Up Front (Preface)
The king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services.
Even as I, at eighty-five, close the book sixty-five years later, I confess in the recollection of it all to a tinge of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. No, none of us purposed our death when we purposed our services to President Roosevelt and to our country back in the 1940s.
This book was embarked upon in March 1943 in the form of a journal-a catch-as-catch-can record of whatever lay ahead of me, a bottom-of-the-pile volunteer in the United States Infantry when the USA was viewed as the last hope of a more or less civilized world grappling with the most evil force in the recorded history of mankind. Six months after I signed up for battle, not long after the Allied invasion of Italy, I landed in ravaged Naples with the first contingent of American casualty replacements in Europe and was assigned to the Intelligence & Reconnaissance Platoon of about thirty front-line scouts and observers in the 45th Infantry Division's 157th Regiment, already baptized in the battle to drive the Germans from Sicily after their expulsion from North Africa.
Soon after the nearly repelled landing of the Yanks and Brits in Salerno, Italy, I was cautiously up on the stalemated Winter Line in the almost straight-up steepness of the Apennine Mountains and incautiously under hit-or-miss enemy fire until January 1944. Then five months of leisurely twenty-four hour duty as target practice for the Krauts on the Anzio Beachhead; then the "Champagne Campaign" liberation of southern France; a bout with malaria; a leisurely AWOL return to the front; and a leg injury falling down a barn loft ladder during an enemy barrage that hospitalized me back to Italy as our Platoon approached the Vosges in northeastern France. My buddies went on to fight the desperate Battle of the Bulge, and finally, on the verge of the end of the war in Europe, to liberate Dachau, the prototype concentration camp, where they at the last moment saw and smelled what it was all about before carrying on to occupy the very Munich beer hall from which der Führer had loosed his Holocaust.
Over the course of the following months, as a field-hospital driver in the Volturno Valley east of Naples, I absorbed an Army manual on journalism as a postwar career, was hooked and mulled over the idea of a book about it all. My first attempt around 1947-after graduating from Harvard and getting a job with the Associated Press in Boston-I couldn't write myself into my first day in action.
Thirty years of journalism, free-lance writing and books, and in 1978, the haunting compulsion resurfaced. I realized that this was really the collective story of our Platoon and by no means mine alone. So I turned to my old comrades around the country, one leading to another, ferreting them out, interviewing them with my newshound know-how and with bottle and camera in hand, and discovering that few if any of us had talked of our war to anyone. Well, we old buddies, under the magic of our mutuality and lurking, unrecognized sense of guilt (for lack of a better word) over having survived while so many others hadn't, unloaded our burdensome memories and terror and denial, talked and talked and almost wept and laughed and roared. They granted me, every one, unreserved freedom of publication in the bargain. Ninety taped hours, much of it available on the Unknown Soldiers website ( www.unknownsoldiersmemoir.com ) along with their friendly faces.
Yet, though I wrote and rewrote, I still could not get myself and our book past the roadblock of my first day in action. Why?
More productive years passed-but still no war book-until in 1994 Veterans Administration psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, MD, published his landmark study, Achilles in Vietnam , wherein he recognized virtually the identical psycho-emotional disorder among Vietnam vets and the survivors of the Trojan War in the twelfth century b.c. described by Homer. In an intense discussion at my home one evening, Doctor Shay helped me to project myself retrospectively from my particular rung on what he described as "the ladder of guilt" for surviving as one's buddies died.
That was the first step, and it enabled me to rear back, charge through my baptism of fire and write our book. But a more significant second step toward insight revealed itself to me recently as I awakened from a troubled night's sleep, and it harked back not to my first day in action but to my last, when I was hospitalized back to Italy for a cut on my left shin in a fall down a rickety ladder in a barn in France, trying to gain observations of the enemy under their artillery fire.
My "wound" wholly healed, and though entirely fit for return to action with my buddies in France, my sympathetic Army surgeon reclassified me as unfit for further combat, and I was reassigned to the Medical Corps as a driver in a station hospital in the countryside east of Naples, whose commander just happened to be an old medical friend of my influential doctor father back in Boston, as was another friend, the Chief of Surgery for the European Theater of War. A third colleague of Pa, running an Army hospital in Naples, looked me up, congratulated me and declared that after nearly a year of it I'd had enough. And dear old Jimmy Dowdall, ninety-six now and one of the last four of us left alive in our Platoon, was wounded in action three times before they declined to return him to his buddies.
So now at last, in this moment of revelation and with a lump in my throat, I hereby face up to what's really been gnawing at me for sixty-five years. Flat on a stretcher on the ambulance plane back to Italy, my first time aloft, I was overcome by dread that the symbolic loss of my helmet, which had disappeared somewhere between hospitals in France, would cost me my life if I returned to action. Now I realize that through my years of focusing on my helmet's loss I was only silently rationalizing the loving, but never revealed, undoubted intervention of my father to rescue me from my war.
Thus the letdown of my buddies back on the front, thus the "guilt," thus the book.
* * *
And we Unknown Soldiers? The Greatest Generation? No, we occasionally pulled off what had to be done. My vote for "Greatest Generation"-with all respect, love and loyalty for my own-goes back to our Revolution of men and women who fought, sacrificed, suffered and died for their freedom from a distant, contemptuous, arbitrary and rather stupid emperor across three thousand miles of ocean. They were the generation that produced the most noble documents in human history, the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights, the generation of my particular forefathers here in Gloucester, Massachusetts, once the greatest fishing port in the New World, who met in Town Meeting on December 15, 1773, and voted as one: "If we are compelled to make the last appeal to Heaven, we will defend our resolutions and liberties at the expense of all that is dear to us." And they did.
No one who hasn't been inside war, at war, down-to-the-dirt-and-shit of it can even vaguely imagine it. Those who have waged it and endured it from the ground down, any war, find it an overwhelmingly horrifying nightmare of inexpressible inhuman experience. The naked truth of humanity's (yes, humanity's ) capability for beastliness is rarely conveyed person-to-person from one generation to the next, or even within its own. Thus each succeeding generation is denied the first-hand lesson of it. And thus this all-too-human urge for self-destruction of our species rebuffs prevention anew and persists in remaining a hidden mine shaft in the human experience known as the "passage to manhood." This work, then, is an experiment in breaking through that void toward the expression of the duality of what we two-legged mammals regard so jealously, so fearfully, so vulnerably, so utterly humanly, as our humanity .
Video of author and Dr. Jonathan Shay discussing the effects of PTSD on the creative process
Chapter 16: Dachau complete text and audio, with author and buddies' voices, now online
Chapter 6 complete text and audio, with author and buddies' voices
Chapter 5 complete text read by author, with buddies' voices