It was warm for November, at least by the standards of most of the men who had just arrived at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, for the pending Trans-Atlantic voyage. The temperature on November 2, 1944, was in the mid-fifties throughout the day, even made it into the sixties. Two transport ships – the MS John Ericsson and the SS Santa Maria – waited at a pier not far away in New York, both bound for England and the War. The men, most of whom hailed from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey, spent a comparatively idyllic twelve days in the area, using twelve and twenty-four hour passes to visit the Big City. The average age of the men was twenty-one. At least one of them came from the small town of Johnston, in the smallest state, Rhode Island. That was my grandfather. If he was unusual, it was only by his comparative age: his twenty-fifth birthday had passed a week earlier and at home waited a wife and three children.
The 272nd Infantry Regiment officially became a part of the 69th Infantry Division on May 15, 1943, with its activation at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. The original cadre of 23 officers and 228 enlisted men came from the 96th Infantry Division at Camp Adair, Oregon. By the time the unit received its reinforcements from the Northeast and finished training in Mississippi, it was “the Fighting 272nd, the Battle Axe Regiment,” under the command of Colonel Walter Buie, United States Army.
The men sweated under a special kind of nervous anticipation; it comes only from knowing you are headed to War. There is some of the bravado often associated with high school sports, as young men fall back on the only remotely analogous contest-of-wills they have ever known. The thoughtful ones are almost always quiet; they know that sports do not contemplate Death and Destruction as their ultimate objective. Despite this, however, optimism reigned.
While the War in Europe was raging, it had been turning steadily in the Allies’ favor. Even the Japanese were beginning to lose ground to the U.S. in the Western Pacific: in early October, the Allies landed forces on Crete; Canadian forces crossed into the Netherlands; and the Soviet Red Army entered Hungary. By mid-October, the first battle on German soil – at Aachen – began. On October 20th, 1944, MacArthur landed in the Philippines to announce that he had returned, good to his word.
By the time the men of the 272nd make it across the Atlantic and establish their headquarters near Salisbury, England, the war appears to be firmly in hand for the Allied powers. It is now being fought on the German homeland; the men of the 272nd are almost jovial as the word gets to them about the course of events.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“Fraaann-cisss!” The kids yelled my middle name as a taunt. I tried to hide in the bushes, but they know I’m in there. Every day going to and coming home from school is like this. It’s a girl’s name some older kids say. Fraaann-sisss. It always came out that way. My first name – Dale – hardly made the case against me any better. The kids who do it are older, bigger, and worst of all, they come from money. Their family name is on local stores. I curse them from the bottom of my soul every day, wishing them horrible misfortune. Years later when passing through town I notice the stores have changed names. I ask around and learn the family suffered terrible tragedy and lost everything; the feeling of schadenfreude that comes over me can only be described as decadent and sinful.
At some point I remember asking my father why my name was what it was: just why (oh why?) did you name me this, Dad?
“You got your first name from my Staff Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge. He was a really good man when I was young Airman in the Air Force. His name was Dale. And, of course, your middle name came from my father, your grandfather, Francis Norman Saran.”
None of that meant anything at five years young.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The morale in the 272nd whipsaws on December 16, 1944 when the German Army launches a massive counteroffensive into the Ardennes forest in Belgium, beginning what will come to be known as the “Battle of the Bulge.” The German military had used the exact same tactic in the exact same place three times previously – September 1870, August 1914, and May 1940. Despite this, the Allies leave the Ardennes lightly defended by two inexperienced and two battered American divisions and the Germans catch them flat-footed. Three German armies – more than 410,000 men, along with all of the supporting arms – launch the deadliest and most desperate battle of the European campaign in the heavily wooded, rugged terrain of the Ardennes. The once-quiet region is overrun with the German counter-offensive. The 1st SS Panzer Division takes the town of Malmedy on December 17, 1944, and eighty-four U.S. soldiers are executed in the Malmedy Massacre. The U.S. 106th Infantry Division will be decimated before the battle’s end, as it seeks to buy precious time for Patton’s Eighth Army to execute an impossible ninety-degree pivot from the town of Lorraine to protect the American flank at Bastogne.
The Wehrmacht, led by Hitler’s own disciple, Sepp Dietrich along with SS Troops, penetrates the Allied lines along an eighty mile front. Only at Elsenborn Ridge do the Americans hold. The possibility exists that the German Army will run all the way to the Belgian coast at Antwerp – that is indeed Hitler’s plan – severing the line between the U.S. and British forces and leaving four entire Allied Armies trapped behind German lines. The hope for the Germans is a separate peace with the Allies and then a chance to fight their arch-nemesis Russia – alone – on the Eastern Front.
My grandfather’s unit yearbook grimly records the events:
Morale was high, and war seemed to be far away during the first part of December. Then came the newsflash of the German breakthrough in Belgium on 16 December 1944. War now seemed close at hand, and our attitude changed from one of the casual interest to one of serious personal regard. On Christmas Day, 700 men were taken from the Regiment for immediate shipment to Belgium to help stop the German onslaught. It was about this time that the Regiment was warned to prepare for shipment to the battlefront. During the remainder of the cold days of December and the first part of similar January days, we continued to train and readjust from the Christmas Day losses.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
My father leaves the Air Force in 1968 while the Vietnam War rages on; we wind up near his sister and I am born in a small town in Eastern Texas. That doesn’t last during the tumult of civil rights marches and desegregation and my mother home alone with two infants. We move back home to the Northeast – back to the home my father helped build, alongside his father and brothers: my grandfather’s house.
We don’t stay there long, but my early childhood revolves around my father’s parents and the family headquarters, as it were, on a small plot in Johnston, Rhode Island. My grandmother, the family matriarch, presides over the chaos of her six children with all of their kids, while my grandfather is the very definition of the kind, gentle Stoic in the midst of it all. His pipe smoke – first Borkum Riff, later Captain Black Apple-flavor – are like incense in the front room, where he can be found staring out the front door into the trees beyond the driveway. He stands like that for long moments, for what seems like forever to my young eyes, and I can never figure out what he’s seeing.
The Red Sox are always on in the background, either on the television set if we can get reception with the proper combination of rabbit ears, tin foil, and luck; or on the radio, if none of the above coalesce for visuals. On Sundays, my grandfather attends the church where he helped lay the cornerstone. When he returns, we all know we’re getting “dough-boys” – Pèpè’s special “recipe” of bread dough with a whole cut or ripped in the center, fried in some oil. Every once in a while he’ll gift us with french toast if we beg.
He smiles, his blue eyes clear and twinkling, never looking past you, always right into yours.
“Alright, my boy!” he says with unadulterated enthusiasm. “Here we go!” as he puts the plate of steaming fried dough on the table and we all chafe to cover ours with whatever we like: my father eats his with butter and jelly, carefully preparing each bite, while my sister and I rip the dough into pieces, lightly burning our fingers with impatience, and then slathering the bits with maple syrup.
My grandfather always sits patiently at the table with us, or hangs around the kitchen watching us eat, a smile across his face. He listens, watches, sometimes participates in the conversation, but always smiles watching us eat. It doesn’t dawn on me until decades later that having been born in 1919, his childhood would have been right in the middle of the Great Depression. Once over some holidays one of my grandfather’s brothers comes by to visits and I hear the adults in the kitchen from where I am snooping, just outside of the threshold:
“Remember those lard sandwiches, Frank? We used to take those to school every day.” Everyone turns to my grandfather – I can hear it by the silence.
“Oh yeah,” he answers evenly. “Yeah. Every day…” The other adults – my father’s generation – turn to my great-uncle and urge him to explain.
“Mom would cook the bacon in the morning,” he begins, “and then when it cooled to a solid, she’d put that right on some bread and that’s what we brought to school: lard, with some of those bits in it, on bread.” You can hear the recoil and disgust from my father and his siblings. I cringe where I’m standing.
“Ehh, I didn’t think it was so bad…” I hear my grandfather’s voice into the silence and the room erupts in laughter and jeers. My grandfather almost sounds sheepish, but it’s so genuine I’m filled with sorrow for him, though I can’t quite articulate why in my six-year-old mind.
Later, I realize that my grandfather is the only person who could express such simple, genuine gratitude for eating leftover lard. He doesn’t know how to be ungrateful.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The 272nd is rushed to the front in January of 1945, while the Allies try to hold the bulge in the lines and contain the German break. The Regiment crosses the English Channel during a blizzard. They land at Le Havre on D+189. The 3rd Bn Commander recorded their rush to the lines in his reports:
The remark, “That truck ride,” will never refer to any but the one from Le Havre in open trucks. “Standing room only” and “Destination unknown” are both understatements, although the application is sufficient. If people scoff at your tale of standing on only one foot during an eight-hour ride at night in a blinding snowstorm while the convoy was lost, any doctor will admit it is possible if the near-corpse is frozen stiff.
Leaving the Château de Vallalet, an 18th-century edifice that had seen rough usage under the Boche occupation, and the surrounding area of Romescamp and Gaillefontaine, the Battalion squeezed into boxcars that jerked along for days. No fiendish torture device could have left the Battalion’s body in worse shape. At last, the arrival was made at port, and the historic events of the present 3rd Battalion began with a muddy boot, a sloppy tent, and the foreign sounds of “Oui, oui” and “Cidre.”
Those ‘foreign’ sounds would have been native to my Quebecois grandfather. I imagine him quietly speaking the pidgin French of his ancestors, and of his wife (née Messier), who used to switch to the French whenever she didn’t want the kids to know what she was saying. We were raised in an English-speaking household, but it frequently swore in French.
By the time the 272nd reaches Belgium, the German offensive has spent itself. The Wehrmacht Army has run out of fuel, men, and momentum, in large part due to heroic losses sustained and inflicted by the Americans in thwarting the blitz. The defense at St. Vith, at Elsenborn Ridge, and famously portrayed at Bastogne, coupled with Patton’s impossible 90 degree right-wheel of his entire 8th Army, is enough to hold the Allied defenses. My grandfather’s unit now moves forward to confront Der Fuhrer’s Army as it pulls back to its defensive positions at the Siegfried Line. The 272nd, along with its sister units, will have to punch through it to finish off Hitler’s war machine.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
After I complete Officer Candidate School, I pass by my grandfather’s house just to say hi. I visit far less than I should and rationalize it a million ways, but the truth is that it’s because they are old – like, really old, and I am young. I don’t know how to talk to them. They want to reminisce about the child I was… while I am trying desperately to prove that I no longer am. I want to talk my upcoming commissioning as an Officer of Marines, Leader of Warriors…
“My boy, whatever you do, you don’t volunteer for nothing, okay!?” My grandfather is serious. “I am telling you. Whatever you do, you don’t volunteer for anything, okay?”
“I promise, Pep. Not me.” I make a solemn vow.
“The only thing I ever volunteered for in the Army…boy, they got me, I tell you.” He jabs in the air with his pipe for emphasis. He shakes his head and I can see he is looking somewhere far away, somewhere I haven’t been…
He looks toward the television set, but it’s turned off.
“We came back from a long march and boy, I tell you, was it hot in Mississippi!? Whew! With our packs and rifles…” He shakes his head at the memory. “The drill sergeant got up in front of us and said, ‘Okay, is anyone here tired? Does anyone want to volunteer for a different job where you won’t have to carry your pack and rifle?’ My boy, I was so tired… and I’m a little guy!”
My grandfather turns to me with his eyebrows raised. I laugh because at 5’9″, he’s three inches taller than I am, but I know what he means. He is still healthy at 80, but he slight-framed, always has been, unlike his own sons, who are tall, broad-shouldered, and thick of chest and limb.
“Those packs and rifles and all the stuff they made us carry… it was so heavy!” It is the infantryman’s lament and I have had a nice heaping spoonful of it over the last weeks, but I shut my mouth out of respect. I know where he has been and where I haven’t.
“So…so I looked around and I says, ‘Sure! Sure thing Drill Sergeant. I’ll do it!’” My grandfather stops staring, turns back and looks at me, genuine surprise in his eyes, like he still can’t believe this happened.
“I stepped forward, and the Sergeant said, ‘Okay. Now you’re now a bazookaman. You carry the bazooka.’ And I knew he got me. Boy, he sure got me good.”
I laugh out loud so hard that it comes out as a bark, myself having just returned from a summer at the hands of Marine Corps Drill Instructors. As I look into his eyes, however, I can see, my blessed grandfather is and was genuinely hurt by that. He was, and maybe still is, that trusting. He cannot believe his Drill Sergeant pulled one over on him like that.
“So don’t you volunteer for nothing, my boy.” He says, pointing his pipe at me. It’s the final word on the matter. I enjoy his presence for a few minutes while he puffs and stares peacefully, the clouds of smoke with apple and spices float over, and I try to be as patient as a twenty year-old can be. I want badly to ask him about what that was like, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. The gap is too wide; the chasm too deep… I don’t know how.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Nevertheless, a night in the woods isn’t housing, and nothing short of a steam radiator could have made the bivouac area among the Belgium firs a comfortable one. These were the most miserable of the bad nights spent. Foxholes were to be dug, but the spadework never passed the slit trench depth. The ground was frozen, and even all the ponchos and blankets that could be mustered were little help. Teeth still chattered between fits of sleep. Moreover, the puddle in the bottom of the hole got deeper and deeper. Nevertheless, it felt less damaging than the wind that blew overhead.
One night, the darkness was so intense that men wandered away towards both the enemy and the rear. Pfc. Arnold of B Company walked 10 yards from his tent and spent the next 15 minutes trying to get back. Guard reliefs that night were unreliable, too. Even when the relief was to be called by the guard himself, there was no certainty that his tent could be located. Just before dark, S Sgt. Slaich carefully marked the path he was to walk to awaken the next guard, but two hours later, that path was invisible. After an hour’s fruitless search, with nothing to show but scratched hands and face, he returned to his post and the easiest choice – to take the next guard shift.
“But those nights weren’t the worst,” Pfc. Nyland constantly repeats. “I remember a short jaunt of 13 miles we were to take through the woods one afternoon. Trucks were to pick us up at 2 o’clock. We were waiting beside the road long before that time rolled around. About 9 o’clock that night, the buggies finally arrived. It was raining harder than I’ve ever seen over here, and the wind blew it cold into our faces.”
“After the duffle bags were thrown into the truck, we piled on – 25 of us with our packs on our backs. I sat on top of the cab, where I thought I could find plenty of room. But when the rain came down harder and it grew colder later that night, I regretted that move. To keep warm, I cursed everything connected with the Army, with Europe, and with winter warfare.” Those 13 miles took 12 hours to cover, and the rain never stopped as long as the ride went on. –History of 1st Bn, 272nd Infantry Unit
My grandfather carried a bazooka as a member of “King” Company in the 3rd Battalion, 272nd Infantry. I’ve stared at the picture that has his name underneath it and no matter how hard I try, I can’t tell who he is. The picture is black and white and the men are too far away to see more than dark slits for eyes. There’s a large building in the background with “Apotheke” on it – the German word, derived from the Greeks, for “Pharmacy.” The men are in neat rows, like every military picture ever taken or painted, row upon row, tallest in the back, shortest up front, and somewhere conspicuously out front or at the sides are the leaders… but this is an after picture, of that there can be no doubt. These men are different than the men who started in Le Havre…
On moving into positions opposite the Siegfried Line, the Battalion climbed the muddiest, steepest and longest hills in our history. The going was so rough that walking on knees was nothing unusual. Even though there was a possibility that the shoulders were mined, everyone had to stop for occasional breaks on the way up. The entire Battalion started off in regular formation, but within an hour each company was spread over at least 800 yards. In another month, though, the troops were to wish that they could have gotten that much dispersion.
At Kamberg, the Battalion received its first real baptism of fire, with no wish remaining for further communion. The troops were told what to expect and what to look for by the group being relieved. They gave constructive and helpful advice. This in itself gave everyone a feeling of confidence; the men were getting first-hand information from the boys who knew.
The first day there, a patrol of Lt’s Cox and Young, Sgt Johnson, Pfc’s Hagquist, Fulcher, and Schellman of King were pinned down by mortar and 88 fire. Two days later, 2nd Lt Entzminger, leading his 1st Platoon patrol, was caught in the crossfire of two pillboxes. The Lieutenant observed the enemy position 200 yards to his immediate front and, upon ordering his patrol to withdraw to safety, he remained in a forward, exposed position, calling for and adjusting artillery fire upon the enemy pillboxes. Although subject to danger from friendly artillery as well as enemy small-arms fire, he remained in the position until after the supporting artillery barrage was lifted. Immediately after the barrage, while shifting his position, he was mortally wounded by enemy small-arms fire. Two others were wounded, and several men of the Platoon distinguished themselves by their efficient and courageous leadership.
Immediately afterwards, 1st Lt Coppock was ordered to take out a Battle Patrol of four enlisted men to determine the strength of the enemy in the immediate front of his position from which artillery, Nebelwerfer and intense machine-gun fire were being received across the entire Regimental front. Lt Coppock* pursued his task with such vigor and disregard for danger that, during the night, he succeeded in penetrating 1,200 yards from the Siegfried defenses into the enemy position. Having collected the information he sought, he then led his patrol safely back with vital information necessary for military operations. As a result of 1st Lt Coppock’s action and report, a decision was reached in higher headquarters that greatly accelerated the advance of our troops through this sector. –History of the 3rd Bn, 272nd Infantry Unit
(*) Lt Coppock won the Silver Star for his actions, the 3rd highest award for valor in the U.S. military
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Life in the military takes me away, as it does to everyone who makes it a career. We move our own young family all around the country and the world at the whims of the Marine Corps and my career. Holidays are a chance to reconnect, but with not a lot of leave on the books and a passel of kids to bring along, we rarely see my grandparents. I spend some time off of the Bosnian coast in 1995 during that unpleasantness. We hear the war, read it intel reports, study it, study the geography, plan routes, even rescue an Air Force pilot, but we don’t see the war… We don’t live it. At the time, the notoriety of the rescue and the relative dearth of conflict gives us what we think is “cred.” People chase “red ink” – combat time in pilot logbooks is logged in red ink – because we are fools.
I talk to my grandmother about that 6 month deployment aboard ship. She’s lamenting the time away from my kids and then she makes a backhanded comment that pulls me up short.
“I remember when your grandfather was away at the war…” She begins.
“Oh? Really? What was it like?”
“Ohh, he used to write me all the time… Such letters! Oh. Your pèpè, he would send me such romantic letters…” She exaggerates the word to the point of absurdity. I laugh.
“How long was he gone for?” I ask.
“Ohhh…psshh… I think about three years or something like that…?”
Gulp. Holy shit.
“Saving Private Ryan” comes out in July of 1998. I am in law school at the time with four children. By the time the Bar is over, and Naval Justice School completed, we have orders for Okinawa, Japan and are gone the day after I swear into the Bar. I finally see the movie at Marine Corps Air Station Iawakuni, Japan, while working on a case with a colleague and friend. I am as awed by it as every other American seems to be. It is an amazing movie and I vow to talk to my grandfather about his service after seeing it.
When we return from Okinawa for Christmas of 2000, we visit my grandparents. I want them to meet our daughters, so we trek the whole carload up those same roads of my childhood. Except now the woods seem impossibly thin, the distances far shorter than I remember, the driveway and the big spruce in the front yard… are not very big.
At some point my grandfather is standing by the door, talking to the parakeets in their cages, whistling to them while they chirp back. They know his voice and always respond when he talks to them. Outside the wind whips at the screen door.
“Hey, Pep?” I am sitting in his chair.
“Yes, m’boy?” He looks up from the birds and smiles.
“You hear about that movie – ‘Saving Private Ryan?’” He squints at me and then seems to finally have heard my question.
“Oh. Yeah… yeah, I did.” He stands up and puts his hands in his pockets, fumbling with some change and walks to the door.
“Would you like to go see it… together… uh, with me?” He never turns around, and he talks at the door, but I can still hear his voice today, like he’s in my room right now.
“Naaaahhh, my boy… I don’t wanna go see that… I… I seen all that already.” He turns back to me and smiles, but his eyes are pinched at the corners.
The shame washes over me. What an arrogant thing to ask, to assume… I regret asking that question to this day.
Third night at Kamberg was the busiest for the outpost. At about 2130, the King (K) Patrol returned, bearing two casualties. About midnight, the demolitions patrol of T Sgt Farley came by the OP (Operations Post) for last-minute instructions before jumping off on their attempt to blow up the pillboxes. The patrol soon left and returned about 0300 with their mission accomplished. The outpost had front-row seats for this exhibition, and can testify that those boys did a good job.
In addition, Item Company is justly proud of its Aid Men. Their deeds shine brightly through the darkness as memories take the place of battle life. One day, as mortar shells were coming in pretty thick, Jenkins of Item was wounded. Out there could be seen the figure of a man running swiftly and without hesitation – Mike DiCubellis. A medic was needed, and mortar fire or not, Mike was going to where he was needed. In just a moment he had reached the fallen Doughboy. Working feverishly in a field where individual movement meant danger, the Medic never flinched, seemingly not realizing that death flew through the air with each burst. After the engagement, he remarked, “Didn’t have time to dig in. The guy was hurt bad; had to work fast.”
The Communications Section must be praised especially for its fine job at Kamberg. Although harried by mortar fire day and night, the lines between the rear and forward CPs and each line company were in service at all times. The whole week at Kamberg was, as one man put it, a thin solution of night. We were like owls, having eyes only for darkness.
Leapfrogging nimbly over the last perimeter of the Siegfried line, the Battalion took Dahlem, our first town, in a walk – literally – and what a walk. The troops were loaded down like a convoy of one-man bands. Mind you, at that time, it was mostly GI equipment, not boodle!
Leaving Waldorf, the Battalion went on First Army Security Guard al the way to Stolberg and Aachen, big cities wrecked by American bombing. This meant working with engineer guards with white SGs on their helmets. This was the Battalion’s chance to get in on some of the luxuries of rear echelon – beer, movies, showers. That good deal was over in five days, and the Battalion crossed the Rhine in trucks on the 28th of March.
Arriving in the ancient town of Arzbach near the Lahn River late at night, the Battalion settled down for a few days with little action except intensive patrolling of the area. For the next week, the Battalion moved by vehicle or foot from town to town, trying to catch up with the Krauts. Leaving the town of Dehrn, which is memorable for the 100 slave workers who were living in a lice-infested seven-room house, the troops rode the TDs (Tank Destroyers) and other vehicles 100 miles to Lohne without incident. The second day at Lohne, the order came for a march to Altenstadt and surrounding villages, a 10-mile jaunt with full field and boodle. Everyone soon swore off, “No more loot.”
An early call the following morning started the Battalion on its unforgettable 28-mile march to Kassel, even though aching and blistered feet characterized the day. The men made it, however, and pulled into Bettenhausen on the outskirts of Kassel. Nevertheless, boodling that night took sheer guts. The troops had not been so exhausted since the aftermath of forced marches at Camp Shelby. –History 3rd Bn, 272nd Infantry Unit
* * * * * * * * * * * *
My grandmother and grandfather’s wedding picture hangs on their wall, as it always has. When I was young, I once looked at the picture and asked my mother, “Who are those people?” I could not reconcile the young woman in the picture – blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and statuesque – 5’10” anyway, with the woman in the kitchen smoking Virginia Slims – imagine Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” with a flower print dress … but my grandfather is unmistakable in the picture. I know the look on his face – I recognize it instantly – because I’ve seen it reflected back at me in the mirror before; he is crazy in love with that woman next to him…my grandmother.
Sixty-four years later they’re still together, but now the dementia or Alzheimer’s has left my Mèmè, the powerful matriarch, a shade of her former self. She has been in and out of the hospital and ultimately is back in the house at my grandfather’s insistence. The last time I was there, she had about 10 minutes where she recognized me and we were able to communicate, but now… now she has only one word. She rocks back and forth and calls my grandfather’s name: “Franny. Franny. Franny.”
“I’m right here.” He pats her hand and smiles. She only stops when he touches her, or talks to her, or coos at her, like the birds. I realize in that moment it’s not what he says, it’s how soothing his voice is, how much love he outs into the sounds. It’s like baby-talk, but this isn’t cute or funny, or self-aware at all; it’s a man trying to convey over 60 years of love while he watches his wife dissipate before his eyes. Fifteen minutes is almost more than I can take, but it’s not her calling “Franny” that affects me: it’s being present. I feel like a voyeur. This is theirs and theirs alone.
My grandfather and I talk about the Red Sox, our family history – his family history – and he mentions that he is the only one left. I’m not sure what he means.
“Of my brothers and sisters… I’m the last one,” he says.
“How many brothers and sisters did you have, Pep?”
“There were twelve of us.”
I can’t fathom any of that; not eleven siblings, not growing up in the Depression, not carrying a bazooka in World War 2, and not outliving all of my family at age 82.
I just stand next to him and put my hand on his shoulder while he looks outside.
My grandmother passes while I am in training to go to Afghanistan.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The 272nd Infantry Regiment’s history is a surreal walk through war, told by the men who lived it. There is the time the 3rd Battalion gets shelled by German artillery after crossing the Werra River and takes shelter in the basement of a building… that turns out to hold cases and cases of wine and French champagne. Two men are killed and three wounded, but the 272nd pushes on to Eichenberg. “Love” Company takes the town and King mops up.
They push on toward a town called Nieder-Gandern, but receive Tiger tank fire beginning in a town called Hebenhausen all the way to their objective. Even after they take Nieder-Gandern, the Tigers never stop their fire and four men are killed during the night and morning. A German night counter-attack is repulsed at close quarters.
Early the next morning, the Battalion bypassed all the dead Krauts who had counterattacked during the night. King Company led over a circuitous route, through the woods and onto the road. One sniper was flushed out by the lead squad under S Sgt Smith, Sgt Jonassen and Pfc Tarkington, and in the second town, 21 men were captured and 10 wounded or killed. The light machine gun section of the 4th Platoon of King accounted for one man. Along the way, M Company caught a group of the Boches running up a hill. The HMGs (Heavy Machine Guns) gave ‘em the hot foot, and the Company proceeded unmolested, leaving behind over a dozen dead Krauts. That night was spent in almost forgotten comfort, complete with soft beds and electric lights in Heiligenstadt.
Bad Kösen. Naumburg. Kottochau. The names of towns tick of as a checklist of objectives. The Regiment continues to pursue the Wehrmacht ever deeper into German territory. At Thiessen, the Regiment narrowly avoids walking into an ambush when a patrol discovers some wounded Germans from a nearby village, who explain that Thiessen is going to be a “last stand” for that unit. The Regiment hastily forms up and attacks the German 88mm dual purpose machine guns emplaced in the town. There are 36 of the anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns, which are considered among the best guns ever made, given their ability to take down allied aircraft or destroy allied tanks. The 272nd catches the German gunners by surprise and, along with some excellent gunnery from supporting artillery, it takes 249 enemy prisoners.
Germany’s 5th largest city, Leipzig, is the next target on the Regiment’s checklist. It takes hand-to-hand combat, but the 272nd captures a German barracks, and over the course of a day and night of fighting, another 234 enemy soldiers are captured.
The activities were climaxed the next morning when a feminine voice was heard rendering some smooth English. The voice belonged to a gal from Boston named the Countess de Maduit, the former Roberta Lorrie of Boston. She could not believe the Yanks were there until a few cuss words cinched the fact. The perfect portrait of an overjoyed woman, even though she bore the scars of an unforgettable past, she showed Love Company the concentration camp. Tears rolled down the cheeks of the men as they were shown the sea of people subjected to the barbarous treatment. The worst came when they saw what remained of a building the SS had burned to the ground. To keep the record of the Krauts straight, they had crowded some 200 patients into it before igniting the fireworks. The sight was not a pleasant one. The troops realized that the enemy was all and more than anyone had ever imagined.
It is not long after that the 272nd makes contact with the Soviets coming from the east. The German Army is vanquished.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
When the Red Sox come back from three games down against the Yankees and win the American League Pennant, I have to choke back tears. I am in Afghanistan at the time. The tears are not for me; baseball has never been my love the way it is for my grandfather. I break protocol and sneak a phone call; I can dial the number to my grandfather’s from memory. His 85th birthday is just weeks away and now, one year removed from another Yankees heartbreak that I thought might kill him. I know the Sox will beat the Cardinals. They have to.
I hear his voice over the scratchy connection.
“Pèpè? Hello? It’s me, Dale.”
“Yes?” We step on each other’s voices because of the delay, but finally I can hear his recognition that it’s me. I start shouting like a fool.
“They did it, Pep! They did the impossible!”
“I KNOW IT, MY BOY!! I THINK THEY’RE GONNA DO IT THIS YEAR!” I can hear the joy in his voice. I look around to see that no one is there and I let the tears run freely down my face.
He was born the year after they won their last World Series (1918) and he has watched eighty years or more of Red Sox tragedies, one piled upon another. He has borne it all with a patience that would make Job nod in approval. I’ve endured a good deal of it with him and never, not once, have I ever heard him swear. Not a single curse word. We watch Bucky Dent rip our hearts out in ’78 and all he does is throw his hands up, look at me in complete disbelief, and turn off the little black and white television set. He walks to the door and stares while he puffs away. I come to hate the Red Sox for the pain they inflict upon him…
When they sweep the Cardinals in ’04, I almost don’t care if I die in Afghanistan. He finally got to see them win it all. Finally.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
By the time my wars have ended, the Red Sox win their second World Series and when I visit my grandfather, we discuss Mike Lowell for governor of Massachusetts, the ’04 win… we relive our favorite parts in glorious detail. His sad-sack Patriots are now officially a dynasty and even the Celtics are looking good. Neither of us can believe this new world we inhabit.
He’s switched from a pipe to cigars, much to the chagrin of his children.
“I’m worried about these cigars he’s smoking,” says a relative about my grandfather’s new habit, to which I riposte that he is now in his late 80’s, and entitled to pick up a heroin habit, as far as I’m concerned… it’s no one’s business.
I happily indulge my Pepe with illicit Cohibas I’ve managed to get my hands on from a friend who is a ship’s captain in a country that doesn’t have an embargo on Cuban rum or cigars. I hate cigars, but we smoke them together in celebration. It’s the best smoke of my life.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Under the experienced command of Lt Col Edward J. Thompson, the 3rd Battalion of the “Battle Axe Regiment” had proven itself well in combat. Over hill, trails, and to the magnificent woods that spelled digging, smoky fires, makeshift shelters and excitement, the 3rd Battalion has caught in its wake of fire, memories that surround themselves with flesh and blood, with hope and sorrow, and with laughs and experience. During that time, a Battalion changed from a carefree, bivouac-inured herd to a confident, battle-tried team of fighting men. Only one medium can effect the change; only one process can bring about the metamorphosis. That one process is war. The actual struggle of meat and bone remains, as through the centuries, the unique method of shaping troops from the whims and idiosyncrasies of rear echelon to the positive qualities need to fight a battle. The way has been hard; it could have been harder. A spirited Battalion now exists that will function well under any conditions.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
A little while after my grandfather’s return from Germany, he and Meme conceive their fourth child – my father. A true “Baby Boomer,” he is born in the shadow of that terrible war. Twenty-two years after his birth, I am born in the shadow of the Vietnam War.
My grandfather lived quietly and simply, occasionally growing peppers and tomatoes in the garden out back. He loved purely, his blue eyes windows into the soul of a godly man. He helped build the nearby church, never missed a Mass while I was growing up, and yet I never heard him preach, judge, nor condemn a single person. I never heard him swear, nor lie, either.
He was an exceptional man from what feels like a bygone era, when decency, and good manners, were considered essential traits of all citizens. It’s hard to fathom the changes he saw in his ninety-eight years, but no matter what the fashions or trends, from the Flappers to the Hippies, from Disco to Heavy Metal, his brand of kindness never went out of style. It was never old-fashioned and neither was he – just the purest font of light, with a whistle for the birds and a smile for your troubles.
On Thursday, July 26, 2018, Francis Norman Saran, 98, passed away peacefully in his home, the one he built with his own hands. No palace of Versailles or manse for a Lord, it nevertheless sheltered generations of my family – his family – through stormy summers, hurricane season, and the bitter cold New England winters.
He will be remembered and missed.