Thursday, November 10, 2011

Off Topic: World War II

So, I've been reading a lot of Maus these days. (Wikipedia it -- in summary, it's an account of an Auschwitz survivor through the artwork of his son.) Which got me thinking about World War II and if I had any connections to it at all. Turns out I do, and I only recently learned about them.

Now, my family isn't Jewish, or any other ethnicity/group that the Nazis were rounding up. We're as white and Western European as you get. My biological mom, I'm not particularly connected to, and while I know her family was at least partly Russian, I don't really have any people I can point to there. The people who raised me, have had heritages in America since the Civil War at least. Basically, we were spared any traces of the Holocaust in any way. Thankfully.

Still, after my grandmother died, I found something cool in her house. Turns out my grandpa didn't entirely suck, and he went through some crazy stuff.

Some backstory: my grandfather, on my mom's side, was kind of a deadbeat dad. He was an alcoholic and didn't really bring in much money for the family. This was particularly bad for a poor family in an agricultural zone, where the man of the house was expected to go work his ass off and bring home the bacon scraps. Instead, it was my grandmother, raising three kids and a husband by herself, working at the sewing assembly line while my mom, her eldest daughter, worked at the local five-and-dime for pocket change. They were nowhere near what you could call well off. Once her kids grew up and got married, Grandmother divorced her husband and lived happily ever after by herself, never having the desire to remarry and enjoying her life as a single woman. She moved to another town and never looked back.

I saw very little of Grandpa Roscoe. He died a couple years after I was born, so all I really remember is an old guy in a hat, in a couple of fuzzy memories from Christmas gatherings. I never got to talk to him past little kid babble. I especially didn't get to ask him any real questions. I also didn't find out until 20-ish years later, about some other things he did in his lifetime.

Turns out that before he was an irresponsible drunk, my grandfather landed on the beaches at Normandy.

No joke. I found a box in my grandmother's house that contained his medals, papers, an American flag, and records of his capture and release, as well as an account that he had indeed fought on D-Day, in the initial landing. She had told me that he fought in World War II, but I didn't know that he was down on the ground when the boats were coming in, when Allied soldiers were drowning in the waves before even getting to fire a shot, and a few of the boats sank before making landfall, and there were bodies all over the sand and the water ran red with blood and the paratroopers missed their landing point and all kinds of other hell happened before we finally won.

This drunk grandfather of mine, the guy who essentially abandoned his kids and wife for the bottle, what did he think when he was throwing himself off the boat and landing on the stained sand? How many men beside him died? How many enemies did he kill? He was clearly wounded in some way -- he has the Purple Heart to show for it. How bad was it? Did he have a field medic patch him up while agony blazed around him? Did he grin and bear it and help break the German defenses? How far did he get before he was captured? Did he simply pass out with the other bodies, and have Germans carry him away later?

Right. After the battle of Normandy, a number of American soldiers were captured and set off to stalags, which were German POW camps for military captives. Roscoe went to Stalag XIII-C (you can even Wikipedia it, I'm so thrilled!), near Hammelburg, where he was held until the end of the war. If you look at the timeline, after the Normandy troops were carted in, later there was an exodus from Stalag XIII-D to C, where a number of prisoners trudged 500 miles to get to Stalag XIII-C and arrived there in terrible condition.

On April 6, 1945, Stalag XIII-C was liberated by American troops, and Grandpa Roscoe got to go home.

My mother was born after the war. How easy would it have been, for me to simply not exist? For some German bullet to cut down my grandpa on the shore? I wonder what sheer luck he had, such that he made it to safety. And also such luck that he was sent to a POW camp that didn't shut down and force him to death-march through the hellish winter like the folks in XIII-D.

I hesitate to call him any kind of hero, since he was only one of the scads of people who ended up on the beach that day, and he was captured right off the battlefield there and didn't go any farther, and since he came home and was a sorry excuse for a father to his kids, but in the end he surely did something worthwhile in his life, that I can say. I wish he were still alive, so I could ask him questions about what he experienced on the beach, in the POW camp, all that. But it's gone and buried, and from what I can tell he kept a lot of the stories to himself, because my grandmother didn't know very much about his actions there, only that he went to Germany, fought, and was captured.

Grandpa Roscoe, you may have been drunk off your ass for a lot of your life, and you sure sucked as a family man, but you did some really awesome things.

Edit: I found out from my family how he got his two Purple Hearts. One was due to starvation during his imprisonment; he lost 60 pounds on a frame that was already not particularly chubby. At some other point in time, he was shot in the shoulder.


Ariel said...

Have you considered that being drunk off his ass might actually have been a coping strategy? We don't talk about PTSD for WWII vets much-- they're the Greatest Generation, went off to war for all the right reasons and then came home and were perfect family men, that's the cultural narrative-- but it most certainly existed. And from what little I've heard, self-medicating with alcohol was not uncommon at all. Your grandfather isn't guilt-free, but the rest of his life might actually have been a casualty of the Normandy beaches and the camps. I mean, this is total armchair psychoanalysis, and plenty of people are alcoholics without war as an excuse, but... still. It's possible.

Alcor said...

You know, it sounds silly, but I guess I never did think about that. It's quite possible that he fell into that rut and never really got out of it. I'm not sure. I should ask Mom about that. Thanks for the perspective!