the concluding installment of
by John Bascom
On April 30, 1945 Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. On May 7, all of Germany formally surrendered. The war in Europe was over.
In the Pacific, however, war continued to rage. U.S. forces had successfully prosecuted their island-hopping campaign, moving closer and closer to the Japanese homeland. By mid-1945, the Philippines had been retaken, and the island of Okinawa, the closest to Japan itself, had been seized. The Japanese air and naval forces had largely been destroyed. Intense daily bombing had devastated Tokyo and other key industrial cities and ports. Plans were underway for a massive land invasion of Japan. Estimates called for a ten-million-man invasion force, with over a million American casualties expected. Word quickly spread through Allied forces in Italy that they would soon be sent to the Pacific, a massive logistical undertaking.
In Italy, the main business was maintaining order. Power abhors a vacuum, and partisan factions had begun fighting among themselves. In the west, France had moved to claim long-disputed border territory and was threatening to enter Italy. It was up to the Americans to assure a peaceful and orderly transition to civilian rule.
Dad and his unit were moved to San
Remo on the Italian Riviera and the border with France. It was but twenty miles from the independent
state of Monaco, long a haven for the rich and famous. San Remo was a resort town noted for its
beautiful Mediterranean beaches. Their
job was to keep the peace between the French and Italians. Passes were issued to enjoy the waterfront
and the sights. It must have been a
welcome change from the grind of war.
Generals visited troops, made speeches and decorated soldiers. Dad was awarded the Good Conduct Medal there. He received medals and ribbons for his role in the Arno, North Apennines and Po Valley campaigns. In early August, news came of the atomic bombing and surrender of Japan. There would be no redeployment to the Pacific.
The troops moved south to await transport back home. There were nearly a million Allied soldiers in Italy, and marshalling them for deployment home was a gigantic logistical task. My father at some point visited Rome and Pompei on leave as a tourist while awaiting his turn. There, he enjoyed the scenes and collected souvenirs. He was promoted to Pfc, the highest rank he would attain. On October 22nd, he boarded ship in Naples, disembarking at Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia on November 3rd.
He arrived back in St. Louis around November 9, 1945 and was formally and finally honorably discharged from service with character and efficiency ratings of excellent. He had weighed 153 pounds when he was inducted; he was down to 138 for his exit physical. He had experienced endless months in the field, been wounded twice by artillery shells, and was hospitalized for hepatitis. He had watched his best friend die a gruesome death. Dad endured up to a month at a time in wet foxholes, dodged machinegun fire and hand grenades, and survived a mano-a-mano, eye to eye shootout at the war’s very end. But now he was home.
My earliest memory is of my father coming home, and I truly recall the event as clearly today as I experienced it at the time. I was just beyond two years old, only twenty-six months. I’ve been told the family had been buzzing about his return for weeks, but I remember none of that, though excitement surely rippled through my grandparent’s flat in South St. Louis. I recall my father climbing the long steps, smiling, his uniform starched and pressed, my mother giddy with arms-outstretched in anticipation. At the top of the stairs they embraced and kissed. And, an uncomprehending toddler, I remember wondering why in the world she was kissing the mailman, the only other uniformed man I had ever seen at our house. Then I slipped away and hid under the massive buffet table that stood along the dining room wall, peering out warily at the raucous scene that was unfolding.
Memories of my father are scant in the few years following his return. He found work in Albany, New York, but not sure that it would work out for the family, we remained at the St. Louis flat of my grandparents while he commuted on weekends. For me, he was still not a part of my daily life. About eighteen months later, he found a good job in Minneapolis, and our entire family moved into a small frame house there. I was four years old. It was the first traditional nuclear family life I had experienced.
Dad settled into a typical routine. He worked hard at his job and did well. Ours was the classic suburban life of school, church, friends and back yard barbecues. My father experienced some drinking problems, but quickly got them under control. I never recall him taking a single drink. I experienced him as aloof and detached at times. Later, he displayed a few uncharacteristic angry outbursts over minor events. José Narosky, the Argentine author, famously said, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” It must be true. Did the traumas of the Apennines warn him not to get too close, or cause him to burst forth in those occasional fits of barely constrained anger? I’ve often wondered.
Whatever his demons, they eventually faded. His life can fairly be described as long, productive, and successful. He enjoyed a good career, rising in the ranks to management levels in a major corporation. His marriage was lifelong and from all indications happy. His friends liked and respected him. He was loved by his wife and children. I never heard of him experiencing nightmares or flashbacks. He occasionally talked about the little things: seeing Rome, shooting the cow, the time his buddies dared him to swim across a lake, and he came head to head with a huge turtle. But he never spoke about combat. My mother and he must have talked, late at night, the children in bed, the house quiet and the lights low. The death of Woody, the killing of the German boy. It was she who, much later, secretly revealed these events to my sister and me. He and I made our peace in the end. Dad died quietly of cancer in July, 1985, seventy-five years of age.
It is over twenty years now that I vacationed in Tuscany, marveling at the rolling hills, the little walled medieval villages, Chianti vines heavy with grapes in the fall, my wife and I stopping to pick one, bursting with juice, as sweet as any candy. Sipping Brunello Reserve at the hilltop winery in Montalcino. Then, I knew nothing of the details I have shared here. Now, having learned the things I have in writing this, I resolve to return. I will visit the wartime places of my father, I tell myself. This time, I will go to Castel Fiorentino, traveling through Florence, not pausing there as I did on my first visit. I will go to Barbarino, to the places of the battles, to Bruscoli, Livergnano, where my father advanced inch by inch and house by house in the face of withering fire and grenades raining down from the clifftops, then to the Futa Pass. I will travel to Monte Bastione and contemplate what happened there. I will follow in my father’s footsteps, I say to myself, climbing the pathways the mules trod up the side of Mount Belmonte, pausing on the summits to hear the wind moving through the treetops as had my father. I will perhaps, quite unknowingly, stand on the spot where Woody Woodruff breathed his last. And I will turn my ear to the sacred ground and hear the whispers of the souls of Americans who have never left that place. These are the things I say to myself. As I write this, I am a seventy-six-year-old, burnt out and used up old man. Still, these things I say and resolve, and I will do it all.
What will the souls on Mount Belmonte tell me? Will they say that I would have performed as well, been as brave, suffered the terrors with the same fortitude as did my father? I think I would not, but really, I don’t know.
But one thing I am certain those souls will tell me is that wars are not fought and won by machinegun charging heroes. They are waged by bakers and cab drivers, salesmen and store clerks. Those who do not volunteer, who do not want to be there, but, like my father, answer the call when it comes. They are fought by men who show up, do their duty despite their fear, and then, for the lucky ones, go home again.
My father was such a man. He never, ever complained about his service. Dad received no medals for valor, but in the thick of violence he put his head down, and like his comrades, moved forward. And in so doing, he participated with the others of his time in defeating unimaginably powerful forces of evil. He stood among those to whom we all owe so much, those who journalist Tom Brokaw rightly called The Greatest Generation.
This book is dedicated to my father, John Gay Bascom, to whom I owe so much, and upon whose shoulders new generations now stand
… John Bascom