By Jeff Westover
He was a man — that’s all. A man like any other man.
His story is one shared by many of the millions who fought in World War II. Fate intervened not once — but twice — to remove him from a train just before it left the station. In both cases the sudden change would affect not only him, but also his descendents for generations to come.
The first time it happened he was bound for Toronto where he would work as a reporter for the Associated Press. But just before the final whistle blew, his brother, who was holding a military draft order in his hand, pulled him off the train.
So, like countless others around the world in 1943, he joined the army. And because of his many communication skills and knowledge of several languages, he was tagged for special assignment. After some training time in New York, he was advised that he would be transferred to California. There he would be schooled in secret communications for a period of time.
He was there long enough to send for his wife and newborn child. But he did not stay there long enough to see them arrive.
As he sat on a train weeks later for some unknown destination, he was again summoned off of it. This time a change of orders would send him in the opposite direction — to fight in the fields of battle in Europe.
He went gladly and knowing that his skills were being used right where the action of the war most demanded them. While he held no position of authoritative distinction, his role in the war placed him in a position to observe from the very center of action.
He knew that one day the war would end and that from it there would be stories to tell. And, being a writer, he desired to tell the story as an eyewitness, a participant and common foot soldier. So he began documenting his observations and experiences. From that day in the summer of 1943 — when his daughter was but an infant he kept up a written dialogue with his wife that lasted through the spring of 1945.
The circumstances of the war and his place in it demanded that much of what he wrote was lacking in specifics. In order to work around the censors who read and edited every enlisted man’s mail, he composed a cryptic and seemingly nonsensical series of letters that in the future he hoped to decode. “I know these don’t make much sense” he wrote to his wife, “but please tuck them away for me. I want to write this story, however it ends, when I return.”
From the damp days in England prior to D-day in 1944, to Omaha beach and beyond — his wife would receive these letters in large batches. For an army wife, one senses that they must have been horrifying at times to read. The dispatches are filled with pungent reminders of the ugliness of war and peppered with the sense of duty and loyalty to country that so dominated the time.
But it was Christmas 1944 — when he strayed from merely recounting his observations to pouring out his heart in one moment of sheer loneliness — that leaps from the pages and pages of mail he sent home.
From “somewhere in France”, he wrote: “The war is still going on; work yet continues; comfort is still slight; bitters are still flowing; the fog still persists; rain comes often; mud is plenty and I love you more than ever! I miss…our home, our car, the work; the nickleodeons, the phono records I miss life itself!”
As he recounted the Christmas at home that should have been, one knows that his wife experienced the hurt and loneliness in much the same way. For nearly two years she had stayed in California to await him. The army had neither the means nor the inclination to send her back home to New York. His daughter was no longer an infant. This child, who shared his same date of birth and who would later become my mother, would never have a living memory of him.
In May 1945, only a few days after V-E Day, he died under suspicious circumstances. His story, until now, has largely stayed within the family. Every Memorial Day and Veterans Day I think of him, as I should, and read the letters of his war experiences left behind.
But it is at Christmas that I really ponder him as a man, as a husband and as a father. As I celebrate these holiday seasons each passing year an uninterrupted string of magic and goodness and light in my own lifetime I cannot help but think of him in that cold field in France in 1944, longing for his wife and child.
The warmth of the season had to be difficult to feel through the cold and the smoke of war. And yet, something tells me that he felt it even if the physical experience of it escaped him. He had been there before. It was a time he treasured.
That Christmas in the mud of France in 1944 occurred almost 20 years before I was born. And yet, it is the Christmas I remember best and the one I remember the most. He never got to spend a Christmas with his child. I ponder that every year as I gather my children around me and rejoice in them and with them.
He was a man that’s all. A man like any other man. And yet, to me — a man like no other man.