My dad was in the Army in World War II. He was a dental technician in an armored headquarters group and never went overseas. But many of his friends did go overseas and saw combat. What follows are some excerpts from letters sent to my dad.
Bill Zerby was attached to the 781 Tank Battalion, 7th Army, in France and Germany. In December 1944, just before the Battle of the Bulge, Zerby wrote to my dad that:
“Here we have plenty of mud and rain and 24 hours a day the field artillery lays down a barrage with everything they have. The outfit is making out pretty well so far. One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners…. We all live in houses and have lanterns for lights. Everything is blacked out at 5 P.M. till dawn.”
I’d like to repeat Zerby’s 3rd sentence: One good thing these boys don’t believe in taking prisoners.
The fight against the Nazis was tough, and it wasn’t just the Germans who violated the Geneva Convention and its rules about taking prisoners. War, in short, should never be sugarcoated.
At the end of March 1945, Zerby wrote to my dad again, a letter that contained this telling sentence:
“Bookbinder [a fellow soldier] sure got a break [by not going overseas] but he better hope he don’t get sent to Germany. It seems they don’t like the Heb’s [Jews].”
By this point, Allied troops were beginning to liberate German concentration camps, and beginning as well to realize the murderous hatred the Nazis had for the Jewish people.
On a lighter note, Zerby regales my dad with the following story:
“The place where we live now is a large estate that belongs to a German big shot. He got chased out and we moved in. He has a wine cellar that runs all over town—all underground passages, and the dates on some of the casks run back to 1755. Well some of the wine was really good. The boys made a tour of the place and took all the best drinks for their own use. Yes, I was in on it too. Now we are tired of it and don’t take anymore. Of course it’s bolted up now but that don’t mean anything.”
In another letter, Zerby writes about American soldiers hunting for deer. Yes, American troops knew how to have a good time. Wine, venison, and women. After all, who knew from day to day if you’d live to see home again?
At the end of 1945, Zerby writes again to my dad that “I am now a proud civilian and no more lousy Army life.” And to my dad’s mention of a few of their friends from the battalion, Zerby writes with painful honesty: “I don’t remember many of those guys anymore. A hell of a lot of them got bumped off also last winter [in action in France and Germany]. I guess we were just lucky.”
Another of my dad’s friends was Corporal Ed C. Sarna, who was assigned to a headquarters battery in Divisional Artillery. He wrote to my dad in December 1944 that:
“To date, I have seen a number of [German V-1] buzz bombs at a very close range. A little in regards to Germany. If Hitler decided to fight until we hit Berlin, I can sincerely feel that the destruction will wipe Germany right off the map. At our present place – there isn’t a place found to be livable. Our forces are really doing a good job of it.”
The Allies wanted to make sure the Germans knew they had been well and truly beaten in this war, so as to prevent the myth that emerged after World War I that the German Army had not been defeated in the field.
This was a sentiment seconded by Corporal Paul Vella, 5th Depot Repair Squadron, Maintenance Division. He wrote to my dad in March 1945 that “You’re right, Julie, the Germans are getting the shit kicked out of them and the quicker it’s over the better I like it. I sure would like to see the states after a couple of years of being away from it.”
Corporal Vella also jokingly mentioned the “Soldier’s Prayer” in his letter: Please, Dear God, distribute the bullets like you do the pay and give officers first dibs. Yes, there’s some grim humor shared in the front lines.
There’s nothing really that special about these letters to my dad – and that’s their value. They are the typical sentiments of American dogfaces in Europe in World War II. Men who saw the destruction of Germany and the deaths of their friends. They had no illusions about war, and they didn’t spout patriotic platitudes. They just wanted the war to be over so they could get back to living their “real” lives.
As one soldier put it to my dad in 1945, “I sure hope that I’ll get my discharge soon, I’ve got plans to complete, my girl is getting tired of waiting so long.”
And thus baby boomers like me followed.