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Of Heroism, Cowardice and Honesty An Account of One Soldier's War

An Account of One Soldier’s War

by JACK WILSON The Buffalo Report

The Buffalo Report

Editor’s Note: I never met Jack Wilson, but I know what he looks like. He’s the old man who sat in the second row during both days of the War and Media Conference at University at Buffalo earlier this month. When he left the auditorium, he walked with a limp and used a cane. He asked a good question and made a telling remark during the panel in which three journalists talked about what they had seen in Iraq and how they had reported it. The next day, he sent me a long email about the responsibility of the press in telling people the truth about war and violence. I responded and he wrote a longer letter back in which mentioned a personal memoir about the awfulness of war he’d written for his children and grandchildren. I asked to see it. He sent me the letter he wrote to his family, and the memoir in which he told them what he knew about heroism, cowardice, and the continuing price of war. I read it transfixed, as I expect you will.

Bruce Jackson, editor, The Buffalo Report

For years your mother has been urging (nagging?) me to write down an account of my wartime experiences but for years I have procrastinated on the matter. With the situation developing as it has over the past few months particularly the situation in Iraq and the failure of the news media to convey in any way the realities of war I have finally taken the plunge and have put together the accompanying account. I trust that if you ever come to advocate war – and there are times when this may be necessary – that you will remember the price that will have to be paid by those who actually carry on the fighting. Even those who emerge physically unscathed from combat carry with them an emotional burden that we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. It may not show but it can be as destructive as any bodily wound.

I have dealt at some length with the issue of heroism and cowardice because the term, “hero,” is being tossed about so lightly by the media and by officials. For me the terms have become almost meaningless as I hope you will gather from my account of some of the things that happened to me and my reaction to them. Although some aspects of the technology of war have changed dramatically I do not believe, from what I have recently read and seen, that the essence of war for the soldier who has to fight that war on the ground has changed all that much. It is still hellish but I’m afraid that we tend to see it as nothing more than flashes on a TV screen and staged raids illuminated by night-vision glasses.

If you would like to share this material with anyone else, feel free to do so. I just hope that a record of my experiences and reactions may help others to come to appreciate some of the complexities surrounding these matters and also come to view war as something other than a painless, bloodless experience of victory over the forces of evil.

An Account of One Soldier’s War:

To My Children and Grandchildren

Once, long ago, I was a hero, or, at least some people said that I was. I have also been a coward, then and many times since, or, at least it seemed so to me at the time. Today I am not so sure about either. During the recent war in Iraq, I kept reading about American heroes. Often it seemed as though the misfortune of getting killed was sufficient to convert the dead soldier to a hero. Still, I wonder. What makes a hero or a coward? A friend of mine asked me that question a few months ago and the only way I could frame a satisfactory answer was to tell him of some of my experiences as hero and coward – experiences I had previously shared with only one other person. As I have thought about this secrecy and, in spite of a certain amount of shame that I still carry with me, it seemed appropriate to share those memories with those closest to me. Thus this open letter to all of you.

About 15 months after I was drafted into the U.S. army in July 1943, I arrived in Belgium (in the autumn of 1944) as a “replacement” infantryman, and became a machine gunner. At that moment, the war was not going well. Fighting on D-day and in the hedgerows of Normandy had been very costly in casualties. Then, after the mad rush across France following the collapse of German lines in Normandy, German units reorganized and manned the Siegfried Defense Line along the western German border. American, British, Canadian and French forces had been attacking that line for weeks with little to show for it but high casualty rates. Thus the need for infantrymen to replace those lost in battle. That is why I found myself transported to the lines of the 28th Infantry Division then participating in this assault. I was assigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment and, by the luck of the draw, was given a machine gun. (At least, this is what I recall after nearly sixty years.)

I do remember very clearly being told on the way to the front lines that the Germans were on “their last legs,” that American artillery was firing ten shells for every German shell that arrived on American lines. Shortly after we reached the “front” and had dug our first real foxholes, the German artillery started their bombardment. For the next week that became the story of our lives – move to a new position, dig a new hole in the ground, try to get some sleep, and hope and pray that you would survive the next artillery barrage. I have no idea of how many shells American artillery fired at the Germans but we remained convinced that there were ten German shells raining on us for every shell that hit the Germans.

My first experience of death involved our platoon Sergeant (I can’t remember his name), a married man with a couple of children. Here was a man who had much to live for. I remember so clearly how careful he was in digging his foxhole. Most of us just dug a hole down until we got tired (often before the hole was very deep) and, with our foxhole buddy took turns sleeping and standing guard. Not our Sergeant, however. Every hole he dug was a masterpiece. Since we were in the forests that covered the German-Belgium border lands, he and his foxhole buddy dragged fallen logs to cover the top of their foxhole, in the hope of remaining protected from the rain of shrapnel (the ragged pieces of steel from the artillery shell casing that flew out from that shell when it exploded) that descended upon us. It wasn’t enough. One large piece of shrapnel apparently entered through the opening, or perhaps cut through the logs, and hit him in the head. I speak here from hearsay. I had no desire to witness his remains. All I could think of was that he was that really nice guy who had passed out our cigarette rations just the evening before, who had tried to ease our fears and uncertainties – a guy with a family to go back home to. Then he was alive; now, he was no more.

After five days (as I recall) of rather intense shelling, both day and night, with randomly spaced short breaks in between barrages, we were relieved by another infantry outfit and went back to a rear area where supposedly we could reorganize and quiet our shattered nerves. In my experience nothing is worse than trying to survive continuing artillery barrages. One can do nothing but cringe in a hole in the ground and hope for the best. Everyone becomes adept at predicting where an incoming shell will land, or at least whether it is likely to land near your location. The whistle of the shell tells it all. There is nothing whatsoever that one can do except wait and hope and pray – and smoke cigarette after cigarette in hopes of calming raw nerves. Even today as I read about the bombing or shelling of an area I think of the people down there on the ground who are trying to survive just as I tried those many years ago. That experience is the next closest thing to hell that I have ever experienced.

One of the most meaningful descriptions I have ever encountered of life under shelling or bombing, I found in a work of fiction, a story by Jean Stubbs. She wrote, speaking in the voice of one character, “I remember Ethel talking about the Manchester blitz [bombing raids]. ‘Crouched in the cupboard under the stairs for eight hours, with an old woman and a new baby, wondering whether the next bomb had our number on it. Afterwards they said, “Britain can take it!” As if we were heroes. There was nothing to do but take it. We had no choice. Just sit there in the shelter and take it and wonder if we were going mad along with the rest of the world.’”

There is a terrible randomness about it all, a randomness that creates a sense of absolute helplessness. Nothing one can do will really make any difference. The trajectory of that incoming shell was determined long before you, the possible victim, even knew it was on its way. If the whistle signals that this time you are safe, you feel such a sense of relief and, frankly, no concern for those who may be the victims. When the whistle indicates a close one, you suddenly feel the shock of the blast as the shell explodes. If you are lucky this time, there is still the next one to worry about. That is the reality of being on the receiving end of bombing raids or artillery barrages – and the fear builds and builds.

The longer one survives, the more fearful one becomes that your turn can’t be far off. That laws of averages, you think, is bound to catch up with you. Never do you become accustomed to the terror. With each renewal of the shelling, your nerves are less able to take it. To give you an idea of the extent to which our nerves had become jangled raw, after those few days of intense shelling, when we first arrived at the rear area and were being fed a real hot meal for a change, someone in line dropped his mess-kit. The kit, being metal made quite a racket when it struck the ground. Everyone of us in that line dived for the ground. By that time, noise, any noise, meant danger. After a moment, we began looking at each other rather sheepishly, got up and continued moving toward the front of the chow line. Think what must happen to those who are subjected to such attacks for weeks or months. I can’t imagine it. After this taste of combat – it didn’t seem like combat, only a random slaughter that most of us managed to survive – our division was moved to a quiet sector so that officers and non-coms could reorganize the mass of new men (replacements like me) into a fighting unit. The area to which we were sent was located along the Luxembourg side of the German-Luxembourg border, a hilly, wooded area. Just across the river marking the border were the German positions. We could see them moving about (like stick figures) as they could see us. Every day, each side fired a few shells into the lines of the opposing army, I suppose as reminders that a war was still going on but we lived quite comfortably in a bunker built by some Allied force that had been there before us.

We had little to do and I suspect that some of our officers became worried that our morale might deteriorate because of the idleness. For whatever the reason, we found ourselves each day out in the open, in view of German positions “policing” (cleaning up) the areas around our bunkers. Most of what we picked up consisted of ribbons of aluminum foil that had been dropped by allied planes to confuse German radar. This exercise we found infuriating. Risk a shell landing near us to clean up the area? As you might imagine, a fair amount of cursing resulted. We blamed the commanding officer of our sector, General “Blood and Guts” Patton.

Although he was a hero to many, to us Patton was a martinet, a stickler for discipline. Our reaction to his nickname was, “yeah, his guts and our blood.” As you can see, the American citizen soldiers I came to know, did not harbor an overly respectful attitude toward military authority. That may be one of the really great things about a citizen army. I recall much later, after the fighting was over, that we encountered a substantial number of “displaced persons.” These young men had been taken from their homes by the Germans and turned into slave labor. One time an English-speaking Polish DP was chatting with a group of us when an American officer strolled by. As soon as the officer disappeared the Pole commented on how sloppy our salutes were and demonstrated how he had been taught to salute. We remained unimpressed and maintained our sloppy ways since we never ceased being civilians at heart.

After about three weeks in this “safe” location, with little reorganization accomplished that we privates were aware of, word came down that the entire division was to be sent back to a rear area in France so that we could accomplish a thorough reorganization. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this explanation but it is what we believed at the time. My battalion was among the first to be moved out. We spent our first night, December 15, 1944 in a Belgian (or Luxembourg) town and had a great night’s sleep. Very early the next morning, the German panzer divisions attacked in force, beginning what came to be called the “Battle of the Bulge.” Their point of attack was the Luxembourg-German border, precisely where we had been stationed. The attack cut our division and the one holding the area just north of us to pieces – many taken captive. From our comfortable beds we were aroused to return to the front and launch a counter-attack.

This was the beginning of what I have always thought of as my combat experiences. This was really fighting. Previously we had simply been cowering in holes in the ground while the shells landed all around us. That did not seem like fighting, only killing and maiming. I think that it was as we marched forward into battle that I saw my first dead German soldier. He was lying in the street, face up, with a bullet hole in his forehead. I recall someone saying, “that was damned good shooting.” I discovered that I was less calloused. My reaction, and I remember it clearly, was that here was another human being whose life had been snuffed out. Since he was obviously older, I remember wondering if he had been married and with a family like our Platoon Sergeant who had died in his foxhole.

Sometime, during the next few days, as we fought a chaotic series of engagements with enemy forces, I played the role of coward. The sequence of events is more than a little vague but I do recall at some point being pinned down by German rifle and machine gun fire on what I recall as a hill top, wooded but not heavily forested. We could see approximately where the Germans were entrenched and could hear the bullets whistling and cracking over our heads. I think it was the company commander who called for the machine gun squad to run forward to where we could engage enemy forces. I had the machine gun and, frankly, I was scared – I mean, you could hear the bullets flying around. Getting up to run forward seemed suicidal. I froze in position on the ground. My body said, “no way.”

Suddenly, one of the members of my machine gun squad, rushed by me, throwing his ammunition boxes in my direction and grabbing my machine gun, he ran forward to where we had been ordered to set up the gun. I still have a vivid mental picture of that young man racing forward with the machine gun while I cowered on the ground. It is not a pleasant memory. No matter how I have rationalized the situation, there is still of measure of shame attached to the memory of my behavior.

I am sure you can imagine how I felt. I stood disgraced before my fellow soldiers, and most importantly, in my own eyes. I felt about an inch high. To redeem myself, I grabbed the ammunition boxes and ran forward and joined the rest of the squad. As I recall, no one ever said anything about the incident, at least to me, but I knew what I had and had not done. Until I mentioned this incident to my friend in Tucson a few months ago I had shared it with only one other person. I was too ashamed. Now, I think it is only right that you should know this as well as all the other things you know about me. I no longer feel guilty. I am not at all sure that the kinds of behavior that we call heroic or cowardly really qualify for those designations. To get up and run in the face of machine gun fire is an utterly irrational act. To do what I did a week or so later when I suddenly became a hero, was equally irrational. Consider the demands on the human body and mind and conscience in a situation of this kind. One of the most basic as well as among the most powerful of drives is that of self-preservation. Almost as powerful, and in some cases more so, is the learned, social drive to merit the approval of ones fellow human beings. In the kind of situation I described above, these two powerful forces come into full conflict with little opportunity for equivocation. I think you can at least imagine the kind of psychological stress this places upon the human being facing this kind of dilemma – satisfy the one demand and you think you will die; satisfy the other and you stand shamed.

After our first day of fighting the German attack on December 16th we in our lonely battalion spent the next four or five days or so (or perhaps it was a week) behind German lines, cut off from American forces. All was chaos. We did manage to commandeer some army trucks that had been abandoned by fleeing American forces, so for the next few days we rode rather than walked. Had we been behind our own lines this would have been a relief but tensions were high, particularly whenever we entered a town for we never knew whether the empty-looking town or village had been abandoned, of if it was held by German troops waiting to spring a trap. It’s a scary experience to enter a town fearing the ringing out of shots signaling an ambush. At times like these everyone becomes trigger happy – shoot first and question later. (I often think that many of the examples of what we call atrocities, shooting women and children for example, grow out of these kinds of tense, trigger-happy situations.) Any time a nation chooses to go to war, these kinds of situations arise. Imagine, if you can, the guilt that permeates the psyche of the soldier who, expecting an enemy, fires quickly and kills a little child opening a door.

At one point we ran out of food and had nothing to eat or drink for an entire day. It’s amazing how hungry you can get after just 24 hours. Then, we came upon an abandoned U.S. Army warehouse stacked with cartons of food left by fleeing American troops. I remember gorging ourselves on fruit cocktail – we had been living on dry army rations that were somewhat less than appetizing. For water, we became desperate enough to drink the muddy water that had collected in the ruts created by the tires of army vehicles.

Toward the end of this period of combat, our battalion was attached to an armored force as infantry support. We did very little supporting. I remember lying on a hillside watching a tank battle taking place in the valley below. Our tanks looked like toys madly dashing around with all too many destroyed by what appeared to be deadly accurate German fire. So far as we could see, it was a bad defeat for American forces. When the entire unit began retreating around evening, we were ordered to climb on the outside of a number of armored vehicles and cling for dear life to whatever we could grab hold of meanwhile holding fast to our weapons as well. As we rocketed down the dirt road to the little town of St. Vith in Belgium, we ran the gauntlet of German positions on both sides of the road pouring rifle and machine gun fire at us. We were so occupied by trying to maintain a grip on the vehicle, we could not even think about returning fire. That “running of the gauntlet” of fire was the worst combat experience that I had. I don’t know how many casualties we suffered.

Finally, we managed to make contact with American forces and were sent to an abandoned boarding school for the night and the next day. It was Christmas eve; that night we slept in a bed with sheets, the first time in months. On Christmas they treated us to a Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings. What an unbelievable contrast to the experiences of the days just before.

As I recall, on the next day we were sent back to the fighting front, this time our detached battalion was attached to another division since we understood that our division had been so devastated that it had been put out of action for the time being – two of the regiments, we heard, no longer existing as fighting forces – at least this is what we believed at the time. I think it is a fairly accurate picture of the situation.

The order of events over the next few days is extremely vague in my memory. I can recall particular incidents but not the actual sequence of what happened when. I remember clear, blue skies swarming with clouds of black Allied planes. Heavily overcast skies, grounding Allied planes, had provided ideal weather for German troops attacking our lines in mid-December. Once the skies cleared and the air force could fly again, the German attack was halted. Air power, not tanks or infantry stopped the German drive.

Once the German breakthrough had been halted, the long, painful, bloody process of regaining lost territory began, often a matter of gaining a few yards per day at heavy cost. I recall another incident of being pinned down by German fire, once again in a wooded area. As I lay on the ground under a tree, I could hear an American soldier somewhere off to my left say to one of his buddies, “The next time that German sticks his head up I’m going to get him.” A moment or two later I heard a shot followed by a shout of triumph, “I got ‘im.” I felt almost sick to my stomach. Irrational as it may seem to you, I felt as though I had witnessed a cold-blooded murder, a deliberate, pre-meditated killing of another human being.

As a machine gunner, I quite possibly killed and maimed more Germans than that soldier did but I don’t know whether I could have brought myself to fire at a human that I could see. Fortunately, I never had to face that situation. All of my shooting was done at a distance. I don’t know how I would have reacted had I found it necessary to shoot someone I could see. It’s a horrible thing to contemplate. I would not want to live with the memories of men falling under fire from my gun. Consider once again the clash of imperatives facing a soldier: on the one hand the drive for self-preservation, on the other a lifetime of social conditioning against taking another human’s life. No wonder so many soldiers return as psychological cripples. (Among all the accounts of battle in the recent Iraq war that I have encountered, one stands out. An American soldier, under attack, shot at an Iraqi soldier and then through his telescopic sight the American watched that Iraqi, “explode like a watermelon.” The American wanted no more combat after that. I just hope that he can survive his nightmares over the next few years. I can’t help but wonder if he will become one of the homeless men that wander our cities.)

I think that it was a few minutes later that I was wounded. As well as I can remember, a mortar shell struck in the tree under which I was lying and exploded sending a rain of shrapnel over the immediate area. I was unbelievably lucky, although I didn’t realize it at the time. All I felt was a sledge-hammer-like blow to my left foot. I thought I had lost my foot. I called for a medic, who crawled, under fire, up to where I was and helped me crawl to a more secure location and took care of the wound which turned out to be not all that serious, just painful. (Talk about courage: there is a real example.) Later as I examined myself, I found that my overcoat had been cut in several places by other pieces of shrapnel and the pack of cigarettes I carried in a pocket of my gas mask carrier had been neatly sliced in two. I’ll never understand how so many pieces of shrapnel could land around me and only one manage to strike. Something of a miracle. I have often thought that, since that moment I have been living on borrowed time. Here it is 58 years later. That’s a lot of borrowing.

Sometime during this period, as the lines of combat became more stabilized, our battalion was ordered to close the remaining gap between the American and British forces to the north of the Bulge and the American armies to the south. As we were informed, the gap was a couple of miles wide. We were to cross the gap, this no-man’s land, and leave two soldiers every hundred yards or so in order to establish communication across the gap. As we moved forward to carry out this mission, we came under intense artillery fire. The area was heavily wooded and we had proceeded along one of the “fire breaks” in the woods – a cleared path that created to stop the spread of a forest fire. Unfortunately the Germans assumed that this was precisely what we would do and had aligned their artillery to cover these firebreaks.

Confronted with this situation, we ran. It seemed like suicide to stay. Our one thought was to get out of there. I often think of this incident when I see one of our super-patriots displaying the red, white and blue and proclaiming that these colors don’t run. Yeah! We ran with or without the colors. It might have been courageous to stay and get killed but it would have been absolutely stupid. We ran but we came back to fight another day which is more than a dead hero can do. Again, details remain vague but at some point during that night, as we moved across the gap between American lines, we encountered a German machine gun emplacement. Our lead scout was cut down by fire from that German position. The company commander called me forward – by then I was the only machine-gunner left in the company – and asked (not ordered) me if I would stay behind and cover the advance of the rest of the company with fire from my machine gun. I must confess, that, strange as it may seem to you, I was not at all frightened and readily agreed to do as he asked. A lieutenant guided me forward to a position from which I could fire but I didn’t like his choice of location so said, if he didn’t mind I would prefer to be off to the side in a little hollow where the return fire would more likely go over my head. As I recall I was thinking very clearly and rationally, analyzing the situation and taking what precautions I could.

My lieutenant pointed out the approximate location of the machine gun nest and then returned to the rest of the company. They, in turn, then began to slip forward through the night. As soon as they moved, the German began firing his machine gun and I returned fire with mine. He was silenced at least for the moment. Then a second machine-gunner opened up and I recall swinging around to fire at him and he also stopped shooting. When all of our company had moved forward, the lieutenant returned for me and we proceeded safely past the danger area. At no time did I feel afraid. Perhaps I was too busy to be scared. What I remember most clearly is that the barrel of my machine gun was hot from being fired so long and so rapidly. This was January and it was bitterly cold. As I wrapped my fingers around the barrel guard, my hands felt warm for the first time in I don’t know how long.

Later that night as we approached the American lines on the other side of the Bulge, the Captain was going to leave me and a buddy as one of the links in the chain of communication. My lieutenant intervened and suggested that since mine was the only machine gun we had, it might be better to keep it with company headquarters. The captain agreed and I made it to the other side, thankfully – one of the few times I was pleased to be a machine gunner. When we did finally reach Allied lines, there were, as I recall, less that twenty of us remaining in the company out of the 200+ who had belonged to company G back in the previous November. We had no idea if we would ever see any of those men again. (Actually we did, although I can’t remember how many.)

Suddenly I was the hero of company G. That young man who, many weeks before had carried the machine gun forward while I froze to the ground, later came up to me and told me how proud he was to know me. Yet, I did not then and do not now regard my action as in any way heroic. How can you be heroic when you are not even afraid. It was simply pure action, a job to be done.

Not long after that episode, I was put out of action, permanently as it turned out. We continued to fight but what I recall is not what you would call fighting but rather marching and digging. We would march to a new location, dig our foxholes, try to get some sleep between turns at standing guard and then move and dig another hole. It did not take long for us to become totally exhausted. One day while marching to another new location (for a reason unknown to us) as we crossed a fence line, I was so tired that I failed to lift my foot high enough and tripped over the fence wire. I landed face down in the dirt while the machine gun I carried over my shoulder slammed into the back of my head knocking me unconscious. I suffered a concussion and was sent back to a hospital in Liege, Belgium, known at the time as “buzz-bomb-alley.” But that is another story. (I had had one brief acquaintance with these German rockets, the V1 type that we called buzz-bombs because of the horrible racket they made. I think it was the night we were traversing the firebreaks in the woods that one passed just a hundred feet or so over our heads. That was scary. )

Because Germany surrendered a couple of months later, my combat days proved to be over, thank God. My prayers had been answered – to be hurt badly enough to escape combat but not serious enough to devastate my life. I was one of the lucky ones. I once mentioned to a combat veteran of the Vietnam war that I had prayed to “be hit just a little bit.” He replied that so had he as had all the veterans he knew. I think for most of us, our one wish was to get out of the horrors, the fears, the cold of combat. I never wanted to go back and while in the hospital only met one combat veteran who expressed any desire to get back to his outfit. I suspect that this was not a universal reaction but we were almost all replacements; we had had no long association either with the outfit to which we had been assigned or with the men in it.

Two other events from this time are worth recounting, I think. Both occurred in rear areas, well away from the fighting. I believe that it was in late March or early April of 1945 that we were sent up to the recently conquered city of Frankfort, Germany. At first we were quartered in an office complex that had been owned by the I. G. Farben Company, a manufacturer of chemical products. I believe it was there that our unit set up the kitchen tents in an open area. Outside the tents, were rows of garbage pails. As we waited in line for our very generous rations, we could see middle aged German women rooting about in the garbage cans trying to secure enough food for themselves and I assume their families. Some plunged their arms in to the elbow and then shoved whatever they could pull out directly into their mouths. It was certainly an unappetizing view and I know that I and others were badly shaken that people should have to behave in this way just to get some food to eat.

About this same time, as we prepared to serve as an army of occupation, Headquarters decided that American soldiers needed better living quarters than those we then occupied. One morning we were transported to a relatively untouched suburban area outside Frankfort and deployed around the area. Residents were then informed that they had four hours to gather what belongings they wanted and to vacate their homes. We American soldiers were ordered to keep watch and make sure that the process was orderly. I recall coming upon one family who were panic stricken because they could not find the key to their storage shed so they could remove some items inside. I, like the 20 year old idiot that I was, pulled my .45 out and shot the lock off the door. Family members were unbelievably grateful. I found the whole process extremely distasteful. In fact I was appalled and ashamed to be an American soldier driving people out of their homes. Only in recent years has it occurred to me that that action might be classified as ethnic cleansing.

This is war as I remember a little piece of it over a very short period of time. I have never regretted that I had these experiences, yet I would wish them on no one else. A few months later, when it came my turn to be discharged, my one thought was to get that discharge paper in my hand and to make sure that there were no strings attached to me, no way that “they” could get me back in. As one of my friends said in later years, he made sure that it would take an act of Congress to get him back in the armed forces. Me too!

Being discharged, even with no strings attached does not end one’s experiences of war. Memories linger for years. Few combat soldiers can bring themselves to talk about their experiences. Talking awakens memories that one would like to bury. Other sensations trigger memories as well. For me it was the perception of snow on evergreens. Most of our fighting occurred in the forests of eastern Belgium, largely evergreen, and in December and January 1944-45, often covered with snow. In later years just traveling down a road lined with snow-covered evergreens was sufficient to trigger the memories of combat. A wave of fear would surge up from somewhere inside and I could sense an intense desire to run and hide. It is only in the last decade or so that I have been freed of this burden.

I have been plagued throughout my adult years with bouts of depression. I do not know to what extent my military experiences contributed to that psychological state, but I find it impossible to discount the possibility that war and personal depression are, at the very least, fellow travelers. The psychological burdens of combat have to emerge in some ways. Psychological problems are a likely outlet. I have mentioned this particular psychological burden that I have carried to illustrate that the costs of war can never be measured simply in terms of the immediate casualties – in the toll of dead and wounded that we total up at the end of a war. In Gulf War I, for example, wartime American deaths from enemy action and accidents totaled less than 300 soldiers. Yet in a recent accounting the Veteran’s Administration listed some 8,000 deaths, directly attributable to that war, that have occurred in the decade since. Believe me. War truly is hell.

This essay originally appeared in The Buffalo Report, edited by CounterPunch contributor Bruce Jackson. Jack Wilson can be reached through Jackson at: bjackson@buffalo.edu

Copyright 2003 by Buffalo Report, Inc.

Of Heroism, Cowardice and Honesty An Account of One Soldier's War

An Account of One Soldier’s War

by JACK WILSON The Buffalo Report

The Buffalo Report

Editor’s Note: I never met Jack Wilson, but I know what he looks like. He’s the old man who sat in the second row during both days of the War and Media Conference at University at Buffalo earlier this month. When he left the auditorium, he walked with a limp and used a cane. He asked a good question and made a telling remark during the panel in which three journalists talked about what they had seen in Iraq and how they had reported it. The next day, he sent me a long email about the responsibility of the press in telling people the truth about war and violence. I responded and he wrote a longer letter back in which mentioned a personal memoir about the awfulness of war he’d written for his children and grandchildren. I asked to see it. He sent me the letter he wrote to his family, and the memoir in which he told them what he knew about heroism, cowardice, and the continuing price of war. I read it transfixed, as I expect you will.

Bruce Jackson, editor, The Buffalo Report

For years your mother has been urging (nagging?) me to write down an account of my wartime experiences but for years I have procrastinated on the matter. With the situation developing as it has over the past few months particularly the situation in Iraq and the failure of the news media to convey in any way the realities of war I have finally taken the plunge and have put together the accompanying account. I trust that if you ever come to advocate war – and there are times when this may be necessary – that you will remember the price that will have to be paid by those who actually carry on the fighting. Even those who emerge physically unscathed from combat carry with them an emotional burden that we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome. It may not show but it can be as destructive as any bodily wound.

I have dealt at some length with the issue of heroism and cowardice because the term, “hero,” is being tossed about so lightly by the media and by officials. For me the terms have become almost meaningless as I hope you will gather from my account of some of the things that happened to me and my reaction to them. Although some aspects of the technology of war have changed dramatically I do not believe, from what I have recently read and seen, that the essence of war for the soldier who has to fight that war on the ground has changed all that much. It is still hellish but I’m afraid that we tend to see it as nothing more than flashes on a TV screen and staged raids illuminated by night-vision glasses.

If you would like to share this material with anyone else, feel free to do so. I just hope that a record of my experiences and reactions may help others to come to appreciate some of the complexities surrounding these matters and also come to view war as something other than a painless, bloodless experience of victory over the forces of evil.

An Account of One Soldier’s War:

To My Children and Grandchildren

Once, long ago, I was a hero, or, at least some people said that I was. I have also been a coward, then and many times since, or, at least it seemed so to me at the time. Today I am not so sure about either. During the recent war in Iraq, I kept reading about American heroes. Often it seemed as though the misfortune of getting killed was sufficient to convert the dead soldier to a hero. Still, I wonder. What makes a hero or a coward? A friend of mine asked me that question a few months ago and the only way I could frame a satisfactory answer was to tell him of some of my experiences as hero and coward – experiences I had previously shared with only one other person. As I have thought about this secrecy and, in spite of a certain amount of shame that I still carry with me, it seemed appropriate to share those memories with those closest to me. Thus this open letter to all of you.

About 15 months after I was drafted into the U.S. army in July 1943, I arrived in Belgium (in the autumn of 1944) as a “replacement” infantryman, and became a machine gunner. At that moment, the war was not going well. Fighting on D-day and in the hedgerows of Normandy had been very costly in casualties. Then, after the mad rush across France following the collapse of German lines in Normandy, German units reorganized and manned the Siegfried Defense Line along the western German border. American, British, Canadian and French forces had been attacking that line for weeks with little to show for it but high casualty rates. Thus the need for infantrymen to replace those lost in battle. That is why I found myself transported to the lines of the 28th Infantry Division then participating in this assault. I was assigned to Company G, 2nd Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment and, by the luck of the draw, was given a machine gun. (At least, this is what I recall after nearly sixty years.)

I do remember very clearly being told on the way to the front lines that the Germans were on “their last legs,” that American artillery was firing ten shells for every German shell that arrived on American lines. Shortly after we reached the “front” and had dug our first real foxholes, the German artillery started their bombardment. For the next week that became the story of our lives – move to a new position, dig a new hole in the ground, try to get some sleep, and hope and pray that you would survive the next artillery barrage. I have no idea of how many shells American artillery fired at the Germans but we remained convinced that there were ten German shells raining on us for every shell that hit the Germans.

My first experience of death involved our platoon Sergeant (I can’t remember his name), a married man with a couple of children. Here was a man who had much to live for. I remember so clearly how careful he was in digging his foxhole. Most of us just dug a hole down until we got tired (often before the hole was very deep) and, with our foxhole buddy took turns sleeping and standing guard. Not our Sergeant, however. Every hole he dug was a masterpiece. Since we were in the forests that covered the German-Belgium border lands, he and his foxhole buddy dragged fallen logs to cover the top of their foxhole, in the hope of remaining protected from the rain of shrapnel (the ragged pieces of steel from the artillery shell casing that flew out from that shell when it exploded) that descended upon us. It wasn’t enough. One large piece of shrapnel apparently entered through the opening, or perhaps cut through the logs, and hit him in the head. I speak here from hearsay. I had no desire to witness his remains. All I could think of was that he was that really nice guy who had passed out our cigarette rations just the evening before, who had tried to ease our fears and uncertainties – a guy with a family to go back home to. Then he was alive; now, he was no more.

After five days (as I recall) of rather intense shelling, both day and night, with randomly spaced short breaks in between barrages, we were relieved by another infantry outfit and went back to a rear area where supposedly we could reorganize and quiet our shattered nerves. In my experience nothing is worse than trying to survive continuing artillery barrages. One can do nothing but cringe in a hole in the ground and hope for the best. Everyone becomes adept at predicting where an incoming shell will land, or at least whether it is likely to land near your location. The whistle of the shell tells it all. There is nothing whatsoever that one can do except wait and hope and pray – and smoke cigarette after cigarette in hopes of calming raw nerves. Even today as I read about the bombing or shelling of an area I think of the people down there on the ground who are trying to survive just as I tried those many years ago. That experience is the next closest thing to hell that I have ever experienced.

One of the most meaningful descriptions I have ever encountered of life under shelling or bombing, I found in a work of fiction, a story by Jean Stubbs. She wrote, speaking in the voice of one character, “I remember Ethel talking about the Manchester blitz [bombing raids]. ‘Crouched in the cupboard under the stairs for eight hours, with an old woman and a new baby, wondering whether the next bomb had our number on it. Afterwards they said, “Britain can take it!” As if we were heroes. There was nothing to do but take it. We had no choice. Just sit there in the shelter and take it and wonder if we were going mad along with the rest of the world.’”

There is a terrible randomness about it all, a randomness that creates a sense of absolute helplessness. Nothing one can do will really make any difference. The trajectory of that incoming shell was determined long before you, the possible victim, even knew it was on its way. If the whistle signals that this time you are safe, you feel such a sense of relief and, frankly, no concern for those who may be the victims. When the whistle indicates a close one, you suddenly feel the shock of the blast as the shell explodes. If you are lucky this time, there is still the next one to worry about. That is the reality of being on the receiving end of bombing raids or artillery barrages – and the fear builds and builds.

The longer one survives, the more fearful one becomes that your turn can’t be far off. That laws of averages, you think, is bound to catch up with you. Never do you become accustomed to the terror. With each renewal of the shelling, your nerves are less able to take it. To give you an idea of the extent to which our nerves had become jangled raw, after those few days of intense shelling, when we first arrived at the rear area and were being fed a real hot meal for a change, someone in line dropped his mess-kit. The kit, being metal made quite a racket when it struck the ground. Everyone of us in that line dived for the ground. By that time, noise, any noise, meant danger. After a moment, we began looking at each other rather sheepishly, got up and continued moving toward the front of the chow line. Think what must happen to those who are subjected to such attacks for weeks or months. I can’t imagine it. After this taste of combat – it didn’t seem like combat, only a random slaughter that most of us managed to survive – our division was moved to a quiet sector so that officers and non-coms could reorganize the mass of new men (replacements like me) into a fighting unit. The area to which we were sent was located along the Luxembourg side of the German-Luxembourg border, a hilly, wooded area. Just across the river marking the border were the German positions. We could see them moving about (like stick figures) as they could see us. Every day, each side fired a few shells into the lines of the opposing army, I suppose as reminders that a war was still going on but we lived quite comfortably in a bunker built by some Allied force that had been there before us.

We had little to do and I suspect that some of our officers became worried that our morale might deteriorate because of the idleness. For whatever the reason, we found ourselves each day out in the open, in view of German positions “policing” (cleaning up) the areas around our bunkers. Most of what we picked up consisted of ribbons of aluminum foil that had been dropped by allied planes to confuse German radar. This exercise we found infuriating. Risk a shell landing near us to clean up the area? As you might imagine, a fair amount of cursing resulted. We blamed the commanding officer of our sector, General “Blood and Guts” Patton.

Although he was a hero to many, to us Patton was a martinet, a stickler for discipline. Our reaction to his nickname was, “yeah, his guts and our blood.” As you can see, the American citizen soldiers I came to know, did not harbor an overly respectful attitude toward military authority. That may be one of the really great things about a citizen army. I recall much later, after the fighting was over, that we encountered a substantial number of “displaced persons.” These young men had been taken from their homes by the Germans and turned into slave labor. One time an English-speaking Polish DP was chatting with a group of us when an American officer strolled by. As soon as the officer disappeared the Pole commented on how sloppy our salutes were and demonstrated how he had been taught to salute. We remained unimpressed and maintained our sloppy ways since we never ceased being civilians at heart.

After about three weeks in this “safe” location, with little reorganization accomplished that we privates were aware of, word came down that the entire division was to be sent back to a rear area in France so that we could accomplish a thorough reorganization. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this explanation but it is what we believed at the time. My battalion was among the first to be moved out. We spent our first night, December 15, 1944 in a Belgian (or Luxembourg) town and had a great night’s sleep. Very early the next morning, the German panzer divisions attacked in force, beginning what came to be called the “Battle of the Bulge.” Their point of attack was the Luxembourg-German border, precisely where we had been stationed. The attack cut our division and the one holding the area just north of us to pieces – many taken captive. From our comfortable beds we were aroused to return to the front and launch a counter-attack.

This was the beginning of what I have always thought of as my combat experiences. This was really fighting. Previously we had simply been cowering in holes in the ground while the shells landed all around us. That did not seem like fighting, only killing and maiming. I think that it was as we marched forward into battle that I saw my first dead German soldier. He was lying in the street, face up, with a bullet hole in his forehead. I recall someone saying, “that was damned good shooting.” I discovered that I was less calloused. My reaction, and I remember it clearly, was that here was another human being whose life had been snuffed out. Since he was obviously older, I remember wondering if he had been married and with a family like our Platoon Sergeant who had died in his foxhole.

Sometime, during the next few days, as we fought a chaotic series of engagements with enemy forces, I played the role of coward. The sequence of events is more than a little vague but I do recall at some point being pinned down by German rifle and machine gun fire on what I recall as a hill top, wooded but not heavily forested. We could see approximately where the Germans were entrenched and could hear the bullets whistling and cracking over our heads. I think it was the company commander who called for the machine gun squad to run forward to where we could engage enemy forces. I had the machine gun and, frankly, I was scared – I mean, you could hear the bullets flying around. Getting up to run forward seemed suicidal. I froze in position on the ground. My body said, “no way.”

Suddenly, one of the members of my machine gun squad, rushed by me, throwing his ammunition boxes in my direction and grabbing my machine gun, he ran forward to where we had been ordered to set up the gun. I still have a vivid mental picture of that young man racing forward with the machine gun while I cowered on the ground. It is not a pleasant memory. No matter how I have rationalized the situation, there is still of measure of shame attached to the memory of my behavior.

I am sure you can imagine how I felt. I stood disgraced before my fellow soldiers, and most importantly, in my own eyes. I felt about an inch high. To redeem myself, I grabbed the ammunition boxes and ran forward and joined the rest of the squad. As I recall, no one ever said anything about the incident, at least to me, but I knew what I had and had not done. Until I mentioned this incident to my friend in Tucson a few months ago I had shared it with only one other person. I was too ashamed. Now, I think it is only right that you should know this as well as all the other things you know about me. I no longer feel guilty. I am not at all sure that the kinds of behavior that we call heroic or cowardly really qualify for those designations. To get up and run in the face of machine gun fire is an utterly irrational act. To do what I did a week or so later when I suddenly became a hero, was equally irrational. Consider the demands on the human body and mind and conscience in a situation of this kind. One of the most basic as well as among the most powerful of drives is that of self-preservation. Almost as powerful, and in some cases more so, is the learned, social drive to merit the approval of ones fellow human beings. In the kind of situation I described above, these two powerful forces come into full conflict with little opportunity for equivocation. I think you can at least imagine the kind of psychological stress this places upon the human being facing this kind of dilemma – satisfy the one demand and you think you will die; satisfy the other and you stand shamed.

After our first day of fighting the German attack on December 16th we in our lonely battalion spent the next four or five days or so (or perhaps it was a week) behind German lines, cut off from American forces. All was chaos. We did manage to commandeer some army trucks that had been abandoned by fleeing American forces, so for the next few days we rode rather than walked. Had we been behind our own lines this would have been a relief but tensions were high, particularly whenever we entered a town for we never knew whether the empty-looking town or village had been abandoned, of if it was held by German troops waiting to spring a trap. It’s a scary experience to enter a town fearing the ringing out of shots signaling an ambush. At times like these everyone becomes trigger happy – shoot first and question later. (I often think that many of the examples of what we call atrocities, shooting women and children for example, grow out of these kinds of tense, trigger-happy situations.) Any time a nation chooses to go to war, these kinds of situations arise. Imagine, if you can, the guilt that permeates the psyche of the soldier who, expecting an enemy, fires quickly and kills a little child opening a door.

At one point we ran out of food and had nothing to eat or drink for an entire day. It’s amazing how hungry you can get after just 24 hours. Then, we came upon an abandoned U.S. Army warehouse stacked with cartons of food left by fleeing American troops. I remember gorging ourselves on fruit cocktail – we had been living on dry army rations that were somewhat less than appetizing. For water, we became desperate enough to drink the muddy water that had collected in the ruts created by the tires of army vehicles.

Toward the end of this period of combat, our battalion was attached to an armored force as infantry support. We did very little supporting. I remember lying on a hillside watching a tank battle taking place in the valley below. Our tanks looked like toys madly dashing around with all too many destroyed by what appeared to be deadly accurate German fire. So far as we could see, it was a bad defeat for American forces. When the entire unit began retreating around evening, we were ordered to climb on the outside of a number of armored vehicles and cling for dear life to whatever we could grab hold of meanwhile holding fast to our weapons as well. As we rocketed down the dirt road to the little town of St. Vith in Belgium, we ran the gauntlet of German positions on both sides of the road pouring rifle and machine gun fire at us. We were so occupied by trying to maintain a grip on the vehicle, we could not even think about returning fire. That “running of the gauntlet” of fire was the worst combat experience that I had. I don’t know how many casualties we suffered.

Finally, we managed to make contact with American forces and were sent to an abandoned boarding school for the night and the next day. It was Christmas eve; that night we slept in a bed with sheets, the first time in months. On Christmas they treated us to a Christmas dinner of turkey with all the trimmings. What an unbelievable contrast to the experiences of the days just before.

As I recall, on the next day we were sent back to the fighting front, this time our detached battalion was attached to another division since we understood that our division had been so devastated that it had been put out of action for the time being – two of the regiments, we heard, no longer existing as fighting forces – at least this is what we believed at the time. I think it is a fairly accurate picture of the situation.

The order of events over the next few days is extremely vague in my memory. I can recall particular incidents but not the actual sequence of what happened when. I remember clear, blue skies swarming with clouds of black Allied planes. Heavily overcast skies, grounding Allied planes, had provided ideal weather for German troops attacking our lines in mid-December. Once the skies cleared and the air force could fly again, the German attack was halted. Air power, not tanks or infantry stopped the German drive.

Once the German breakthrough had been halted, the long, painful, bloody process of regaining lost territory began, often a matter of gaining a few yards per day at heavy cost. I recall another incident of being pinned down by German fire, once again in a wooded area. As I lay on the ground under a tree, I could hear an American soldier somewhere off to my left say to one of his buddies, “The next time that German sticks his head up I’m going to get him.” A moment or two later I heard a shot followed by a shout of triumph, “I got ‘im.” I felt almost sick to my stomach. Irrational as it may seem to you, I felt as though I had witnessed a cold-blooded murder, a deliberate, pre-meditated killing of another human being.

As a machine gunner, I quite possibly killed and maimed more Germans than that soldier did but I don’t know whether I could have brought myself to fire at a human that I could see. Fortunately, I never had to face that situation. All of my shooting was done at a distance. I don’t know how I would have reacted had I found it necessary to shoot someone I could see. It’s a horrible thing to contemplate. I would not want to live with the memories of men falling under fire from my gun. Consider once again the clash of imperatives facing a soldier: on the one hand the drive for self-preservation, on the other a lifetime of social conditioning against taking another human’s life. No wonder so many soldiers return as psychological cripples. (Among all the accounts of battle in the recent Iraq war that I have encountered, one stands out. An American soldier, under attack, shot at an Iraqi soldier and then through his telescopic sight the American watched that Iraqi, “explode like a watermelon.” The American wanted no more combat after that. I just hope that he can survive his nightmares over the next few years. I can’t help but wonder if he will become one of the homeless men that wander our cities.)

I think that it was a few minutes later that I was wounded. As well as I can remember, a mortar shell struck in the tree under which I was lying and exploded sending a rain of shrapnel over the immediate area. I was unbelievably lucky, although I didn’t realize it at the time. All I felt was a sledge-hammer-like blow to my left foot. I thought I had lost my foot. I called for a medic, who crawled, under fire, up to where I was and helped me crawl to a more secure location and took care of the wound which turned out to be not all that serious, just painful. (Talk about courage: there is a real example.) Later as I examined myself, I found that my overcoat had been cut in several places by other pieces of shrapnel and the pack of cigarettes I carried in a pocket of my gas mask carrier had been neatly sliced in two. I’ll never understand how so many pieces of shrapnel could land around me and only one manage to strike. Something of a miracle. I have often thought that, since that moment I have been living on borrowed time. Here it is 58 years later. That’s a lot of borrowing.

Sometime during this period, as the lines of combat became more stabilized, our battalion was ordered to close the remaining gap between the American and British forces to the north of the Bulge and the American armies to the south. As we were informed, the gap was a couple of miles wide. We were to cross the gap, this no-man’s land, and leave two soldiers every hundred yards or so in order to establish communication across the gap. As we moved forward to carry out this mission, we came under intense artillery fire. The area was heavily wooded and we had proceeded along one of the “fire breaks” in the woods – a cleared path that created to stop the spread of a forest fire. Unfortunately the Germans assumed that this was precisely what we would do and had aligned their artillery to cover these firebreaks.

Confronted with this situation, we ran. It seemed like suicide to stay. Our one thought was to get out of there. I often think of this incident when I see one of our super-patriots displaying the red, white and blue and proclaiming that these colors don’t run. Yeah! We ran with or without the colors. It might have been courageous to stay and get killed but it would have been absolutely stupid. We ran but we came back to fight another day which is more than a dead hero can do. Again, details remain vague but at some point during that night, as we moved across the gap between American lines, we encountered a German machine gun emplacement. Our lead scout was cut down by fire from that German position. The company commander called me forward – by then I was the only machine-gunner left in the company – and asked (not ordered) me if I would stay behind and cover the advance of the rest of the company with fire from my machine gun. I must confess, that, strange as it may seem to you, I was not at all frightened and readily agreed to do as he asked. A lieutenant guided me forward to a position from which I could fire but I didn’t like his choice of location so said, if he didn’t mind I would prefer to be off to the side in a little hollow where the return fire would more likely go over my head. As I recall I was thinking very clearly and rationally, analyzing the situation and taking what precautions I could.

My lieutenant pointed out the approximate location of the machine gun nest and then returned to the rest of the company. They, in turn, then began to slip forward through the night. As soon as they moved, the German began firing his machine gun and I returned fire with mine. He was silenced at least for the moment. Then a second machine-gunner opened up and I recall swinging around to fire at him and he also stopped shooting. When all of our company had moved forward, the lieutenant returned for me and we proceeded safely past the danger area. At no time did I feel afraid. Perhaps I was too busy to be scared. What I remember most clearly is that the barrel of my machine gun was hot from being fired so long and so rapidly. This was January and it was bitterly cold. As I wrapped my fingers around the barrel guard, my hands felt warm for the first time in I don’t know how long.

Later that night as we approached the American lines on the other side of the Bulge, the Captain was going to leave me and a buddy as one of the links in the chain of communication. My lieutenant intervened and suggested that since mine was the only machine gun we had, it might be better to keep it with company headquarters. The captain agreed and I made it to the other side, thankfully – one of the few times I was pleased to be a machine gunner. When we did finally reach Allied lines, there were, as I recall, less that twenty of us remaining in the company out of the 200+ who had belonged to company G back in the previous November. We had no idea if we would ever see any of those men again. (Actually we did, although I can’t remember how many.)

Suddenly I was the hero of company G. That young man who, many weeks before had carried the machine gun forward while I froze to the ground, later came up to me and told me how proud he was to know me. Yet, I did not then and do not now regard my action as in any way heroic. How can you be heroic when you are not even afraid. It was simply pure action, a job to be done.

Not long after that episode, I was put out of action, permanently as it turned out. We continued to fight but what I recall is not what you would call fighting but rather marching and digging. We would march to a new location, dig our foxholes, try to get some sleep between turns at standing guard and then move and dig another hole. It did not take long for us to become totally exhausted. One day while marching to another new location (for a reason unknown to us) as we crossed a fence line, I was so tired that I failed to lift my foot high enough and tripped over the fence wire. I landed face down in the dirt while the machine gun I carried over my shoulder slammed into the back of my head knocking me unconscious. I suffered a concussion and was sent back to a hospital in Liege, Belgium, known at the time as “buzz-bomb-alley.” But that is another story. (I had had one brief acquaintance with these German rockets, the V1 type that we called buzz-bombs because of the horrible racket they made. I think it was the night we were traversing the firebreaks in the woods that one passed just a hundred feet or so over our heads. That was scary. )

Because Germany surrendered a couple of months later, my combat days proved to be over, thank God. My prayers had been answered – to be hurt badly enough to escape combat but not serious enough to devastate my life. I was one of the lucky ones. I once mentioned to a combat veteran of the Vietnam war that I had prayed to “be hit just a little bit.” He replied that so had he as had all the veterans he knew. I think for most of us, our one wish was to get out of the horrors, the fears, the cold of combat. I never wanted to go back and while in the hospital only met one combat veteran who expressed any desire to get back to his outfit. I suspect that this was not a universal reaction but we were almost all replacements; we had had no long association either with the outfit to which we had been assigned or with the men in it.

Two other events from this time are worth recounting, I think. Both occurred in rear areas, well away from the fighting. I believe that it was in late March or early April of 1945 that we were sent up to the recently conquered city of Frankfort, Germany. At first we were quartered in an office complex that had been owned by the I. G. Farben Company, a manufacturer of chemical products. I believe it was there that our unit set up the kitchen tents in an open area. Outside the tents, were rows of garbage pails. As we waited in line for our very generous rations, we could see middle aged German women rooting about in the garbage cans trying to secure enough food for themselves and I assume their families. Some plunged their arms in to the elbow and then shoved whatever they could pull out directly into their mouths. It was certainly an unappetizing view and I know that I and others were badly shaken that people should have to behave in this way just to get some food to eat.

About this same time, as we prepared to serve as an army of occupation, Headquarters decided that American soldiers needed better living quarters than those we then occupied. One morning we were transported to a relatively untouched suburban area outside Frankfort and deployed around the area. Residents were then informed that they had four hours to gather what belongings they wanted and to vacate their homes. We American soldiers were ordered to keep watch and make sure that the process was orderly. I recall coming upon one family who were panic stricken because they could not find the key to their storage shed so they could remove some items inside. I, like the 20 year old idiot that I was, pulled my .45 out and shot the lock off the door. Family members were unbelievably grateful. I found the whole process extremely distasteful. In fact I was appalled and ashamed to be an American soldier driving people out of their homes. Only in recent years has it occurred to me that that action might be classified as ethnic cleansing.

This is war as I remember a little piece of it over a very short period of time. I have never regretted that I had these experiences, yet I would wish them on no one else. A few months later, when it came my turn to be discharged, my one thought was to get that discharge paper in my hand and to make sure that there were no strings attached to me, no way that “they” could get me back in. As one of my friends said in later years, he made sure that it would take an act of Congress to get him back in the armed forces. Me too!

Being discharged, even with no strings attached does not end one’s experiences of war. Memories linger for years. Few combat soldiers can bring themselves to talk about their experiences. Talking awakens memories that one would like to bury. Other sensations trigger memories as well. For me it was the perception of snow on evergreens. Most of our fighting occurred in the forests of eastern Belgium, largely evergreen, and in December and January 1944-45, often covered with snow. In later years just traveling down a road lined with snow-covered evergreens was sufficient to trigger the memories of combat. A wave of fear would surge up from somewhere inside and I could sense an intense desire to run and hide. It is only in the last decade or so that I have been freed of this burden.

I have been plagued throughout my adult years with bouts of depression. I do not know to what extent my military experiences contributed to that psychological state, but I find it impossible to discount the possibility that war and personal depression are, at the very least, fellow travelers. The psychological burdens of combat have to emerge in some ways. Psychological problems are a likely outlet. I have mentioned this particular psychological burden that I have carried to illustrate that the costs of war can never be measured simply in terms of the immediate casualties – in the toll of dead and wounded that we total up at the end of a war. In Gulf War I, for example, wartime American deaths from enemy action and accidents totaled less than 300 soldiers. Yet in a recent accounting the Veteran’s Administration listed some 8,000 deaths, directly attributable to that war, that have occurred in the decade since. Believe me. War truly is hell.

This essay originally appeared in The Buffalo Report, edited by CounterPunch contributor Bruce Jackson. Jack Wilson can be reached through Jackson at: bjackson@buffalo.edu

Copyright 2003 by Buffalo Report, Inc.