combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2006

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Several weeks after my mother passed away, while rummaging through some of the drawers in her bedroom, I came across a bundle of old onionskin letters fastened with a rubber band that was as stiff as a clothespin. Immediately I knew what they were because my father's name on the return address of the envelopes was preceded by the abbreviation Capt. They were letters he had written my mother while serving in the U.S. Army during the Second World War. A young man, recently graduated from medical school, he was assigned to the 94th General Hospital which was stationed near Bristol, England.

I set the crinkly letters aside, not sure if I wanted to look at them. I suppose I thought it was rude, an invasion of privacy, something I never would have contemplated if my parents were alive. I put the letters in a plastic box and put the box on a back shelf, as if hoping I would forget about them.

My father seldom spoke about his service in the conflict, other than to recall some lighthearted incidents that always brought a smile to his face. The one unpleasant detail he did discuss with me and my brother was the offer he received from an Army pilot to fly him to Ireland one weekend so he could see where his father was born, but then the flight was postponed because the day they were to take off the fog was too dense. Soon after that the pilot was killed in a plane crash and my father never made it to the Emerald Isle.

All I knew about his work in the Army was that he assisted in a lot of orthopedic procedures. One of his nurses told my mother that she was often concerned about his stamina because he was very frail and spent so many hours on his feet at the operating table. Before he enlisted, he had considered specializing in orthopedic medicine, but after his experience in England, he had seen enough smashed and broken bones, and decided to go into another specialty.

His silence about his service was typical of many veterans who wished to spare their loved ones the grisly events they witnessed during the war. It was a time better let go, perhaps, an aberration that revealed the worst about people. It is also difficult to articulate the darkness found in the hearts of others; it is not something that can be explained with a stethoscope or a thermometer. Pain is an obstinate fact, a consequence, not an explanation of the wickedness of those who inflict it.

A few months later I decided to look at the letters, hoping they would shed some light on what my father actually went through as a military physician. I was sorely disappointed, however, because the letters continued the silence my father maintained all his life concerning his wartime service. He mentioned he was busy. "Just work and more work," he wrote but his letters scarcely revealed anything he did on his ward. Instead, they were filled with the predictable complaints and requests and gossip of any soldier compelled to be thousands of miles from his family and home. Always, of course, he reiterated his affection for my mother and his eagerness to return to the States and be back in her arms. Occasionally his loneliness and discouragement seeped through, but then he quickly lightened the tone with some humorous remark or interesting recollection.

His desire to return home was palpable. In one letter, recalling a friend who had served in an evacuation hospital attached to General George Patton's Third Army, he described in covetous detail the furnishings of a Nazi mansion in Germany where his friend had been garrisoned for a few weeks. He wrote of the fancy feather bed his friend slept on, the large radio at his disposal, the many deer that roamed the grounds. It was not the barracks life he had become accustomed to for so many months, but was a glimpse into what he hoped would be his life after the war.

In a sense, what my father didn't say in his letters was almost as significant as what he did say. They were, I realized after reading them, not an occasion for him to recount the grim realities he faced every day treating wounded soldiers his own age, rather they were a chance not to think about such realities. Perhaps, too, he recognized that words were simply not adequate to describe what he had seen overseas. Perhaps his silence was an admission of the futility of trying to describe to those at home what they could never understand.

Sitting on a suitcase in his barracks, using his mattress for a desktop, he wrote as if he were not in a war zone at all, but back with his wife discussing the mundane concerns of other tenants in their small apartment. In his letters he was not really a soldier – in them he was a civilian again who "would paddle a canoe home if they would let me."

by Thomas R. Healy
... who is a freelance writer residing in the Pacific Northwest, with works previously published in Appalachia, The Climbing Art, and The Palo Alto Review.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones