You never get over the shock of sudden death

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 3, 2006

There was one memorable instance of us watching the enemy as they took pot shots at us while we constructed a floating bridge. The river was too wide and the weather too bad for them to be accurate, no matter the capability of a German rifle. And some of us were allowed to return the fire with about the same results. Our second lieutenant crumpled and did not move. We thought that strange, for usually there is a cry of pain, attempts to get back on the feet, and much cursing. It was as close to an instant death as it could have been. We froze in place, waiting for movement of any kind. There was none.

Freezing in place is not a good idea under such circumstances and it seems the odds are better if one keeps moving. How one reacts to the death of a fellow soldier depends on how close one was to that person.

Most officers remained aloof and the loss of one was not as bad as if it were a &uot;buddy.&uot; You knew everyone in your platoon of 48, and maybe a few from another platoon. We lived in a relatively small world, not deliberately … just because it was easier to find companionship, acceptance and strength in a close-knit group. During the 11 months, we saw many of the original 48 depart the war, many left the world. And replacements were accepted only after proving their worth.


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Watching a buddy die (you knew he would) was little different than witnessing one attended by a medic. Often you couldn’t tell which way it was going. When either occurred, it was during chaotic action and everyone was busy trying to survive what was coming in. After the engagement, sudden death is easier to accept than a horrible wound to someone you know. The sight and sounds stay with you for days, some for years. There is nothing so graphic as a shredded mass of blood, flesh and uniform and the terrified face of a &uot;kid&uot; knowing his time may be up. No drama, just terror, and sometimes a cry for mother. The &uot;noise&uot; from a savagely hurt buddy can make you as angry as an incessantly barking dog, you want it to stop, and sometimes it does and you curse yourself.

At the ages most of us were, few were married, no wife or kids to deal with. Sooner or later the captain faced up to writing parents so the news of death often reached family faster than &uot;wounded in action.&uot; Both events were bad news, but surely mom and dad accepted a boy coming home in bandages instead of a box.

But we wondered how readily a missing limb would be considered a satisfactory trade. I never again heard from a wounded &uot;friend&uot; who had escaped the war that way. I hope some are still around and talking about it. All of us had been hurt many times, one way or another, but if we remained &uot;on the job&uot; until the war ended, we earned no purple hearts.

That particular heart shaped medal contributed points toward the day you would be excused from the army and transported home. There were several ways to earn those quick tickets to America, time overseas, rank, etc. but I was in no hurry to leave as I explained earlier.

An interesting sidelight … it took me until May of this year to finally receive the medals I did earn, including two unit bronze stars, commendations from much higher ups for tough missions well done. It took two years of service to my country and 63 years of waiting to be able to hang four medals on a uniform that no longer fits.

Would I do it again? Not at this age; but I would not have missed it. And every old timer who served in those years tells me the same … we remember America as it used to be.

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