A local WWII Veteran pens his memoir, 'Remembering War'
My Father's War
|Robert C. Young at boot camp, summer of 1942, Fort Knox, Kentucky.
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November 05, 2009That service would take him across Northern Africa, up to Sicily, through the Straits of Gibraltar to Great Britain, across the English Channel to Omaha Beach at Normandy, then through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. He was in Czechoslovakia when the Germans surrendered in May of 1945. He was back in Great Britain, on the streets of London wading through a jubilant crowd with his British girlfriend, when the Japanese surrendered. On Sept. 30, 1945, when he turned 22, he was on a ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, heading home.
When my sisters and I were growing up my father would tell us some of his more vivid memories of World War II, his meeting up with Churchill chief among them. In January of 1944 his battery, which had arrived in Africa on Nov. 19, 1943, was positioned south of the city to guard the coast.
"There was some sort of an unoccupied resort building at the south end and beyond that half-mile or so there was an active café, Le Café Suisse. "Although we were formally restricted to the area, we soon discovered the café and snuck out of camp for a decent meal and an evening of civilized relaxation," my father recounts in his recently completed memoirs. One evening as he walked with friends along the road to the café, one of them looked down at the beach, my father writes, and exclaimed, "My God, that's Winston Churchill down there!"
Churchill was walking with four or five military officers, with two larger men, most likely body guards, walking in front of the group. My father and his friends were nothing if not young and brash, so they went over to a British soldier who was guarding a jeep parked on the road. The solider confirmed that it was indeed Winston Churchill.
The American soldiers hung around for Churchill's party to come back to the jeep. As they drew closer, my father recognized one of the officers. The man was U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall, and my father and his buddies did not have passes, something which greatly concerned my father. Luckily, the American officers ignored the soldiers. The GI's did get a return salute from Churchill, however, along with a friendly, "Good evening."
Later they surmised that the naval officer in the group was Admiral King, head of the U.S. Navy. My father and his friends hadn't known then that their first major overseas mission was to provide coastal protection for the Casablanca Conference.
A year ago, at the age of 85, my father finished writing his war memoirs, "Remembering War." He'd only begun the task of writing them down after he reached his 80s, but he'd spent 60 years remembering.
Many of the instances in the memoirs are familiar to me because he has retold them often. The first German soldier he saw, sitting perfectly still under a tree in France on D-Day, not a mark on him, but stone cold dead. The little Italian boy whimpering in the cave where civilians and soldiers alike had gone to escape the shelling — my father gave the boy some candy and he quieted down. When the shelling stopped the boy's mother reached into her basket and gave my father a fresh egg. My father, even at 19, 20, 21, was a keen observer. He had the eyes and ears of a writer, though he was ever-so-young then, and many times in mortal danger.
I put off reading the 150-page manuscript for a year. He had told us, when my sisters and I were teenagers, that even during the boring parts of the war — the slow slogging through all kinds of terrain, then the waiting around for something to happen — he knew he was a part of something historic, something much bigger than himself. The rest of his life, he said, was anti-climactic.
What if I read the memoir and it didn't measure up to the oral history he'd provided over the years? What would I say to him after I'd finished reading it?
So I didn't tell him when I finally read it. I know he gave me a copy of it on disk awhile back, but I don't like to read that many pages on a computer screen. Instead, I snuck into his in-law apartment last Sunday when he was at church and borrowed his hard copy. I snuck it back in a couple of days ago, when he went downtown for milk. As I
write this, he still doesn't know I read it.
My father was born in 1923 and grew up, the middle of three sons, in Great Neck, N.Y., when there was still open land there. He was a Boy Scout and enjoyed camping trips. He spent summers out on the North Folk of Long Island where his parents had a small cottage on Wolf's Neck in Cutchogue. He and his brothers spent the warmer months outside, climbing trees, fishing, swimming, clamming, exploring.
When the war came my father was already out of high school. He'd spent the winter of 1942 working at a logging camp in northern Maine, then came back home to a desk job as a file clerk in New York City. He was 18 and clearly wanted to see more of the world, and wanted adventure.
He joined the Army on July 1, 1942. In penning his memoirs, my father writes in his preface, he wanted to "relate what I did, what I felt, and what I knew at the time without embroidering the event or the emotions with hindsight or without being influenced by the vivid writings of other narrators who wrote closer to their experiences, or historians better endowed with the ability to portray events more vividly and comprehensively than I."
He did that, and more. His recall of details is amazing, particularly the part of a soldier's life that isn't often written about.
Everywhere they went they had to make sure they were relatively safe from shelling, and the ensuing shrapnel, at night, which meant digging and sleeping in foxholes. He dug foxholes in dry, hot conditions, in soil that was like cement; in ground that was almost glassy sharp due to its volcanic origins; in the cold wet earth of a European winter.
After Northern Africa, my father's unit went to Sicily, providing artillery support for several different divisions in July and August of 1943. By December the unit was in England, getting ready to take back continental Europe. By June 5, 1944, he was on a LCT (Landing Craft Tank) preparing to cross the English Channel.
"Sometime after midnight we moved out of the harbor into the open sea. I slept fitfully and when I awoke from time to time I could see the dim shapes of other vessels and their muted lights rocking and bouncing up and down on the rough waves. Our small boat lurched, shuddered and rolled as it struggled to keep its place in line. The men were quiet; combat soldiers know how to grab sleep whenever they can and our men were draped around equipment, slumped in drivers' seats wherever they could find a place to rest.
"My immediate concerns were how to adjust my body to the cold hard steel plate I was trying to sleep on, but here we were, a cargo of mostly unconscious passengers being carried inexorably toward an unknown fate. I was mindful that the whole world would be watching and waiting for word.
"As the sky lightened in the early dawning of the long June day, the full scope of the flotilla was made visible — ships of every kind surrounded us from horizon to horizon, many bearing tethered barrage balloons to discourage low-level strafing. The bulk of the fleet was comprised of landing barges and larger carriers which would transfer their passengers to smaller vessels that would carry the men to shore, or would discharge navigable ordnance that was to land directly on the shore. Mixed with the landing craft were a variety of warships ranging from destroyers to battleships.
"We were attached to the 16th Infantry Regiment of the First Infantry
Division, an outfit that we had full confidence in, and we trusted them to secure the beach, code name 'Omaha, Easy Red' so that we could land our SP's and take up a firing position to give artillery support to the forward troops as they moved inland. Our first mission was to position ourselves off the beach and fire on it a half-hour before the troops landed. I thought that was something of an honor to be the first field artillery to fire on France. There was no way we could target specific installations, just so our shells landed in the enemy area," my father writes.
Hours later the unit landed. It would take almost another year of fighting before the Germans surrendered, but the soldiers of the 62nd Armored Artillery Battalion, along with the hundreds of thousands of soldiers from other units, other countries, were on their way to winning the war.
My father has written, and twice delivered, a Sunday sermon, "Remembering War," before his friends at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tamworth. The first time, several years ago now, he had to practice out loud many times so that he wouldn't choke up. The second time, this past May, I went and heard him. He choked up when he referred to two brothers he knew from Great Neck, their parents' only children, who didn't make it back from the war. It's hard to stay dry-eyed in the face of such loss.
I think that first delivery of "Remembering War," was the catalyst for him to finally write his full war memoirs. He's working on an annex to his manuscript that will, he writes in the preface, contain statistics of interest and comments on such things as life in the field, how artillery operated in combat, and what it is like to be sequestered in the society of soldiers for almost three years.
My father came home from World War II in October of 1945. Again, his memory and writing are as sharp as if he came home yesterday.
"While we were at anchor I saw a tugboat come out of the inner harbor and head towards our ship. I assumed that it was to help us into our berth, but as it got closer a stocky man in rough clothes and holding a megaphone climbed up on the roof of the small cabin, and the tug began to circle our ship while the man shouted, "Shapiro, Shapiro," up at the ship.
"And then a voice from the upper deck yelled, 'Poppa!' Poppa Shapiro leaped into the air, jumping up and down and flinging his megaphone and cap into the water while all of the ship gave out a roaring cheer.
For the moment, Mr. Shapiro was everybody's 'Poppa,' and later as we moved to our berth at the Cunard dock, the fireboat, with all its hoses spraying graceful jets of water, and the barge with a WAAC band that escorted us in was an anti-climax. No doubt about it, we were home."
Happy Veteran's Day, Dad. Thank you for your service, and thank you for your great memoir.
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