Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Archaeology of Family

One of my interest-based passions in retirement is family archeology. While I’m often seen in a tattered leather flight jacket, I’m no Indiana Jones, although I confess to being intrigued by Durham’s more than 700 archeological sites identified on the top-secret state inventory.

My interest in archaeology involves the close study of family artifacts including documents and photographs to help me piece together family histories, something that has always intrigued me but is now further inspired by two young grandsons, one of whom expresses similar interests at age eight.

My father, who passed away suddenly at age 77 just weeks after 9/11, was famously brief with family and personal details although he recognized my interests as early as age four.  Kids my age were fascinated by WWII, often playing “army” with artifacts brought back by many of our fathers less than a decade before.

But other than humoring me by letting me frequently examine a knife given to him by a liberated Russian POW or a JP Sauer pistol confiscated from a captured German officer or an array of foreign coins and currency he kept in a yellowed plastic case intended to keep a pack of cigarettes dry, my father was famously stingy with details.

He would only say that he got there as the War ended and did everything he could to get back home as soon as possible.  But a box I received from his second wife, Margaret, included not only his Bible but a treasure trove of other miscellaneous documents including a certificate listing eight books he had read and reported on in 7th grade.

One of those documents, a one-page, two-sided form entitled “Enlisted Record And Report of Separation Honorable Discharge” suddenly brought a spike of emotion as I saw his right thumb print.  Coupled with information contained in several letters he had written home to his older sister and then relayed to me by a cousin, his time overseas came into sharper detail.

He was assigned to a Cavalry Squadron of the 35th Tank Battalion of the vanguard 4th Armored Division of U.S. Third Army headed by General George Patton who died later from injuries sustained in a car accident.  Famous for helping to liberate Bastogne earlier that year during the Battle of the Bulge, when my father arrived, the 35th Tank Battalion was pulling back from the chunk of Czechoslovakia it had liberated after rushing across southern Germany at the war’s end.

Today we think of the culmination of WWII as tidy, when compared to the chaos that occurred when both Iraq and Afghanistan fell so suddenly, but that wasn’t the case.  Documents reveal that we were just as unprepared when Germany surrendered.

Units such as the 35th Tank Battalion suddenly became police and border patrol while existing police weren’t trusted and prematurely disbanded at a time when individual Nazis were making a run for it through Austria and Switzerland to safe havens in places like Uruguay and Argentina.  It was a zoo.

The 35th Tank Battalion including Cavalry morphed into the 35th Constabulary Squadron.  With five officers and 155 enlisted men organized into five troops each organized much like the mechanized cavalry troop had been just weeks earlier as the war ended, but with individual weapons and mounted on horses, motorcycles or Jeeps.

One of Dad’s letters home refers to riding for days on horses liberated from the German SS, so it is possible that, with his ranching background, he rode for a time in one of several “horse platoons” that patrolled the otherwise inaccessible forests that rise from Bavaria up into the Alps.

If so, he would have carried his rifle in a "scabbard," like the ones we used on the ranch and he would have worn britches and cavalry boots. But I think he was mostly in the Jeep patrols of B Troop.  He would have had an opportunity to be in a motorcycle troop as well but he wasn’t, as least based on what I have discovered so far.  Curiously, my interest in motorcycles didn’t bloom until a decade after his passing.

I will only know more as I pursue more archaeology.

The Constabulary was also involved in processing prisoner-of-war exchanges with the Russians and riot control in refugee camps as Germans fled from Austria and other countries liberated from occupation.  At the same time forces were dangerously depleted as soldiers were shipped home as quickly as possible.

Before things had really settled down, Dad was shipped home too, leaving a day and two years before I would be born.  He had entered the Army at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, Utah and returned through Fort Lewis, midway between Olympia and Tacoma, Washington, details he had never mentioned even as he lived out the last several decades of his life just 50 miles north of there.

My Mom was just going on 17-years-of-age when he arrived back at the ranch.  They had to become reacquainted over the year before they would start a family.  He was asked to give up the habits of cigarettes and beer that he had learned in Europe and she had to re-acclimate from the life she had known living and working in Denver to the solitude of ranch life.

Piecing together my prehistory is something I not only enjoy but it affords me an opportunity to leave a richer understanding for generations to come.

1 comment:

Ken Hasselberg said...

In my family, natural history and construction firm blends together as my family hails from a line of natural scientists and geographical professionals like surveyors. I have been on and off with soil testing for site accomodation hire perth. I try to preserve heritage sites thanks to the things unearthed.