Memories of War’s Aftermath

When I was growing up, the veteran landscape was much easier to navigate.  The 1950s were truly a simpler time; we didn’t have to consider the veterans of so many different wars that happened in places with strange, exotic names.  Our relevant wars were three: World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.

Of course, we were aware of other, earlier wars.  But the last Civil War veteran died in 1963 (the year I graduated from high school), and the remaining Spanish-American War veterans were, like the title of this blog, mere rumors of a far despair.  We knew no one who’d fought in either of those long ago wars.  Their survivors seemed more like exhibits in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum than real people – wax figures representing a history we could only read about in our text books.

The Korean War veterans were young enough to be college students, and many of them lived in a fraternity next door to the house in Walla Walla where I grew up.  Since many of them were absolutely determined to date my teen-aged sister, they cultivated me in hopes that I might introduce them to her.  They even gave me a pledge pin in furtherance of the effort.  I was only 6 or so at the time, and dumb enough to think their focus was on me.

World War I veterans had pride of place as our grandparents.  They were still alive in sufficient numbers as not to be a rarity, and we honored them more for our family ties than for their status as veterans.  They never talked about the war, and, if asked about it, would likely opine that all that was best forgotten.  Then they’d smile, pat our heads, and tell us to go outside and play while there was still enough light.

It was the World War II veterans who enjoyed pride of place in our world.  They were our parents.  We interacted with them on a constant basis, and came to feel that we knew that war – that we had personal experience of it even though those in my high school class were born only as the war was ending.  But that war was immediate to us in time: there was plenty of living history to represent it, and writings aplenty to thrill us whenever we were in need of a good adventure story to tide us over the boring bits.

But what there wasn’t much of was an oral history of the War.  Whenever we asked our parents about it, we were generally advised by our mothers not to inquire for fear of upsetting dad and, if we ignored her advice, were rewarded for our continued effort by dad’s grunt of irritation.  My own father had no military experience to offer; he had worked on the construction of Liberty Ships in the Columbia River shipyards across the way from Portland, Oregon.  His only escape from death occurred when the bosun’s chairs that he and a fellow worker were riding to paint the inside of a ship’s funnel were hauled up hurriedly after someone had turned off the ventilating fans thinking them finished with their work, and someone else noticed that the ropes holding them were still tight with their weight.  They were found unconscious, but suffered no further injury or loss.  It wasn’t much of a tale to tell my friends, but it frightened me nonetheless.

Accordingly, my memories of World War II are derivative.  Even though I consider myself a child of that war in the sense that I was conceived during it and born just prior to VE Day and was 5 months old when the Japanese surrendered, I have no conscious first hand experience of it.  And even if my father had been a veteran, he would not likely have spoken about it.  PTSD was not a known medical term.  Instead, stiff upper lips were the order of the day – even though there was no more need to worry about sinking the ships my father helped build.

But I do have first hand experience of the War’s effects.  I endured the cheap housing thrown up after the war; I was taught by veterans of the military and of the concentration camps; a plethora of my friends had fathers who were veterans and known to me from backyard play; I read any fiction about the War with breathless interest: The Cain Mutiny, Away All Boats, A Bell For Adano, The Thin Red Line.  These works caused me to read any books about any war that I could find in our Carnegie-endowed public library, from Hemingway to Hiroshima and everything in between or on either side.

Until I became Bob Weiss’ law partner, these works were my main experience of war.  I had my own personal brush with the Vietnam War, but I fought that War in a courtroom in Detroit, Michigan while a student at the University of Michigan Law School.  If you wonder what all that was about, search on-line for Ellis vs. Hershey and learn the boring details.  I suffered no fire fights, only a barrage of words from an unfriendly government who thought me little more than a traitor to my country for litigating.  The only personal cost I suffered as a result of the Vietnam War was the considerable stress of the litigation itself, a loss of job prospects whenever I told an interviewer about my history and the inevitable “he” abruptly terminated the interview, and the careful but deliberate saunter by some in my hometown to the far side of the street when I first returned following my law school graduation.

Bob was the source of my real education about World War II.  We enjoyed a long partnership and friendship together until his death last year at age 92.  My last visit with Bob occurred at the interment of his mortal remains in Grave 450 of Section 76 of Arlington National Cemetery.  He accompanied us to that gravesite in spirit.  His presence was everywhere that day, staying with us until he finally lay down to sleep among his fellow warriors.

I have many memories of Bob and our friendship that involve WWII and its aftermath.

  • Telling him on a plane to Calgary soon after I  joined the firm he founded about my draft litigation, worried that he, as a veteran who’d won a Silver Star at a place called Hill 314 in Mortain, France, might be disgusted.  He surprised me by dismissing my worry that it might affect our relationship with: “Not at all.  In fact, good for you.  You did the right thing.”  But when I followed up by asking him about the events that earned him a Silver Star, he gave me his standard 30 second answer: “We were on a hill outside Mortain when the Germans counterattacked with a Panzer Division.  We were surrounded for six days and nights without food or medical supplies, but we had water.  I was a forward artillery observer and called in fire to defend the hill, and eventually we drove the Germans away.”  Nothing about the fact that his was the only working radio on the hill and that he was the only one calling in the protective fire in a battle that many military historians consider the only one won by artillery fire; nothing about the idea to switch radio batteries frequently and putting the spare battery in the sun to allow its lead core to recharge; nothing about rolling out of his foxhole to give it to Sergeant Corn for his shift and Corn dying soon after when a shell hit; nothing about standing atop the rocks at the crest of the hill to draw German fire so he could radio in the coordinates for return fire on the position of their guns.  Just “we came, we fought, and then we fought some more.”
  • My first experience of his command voice after a head on collision in which the car we were riding was totaled.  I was out yelling at the arrogant teenager who hadn’t even applied his brakes before impact when a loud, irresistible, powerful voice told me to knock it off and stand down – we had other things to think about.
  • His tears at a dinner we both attended with his close friends in San Francisco when I told the hostess that I and others had been egging Bob on to write about his Mortain experience because we thought it would be good for him to let go and for the rest of us to know more about it; tears that told me just how hard it was for him to endure the constant onslaught of entreaty that we were engaged in to get him to relieve the all-too-obvious pressure of his walled-up memories.
  • His telling me one day after I’d read the first draft of a concluding chapter of the book he decided to write (Fire Mission) not to call him during the first two weeks of any August, because he would be back on Hill 314 with his comrades in memory – all 600 or so of them, not just the nearly 300 who’d survived – and did not wish to be disturbed.
  • His sharing of the many drafts of his book as he finally wrote it, seeking input on his writing.
  • His sharing of the mock-up of the very first cover for his book, a rather garish green and orange affair that featured a picture of him as a 21-year-old Second Lieutenant on the back page.  He’d sent it up by interoffice mail (he was in Portland; I was in Seattle).  I had no sooner opened the string tied envelope when he called to ask what I thought.  I told him it was a bit garish but had the advantage of drawing attention, and he said that had been the idea.  Then he added: “What do you think of the picture?  I can’t believe how young and innocent I looked.”  When I hesitated, he demanded “what?” in a gruff challenge I could not refuse.  “That’s not what I thought when I saw it,” I tried.  When he demanded to know more, I had to be honest:  “I took one look and said to myself ‘what a cocky looking son-of-a-bitch’.”  There was silence for a moment, then a delighted explosion of laughter.  “You look like a street fighter who is relishing the opportunity to take on the entire German Army singlehandedly,” I added in hope of further redemption.  “Maybe so,” he said when he was able to stop laughing, “but it didn’t look that way to me when I chose it.”
  • The look of pride on his face as the French Counsel from San Francisco hung the medal denoting him a Chevalier in the Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur around his neck at a private ceremony in Portland. 
  • The laugh we subsequently enjoyed after Helen’s and my search for a lapel pin representing his Legion of Honor medal because he disliked wearing the real thing in public for fear it was too ostentatious.  Helen and I were on our way to Paris, and he told me about a small shop where lapel pins could be purchased.  We worried about whether I had the right to buy one since I wasn’t a member, so he wrote and signed a letter of authorization.  But when Helen and I went to the suggested location, there was nothing there.  After a brief search, we found a medal shop by sheer accident, and when I presented the letter they shrugged it aside as irrelevant, asking only which level of honor should the pin represent; and when we walked out of the shop that sold us the pin and turned left, we found ourselves in front of another medal shop next door to the first.
  • The joy he took in telling his story once the walls holding it in had fallen – especially the joy in his voice when he told me about being invited to be the guest of honor at the annual Marine birthday party held by their detachment in Denver, with the charge to speak of his war experiences; the wonder that he expressed afterword that they had made the effort to honor a mere Army grunt like him.
  • His announcement at dinner aboard the river boat on which Bob, Norma, Helen and I were traveling on from Amsterdam to Constanta in 2013 that he was going topside at 1:00 AM that morning so he could be awake when the ship passed the location where he’d crossed the Rhine during the War.  When I asked if he’d like me to join him there, he gave a laconic reply that I could if I wished.  As I thought about his reply, I realized he would have plenty of company without me and that I would only be a distraction.  I left him to his colleagues of memory.
  • The large wreath sent to his memorial service by the Mayor of Mortain, and the message of gratitude for Bob’s life from the Mayor read aloud in French and English by the Mayor’s emissary – both evidence that despite the size and quality of our friendship, he’d always meant much more to the world than he ever could have meant to me.

Why am I writing this piece?  After all, I’ve often written about Bob.  You can use the search engine for this blog to find numerous pieces.

The truth is that every year on Veterans Day I wrote or called Bob to thank him for his service, for keeping our world safe in his time from the tyranny that is always with us, that is always seeking to dominate center stage.  Grave 450, Section 76, Arlington National Cemetery has no phone, and I no longer have an address to which to send an email.  But I can write this piece knowing that he is looking over my shoulder while I do, muttering, as he always did whenever I praised his service, that I am making far too much of something that he and his fellow citizen soldiers did out of patriotism.

But the rest of us know that I’m not.

About Gavin Stevens

Humptulips County is the wholly fictional on-line residence of Stephen Ellis, a would-be writer, an avid fan of William Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha County, and a retired lawyer.
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