My father served in WWII but the minimal details he would share, beginning less than a decade later in my preschool years, were minimal and self-deprecating.
Now six decades after those early queries and 14 years since his passing, I’m learning the full story as I sift through letters he wrote to those back home as well as military records and photos he brought back.
Over the last year, as she neared the end of her life, my mother filled in some gaps.
They had been married for nearly 36 years and divorced for 35 when she died. But as the song goes, in her last few months she began to “love deeper and speak sweeter and give the forgiveness she had been denying.”
When they met in 1942, my dad had been running his parents ancestral ranch since he was 14, while at the same time going on to graduate from high school.
My grandfather had what they thought was a heart attack while serving as the executor of my great grandfather’s estate while juggling the wishes of siblings who much earlier had left ranching and especially those of his dad’s second wife and her family.
When my dad turned age 18 in late 1941, you couldn’t register for the draft until age 21. At that time the country was turning down enlistments for males needed to sustain agricultural production.
A few months later, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the age for registration was lowered to 18 ending voluntary enlistment altogether. Dad argued with his father to sell off the livestock and let feed crops go fallow but both his father and the local draft board felt differently.
He was an only son and the only person who could keep the ranch running. In 1943, news reports clearly noted that state and county war boards of the agricultural department could defer those in agriculture even though when no deferment was sought.
America placed agricultural production at the top of wartime needs which, to the consternation of my grandfather but delight of my dad, also resulted in the rapid spread of mechanized technology.
Things changed for my dad four days before his 21st birthday when word came that his cousin and best friend who was a year older than him had been killed in action over Italy when the B-26 bomber in which he was flying as tail gunner was hit and exploded trying to cut a German Army supply route.
It took five months of pleading before my grandfather and local county boards agreed to let my dad join the U.S. Army. He and mom quickly traveled over the Centennials to Bozeman on April 30th to elope, a little more than two weeks after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Nine days later, dad was ordered to report to Fort Douglas on the day the German Army’s surrender became effective.
But hostilities were far from over, just as they continued for several weeks after Lee surrendered his army to Grant, before the Civil War effectively ended 121 miles south of Appomattox, 150 years ago next month in Durham, North Carolina
In Europe, pockets of hostility continued into September, about the time my dad was finishing Infantry training at Camp Roberts and shipping out to join the 35th Tank Battalion as a Cavalry trooper.
In March, when dad finally convinced officials to let him serve, the 35th Tank Battalion had crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim, south of Mainz, and rushed across central and southern Germany liberating part of Buchenwald and Dachau before refitting in Bavaria.
As dad was in training to joint the 35th, it was pushing on into Czechoslovakia to the Russian line before pulling back into Bavaria. Mysteriously, less than five months after dad joined the unit, General Patton, who had been pushing to back the Russians off died in a mysterious auto accident.
Official surrenders notwithstanding, it was chaos when my dad joined his unit. Patton had left large area of Germany unsecured in the rush across Germany where small units continued to fight. Scores of towns were skirted or destroyed leaving no civilian governance.
Tens of thousands of Germans were being expelled from other countries clogging the roads with refugees with no place to go, while thousands of freed prisoners including slave laborers were trying to make their way home.
Thousands of Nazis were fleeing south into the mountains of Bavaria seeking sanctuary in Austria and transit out of Europe, many to South America, many into the United States.
Planning had only just begun to morph the 35th Tank Battalion into the 35th Constabulary but that would take months and months yet as well as retraining.
In the interim, dad is shown in photos clearing concentration camps, and supporting armored tanks and tank killers as they cleared pockets of resistance as well as flying patrol in light aircraft to intercept fleeing Nazis.
He writes of also spending days astride horses that had been liberated from Nazis while searching forests for those fleeing as well as pockets of resistance that hadn’t yet surrendered or didn’t believe the war was over including isolated but lethal Tiger Tanks.
His last few months were spent serving as a military policeman while vetting civilian law enforcement for a return to duty. On July 28, 1946 he was discharged from the Army at Fort Lewis, Washington and returned to the ranch and my mom.
As I was growing up, he would answer questions as I went through the trunk with his uniform, while carefully handling the side arm a German officer has given him while surrendering and a handmade knife with an antler handle a Russian POW had given him as he boarded a train for home.
I used a small backpack from his infantry days while I was going through Cub Scouts and never grew tired of going through a yellow plastic cigarette container filled with souvenir coins from different countries given to him by people he helped get back home.
Like I said, he was either tightlipped or self-deprecating about his enlistment, maybe to disguise his disappointment, possible out of respect for those such as Edward Bowman who gave his life.
Only from these fragments of evidence such as letters, documents and photographs and piecing them together by researching context from back then do I know his role.
Now his grandsons, granddaughter and great-grandsons and great-granddaughters will as well.
Recently on Netflix, I stumbled onto the third installment of the Saints and Soldiers franchise of films released last summer. They are produced by two BYU graduates who founded Rocky Mountain based Go Films along with other acclaimed films.
The moralistic stories set in WWII that can be watched by families with children. There is always a soldier from the Idaho or Utah area and the first two actually dealt with American soldiers who had served a Mormon mission in Germany and encounter converts fighting for the other side.
The one I watched last week is entitled “The Void,” which was released last summer. The backdrop deals with the pockets of resistance after the war such as my dad encountered as well as attitudes about race among American soldiers before and after the war that also reminded me of my dad.
Sometimes, even fiction can provide a glimpse of contents when digging into the archeology of family.
I thought of this again during morning walks through Fort Douglas while wondering if I might be crossing paths dad had walked there after reporting for duty or those of a great-great grandfather, a Union cavalry trooper, bivouacked there while it was being built.
In the future, I will delve my father’s complicated relationship with his father and lessons I’ve learned from them regarding succession and equitable distribution of assets to children.