|Here's Uncle Roland
U. S. Army Ranger
Arthur L. Fern
© Copyright 1998 by Arthur L. Fern
Somewhere in Europe,
APO 101, NY, NY
I trust all is well back in Connecticut. Here it's getting cold. They say it's going to be a hard winter, and I can believe them if this fall is any indication. As you know, keeping our feet in good condition is a soldier's first order. Last night I washed out my socks and hung them out to dry. In the morning they were as hard as a board. Don't worry, I'll take care of myself. One of the fellas didn't take care of his feet. I heard his feet were all fungus, even in the early stages of gangrene. Sometimes I think the worse enemy is the weather, not the Germans.
Mother stops reading. "Sonny, I can't read the next paragraph, " said Mother. "It's been blackened out by the army censors." "OK," I mumble. Back to the letter.
I've got to cut this short. There's some action up ahead. Give my best to Sonny. I'll write soon.
My first vague memories of Uncle Roland came from the summers in the mid to late Thirties. I was five or six when mother and I visited McHenry Street in Baltimore. Father couldn't come; he was working. Row houses with marble steps. German Catholic working class neighborhood. Grandpa was a steelworker at Sparrows Point. And, oh, the Baltimore heat in August--not to speak of the humidity. Remember, there was no air- conditioning in those days. My cousins and I used to sleep up on the flat roof during the summer. The third floor bedrooms were unbearable. It was simply cooler outside.
"Sonny, how 'bout a snow cone? With chocolate syrup?" Roland asked. There were so many adults at the house in Baltimore I couldn't keep their names straight. The sidewalk vendor heaped the shaved ice into the paper cone and poured on the syrup. I looked straight up at Roland--he looked so tall--as he handed me the cone. And then he bought one for himself and we ate them together. I can't remember what we talked about, but we had to eat them fast `cause the sun was bouncing off those white marble steps.
Oh, what a great guy, I thought to myself. But so tall! Later, I heard my mother say he was a handsome brother.
Sometime in the late Thirties, mother said, Roland had joined the army. He really wanted to join, but she also murmured something to the effect that he was having a difficult time getting a good job. We were in the Depression. So it was the Army Rangers for Roland.
He wrote often - from the camp at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. Once, he sent a picture of himself and a buddy after a training exercise in the Louisiana swamps. There's my tall, lanky uncle holding up a five-foot snake. It seems the snakes tried to escape as the troops moved through the waist-deep water in the bayous. Rangers carry machetes, you know. The snakes lost. Mother summarized one of the letters. It made everyone think. On an amphibious exercise one of the landing boats next to Roland's went in sideways on the waves and overturned. All but one of the soldiers drowned--and just in training!
Sundays Mother, Father and I went to Grandma and Grandpa's in Hartford for dinner--in fact, the whole family in Connecticut got together most Sundays. But one Sunday afternoon dinner was different. It was December 7th. The news broke before we sat down for dinner. The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I really had no idea what the word WAR meant, but I could instinctively read the expressions on my parents' and grandparents' faces-- it was something bad, something really bad! Mother wondered out loud to Dad where Roland would be going.
Father was a news junkie before the term was coined. Along with all the others he had registered for the draft, but because of his age he was passed over. Still, even over-age doctors could be called later if a shortage occurred. He reported and interpreted the news coming over the old radio console--rationing of sugar and gas is coming, he said. Son, you will save the papers for recycling; and Son, you will sell the stamps for the Savings Bond booklets. The savings drive is coming up. We have to do everything we can on the Home Front--we must support Roland and the GIs from back here. The news crackled that the American 28th Infantry Division (the so-called `Bloody Bucket" division after the red keystone of the State of Pennsylvania) had landed in North Africa to support our British Allies battling Rommel's Panzer divisions. Casablanca. Tangiers, Tobruk. El Alamein. We had no idea where Roland was. The black and white Pathe News flicks at the movies showed black smoke bellowing out of crippled tanks and armored vehicles stranded in the desert. And General Rommel peering over the desert through his binoculars from the back of his Mercedes command car.
We only received one postcard from Roland. All's well. No big deal.
Stalin was urging Churchill and Roosevelt to open a `second front' against the Germans. Churchill was pushing for an invasion of the `soft underbelly' of Europe--from the Mediterranean, Greece, the Balkans, Italy. Others thought it had to come in northern Europe-- France, the Low Countries, or down from Denmark. Roland's letters were always from `somewhere in Europe." He was keeping in shape. The locals even hosted parties for the Americans! All's well, how's everything in Connecticut? Best to Sonny.
The next letter came weeks after the BIG news. On the morning of June 6, 1944, the skies over the English Channel cleared, and the biggest invasion force in world history was underway.. D-day!
Somewhere in Europe
APO 101, NY, NY
Dear Margaret and Arthur,
You all must know of the landing by now. I've gotten my first good night's sleep in awhile and have time to write. That first day was pandemonium, chaos, and sheer hell--
"Sonny, my Mother said, "the army censors have blocked out the next two paragraphs. I think we're to have to wait until Roland gets back to find out about Normandy." I was disappointed but filed my questions in the back of my mind.
Some day after I return, I'll tell you, and specially Sonny, about a few things I've learned these past couple of weeks in France. Keep writing.
But being in the first American division in Paris (following DeGaulle's Free French) was not what it seemed. The Germans were pulling back fast, so fast in fact that we--marching down the Champs Elysée to celebrate the liberation of Paris--kept going right into the eastern suburbs of Paris in pursuit. So much for enjoying the mademoiselles of Paris!
We rolled through the small towns east of Paris--hardly pausing.
Somewhere in Europe
APO 101, NY, NY
Dear Margaret and Arthur,
All is well here and hope everything is going all right in Farmington. Give a special hello to Sonny.
We're in farm country in France....
"Here we go again," mother said, "the army censors are at it again. I wish they'd tell the boys what they can say and what they can't. But they must have been in a rush, because I think I can make out a few words. here's one "triangula," must be triangulation. Ask your father about these terms."
After careful study of his letter, Mother and Dad concluded the only terms they could make out were triangulation and range of fire, basic infantry tactics expressions. I had to wait until I was in the army myself to learn the terms. Only then could I imagine the German machine gun nests situated on corners of French wheat fields, each sweeping the range of fire to protect the other corner. The nests' defensive gunners covered the outsides of the high hedgerows to prevent flanking motions.
"Wait, we've got to get the word back to Company HQ. Christ, I haven't had a bath in over two weeks--the dirt and sweat are drying like mud on my back. And when I rub it off, all I see are the red blotches of skin. Shit, we've got to slow down sometime."
"Yeah, you're right. I'll...."
I turned to my left to engage Walt in this very serious discussion. Crack...ping! Walt slumped to his knees, his helmet rolling off as he bent farther down. We scattered. I looked back at Walt lying motionless on the dusty street except for the oozing blood. They got him dead center n the back of the head. "Those God-dammed snipers! George, go around in back of that old brasserie sign. He'll turn up." God, I thought to myself, `What if he'd aimed at me on the right instead of Walt on the left? When your time's up, your time is up.' Quiet resignation, relief came over me.
"Guys, new rules! If they surrender in front of us, they go to a POW camp. If they give up in back of us, they lose. Those snipers aren't going on easy street just because they run out of ammo." We were pinned down for a couple of hours, ferreting out the snipers behind us. There's got to be one SOB somewhere near that brasserie.
"Ich gebe auf...ICH GEBE AUF," he shouted, coming around from the back of the brasserie. A young blond German, no helmet, rumpled uniform --arms high above his head.
Three blasts from my .50 cal BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) cut the guy in half. The top half of his body from the stomach up literally flew off his hips. There were two distinct, bloody halves. He was probably sixteen or seventeen --maybe younger.
We knew for some time that the main German force was pulling back more rapidly than its front line troops, who were in place to harass and slow us up--a classic delaying action. The 28th Division was strung out thinly along a broad front in the Ardennes, the Huertgen Forest. I was on R&R (Rest & Recreation) for a few days near St. Lo when Manteuffel's Fifth Panzer Division commenced what we now know as the Battle of the Bulge. The German Wehrmacht called it the Ardennesschlag. I was quickly pulled out of R&R to rejoin my company--company D, 109th Regiment, 28th Infantry Division. Now a 2nd lieutenant I had been given a field promotion because all our officers had been killed or shipped back wounded. We lost nearly half our company in two days--and we were surrounded. We were left to be mopped up later-- the German tanks must be miles in back of us, advancing as fast as they passed right around us. The wounded moaned. Ammo and food were low. What choice did we have? As the ranking officer, I put it to a vote. We voted to surrender. With a name like BACH, the German intelligence officer interrogating me insisted I was German and not American. How could I fight and kill my brothers? I was German. No, I am not German, I am American. Back to name, rank, and serial number.
For me the war was over. I thank God--North Africa, the Normandy invasion at Omaha, the hedgerows of France and Belgium, and the Battle of the Bulge; and not once was I wounded. Imagine not being wounded! Then they marched us from Belgium to a German POW camp in Poland
Well, it was almost over.
I quickly realized that living in the German POW camp was better than the way we moved across France and Belgium. It was warm and dry--not the nights when you woke up with water in your foxhole and puddles slightly hardened with frost. Later I heard that our camp was on the outskirts of a city still producing goods for the German war machine. Then I understood the air attack. American bombers were overhead. And we heard the strings of bombs pelting the city, coming dangerously close to us.
That night produced one of the great ironies of the war for me. I was hit in the upper cheek by shrapnel--by American shrapnel, of all things. Not much of a cut at all, but think of it. From Casablanca to Bastogne I was not touched once by the Germans. And now to be wounded by an American bomb!
Returning stateside, I--as America-disarmed--was discharged only to feel the pangs of unemployment. I quickly understood, however, I knew nothing except how to fight.
In the spring of 1947 Roland and Doris came to Bloomfield to visit my parents and me. Tall, lanky, and as handsome as ever, Roland seemed older or maybe we all did. His face sported rugged wrinkles. The small scar on his upper right cheekbone was hardly noticeable. It did seem strange not to see, nor to envision him, in his army khakis, or with the light blue braid of the U.S. Infantry on his cap.
I became excited, I had a thousand questions to ask him-- all those coming from the paragraphs blanked out by the Army censors. What was Normandy like? Did you kill many Germans? Enough to eat? We sent you cookies and fruitcakes. Did any of your buddies get hurt? The list went on and on.
Now remember," mother admonished me, "don't bombard your uncle with questions about the war. They're coming up here for a visit, a nice visit, so remember your manners, remember your p's and q's." Roland's only answer to my curiosity was that some day, when I was older, he would tell me about a few lessons he had learned.
"Mother, what was that loud bump I heard last night?" I asked first thing in the morning.
"Your uncle had a nightmare last night. He was back in France going along a hedgerow, a German machine gun clacking away at the corner of a wheat field. Doris turned over to calm him, and he threw her out of bed, bedding and all. That's what you heard." The whole day Roland said nothing about that night's adventure in France. Shortly after that, Roland and Doris divorced-- late casualties of the war.
The GI Bill was not for him. Although the economy was booming to produce for the pent-up demand created by the war, Roland decided to re-enter the U.S. Army--to the only life he really knew, he only knew how to fight. Churchill had delivered his famed speech in Missouri about an Iron Curtain descending across Europe. Korea was but a few years into the future.
In 1955, I graduated from Washington and Lee in Virginia with a B.A. in Economics, with graduate school at Johns Hopkins after the service. Almost all graduates knew a tour in the service was in their future--unless you got another deferral for a graduate school such as medical. My dismal calculus grade long ago took me out of that running. A decision lay ahead. We all would be drafted, so why not make a pre-emptive strike, enlist, get the service and duty (and their training, of course) that you wanted? I chose the U.S. Army's Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) and was off to Basic Training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in the fall of 1955.
It took me two weeks or so to learn that, by the luck of the draw, Roland was company commander of the company right next to mine. Not my company, mind you, but what the hell. Sort of a semi-irony, I guess. As a buck private in the U.S. Army, I can truthfully say I enjoyed being invited to the officers club for dinner. As always, he's a great guy!
For `graduation day' from Basic Training, my mother and father came down to Fort Dix. As I was marched out--in fatigues, full pack, with entrenching tool and helmet on my back, there stood my mother, father, and Roland. Roland and my father stared. My mother cried.
Over the ensuing years I saw Roland from time to time. While in Berlin (an agent in civilian clothes, no less), I visited him in Augsburg, Germany, where he was company commander in an infantry division....
I finally reached him on the phone. "Roland, I'm getting out of Berlin for a short stay and head for Munich. Can I come by and see you for a day or so?"
"Oh, of course," he said. "It will be good to see you, but make it on the weekend. We've got exercises up in Hesse all week."
It was a good visit. Saturday night at the officer's club in Augsburg--a few beers, dark and tasty German beer-- dinner, and good conversation. How was it going with my parents, Roland asked. And grandma and grandpa on McHenry Street? And Alec and Irene? Cousins Shirley and Joan? I wanted to turn the conversation back to the war. What was it like? What could I learn?
"Well, it's simple," Roland paused. "You do what you have to do. Pretty simple. Don't complain, remember somebody else has always to it worse than you. A medal, an honor is earned, not won. Take care of those around you, and take responsibility for your own actions. You know, Sonny--er, Arthur, it's easier to die than to stay alive. Know that? Living is tough. Just do what you have to do, contribute, that's all. It's simple."
"Yeah, I guess.... Mother always used to say, "Just leave the world a little better off than when you came in...."
"And you know my sister is right," Roland said. --
.... In 1969 he was transferred to the Washington Hospital Center fur further treatment of cancer. In July, the day after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, I visited Roland. It was a one-way conversation. He lay there, all shriveled seventy pounds of him, a tube in his nose, tubes strapped to his arms. The greenish-gray skin of a cancer patient. And the putrid smell of cancer-- it was strong. My stomach bucked involuntarily. I told Roland in detail of Neil Armstrong's venture of landing on the moon the day before and of his pronouncement, "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." There was a big grin on Roland's face, one I hadn't seen in a long time. And it was the last.
Later I heard he died twenty or so minutes after I left. I was the last family member he saw. Captain Roland F. Bach, U.S. Army, is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
I recall it's been some thirty years' time since we shared snow cones on the marble steps of a row house in Baltimore.
"Only the dead have
seen the last of war." Plato [427- 347 B.C.]
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