Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Get a Little Morphine in the WWII Vets and the Stories Start to Flow

I got this email from my friend Jason who works at a hospital:
I love World War II history and I love the vets. Get a little morphine in them and they'll tell you stories you cannot get anywhere else. They just drift back to parts of their memory that have been untouched for decades. Add some genuine interest, sympathy, and historical knowledge on my part and you've got yourself one memorable conversation.

I've talked to a fighter ace, an infantry colonel who was in the Battle of the Bulge, and even a German soldier. Once I talked to a French Resistance woman who had a crazy story that sounded like a movie plot -- real cloak and dagger stuff.

But I learned quickly not to ask about the killing unless they go there first.

Once, I asked this infantry vet what the worst was. He seemed pretty unemotional and stoic, but just as he started to respond, he burst out into tears. Oops.

He witnessed one or two of his friends get run over by an enemy tank. The tank drivers, knowing they were over trenches containing soldiers lying flat, would have their treads go in opposite directions, spinning 360's over people. He said he tried to stop the tank with his bare hands.

After the nurse had given one of my cancer patients a healthy dose of morphine, I pulled up a chair and it might as well have been the two of us drinking around a campfire. He just kept telling me more and more about the War.

He was a turret gunner for a B-24 and was shot down after his 18th mission over Austria.

He was based in Italy and loved Italian women -- married one.

Once, while flying a mission, he was the first to see a hole in the wing -- "the size of a basketball" -- and intercommed it to the pilot. The pilot took one look at the fuel pouring out and said, "Pilot to crew: BAIL."

The plane fell out of formation but he held it level for ten minutes while all ten jumped, including the pilot. All ten survived the bailout uninjured, stayed together in the P.O.W. camp, and kept in touch after the war. He considers himself extremely lucky to have been shot down. Vets call this a "Golden Crew"; five of the ten are still alive.

He spent the last seven months of the War in a German P.O.W. camp and was liberated by a band of drunk Russian Cossacks. He said the German camp staff were all very professional but they ran out of food at the end.

The Russians that he saw were basically drunk vandals who destroyed everything, even churches. He would have rather stayed safe in prison than deal with marauding Russian cavalry and a resentful German populace.

He said he'd do it again and that it was just a job -- no different than working for a living. Had to be done.

He thought Patton was a showboating asshole, and said most in the military thought so, too.

He saw two planes collide.

He hopes this country "gets its footing back."
I can't help myself. Reading that great post (even if it was someone's email to you) got me all choked up thinking about my own grandpa. He is also a WWII veteran, was on Navy Destroyer in Japan and the Phillipines. He just turned 84 and is still as sharp as ever but keeps stumbling here and there, scaring the shit out of me.

I spent hours on the phone with him last week talking to him about 'the old days' and it occurred to me recently that I'm an asshole for not having talked to him more when he was younger. It's good that you remind people that these guys are still kicking out there.

I tried to convince my Grandpa to come live with me but he ain't havin it. God those tough buzzards sure are stubborn.

I hear ya. My grandad -- whose name I took as this blog's namesake -- was in the US Navy for 30 years. He joined the military in 1933 and fought in three wars. That man was my hero when I was a boy.

God, I wish he was still around. I miss him terribly.
It seems like war years dominate their life no matter how long they live. I suppose watching buddies die or get seriously injured one wouldn't easily forget the event, but it's as if they never did anything else for the last 60-70 years of their lives. Could be it was the only time in many of their lives that they were heros.
In the opening dialogue of "No Country For Old Men," (book and movie, but let's discuss movie,) Tommy Lee Jones' character is talking about being a sheriff in Texas, but remembering the old timers. His language is terse and to the point and he says something like, "I always liked to listen to the old timers. Never missed a chance to do so." I love that speech, because I feel the same. We miss so much not having the older generation around us and in our lives.
Yes the stories of WWII vets are incredible, I feel sorry that they had to experience the terror and the loneliness of been on a far far country with people just waiting to kill you.
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