Unit Assignment and Camp Breckinridge

Memorial Day has meaning in our family for more than just a day to remember war dead. On May 30, 1943, my parents were married in Kings Chapel in Boston. Now our extended family gets together on Memorial Day weekend for food and remembrance. And this Memorial Day weekend we added a new thing to celebrate, namely the marriage of our younger daughter. So it has been a busy weekend.

Memorial Day of 1944 was my parents’ first anniversary. They spent a pleasant day in New Orleans where my father was nearing the end of his six weeks at LaGarde General Hospital. The next week Jim and Liz packed up and traveled north to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. The camp was established in 1942 when the federal government took possession of 36,000 acres from 121 landowners, mostly active farmers. About a third of the landowners sold their land voluntarily but the rest lost their farms through eminent domain. Incredibly, over 70 years later, legal disputes continue over compensation to those landowners. The site of the Camp is in the small town of Morganfield, a little southwest of Evansville, Indiana, not far south of the Ohio River.

The camp was designed to train 30,000 troops annually but soon hosted 45,000, or three full Divisions. The vast majority of the troops were housed at the Camp, but as a married officer, my father was able to rent an apartment for he and Liz in Henderson, about 15 miles from the Camp. Upon his arrival at Breckinridge, Jim learned of his assignment to the 275th Engineer Combat Battalion of the 75th Infantry Division, with which he would serve until the end of the war. As Battalion Surgeon, my father was essentially the general practitioner for the 500 man battalion. He began to work out his routine of checkups, inspections of sanitary conditions and food preparation, and the normal run of medical complaints from the men.

1.2 Jim 1944
1944

In July, 1944, the 275th was sent about 25 miles east of Camp Breckinridge to train on the Green River. River crossings would be a crucial part of their duties in Europe, and they trained for several weeks in launching boats, various methods for crossing rivers, building temporary bridges, and other engineering problems. Jim stayed at the river camp with the Battalion during the week, returning to Henderson for weekends with my mother. The fishing was good, and Jim had his father send him his rod and accoutrements.

In September the Battalion split into bivouac camps with the three companies in different places, as they would be while in combat. Jim was also given duties with two other battalions. As a result, Jim spent four hours every day in a truck, driving from one camp to another at the speed limit of 25 mph. Actually, he wasn’t doing the driving. He was assigned a driver, W.S. Fletcher, an 18 year old from the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky. Jim and “Fletch” hit it off despite their vastly different backgrounds, and would be together until the end of the war.

Jim wrote his parents regularly during this period, and I include excerpts from those letters in the opening chapter of my book. On September 12 he wrote the following.

I am gaining a good deal of valuable experience in a lot of ways. For instance, I would not be scared to go into general practice now. My work here is very like it in a lot of ways. The past two weeks I have had the medical care of 3 battaions . . .

And on October 27, as their training ended and they awaited orders for Europe, Jim wrote his father the following.

. . . if I have to be in the Army, my present job is about the best I could have. If one has to be in, I think the place to be is with troops. There is an amazing amount of independence and responsibility in my job . . .

Soon after, the 75th Division headed northeast to Camp Shanks on the Hudson River about an hour north of New York City to await their shipment across the Atlantic. Jim was able to see my mother one last time, meeting her at his parents’ apartment in the city for a short night. When he left her at 5 am to return to Camp Shanks, it would be the last time he saw her for the next 20 months.

What Makes an Hour Important?

I just spent ten days backcountry skiing in Colorado and then, back home in Vermont, spent a few days thoroughly enjoying my 13 month old granddaughter Elizabeth while her mother was away in Oregon. Those activities have helped me enjoy a strange winter here in Vermont, one that has teased us with snow several times, only to laugh at our hopes while thrashing us with ice or rain. The break has also rejuvenated my blogging ardor, so after a three week hiatus, here we go again.

My parents began their life together in wartime New York City. I’ve done a little research to help me picture their life in 1943. What were the streets like, the people, the traffic? I’ve found some images that help, including this one from that year taken on W 125th street, a couple of miles south of their apartment in Washington Heights. W125th St NYC 1943There is a young woman in a fur coat nearing the lower left corner wearing a fur coat just like the one I can remember her wearing. It helps me imagine her there that November of 1943, 23 years old, energetic and full of expectations of her life to come, not yet full of the fear that would plague her a year later when Jim shipped out for war torn Europe.

In those days New York was a white city, in fact over 90 percent white. While there was a refugee crisis in Europe (sound familiar?) the United States adhered to strict quotas, harboring the same fears that are echoed today. The Lower East Side in Manhattan was home to a burgeoning immigrant population, but uptown where my parents lived was the milieu of the white, protestant families that dominated the city. Nearby Harlem was the center of the black population, and the scene of growing unrest. On August 1 and 2, 1943, a race riot erupted there in response to the shooting of a black man by a white police officer. Things don’t change much, do they?

For my parents, the city was a crowded, bustling place full of promise. My father knew it well from his years in New Jersey, and his parents maintained an apartment on lower 5th Avenue, where Jim and Liz were frequent dinner guests. Rents were affordable for working families, and I’m sure the two of them must have been comfortable on their combined modest incomes. Both of their lives centered around the Columbia Presbyterian hospital complex. My mother had her first job as a medical social worker, while my father worked long and crazy hours at Babies Hospital. They grabbed moments together, occasionally meeting for lunch in the hospital cafeteria or one of the ubiquitous delis in the neighborhood. Their apartment was just a few minutes’ walk, so despite his schedule, my father was able to be home for dinner much of the time. Both of them came from households with a maid who did much of the cooking, so I suspect that my mother was learning on the fly, settling into a routine of cooking for her husband’s tastes, to which she catered for the rest of her life.

They knew the life they were building was temporary, and in March of 1944, ten months after their marriage, the inevitable happened when my father was called to active duty. He was commissioned as a First Lieutenant, and sent to Army Field Service School at Camp Carlisle in Pennsylvania, where a six week orientation for medical doctors took place. My mother kept her job in New York, but spent two weekends in Carlisle. Jim said the most important lesson he learned there was that there are regulations for everything in the Army, and no matter what a medical officer might need, somewhere there was a regulation permitting it. Jim was learning how to deal with bureaucracy, a skill that served him well throughout his career.

The next step in training was a six week stint at an army hospital to learn “army medicine”. Jim was assigned to LaGarde General Hospital in New Orleans. Officers were allowed to take their wives, so Liz took a leave of absence and the couple began six months of nomadic life, knowing their time together would end when Jim shipped out to an uncertain future for an uncertain amount of time. Every hour began to be important.

Fire, Love, and Medical School

My father, Dr. Jim McKay, had his first experience dealing with heavy casualties not in WWII, but in Boston during his fourth year in medical school. At 10:00 on Saturday evening, November 28, 1942, about 1000 people were in the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, waiting for the floor show to start, when fire broke out. The main entrance was a revolving door, which quickly became jammed with people rushing to escape. The fire was hot and fast, and within a few minutes over 400 people were dead and hundreds more were piled in front of the exits with severe injuries. Firefighters got the fire out quickly, but then realized the magnitude of the tragedy as they tried to enter the building. They called in military personnel to help evacuate the injured, and Boston City Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital were inundated with urgent cases. There was a general call for medical personnel and my father spent 72 hours straight treating victims. This tragic event served as valuable experience for Jim and many other doctors who would soon serve in WWII.

The fire happened shortly after Jim had completed his practical training in obstetrics by spending three months that fall at the Florence Crittenden Home for unwed mothers in suburban Boston. That training would also prove useful in Europe, though delivering babies is not normally associated with the duties of an army battalion surgeon.

There was another event in 1942 that I cannot leave out of this tale, because without it I wouldn’t exist. That summer of 1942, Jim was sitting around with a friend on a Saturday, with nothing particular to do. They decided to get dates for the evening, and Jim thought of Liz Foote, whom he hadn’t seen in a few months. Jim called Liz at her home in Belmont, and she and a classmate, who was living in the Foote house at the time, agreed to go out. The four of them went to a beach south of Boston, where they spent the afternoon walking and talking. Jim and Liz had a wonderful time, began dating regularly, and soon fell in love. In December, they got engaged. This was a monumental commitment for Jim, who had dated an amazing number of women in his college and medical school years. He always told us that our mother (Liz) was the 19th girl he had dated in medical school.

1943 EFM garden Basking RidgeMy parents were one of literally millions of couples who decided to get married despite the war looming on the horizon. Jim had actually joined the US Army Medical Corps reserve in the spring of 1941. From his experiences in Germany in 1935 and 1938, he was sure we would be drawn into the war, and knew that doctors would be in high demand. Indeed, medical school was accelerated beginning in 1942. By shortening the summer holiday a class of doctors was graduated every nine months. This continued until the war’s end in 1945. I never discussed with my parents their thoughts around marriage and impending military service, except that my father told me that they decided not to have children until after the war. I know from their letters around the time of their engagement that they were deeply in love. Here’s an excerpt from Liz’s letter to Jim on Christmas day, 1942, after they had just spent five days together with Jim’s family.

 

Jim, did you feel the way I felt yesterday, and have felt all today? I feel completely lost without you to share what’s happening & what I’m thinking with. God, if being separated from you after only five days of being with you can do this, what will I feel like when you’re not there after we’re married.

 

It’s an interesting experience reading your parents’ love letters. Most of my research involved a more objective search for information, but to really understand what this couple was feeling at this amazing time, their letters are priceless. Tears come to my eyes as I sit and read them, tears of happiness that they experienced such powerful love, and tears of sadness knowing that they would undergo a long and very difficult separation in the terrible war that was enveloping their entire generation.

The spring of 1943 was a whirlwind for my parents. In March, Jim graduated from medical school and in April started his accelerated internship in pediatrics at Babies Hospital in NYC. In May, Liz received her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Simmons College. On May 30, 1943, he and Liz were married at Kings Chapel in Boston by her father, Unitarian minister Henry Wilder Foote II. After a honeymoon fishing in upstate New York, the newlyweds set up housekeeping close to the hospital in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, with a view of the Hudson River. Liz was hired to do medical social work at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital (part of the same complex as Babies Hospital). And so, the married life of Liz and Jim McKay began, full of promise yet fraught with uncertainty, or rather the certainty that the war would soon catch their sails and send them in an unknown direction.

Tennis, Girls, and Med School

As I write, I am looking out the window at a brilliant moon in the early morning sky, with Jupiter as its bright companion. The temperature is in the single digits and the ground snow-covered. Since becoming immersed in the Battle of the Bulge and my father’s role in it, I can’t help thinking about him when I see such conditions. He and my mother often used the moon as a connection in their letters, as countless separated lovers have done for centuries. But in this blog the war is still in the future, and I must drag myself away from the moon.

In writing the book, I emphasized how formative World War II was to my father’s character. Yet, as I review his early life, I can see that a lot of his key traits were already in place. His independence, sense of adventure, desire to wring the most out of life, and an impressive self-confidence are clearly demonstrated by his experiences at Lawrenceville, Frankfurt, Princeton, and Munich. His easy willingness to lead emerged during his Junior Year Abroad, when he became president of his group. The skills of leadership would be learned in the army, but the willingness to step up was in his basic character. Jim’s outgoing social self was clearly there early. At Lawrenceville in his early teen years he was a 98 pound (literally, according to him) weakling with frequent bouts of sickness, yet he participated in everything the school had to offer with seeming abandon. I’m guessing that there was cause and effect. His strong will and sharp mind would have driven him to overcome any physical weakness. He would have recognized that he needed to throw himself out there to succeed, rather than hang in the background watching the bigger, stronger kids take the limelight.

Jim grew up, of course, and attained his adult stature of 5’ 9” and 145 pounds by the time he entered college. I know what that feels like because I am exactly his size. From his letters and his memories, it is clear that he was extremely gregarious. I don’t know what that feels like because I am just the opposite. Jim dated girls early and often and was happiest in a group of friends, preferably of both sexes. Having gone off to boarding school at the age of 12, he spent years living in dorms and rooming with others, being conditioned to the challenges of prolonged close contact. That experience would serve him well in the army.

My father’s sport was tennis. His father was an excellent tennis player, and I’m sure Jim found it a sport in which he could excel despite his small size. He also liked the class of people who played tennis. During the summer after his graduation from Princeton, Jim got a job as the tennis pro at an exclusive country club on Long Island, in Stony Brook. He became good friends with the daughter of the president of the club, Peggy Melville, who introduced him to the finer aspects of Long Island society.

1942_RJM tennis vs Count
Tennis match vs Count Igor Cassini at Old Field Club, Long Island, 1939, 6-4, 5-7, Cassini got blisters

Jim entered Harvard Medical School in the fall of 1939. That first fall was a whirl of hard work and parties. In letters home he describes the difficult work load to his parents and then in the next breath asks them to ship him his fancy duds so he can be stylish at the parties. Apparently Harvard med students were in demand for “Deb parties” in Boston. Some of these were at the Copley Plaza Hotel. Jim and his roommate Hathorne Brown, known as Brownie, attended these parties in their tuxes, top hats, and white gloves, arriving one behind the other on a motorcycle in full dress gear. Jim describes the doorman always saving a spot by the door for them so they never had to find a place to park. One can imagine the doorman getting a kick out of these young rakes on a motorcycle in tux and top hat. Jim described a weekend when he and his roomies were invited down to Smithtown, Long Island by Peggy Melville. It was a classy experience, complete with fox hunt and related parties.

By the spring of 1940 Jim was getting into the groove, his grades were improving and his social life under control. He was in the Lancet Club, one of the 2 social clubs at Harvard Medical School. Jim described a weekend of activity in a letter to his parents.

“We had lab until 12:30, then took the afternoon off. Played 2 hours of tennis, put the windshield on the motorcycle, got my new suit fitted, went to 3 beer parties, ate supper, and took Hennie Adams out dancing. . . . . Sunday morning I worked and played squash, then Dan [Jim’s brother] and I went out to Blackfans for a very enjoyable lunch. There were a couple of doctors there. Took Dan back to Tech (MIT), played touch football afterward and got back to the med school at 4. Worked until 6:30, took Hennie to an early movie on the motorcycle, and was in bed at 10:30. That completes the news.”1942_RJM med school couple on motorcycle

At one point my father told me he was dating 5 different girls at the same time, all of whom thought they were the special one. They soon found each other out, however, and Jim found it hard to get a date for awhile. One can’t help but think of Hawkeye Pierce from MASH (which, incidentally, was his favorite TV show in later years). Jim was in the habit of dating nurses on weeknights, because they had to be back in quarters by 10, which gave him some time to study afterwards. It is not entirely clear when he had time to sleep.

Jim was definitely in his element in medical school, academically challenged and socially fulfilled. He was well on his way to his ambition of becoming a doctor. But there was one cloud on the horizon. It was big and dark, and was approaching fast.

Princeton and Nazi Germany

There was no question my father would go to medical school in four years, and in the meantime he thought about how to use his time at Princeton to best advantage. Looking ahead, Jim understood he would get his fill of science in medical school, so he minimized science at Princeton. His other academic passion was languages, and in his freshman year he took English, German, and French. In November, his abdominal pain was finally diagnosed as chronic appendicitis, and he went under the knife before Thanksgiving of 1935. He recovered but found himself with recurring stomach issues for years afterwards. Jim’s health difficulties were a nuisance as he struggled to keep up with his classes. He passed them all, but not with flying colors.

Despite his academic trials, Jim was determined to pursue life to the fullest. A life-long tennis player, he played on the Freshman team at Princeton, but decided it distracted too much from his academics, and that was the end of his collegiate athletic career. His social life, however, never wavered. It was an easy train ride into Manhattan from Princeton, and my father claimed that during his college years, he saw every Broadway show and opera offered in the city. He dated constantly, and told me he was a popular companion with his group of friends because he always acted as the designated driver. I take that claim with a grain of salt, though with his extraordinary sense of responsibility, I don’t really doubt it.

Near the end of his freshman year, Jim applied for the Junior Year Abroad program. In order to participate, Jim piled on the courses as a sophomore, including adding Spanish to his retinue of languages. He learned that year how to organize his activities and balance his active social life with his academic determination, always with his eye on the next objective.

This was the height of the Great Depression. While the McKay family was relatively well off, with Jim’s father retaining a good job as a chemist for the International Nickel Company, everyone who lived through that period was changed by it. Since FDR’s election in 1932, Congress had passed unprecedented social legislation, culminating in the Social Security Act in August, 1935. The McKays were Republicans and not at all impressed with Roosevelt.

Jim had always been very conscious of money, and even in high school kept track of every penny he spent. At Princeton his father gave him an annual allowance of $2,000 to pay all his expenses, including tuition, housing, and everything else. All his life, Jim would track money closely. Even after becoming financially comfortable in his later medical career he scrutinized every dollar. He was often chided as a cheapskate, though I don’t really see it that way. He was prudent, but willing to spend or invest when he saw potential, whether it be a vacation with his family, a company with good prospects or a grandchild headed for college.

In the fall of 1937, my father set sail across the Atlantic, and once again he was headed to Germany. He and the other 25 students in his Junior Year group went to Maximillian University in Munich. At first, Jim boarded with 6 other students who were German, Scottish, and American. They paid 180 Reischmarks (about $45) per month for room and board. One of his fellow roomers was Wulf von Wulfen, a German med student. Jim bought a bike for about $12 soon after he arrived. Less than 2 weeks after his arrival, Wulf offered for sale his motorcycle for $75. His father granted permission, but the couple who oversaw the Junior Year program in Munich refused. Jim rankled under their leadership, and wrote his parents of his disgust at their saying no to the motorcycle, explained his reasoning, and then said “Hence I am going to get it anyway and they can stick their heads in the lake”.

Munich was a hotbed of Nazism. November 9, 1937 was a holiday in commemoration of the Putsch of 1923. There was a big parade in Munich and a speech by Hitler. Jim went over to fellow student Dave Mautz’s place to watch. Mautz lived at Princeregenten Platz 23. Although Hitler lived in Berlin as Chancellor, he kept an apartment in Munich at Princeregenten Platz 16, where Hitler’s half-sister kept house and where Hitler stayed when in Munich. Jim and Dave watched Hitler leave from the apartment for the rally. Jim liked Dave’s living situation and was becoming discouraged with his progress in speaking German. He felt that the group at his rooming house spoke English too much, so Jim moved to Dave Mautz’s place. It was here that Jim first experienced the terror of the Gestapo when they swept his building in preparation for a Hitler visit.

My father was elected President of the Junior Year group. All his life he was comfortable assuming leadership roles, and I can easily imagine him rising to the top in Munich. With some of his fellow students, Jim spent Christmas vacation in Italy, visiting many cathedrals, prompting him to write his parents “Italian churches . . . are not monuments to god, but to the power of the Church. They are houses of delusion, not places of communion with God.” Raised Presbyterian, Jim was growing to detest the trappings and promises of “big religion”, though he was not yet an atheist. It would take the war to accomplish that.

1938_RJMJr 1938 motorcycle

At the end of the school year in the spring of 1938, Jim met his best friend in Hamburg and they went on a motorcycle trip down through southern Germany and France, ending up in Paris for a month or so. Anyone tuned into the situation in Europe knew there would soon be war. Not wanting to be recognized as Americans, who were being stopped and questioned, they outfitted the motorcycle with a swastika flag on the handlebar. They would then roar up to a roadhouse with their leather jackets so everyone would notice the swastika, and swagger into the restaurant with Jim talking German. People assumed they were young Nazis and so kept their distance, which suited Jim and his friend fine, as they could then converse in English. The trip was yet another great experience, and in July Jim boarded ship for home. The next time he set foot in Germany would be in a very different role.

A Seventeen Year Old in Germany, 1935

As I write it is six degrees Fahrenheit and a strong wind is blowing snow into drifts. In 1945, American troops in the Ardennes were suffering in similar conditions as they slowly fought the Germans back toward their border. My father had moved his aid station to the small village of Goronne, Belgium, where he was treating lots of men for frostbite as well as wounds received in the nearly continuous fighting. But I get ahead of myself. To understand my father’s war experiences, you need to know more about his earlier experiences in Germany in 1935 and 1938.

Jim’s letters from Frankfurt were enthusiastic. He was 17 years old, was abroad on his own for the first time, had just spent a couple of weeks around Christmas of 1934 in London with friends of the family, and was really feeling his oats. He quickly became good friends with Frau Sauer’s daughter Ruth and her fiancé Fritz Weispfenning who were a few years older. He paid 150 marks per month to board at Frau Sauer’s at Oberlindau 94 in Frankfurt. It turns out Jim’s school German wasn’t much use. “My German is punk. I can’t understand a word and I’ve forgotten all I ever knew, but it was all wrong anyway. Ruth (Frau Sauer’s daughter) works about an hour a day with me on my pronunciation.”

1935-Friedensstraße FrankfurtRuth and Fritz took him to the opera and parties, and spent a lot of time in the local wirtschaft (pub) where they drank beer and talked to friends. This was an ideal setting for becoming fluent in German, at least in the Frankfurt dialect. Perhaps the most memorable event of Jim’s time with Frau Sauer in Frankfurt was the February wedding of Ruth and Fritz. Jim was an usher and was treated as a member of the family during the 12 hour celebration. Another time, he went with Fritz and friends to a costume fest at one of the University clubs. “I wore my white flannels and coat, going as an American student and had the time of my life.” In his letter of March 3rd, Jim writes, “Thursday I danced with a girl who was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen – sort of a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Joan Bennet if you can imagine that. Last night I danced quite a bit with a blond Czechoslovakian girl. It is quite a feeling to be living in Germany, receive letters from Vienna . . ., and to go to a Café and dance with a girl from Prague, the Czech capital, and a very important city.”

Jim wrote his father that the depression was no longer a major factor in Germany. The country had been depressed all through the 20s, due to the sanctions imposed on Germany following WWI. By 1935, with the country firmly in Nazi control, the German economy had improved, at least according to the Nazi propaganda.

Jim occasionally went to the Café Vien, where there was an orchestra and dancing. Jim also went to classes on the sly with 4 American med students studying in Frankfurt, who he had met at the Café Vien. When the professor would ask Jim a question, the others had to extract him. The German medical system was very advanced for the time, and med school was cheap in comparison with American schools.

The political climate in Germany was already tightly controlled by Hitler, who had become chancellor in January 1933 and given dictatorial powers by the Reichstag 2 months later. The Nazis centralized control and ran an extremely pervasive and effective propaganda machine. Just two years after Hitler’s ascension to power, Jim reported that the standard greeting on the street was “Heil Hitler”. He even signed one of his letters “Heil Hitler” to demonstrate how pervasive the salute was.

Frau Sauer’s other daughter Hilda’s husband was an ardent Nazi, but the Sauer family was not. They spoke critically of Nazism in the home but the Frau warned him to say nothing outside the home, and not to be critical of the Nazis in his letters. There was talk of war, although Jim reassured his parents that all was well. Jim tells of the late night talk of inevitable war in the wirtschaft (pub) and predictions that Germany would be ready for war in 5 years.

Jim’s father wrote several times urging him to take a train trip to various cities including Berlin but Jim resisted, protesting the cost and proclaiming his reluctance to leaving Frankfurt where he was having such a good time. But as spring approached he planned a bike trip. In one letter he writes, “I’ve developed quite a wander lust” (a condition, it is safe to say, he never got over). In mid April Jim rode out of Frankfurt. His itinerary took him to Nurnberg, Regensburg, Munich, Kempten, Kostanz, Titisee, Freiburg, and Strasbourg, a total of 1400 rugged miles up and down along the base of the alps. It was cold and rainy. “All I feel like doing is cussing till I can’t cuss any more and then thinking cuss words at the weather till I go to sleep and dream that I am cussing the weather”   In several letters, Jim describes the trip. In the higher areas, there were still piles of snow along the roads. Down low there were cherry blossoms. He describes coasting down hills on wet roads with his feet on the handlebars to keep from getting so wet. He was very hungry. He had a hard time eating enough calories to keep going on a tight budget. He rode up to 100 km per day on a single speed bike with a backpack on. “My idea of heaven is getting to a place where there is plenty of bread, butter, meat, potatoes, and beer of which one can eat one’s fill for 50 cents.”

My father survived his bike trip despite becoming painfully ill with what eventually turned out to be chronic appendicitis. By May 15th, 1935, Jim was in Paris and on May 30th, he boarded the SS President Roosevelt and sailed home. He was now reasonably fluent in German and could understand French very well. It was time to enter Princeton, the next step on his road to becoming a doctor.

Creative Memory

Human memory can be highly creative, and my father’s was a good example. As a teenager, I marveled at how his memory of an event we had both experienced could be so different from my own. Of course, all teenagers are genetically indisposed to believe their parents, so my own memory was undoubtedly working overtime re-sorting events on its own. Nevertheless, I cringe when I read articles about old soldiers’ war stories being taken as gospel. These people, including my father, are not intentionally lying, and their memories are almost always based on real events. But those events have been re-arranged in their minds over the years. I think this phenomenon may be more prevalent among combat veterans because of their somewhat intentional attempts to forget their horrible experience.

Like most combat veterans, my father shared very little of his wartime experiences until the last few years of his life. He had a few amusing anecdotes he would tell occasionally, stories that gained embellishments with years and telling. The letters provided an ideal avenue to go back with him to a time he had put away in a tightly sealed compartment of his mind. As he sat and listened, I could see him transported back to that time, and he was almost eager to flesh out the history for me. The real origins of his embellished anecdotes were revealed in the letters, as he had written about the actual events in real time. One example is a story he always told as if it had happened to him personally. He described interrogating a German officer about the impending end of the war when a large flight of allied bombers came over. According to my father, the officer spat on the ground and said, with a snarl, “Propaganda.” Then from one of the envelopes came a cartoon cut from Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper. The cartoon depicted the same anecdote. He had obviously enjoyed it, mailed it to my mother, and over the years transformed it into a personal memory. He had, indeed, interrogated numerous German officers because of his fluency in German, and he had witnessed huge flights of bombers going over. It was an easy step for his mind to put himself in the cartoon. For him, the story became his own.

LetterCompLetters strip away these memory tricks, which is what makes them so valuable to historians. For me, they formed an indisputable base on which to build the story as I talked with my father. As I wrote up the unfolding tale, I used excerpts from my father’s letters (and a few of my mother’s), with brief explanatory text added by me when I thought it would add to the reader’s appreciation of the story. With research into actual events that were occurring around my father’s battalion I was often able to make sense of stories he told me verbally that didn’t quite ring true. This kind of investigative research takes time, but is essential to an accurate portrayal of a veteran’s memories.