My Grandfather’s War
October 5, 2010 Steve Terjeson 1 Comment
My thanks to the staff at World War II History for allowing me to post this guest article
I was 6 or so and screamed for my mom. I couldn’t sleep. She crouched to comfort me as I explained my fears. I wasn’t afraid of ghosts, troll men or the constant hammering outside my window; all of which did keep me awake as a child. Instead I explained that I was afraid I would need to go to war. Her motherly wisdom suggested that if I did, it wouldn’t be for a long time. It may have been an overly honest response for a 6 year old and an answer of “I won’t let that happen to you” would have probably put me to sleep faster. She may now reveal that I was 22 when this happened. Years later in high school I collected horror movies on VHS and the careless violence didn’t phase me in the least (with the exception of cruelty to animals). But what did terrify me was the old war movies that ran on TV during Memorial and Veteran’s Day. Some of those movies seemed to last 6 hours and I would be fixated on every moment, yet thankful for my distance from the fictional fighting.
Fast forward to September 11th where I’m sitting in a history class at Umass Boston. As I hear the news from our professor I have a conscience thought that my life will never be the same. I mentally stamp both the time and place along with the thought. Over the next few months I’m terrified of any draft rumors and turn away from news report that elude to it. The point being made here is I’m terrified of war, and I’m sure I’m not alone.
I always knew that my Grandfather was in World War II but I knew only a few small facts that could be summed up in three short sentences… 1) He drove a tank and helped liberate the concentration camps. 2) One of his friends stuck his head out of the tank and got his head blown off. 3) His tank would later get attacked where a metal fragment got stuck in his leg giving him a purple heart. That’s all I knew, but I defy someone to argue that’s not “bad ass”. He never spoke to me about it and those short facts that I did know came from my dad. That changed when I took a crate of old photos from his attic. As I scanned them I realized there are stories here that I need to know and I now held the ammunition to get them out of him.
The photos were presented to me in an unorganized mess. Black-and-white photos are hard to date as my first guess in dating them would simply be to say “old”. There were photos where he could have been 35 years old yet he was in fact 15, and this was far before plastic surgery was even a factor.
The first group of photos showed my grandfather saying goodbye to his parents and going off to train in California and Texas. What struck me was the utter calmness he presented. There was no “why me” in his voice as I showed him the draft notice I found in the box. Instead it seemed to be understood that every able man goes to war, even celebrities. I understand my other grandfather was frustrated he couldn’t go to war due to an existing eye problem. I imagine I would become a Blue Jay’s fan if I was to ever get that letter.
The next group of photos were taken during his training in the desert and represented the largest batch of photos. I was a bit disappointed that these weren’t true action shots and instead “fun” shots taken by himself and his friends. These were the clearest and most professional looking photos in the group, which makes perfect sense. My grandfather wasn’t a photographer, he was soldier who chose to document a bit of the war. My hands would be a bit shaky on the battlefield as well, and it certainly wouldn’t be my number one priority (Take a photo, duck, shoot, repeat). They were innocent photos and it gave them extra meaning to think that these kids had no idea what was coming; they had not watched “The Bridge Over River Kwai” as a kid on Memorial Day, they were about to live it.
His training may have been shorter than most as he basically “tested out of” basic training. His IQ was tested to be over 110 and he was shipped to Texas to learn how to work a radio since Morse Code was being replaced. This was the first time in his story telling that he boasted his position and achievement, yet it was presented in a very factual manor and not used in his cache of bragging rights. It would certainly be my Facebook status that day. The training also brought forth a re-accuring theme of “friends” he met along the way and it was shocking to me that he remembered them all by name after 60 years. Their names would usually be followed by whether they made it home or not. I quickly learned and recognized faces in photos as well making him grin in a youthful way that I hadn’t seen before. I was in.
The timeline for the next part is unclear, but via England he made his way to Czechoslovakia and Germany. We starting hitting on the true action shots where my grandfather approached them with a bit of caution, as if General Patton was listening and he was about to get into trouble. The photo on the left was one of many train photos in his travels through Czechoslovakia. He insisted he blew up the train in this photo even though I pushed back a bit suggesting he probably let it pass. There are clearly people on the left acting quite casual and he can’t be more than 50 feet from the train as it approaches his general direction. While he most likey didn’t blow up this specific train, it was clear that he blew up plenty of trains on his journey. The below photo isn’t too impressive on its own but stuck a nerve in him when we discussed it. I’m not sure if he was responsible for the damage in the distance, but he knew what it was.
I tend to think that us McGortys are full of quirky talents, but it’s rare that we can make solid money from them. My grandfather posessed a talent for both music and art and was lucky enough to get to use them during the war, later making a career out of his art work. Soldier’s tended to take things from enemy soldiers that, for obvious reasons, they didn’t need them anymore. Most of my grandfather’s friends chose to take pistols but ultimately weren’t allowed to bring them home to the US. My grandfather didn’t see the use in these guns and instead chose to take their accordions. I like to think I would have done the same, joining him in barrel polkas serving as entertainment for the group and doing more good than a Nazi pistol would ever do. I had no idea he could play an accordion until a few years ago when I purchased one myself for my own quirky musical instrument collection. Last year at Thanksgiving as the family entertained him with their own polkas he was put on the spot to show us his skills. While it may have been 50 years since he held an accordion, he played better than I could today. His other talent in art led him to the unofficial role of tank painter where he implied that certain missions would actually wait for him to finish drawing emblems on each tank. The below photo is a tank clearly displaying his artwork of a cartoon character.
As I eluded to above, my grandfather made many “friends” during his war travels. While it’s funny to joke about, I honestly think that these lady friends were nothing more than talking companions. He met many thankful people as he rolled his tank through towns of rumble. The allies rolling through the streets were heroes in the minds of these civilains, and not unwanted invaders. They served a clear purpose and elimated a clearly defined evil from their lives. The set of photos below show the groups of joyous and thankful people he met along the way and I feel are the best from the set. He spoke very fondly of his Czech friend and coincidently met a woman from the same Czech town in the recent years in Connecticut. He asked if he could keep one of the photos of them to show this woman, and since they were his, I agreed. There were also a few photos showing the surrendering enemies with their hands held on their heads. Towards the end of the war the Nazis knew they needed to surrender and had two options; walk west and get captured by the Americans, or walk east and get captured by the Russian’s. Considering the treatment of enemy soldier’s by the Russian’s, the choice was simple. Walk west. At this point even the Nazis considered the American’s the good-guys.
My grandfather’s injury was only touched upon briefly if a particular photo told the story of his rescue or return to battle. There’s are several photos showing showing him returning via cargo train which reminded me of the images of concentration camp trains bringing thousands of people to their grim end. I imagine I would have been happy to be safe in the hospital and do whatever I could to get home as a result of my injury. He never mentioned thinking this when we spoke, and he probably didn’t think that way at the time. It was simply understood that you fought until you weren’t able to fight. No excuses. He did speak very kindly of Ben Smith whenever his picture came up as he was responsible for saving my Grandfather from the burning tank wreckage. He’s highlighted in the picture below:
He was awarded the Purple Heart for his injury and return to battle and I always think of a purple heart as one of the most courageous and important medals one can receive. I found it loose in the photo box from his attic along side gospel tapes and old matches. I brought it to him and suggested he take it, but he didn’t seem to care where it ended up. I am one of 11 grandchildren and don’t have any special reason to hold it, but it’s in my possession today. It wouldn’t seem right to display something I didn’t earn, but I will certainly keep it safe. I did some Google searches to see what they are actually worth and I saw a range of responses. Some suggested a veteran would sell their computer before they sold their Purple Heart, and others disclosed you can buy them at most thrift shops for about $15, though possibly illegal under the Stolen Valor Act. I didn’t see a response from a true veteran, but I get the sense they would prefer to simply forget it. For now, I’ve taken a picture of it.
As the war winded down it seemed like the fun began. I imagine a huge weight was lifted from his shoulders as he performed various non-combat roles post-battle, as well as being a bit mischievous. These are some of my favorites.
I’ve heard many times that my generation is different because we have no war like World War II to fight. Hitler was a true enemy that presented a threat to the world and there was no other option for the US than to help the fight. No one today with a full set of teeth truely thinks that Middle Easterners, Muslims or Communists are the real enemy that will end our way of life. They are just in the way of money.
Today’s World War would pan out far differently with fear instilled in all drafted soldier’s, not the required innocence. Imagine Lindsay Lohan coming to the realization that she needs to go overseas to fight a war when she can’t even keep off the crank for more than a few weeks. Celebrities get away with anything from DUI to murder so of course their sense of self entitlement would get them out of battle. Maybe they can be enticed with U-Boat drinks on the sunny beaches of Normandy (zing!).
It’s certainly an honor to serve in a war, both today and 65 years ago. However, it’s no longer considered a duty. It’s presented as a last resort for people without the means to go to college and those with other options would typically take them. I’m happy to call these people heroes, and accept the day off for barbecuing, but I’m glad I do it from my air conditioned office building. Do I feel that way because the wars we fight today are arguably unnecessary, or because our grandfathers did such a good job protecting us in the 40s that we all have a bit of that self-entitlement, never really having to protect ourselves? It’s a little bit of both.
Does our generation need a World War? No. Would it change this generation to fight a World War with a true threat? Of course, but it may level the playing field again.