My Dad was a Junior at his Catholic High School in Lansing, Michigan that brisk early December Sunday. 1941– now nearly 80 years ago.
Some chums and he had gone into one of Lansing’s then-16 movie theaters to get caught up on the latest cultural touch-points: he doesn’t remember the movie he’d gone to see, but there was always the Colgate Sportsreel.
When they came out of the theater a couple hours later, it was dusk-ish, (it being early winter in Mid-Michigan) and there were five or six younger lads standing around twine-tied bales of newspaper “extras”, yelling “State Journal Extra! Nips Bomb Hawaii in Sneak Attack!” Yes: Most Americans called the Japanese “Nips”, and it wasn’t necessarily pejorative— it was simply a foreshortening of “Nipponese”…
He remembered that there was a general apprehension about the Japanese, but their ire seemed mostly directed at the British. Why were they attacking Hawaii?
From that moment, to this very day, Dad’s life was unalterably changed…
A year later, around Christmas of 1942, he was standing on a platform at Lansing’s Union Depot in freezing, whipping winds saying good-bye to his mom and dad —my gramma and grampa— bound for Camp Grant in Illinois, and finally to Fort McClellan, Alabama. He’d never before been out of Michigan. By late October of 1943, he was on a troop transport somewhere on the Atlantic, bound for God-knew-where. They never told them a thing.
By the 17th of December, as part of General Walkers “Texans” (from Michigan..?) he was thrown into the teeth of Mark Clark’s continued assault on San Pietro after they’d finally broken away from the Anzio “bitchhead” south of Rome on the Italian Peninsula.
For the uninitiated, this phase of the campaign was utterly brutal. I only know this from my own research— dad never talked about this inhumane brutality, only about things like how good the canned bacon was, or how the mud sometimes went over his hips in the olive groves.
On the 18th of December, one of General Kesselring’s mortars landed a shell about twenty-five yards from where my dad lay prone in his foxhole. The explosion was so fantastic, it lifted an entire ancient oak tree out of the ground, and tipped it over. Hanging from one of the roots was a cunning little anti-personnel mine that hadn’t gone off. Dad figured it wasn’t his time to go…
But: It WAS his time to get wounded. The initial shock of the explosion had worn off, and he found himself in a litter on top of a Jeep some yards behind the town, and his leg was in screaming pain. A tiny bit of shrapnel had flayed it open, nearly knee to ankle. He would spend the next year in and out if hospitals in a grisly ballet of surgeries, infections, and skin-grafts. Gangreneius tissue would be cut out, morphine administered— and on and on and on.
On Christmas Day of 1943, he was laid out in his wool cot and blankets in a field hospital near Tunis. “There was snow on the tent-flaps”, he said, thinking that deserts were always hot. But not North Africa…
One if my aunts later stated that they seriously wondered in Dad would “ever come back to us”. She said this knowing it was late 1945 by then, and dad was back home, living in the bedroom in Lansing he left four years earlier.
Dad did what so many of the 16 million Vets did when they got home. He picked up as best he could where he left off. He went back to painting houses, getting married, later starting a business that eventually prospered, had four sons, and retired in 1987. He was mayor of our small town for many years, a Lions Club member, a Knight of Columbus, a wonderful Dad.
He still IS a wonderful Dad.
Dad DID come back to us— but he struggles to this day with the ghosts of San Pietro. At times the weight of what he saw and experienced is so close and real, he sits for hours alone in the dark. And coaxing him out is hard at times. But, it will pass, and he presses on…
Dad is 96 now, and almost all of friends have passed. He still paints pictures, and sketches. He has to read the paper with the help of magnifying glasses. He even golfed a few times last year.
The curtain, though, is poised for closing— it may be a day, it may be a couple of years. But the war the began this day almost 80 years ago still rages on in small, unacknowledged pockets of the world.