May 17 was the 100th anniversary of my father’s birth. There was no big birthday celebration since he passed away over 25 years ago. Nonetheless, the birthday and Memorial Day have kept him strongly on my mind.
The Depression and World War II shaped Dad’s life, like others of his generation. Growing up poor in the middle of South Dakota with few job opportunities, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in about 1934. He was stationed at Camp Doran near Custer. The young men of that camp constructed Stockade Lake in Custer State Park. As a CCC employee, Dad received $30 per month, $25 of which was sent home to his mother.
Dad enlisted in the Army in January 1941, nearly a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War I. I don’t know if his enlistment was motivated by patriotism, a desire to see the world, the need for a steady paycheck, or a bit of all three. He got more than he bargained for.
He was trained as a mechanic and truck-driver and served under General Patton on the progression through North Africa, Sicily, England, Normandy and France. Dad’s military separation record stated he “drove all types of army wheeled vehicles from motorcycles to medium tanks; drove day and night under blackout conditions over mountainous terrain; did reconnaissance patrol; did first and second echelon maintenance on vehicles.”
On 27 July 1944 Dad was driving a jeep for his platoon leader and their radio operator when all three were captured by the Germans. Dad was sent to Stalag VIIA at Moosburg, a POW camp near Munich, where he spent the last nine months of the war. Stalag VIIA was established in 1939 and originally planned for 10,000 prisoners. By the end of the war, 80,000 Allied soldiers were detained at the camp.
After being liberated in the spring of 1945, he returned home to South Dakota. My cousin, who was 13 years old at the time, remembers the day Dad arrived home. She recalls him leaning unsteadily on two canes to get out of the car. Despite the big family dinner that had been prepared in his honor, he could eat only a few bites of canned peaches. My cousin describes him as a man totally unlike the strong, healthy, happy-go-lucky young man she knew before the war — before combat and imprisonment.
Dad never talked about the war. He probably suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or “survivor’s guilt,” especially after learning when he returned stateside that his younger brother Maurice “Pete” had been killed months earlier in the Battle of the Bulge.
Dad didn’t want the war experience to define him and his life. He became a farmer/rancher. An avid reader, he loved kids and animals and enjoyed singing and reciting poetry. But the war had a huge impact on him and on our family.
This Memorial Day weekend I’m deeply grateful for the sacrifices made by my dad and Pete and the millions of others who’ve fought to protect our freedoms.
We remember those who have given and those who continue to give.
Don’t fail to honor the veterans in your family this Memorial Day.