the rest of the soldiers rolled on — he called it “hauling ass” — mopping up Germans, seizing towns. “We were cold, hungry, always on the move, and on constant alert to stay alive,” Dad said. “We had anti-aircraft guns shooting over our heads, mortars thrown at us, flack spreading all around us, planes going over and strafing us. The bullets looked like they were coming straight at my eyes, then they would go straight up.” The Germans even strung wire cables across the roads to catch soldiers riding in vehicles and decapitate them. Dad installed bars on his jeep that stuck up and would break the cables. His jeep ran under one, the bar caught it and broke, and injured his driver.
“Supplies didn’t get through to us. Many days we didn’t eat. Too afraid to be hungry anyway. Our K rations came in a cardboard box — a can of eggs and cheese and another of coffee. I’d take an empty can, put dirt in the bottom, pour gasoline on the dirt and light it to heat my coffee.” There was a roll of toilet paper and four cigarettes in the rations. “We slept wherever we could,” he said. “Sometimes in our vehicles, in people’s kitchens, in barns in France.” The stalls in the barns were divided by concrete walls and Dad slept next to one for protection. “In Germany we’d run a man and his wife out of their bed and sleep a while.”
The Germans drew Dad’s group south, while they broke through our lines north to take Bastogne. So Dad had to haul it north. They spent a night in Metz, where they removed all their division shoulder patches and insignias and whitewashed their tanks, painting over the division markings. A big snow had hit and they’d be disguised. They saw other soldiers retreating from the Bulge. “They looked like the walking dead, they were shell-shocked, some had no helmets, some had no shirts. They handed over their ammo and kept on walking, never looked up. We were their replacements,” Dad said. “We spent Christmas Eve in Luxembourg City, then on Christmas morning we all set out north to Bastogne. At a fork in the road, Company A — the one I was in — went east, then north, about two or three miles south of Bastogne. Company B went into Bastogne, took the brunt of the battle, and had heavy casualties. They’re still there.” Dad looked up toward a corner at the ceiling. “We were surrounded for two days. It was cold, the snow was deep, and I lost all my supplies when we had to move quickly. I didn’t have shoes for a day and a half. My feet got frostbitten. We couldn’t dig foxholes because the ground was so frozen. We were shelled constantly — the shells would explode in treetops and shrapnel would rain down on us. Men went crazy and had to be restrained.” They were told to hold Bastogne at all cost. That means until every man was dead.
Then help arrived. “We captured and killed Germans as they retreated so they couldn’t set up more battles. German soldiers hid in the woods and hundreds came out with hands locked over their heads to give up. I was standing around with a few soldiers, when a young blond German boy, not more than seventeen, came out of the woods with his arms raised. He was surrendering. The man standing next to me pulled his pistol and shot him. I gave him morphine before he died. He looked at me in the eye and asked ‘Warum?’ and I just shrugged and told him I didn’t know.” Dad flattened out his lips, and the corners of his mouth curled up. “Did you tell on him?” I asked. “Naw, it was no use. That’s what war does to some.”
Dad told of a time when he didn’t obey his superiors. “I got orders from a lieutenant, a runner from company headquarters. He told me to proceed until I came to a fork in the road and to stay there all night and wait. We’d join the other battalions early the next morning. When I got there, I noticed it was out in the open. Something told me not to stay. I figured we’d get picked off. I told my driver, ‘We’re not staying here. Let’s move on a bit.’ We found a more protected spot. Next morning before sun up we headed back and joined the column about daylight. At the fork in the road we saw the ambulance of the Company B sergeant — he had the same job as mine with the same orders, to park and wait. He and his driver had both been shot in the head right through their helmets. If I’d obeyed orders, I would’ve been shot dead, too.” It wasn’t like Dad to disobey orders, but it was like him to use his own sense and skills and do what he had to do. I knew him well enough to know he had a feel for things. I guessed that came from growing up in the country and hunting.
Two months after Bastogne, Dad’s group crossed the Saar River, pounced on Zerf, and turned north — nine miles to Trier. On the way, the day before they captured Trier, they were getting heavy opposition. “Soldiers on the front were putting the wounded in a house along the road. Captain Adkisson told me to take a half-track, go up to the front, and bring back some of the wounded. I needed a driver for the half-track, so I took a 5-gallon water can and filled it with schnaps and gave it to Leroy Worrell to drink. I asked him to drive me through a mined field to the front line. The enemy was putting up a formidable defense. We were pounded and pelted with heavy artillery. The shrapnel was so heavy, I expected we’d get it any second. In the midst of the fire, Leroy would stop to get a swig.” Dad stopped to laugh. “I’d get real nervous because we were sitting ducks. But we made it to the front. We put the litter patients on the porch of the house and loaded the walking wounded into the half-track. I told Leroy to take them back to the hospital and send Arch Page back with an ambulance for the litter cases when the mortar attacks died down. I stayed with them and gave them first aid.” They rescued four litter patients and ten or twelve walking wounded.
That was March 1, 1945, the day for which Dad was honored with a Bronze Star with Valor. I read the certificate that came with the medal. “Sergeant Hardy’s exemplary conduct on this occasion reflects grand credit upon himself and the military forces of the United States.”
I reckoned he did a good job in the war. But I knew he was scared and it all stayed with him. The reason I knew is that he had nightmares about it. A few times, I heard him moan and cry out in the middle of the night. Mama said she had to wake him up and tell him it was a dream. She said many times when he first got home from the war, he’d come home from work in the middle of the day, shaking. And sometimes he couldn’t eat. She said she’d listen to him talk until the shaking stopped. I reckoned that’s what war was like. You go, you do what you have to do, and if you live, you come home and you try to stuff it down so deep you don’t think about it much. You just do it and then you bear it.