My Old Hometown and the Big War

James Fudge in Southampton, UK

General George Patton once told the men serving in his 3rd Army why they should be glad they were about to fight the Germans. Patton told them that in the future, when their grandchildren sat on their knees and asked them what they did during the great World War II, they would not have to say, “I shoveled shit in Louisiana.”

Some of Patton’s soldiers died in battle and didn’t have a chance to tell any children or grandchildren anything. But I’m sure most of those who survived came to believe they really were the happy few Shakespeare described in Henry V. I know this because my father, age 85, is among the remaining men who served in WWII.

His story is one that’s told in a book edited by George Drake, the former president of Grinnell College. It’s called Our War and it’s a collection of essays by and interviews with WWII veterans from my hometown of Grinnell, Iowa.

My father was a Navy signalman who served in the invasion of Normandy. Another man, Ken Christiansen, was a forward observer for a mortar platoon in Germany and France. Cleo Strawser was a gunner on an aircraft that took pre-invasion photos of islands in the Pacific. Another, John Pfitsch, actually did serve in Patton’s 3rd army.

They tell stories of a war machine that was huge, complex and highly technical. The enemy was often unseen because they attacked with mortars and artillery shells, not with guns or knives. My father describes a rare experience of seeing German POWs behind barbed wire on Omaha Beach and hearing one of them sing Santa Lucia in a tenor voice as the other prisoners hummed an accompaniment.

If you served in the war your best asset wasn’t courage, reason or faith. It was luck. Christiansen tells of a day when he and some other enemy spotters were spotted, themselves, by a German artillery team as they dashed across a beet field. Christiansen prepared to die as the Germans finally drew a bead on his location but he was saved by a ditch that suddenly appeared before of him. He and his partners dove into the ditch and covered their heads as the shrapnel whizzed above them.

The noise of the big guns was literally deafening. My father, who was a musician, is convinced he’s always had a hard time hearing certain pitches due to the hammering the big guns gave to his ears. Madison Tomfeld, who served with the Marines in the battle for Okinawa, said the worst thing about combat was “the noise.”

I grew up hearing my father’s stories of serving in the war. I heard about the fights that broke out during shore leave, the endless game of craps on his ship and about seeing dead bodies floating near the shore during the Normandy invasion. Meanwhile, I came of age with no military experience and no inclination to serve in a country where the men who came back from Vietnam were seen as either monsters, victims or misguided souls.

My father was a college professor who worked in a place where being anti-war was an article of faith. But I remember talking to him the year Jimmy Carter required all young men of a certain age (my age) to register for the draft after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I was complaining to him bitterly about it when he shocked me by saying, “Well, I guess you’re not a team player!” It seemed like such an unlikely thing for him to say. Yet when I think about the team he played on in the European theater it makes perfect sense.

Serving in World War II was the adventure of my dad’s life, and there’s nothing I’ve done that can compare. It seems stupid to be sentimental about war and the misery it brings. But as our country’s World War II experience dies off with the people who had it we will lose something important.

I’ll end with a quote from Christiansen, one of Grinnell’s WWII vets, who gave three reasons why he fought in the war. “First, you fight for the guys on your right and your left, whose lives depend on you and vice versa. The second thing you fight for is you don’t want the people around you to think you’re yellow. And the third thing you fight for is you wanted to get it over so you could go home!”

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3 Comments on “My Old Hometown and the Big War”

  1. Jerral Miles Says:

    Tom, I know your father and I your photograph of him as a young sailor is one of my favorites pictures. I actually used it on my own blog a few months ago.

    http://jerralmiles.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2009-06-08T21%3A29%3A00-07%3A00&max-results=20

  2. Jim Fudge Says:

    Tom, Great blog and it sums up very nicely what all of us young guys did during those early years. But did I really say that? “I guess you’re not a team player!” Loved Patton’s remark and Ken’s ender about the three things a guy fights for. Ken is a great scientist and also a guy who gives it to you straight from the shoulder! He was in lots of real action, and I love the guy! Thanks, son.

    Dad

  3. Jim Fudge Says:

    Tom, Great blog and it sums up very nicely what all of us young guys did during those early years. But did I really say that? “I guess you’re not a team player!” Loved Patton’s remark and Ken’s ender about the three things a guy fights for. Ken is a great scientist and also a guy who gives it to you right from the shoulder! He was in lots of real action, and I love the guy! Thanks, son.

    Dad


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