Army Captain Jack Golden wrote his father from Europe during World War II: “I feel like I’m 80.” He was 22-years-old in 1944. “You get so tired you stop doing the small things that are important to your safety and if you get tired enough you don’t care whether you live or die.... We gamble life and death. Daddy, you will understand this. Just like in cards you may win night after night but you can’t be lucky always.... I am always scared to death.”
Captain Golden is just of the many soldiers whose fears, fatigues, and final moments are chronicled by Rick Atkinson in his masterful book The Guns at Last Light, about the war in Europe from D-Day in June 1944 to German capitulation 11 bloody months later.
Early in the Allies struggle to gain a foothold in the killing fields of Normandy, France, the P-51 fighter-bomber piloted by Conrad Betting III clipped a tree in pursuit of a German convoy and crashed to earth.
Betting’s widow Katherine wrote, “It will be my cross, my curse and my joy forever, that in my mind you shall always be vibrantly alive..... I hope God will let me be happy, not wildly, consumingly happy as I was with you.... I will miss you so much - your hands, your kiss, your body.”
It’s worthwhile to recall on Veterans Day 2019 these voices from our past. Wars, of course, are terrible things. Including the Persian Gulf War and the war on terrorism, the number of Americans who have died in wartime since the Japanese attack on Peril Harbor in 1941 totals approximately 558,282- I say “approximately” because World War II figures range from a low of 291,557 (Wikepedia) to a high of 407,316 (the National World War II Museum in New Orleans) while the Vietnam War numbers are also in flux: 58,222, says the National Archives; 90,220, according to the recently updated PBS website numbers.
Whatever the true numbers are, they are large enough to have the odd effect of softening the blow of all the bloodshed the nation has suffered in recent decades.
But as World War II combat reporter Eric Sevareid (later of CBS News) noted, “War happens inside a man. It happens to one man alone.... A million martyred lives leave an empty place at only one dinner table.”
Atkinson quotes a letter written by the wife of soldier Frank Maddalena, whose war ended in the Hurtgen Forest in November 1944. Natalie, the mother of the couple’s two children, wrote her husband, “I see you everywhere - in the chair, behind me, in the shadows of the room.” Later, as time leaked on, she added, “ Still no mail from you. I really don’t know what to think anymore. The kids are fine and so adorable. Right now, I put colored handkerchiefs on their heads and they are dancing and singing.... When I walk alone, I seem to feel you sneaking up on me and putting your arms around me. “
A mother mourned her son lost to combat in 1944. “... Like a lamb you died and left me alone without hope.... Your last words to me were, Mother, like wind I came and like the wind I shall go.”
Nineteen-year-old Bobby Burns left his parent’s two-story, wood frame house at 404 Johnson Avenue in Connellsville in March 1943 for Army basic training. In little more than a year he was dead, in the Italian campaign.
Death was on the march in World War II.
I was recently drawn to the archives at West Virginia University in Morgantown. There, the papers of WVU basketball legend and all-time NBA great Jerry West are housed. West’s brother David was killed in the Korean War in 1951, one of the more than 54,000 American lives lost in that conflict.
David West was 21 when he was fatally wounded. A sergeant in a heavy mortar outfit, David was the “glue” that held the family together, Jerry has been quoted as saying. His death devastated the West family.
David was a devoted Christian. In November 1950, he wrote home, “Today is our Thanksgiving and Mom I am thankful that God thinks of us all. God will have his way and it is the best.”
Even as he wrote these words, David was moving inescapably toward his rendezvous with death.
Cecile West never fully recovered from the shock of losing her son.
In August 1863, on a mosquito-infested strip of sand on the coast of South Carolina, Henry Purviance of “little” Washington had the back of his head blown off by a dud shell blasted from the mouth of a Union cannon.
An officer in the 85th Pennsylvania Regiment, Purviance was loved and admired for his treatment of the regiment’s enlisted personnel.
Over a million Americans have died in uniform throughout our history, a number that is impossible to visualize. Such is not the case with the likes of Purviance, West, Burns, Betting, and Maddalena.
As individuals they died, as individuals they should be remembered for their service to country.
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at email@example.com.