Dad, I hardly knew ye

I first called him Daddy, then shortened it to Dad. During my early teen years, I briefly flirted with calling him Lew but that felt silly and stilted even to me. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to know him as an adult, but – while I thought I knew him well -there was a part of his life that was closed to me.

Other than the soldiers with whom he served in World War II, only Mom – who checked him while he slept for identifying scars and moles after his three-year absence – knew some of the painful experiences he had endured. My sisters and I sometimes heard funny stories of the war … like the soldier from Alabama who dreaded the “talking shells” that screamed “you-ain’t-going-back-to-Ala-BAM!”

We viewed a photo of Dad standing next to his Jeep making snowballs during June in the Bavarian Alps and other photos of him pictured with his buddies in exotic locations in Africa and Europe. We even marveled at his photo of a crashed German “jet-propulsion” airplane. What we didn’t see were the heart-breaking photos he took at the liberation of Dachau. I have Dad’s Dachau photos now and realize he was wise to take them and even wiser not to show them. Ike prophetically said that in the future some would say the Holocaust never happened and he ordered that photos of man’s inhumanity to man be taken as absolute proof.

My sisters and I learned to sing the war songs Dad sang at the top of his lungs while shaving. He interspersed those songs with Italian opera, and, while we never picked up on Italian, we learned all the words to the war songs, few of which were G-rated. My third grade teacher was appalled when I sang one of Dad’s ditties for show and tell. I had prudently removed the word I knew was bad – substituting “sleep” for “crap” – but in my childhood innocence left in a word that referred to the naughty body parts of a hairy baboon.

Shortly before Mom died, husband Ray and I attended a reunion of World War II Rangers in Fort Wayne, Indiana. We traveled there to learn more about my late father’s military experiences for Mom’s benefit … and for ours. It was there that I invited the Rangers to hold a reunion in Lawrence, but my main purpose for inviting them was so Mom could meet the Rangers with whom Dad served.

Mom was hospitalized at the time, but was so excited when I phoned to say they had accepted the invitation that she had the nurse dial my sister in California so she could deliver the news. Mom never met the Rangers because we lost her two weeks later, but Ray and I have continued our efforts to learn about Dad’s World War II experiences from his contemporaries in Darby’s Rangers and the 83rd Chemical Mortar Battalion, the unit he joined when the Rangers were disbanded after the Cisterna disaster.

In early May, we attended a Ranger mini-reunion at Lake Okoboji, Iowa. It was there that Dad’s sergeant asked, “Did your dad ever mention going into Sicily by submarine shortly before the invasion?”

Turned out that the mission was called off, but Dad was slated to go and that doesn’t surprise me. I knew him well enough to know he was a risk-taker.

Last week, we returned from a road trip to Baltimore for a reunion of the 83rd. I recently learned that Dad was in a “house” that exploded and that he was treated for concussion and temporary blindness at the Kolmar aid station.

I was thrilled to obtain a picture of the house – Chateau de Moussey – which looks like a castle or grand hotel. Even better, I spoke to the two officers who searched the house for booby-traps after the retreating German officers left it. They did a very thorough search, even looking in the coal cellar, but they couldn’t move tons of coal and that is where the Nazis had hidden the time-bomb that detonated as American officers were blissfully sleeping in real beds instead of on the cold, hard ground.

As I learn more about Dad and the men with whom he served, my admiration grows for them – not only for their daring and necessary deeds during World War II, but because they came home to build families and careers and communities. Those old soldiers are in the 80s and 90s now, but it isn’t hard to imagine the boys they were.

The 83rd CMB, aka The Rangers’ Artillery, supported the Rangers in many battles across two continents. The relationship between the units was a close one, so close that one 83rd officer at the reunion sang the beginning – stopping before the X-rated part – of a Ranger ditty I’d often heard Dad sing.

I didn’t tell him that I knew all the verses.