Thursday, July 29

D-Day and My Dad


I am re-publishing this column in observance of Veterans' Day, and in honor of my Dad, a veteran of World War II and D-Day. They must never be forgotten, especially now that fascism, the very plague my dad and his comrades fought and bled to exterminate, is gaining power in Europe and even in the United States.

"For at any price, we must keep those who have too clear a conscience from living and dying in peace." -- E. M. Cioran, "Thinking Against Oneself" in The Temptation to Exist

Given how short Americans’ collective historical memory has become, many people – and it may be all “millennials” – would be hard-pressed to attach any significance to today: 6 June 2017. But before someone cues up the theme music from “Final Jeopardy”, please allow me to enlighten you:   as of today, it has been 75 years since D-Day 6 June 1944. I have no personal, direct memory of that date: that was almost 5 years before I was born. All I know is what I read in books and journal articles. The closest thing I have to a personal memory of that date and of subsequent events are the war reminiscences of my Dad, Cpl. Leonard Eugene Cowles, of Battery C, 174th Field Artillery Battalion, a.k.a. “The Fighting 174th”. I also have the written record of the 174th’s exploits in the war, a paperback book each member of the 174th received when he mustered out of the Army. The title of the book is We Did – the completion of the Battalion motto Possumus et Volumus: “We Can And We Will”. I am almost certain Dad never sat down and just cover-to-cover read the book. He didn’t have to. But he did often use it as a reference and as a memory-refresher as to places and names and dates. But his copy of We Did is still in incredibly good shape, basically mint condition. I would often look over his shoulder when he consulted it, and, now that Dad has passed, it is one of my most treasured possessions.


Dad was born in the wilderness of northwest Arkansas – a little still-existing settlement called “Hasty”, so small that “settlement” is a stretch, and calling it a “village” would be a gross exaggeration – on February 26, 1919, the same year the Treaty of Versailles was signed, officially ending World War I.  (The Treaty of Versailles was signed 4 months, almost to the day, after Dad was born.) So Dad was just past 22 when Pearl Harbor was attacked and he entered the Army. I can only imagine what an experience it must have been to be exposed to the sheer immensity of the world, both during combat training in the US and later in action in Europe, after having grown up in a place where any settler time-warped from Colonial America or the early Republic in the 1820s or -30s would have felt right at home. (There are still surprisingly many places like this in northwest Arkansas to this day, places where almost the only physical evidence of the 21st century is the occasional jet contrail high overhead.) In fact, unlike many soldiers, especially veterans of later wars, Dad talked very freely about his experiences – some of which I recount below – perhaps as a way of reminding himself, over and over again, that, yes, all this really did happen to me, a barefoot-and-bib-overalls-clad boy from the wilderness of the Ozarks, a place so remote that, in comparison, Walton’s Mountain would look like the Santa Monica Freeway at rush hour. He would repeat those stories over and over and over again, to the point that, when he started to re-tell a given story, after the first half-dozen words, I always knew who the main characters were and how the narrative arc would unfold. But that was quite OK by me. I never even acted bored. Because I wasn’t. Ever. I loved listening to his war stories, and I remember most, possibly all, of them, partly because of the stories themselves and partly because Dad was a consummate joke- and story-teller. I miss hearing those stories to this day, despite knowing and remembering them all.  Instead of being just the names of men I never met, all of dad's buddies seem flesh-and-blood real to me.  They were, and remain, "The Greatest Generation".

Dad came out of the war without so much as a scratch or a cut finger from opening the lid of a C-ration can. This is all the more remarkable, given that, along with many of his comrades in the Battalion, he went ashore on D-Day. I remember well he would try to talk about this. He wanted to talk about it. But he couldn’t. Not because it was so painful and traumatic, though it doubtless was, but because he could not find – literally could not find -- the words. Northwest Arkansas in the 19-teens was not Cambridge, MA, or the campus of CalTech, and just getting to the one-room schoolhouse was a signal achievement. So Dad only ever had a 3rd-grade education. But had Dad benefited from a sophisticated education and personal culture, I’m not sure the D-Day experience could have been articulated, even so, because words equal to the task simply do not exist. Dad died before Saving Private Ryan was released, but from what little he was able to express, I think perhaps the movie’s depiction of the Normandy landing was a shade on the “plain-beige” side of what actually happened.


o Dad was part of a crew servicing a self-propelled artillery piece, with the official and forbidding War Department designation of a “GPF”: Gun of Powerful Force. (I have not been able to find a picture of a gun like the one Dad was attached to. The pictures below are reasonable approximations.) The 174th comprised several such batteries, of which Dad’s Battery C was only one. (Each gun crew gave its gun a woman-related name beginning with the battery's letter.  E.g., Battery B's gun was called "Battlin' Bess".  I will not mention what Battery C's crew called its gun, because it would not be printable in a "family-friendly"  column.) The gun fired a shell smaller in physical dimensions than a modern SmartCar, but comparable in sheer mass, and had an effective range of perhaps a dozen kilometers. If the round itself missed, the concussion alone, even without shell fragments, was lethal, and if the target suffered a direct hit, it immediately ceased to exist. (So powerful was the concussion of firing the gun that everyone in the gun crew was repeatedly admonished:  when the gun fires, always open your mouth; the compression wave from the firing of the gun will squeeze your lungs and cause you to grunt involuntarily, but if you keep your mouth closed, that blast pressure will have nowhere to go, except up into your inner ear, where it will blow your eardrums out.) Dad told a story once about a German artillery piece on a flatcar that was hiding in a railroad tunnel. The German piece would fire, and then withdraw into the tunnel to shelter from counterbattery fire. The young first lieutenant commanding Battery C wanted to destroy the German gun, and hit upon the idea of timing the intervals between when the German gun emerged from the tunnel, fired, and ducked back into the tunnel again. So Lt. Bagwell ordered a round loaded, took out his stopwatch, and shouted "Fire!" just before when he estimated that the German gun was due to emerge from the tunnel, using the range to the target and the muzzle velocity to determine when to give the order. The timing turned out to be one-round-one-kill perfect: German flatcar, gun, and American artillery round kept their fateful rendezvous, and subsequent aerial battle-damage assessment indicated that the German gun had been reduced to thousands of palm-sized fragments, a hundred yards of railroad track tied in knots, and the tunnel collapsed. (Dad said they knew they had succeeded because the sound of the detonation of the round was momentarily louder than the rest of the noise of battle combined.) Afterwards, one of Dad’s buddies glanced up at the gun and remarked “She's a [female-dog] ain't she?”. But Battery C could not stick around to congratulate itself, because it, too, was subject to counterbattery fire. So the order was given to “CSMO” – Close Station, March Order – completing an evolution that we today would call “shoot and scoot” or “get the hell outta Dodge”.


Not everything was that life-and-death, though:

o One of Dad’s buddies in the crew  was a man I will call “Slim,” who was so tall, he would have been rejected for service, had he not indulged in some kind of – to-this-day-unspecified – chicanery to be inducted into the Army. While they were still training in the States, “Slim” was walking through the barracks one day, when he encountered the sergeant. The sergeant, only a little over 5 feet tall himself, craned his neck upward and asked “Hey, Slim! What’s the weather like up there?” Replied Slim in his characteristic winter-molasses Deep South drawl, “They’s a telephone in my ass, Sarge. Why don’ch’awll call up and find out?” I don’t know if Dad’s laughter – he always had to stop to catch his breath at this point – was because of Slim’s answer or the sergeant spluttering while he tried to decide whether to be offended or amused.

o For a time in liberated France, Dad’s battery was rotated to the rear, and bivouacked in a field adjoining what had been a cow pasture. The men were camped out, gathered around their fires, anticipating yet another gourmet meal of C-rations, courtesy of the War Department and the US Army, when their leisure was interrupted by a loud explosion across the wooden fence from the adjacent pasture. Then another. Then another. Once they realized they were not under hostile fire, they looked across the fence over into the cow pasture and discovered that the Germans had apparently turned the cow pasture into a minefield as they withdrew, and that the cattle, abandoned by their owner, had broken through the next fence over and wandered into the field for pasturage. Lt. Bagwell – the same officer who had ordered the timed attack on the mobile German gun – having a smidge of larceny in his soul, hit upon an idea, pulled a few strings, and informally requested a mine-clearing detail from another outfit close by. (This is not as larcenous as it sounds:  the mine field would have had to be cleared sooner or later, anyway.) Men came over with mine-clearing equipment, basically much bigger versions of present-day metal detectors, searched the pasture, discovered where the mines were and where they weren’t, and marked the ground accordingly. Fortunately, the area immediately around the hapless cows was clear. So some men from the Battery – Dad was always curiously evasive about whether he participated in this court-martial-able offense – entered the pasture with bayonets and … well … suffice to say beef was on the menu that night, for both the gun and mine-clearing crews.

o I think it was during that same bivouac that the men settled down for the night. Guards had been posted around the crew’s perimeter, passwords provided. The young CO was in his tent, evidently settled in for the evening, until he had to make the rounds periodically and check on the sentries again. Suddenly, the silence of the night was split by a single gunshot. The young officer, apparently dozing on his way to sleep in spite of himself, exploded from the tent, and, zealously overreacting and only perhaps 2/3 awake at this point, shouted to all and sundry “Who fired that shot? Double the guard! Gimme a cigarette!” It turned out all was well. The shot had been fired accidentally for some reason. No harm. No foul. But how many grey hairs the young officer got as a souvenir of that evening Dad could never say, nor could he say whether the offending sentry was demoted to the rank of castrato soprano, because he was laughing so hard at this point, he always lost his breath.


o If I recall correctly, it was rather early in the war in Belgium, or perhaps just over the border into France, that Dad and the gun crew were camped out on an abandoned-and-wrecked farm awaiting orders. The noise and chaos of the war were all around them, but, at that moment, at some distance from the farm. The farm included a partially demolished barn in which the crew could shelter. In fact, they even took turns sleeping on several boxes made of scrap lumber from the barn, stuffed with straw from the scattered hay-bales, for a mattress. Dad lifted his tray-like lumber-and-straw “cot” up several feet onto a stack of boxes so as to not sleep on the damp ground. He lay down and turned over with his back to the barn wall, which had been blown partway open by whatever blast had demolished the barn and farmhouse. He even went to sleep for an hour or two: there evidently is such a thing as being tired enough to literally sleep through a war. When Dad awoke and prepared to hop down from the stack of crates, he noticed a palm-sized piece of razor-sharp shell fragment that had – while he had been asleep – evidently flown through the hole in the side of the barn and embedded itself several inches deep in the wall of his “cot”. Another 2 or 3 inches higher, and the shrapnel would have missed the wall of his “cot,” gone through his back, and severed his spine. His sleep would have been permanent.


I have often reflected on the fact that people in my generation -- the "Baby Boomers" -- have and can have no existentially significant conception, no "feel," if you will, for what life was like during the time of the Second World War. Least of all can we imagine the horror Dad and his friends faced, not once in a while, but on most days. We have become cynical.  In fact, cynicism has become a luxury, especially with the end of the draft, which effectively severed any "existential," felt relationship between American society and its Armed Services.  Only within the community comprising those who serve, their spouses and kids, and their intimate friends is anything like a living, "real-time" vestige of that relationship maintained, as in, e.g., the Vietnam era. The risks that inevitably accompany military service are no longer shared risks, we're-all-in-the-same-boat risks, but risks voluntarily assumed by "those people over there":  someone else's spouse, someone else's parent, someone else's kids. Oh, of course, we admire the military ... but only from a discreet distance ... as something those people over there -- those heroes, not us -- do.  We celebrate them.  We revere them.  Sometimes to the point of bombast and jingoism.  Not because we feel any kinship with them -- spouses, children, siblings, parents, and close friends excepted, of course.  But precisely because we (meaning "society-at-large") do not, because  -- in our heart-of-hearts -- we would prefer not to.  And so, subliminally aware of this ambivalence, we sometimes overcompensate. Frankly, for the most part, I think that is healthy:  we should be ambivalent.  War should not be glamorous.  At best, it should be seen as a necessary evil -- and no less evil, even when necessary.  In the final scene of the excellent and nuanced, recently released movie with Helen Mirren, Eye in the Sky, the late Alan Rickman, playing a British general, remarks to a sneering civilian officer in the British Cabinet:  "Ma'am, I have personally observed the consequences of five suicide bombings.  So never tell a soldier he doesn't understand the cost of war". Dad and his compatriots would have agreed.

Because they did.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

View from inside landing craft ... public domain
Artillery pieces ... public domain
Marching through English village ... public domain
All other images, property of the author
"Huge mistake" ... "The Guardian" David Smith ... CC by SA 3.0

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