A Memorial Day tribute

Posted on May 31, 2010

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Today is the day we honor the men and women who died in our nation’s wars. I’d like to honor three very different World War II vets today by telling you my recollections of them.

I don’t remember Mr. Roberts’ first name, and only learned it at his funeral while I was in college. I don’t recall how I met him – it was probably because he and my dad shared an interest in woodworking, and Dad took me up two doors to meet him one day. I was fascinated by this man who built simple but beautiful wood jelly-bean dispensers, and I spent hours watching him turn wood for his dispensers on the lathe in the back of his garage. Mrs. Roberts used to let me pick strawberries from their strawberry patch when they were ripe, and that’s probably why no house has ever felt like a home without a strawberry patch.

Mr. Roberts had been a pilot, navigator, or bombardier in B-17’s over Europe during World War II. I don’t recall which of the three, and like most veterans of WWII, he usually got quiet when I asked him about it and didn’t talk much about the war. I do recall having the opportunity once to look through his log book while I was in high school. It had every run he was ever on, and while he was never shot down, he wrote down whenever he lost men out of his plane, or equipment. He wrote down how many planes went out and how many came back – and the returning number was never the same as the leaving number. He flew over France, softening up the German emplacements before D-Day. He bombed industrial targets all around Germany, and while I seem to recall that he was one of the bombers over Dresden, I can’t be sure that my memory isn’t just playing tricks on me so many years later.

Poppy was my aunt’s father, related to me by marriage. I didn’t really know him that well, and I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember his first or last name – everyone just called him Poppy. But after my junior year in college, I went to the family beach cottage in Fairfield, Connecticut for a couple of weeks of my summer vacation. I’d just finished a class that changed my life in ways I’m still discovering: HIST143 – The History of Fascism and Nazism, taught by renown historian of Nazi Germany Jackson J. Spielvogel. I happened to mention my class and how angry I was after reading about Holocaust deniers in a New York paper. Poppy overheard, and there began a couple of days of connecting with a man who I’d not been friendly with before and on a level I never expected.

You see, Poppy spoke Italian, and he’d been in the Army moving up through Italy, and once Italy fell, his unit was sent on into Germany. And he was with one of the battalions who liberated one of the camps. I don’t recall which one it was or where, but I will never forget him talking about how he felt looking at the few emaciated survivors, the showers, the ovens – the smell. And I was spellbound as he gave me a piece of his personal history that made my life-changing class seem to pale by comparison. It seems he had a camera with him, and he took pictures of the camp himself. And he’d given presentations in his high schools (he was the superintendent of schools in a New Jersey district for decades) on his own personal experience upon liberating the camp. And once he even had to bring in the Holocaust-denying parents of a Holocaust-denying student who had become disruptive in a World History class to educate them about the reality of the history that he himself had seen. Partly because of that class and partly because of Poppy I have zero patience for Holocaust denial.

My grandfather, Ed Bachman, is still alive, but he’s 95 or so and suffering from terminal dementia. But before he grew senile and demented with age, he told me a few stories of his time in the Navy in the Pacific. He told me about training to jump ship in basic training – you jump straight down feet first with one hand covering your crotch and the other plugging your nose, and as soon as you hit water and your head breaks the surface, you swim away from the ship lest you get sucked down with it.

Before the war he was an undertaker and embalmer, but in the war he was a Pharmacist’s Mate aboard ship, probably because he already knew his way around chemicals and needles. He said that never saw much action, and if I remember correctly, he was aboard a tender. But toward the end of the war as the marines were preparing to assault Japan’s main islands, he’d been reassigned to a hospital ship in preparation for the invasion. Then Truman dropped two bombs, one on Hiroshima and the other on Nagasaki, and the war in the Pacific was over. Grandpa came home and went back to work in the funeral business.

I remember telling Grandpa when I was in junior high or high school and fascinated by The Manhattan Project that I thought it was horrible that Truman would nuke Japan. Grandpa didn’t get angry, but he told me why I was wrong before quietly leaving the room. You see, Grandpa was sure that, while he was still technically a Pharmacist’s Mate on the hospital ship, he wasn’t there to dispense medicine to wounded marines – he was there to embalm the dead for the long trip home. He pointed out that the allied military expected to lose at least a half-million men in the process of invading Japan, more than had been lost in Europe and the Pacific combined up to that point. He pointed out that, if dropping two bombs saved a half-million American marines, then it was worth it even though he agreed that it was horrible what had happened to the civilians who’d been in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

These three men all taught me something that informs my opinions on war today. Don’t go to war if you can at all help it, but if you absolutely have no choice but to wage war, do it completely and without hesitation. War is mechanized murder and it’s immoral even if it is sometimes necessary. Innocent people die. But if you allow fear of killing the innocent or of the “political fallout” from asking your citizens to sacrifice for the war effort to slow your execution of the war, you only make the war worse. Geneva conventions aside, there are no rules in war save one – win fast and win completely. The only thing less moral than war is allowing it to continue forever.

On this Memorial Day, I honor Mr. Roberts, Poppy, and my grandfather for all they taught me over the years.

Image Credits
US file photo
United States Holocaust Museum (Dachau crematorium with human remains)
US file photo

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