With Memorial Day just a couple of days ago, I've been thinking about my grandfather quite a bit this week. Since his death in January, not a day goes by that I don't think about him. I miss him tremendously.
Every Veteran's Day I called my grandfather to wish him a happy day. Not only did he fight in World War II, he chose to make a career in helping veterans. Recently, every year, I also told my class my grandfather's war story in the hopes that I could interest them in history and perhaps even call a veteran in their family.
While I mostly agree with a cynical take on Memorial Day, I can't help but be moved when I think of how much being a veteran mattered to my grandfather. He was against the war in Iraq, but that didn't stop him from putting up a sticker that he received from somewhere that stated, "Freedom Isn't Free" with an American flag emblazoned on it. Upon seeing that sticker a few months ago, my immediate thought was "What? Does he support Bush?" Of course, he didn't. But for him, this wasn't a partisan statement, it was a way of saying that he loved our country.
Today, I really missed my grandfather. So I decided to finally type up a piece of his writing from 1950 about being wounded in Italy.
Wounded In Action
On December 14, 1943, the 2nd Battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry lay in position on the highest peak of Mount Sammucro in Italy. Towering high above the San Pietro, the cliffs and massive ridges of this mountain proved extremely important in the enemy's defense of the "The Winter Line." We hoped to break this line in spite of the enemy's stubborn resistance. On this day, information reached us that the Germans held a hill west of our position and were directing murderous fire on our troops who were attempting to move forward. We received orders to capture this hill.
Shortly after midnight on this cold, dark, and gloomy night, our battalion started forward with my company in the lead. Halfway to our objective, a flare, shot up by the enemy, revealed our positions, and we were caught in heavy machine gun and mortar fire which pinned us down. The bare slopes of the hill offered little concealment. In a split second, I fell flat on my belly, hugging the ground for dear life. My heart pounded and, as always in battle, I became scared and shook all over.
I could hear the "bur-rup, bur-rup" of their automatic pistols, the Song of Death. Shells began bursting all around us and then I heard the terrifying screams of my wounded buddies. The flare had long since died and darkness enveloped us once again. I aimed and fired my rifle at the flashes of the German weapons. The cries of the wounded around me became intensified. I knew that escape from being hit would be a miracle. I gritted my teeth and dug my face deep in the muddy ground and waited. I kept repeating, "Oh, God, please save me." Seconds later, I felt as if a red hot knife had severed both of my legs. A blood-curdling yell escaped my lips. Thas was it! As I had feared, I was hit by fragments of a mortar shell.
I felt no pain after that, but my legs felt numb all over. Several minutes later, a medic dressed both of my leg wounds and gave me a shot of morphine. I soon felt myself fading into space unknown. I regained my senses the next morning and I shall never forget the sight before my eyes on this battlefield. Among the fallen gear of those who escaped, numerous men of my company lay mortally wounded. I tried to crawl, but was prevented from doing so because of the intense pain of my wounds. "Why, oh, why don't they come and get me?" I groaned. Down the slope I saw the movement of our bitter enemy. Above me, over the ridge, I saw some of the faces of our troops. I soon realized why our medics couldn't get to me, for at this time both sides began firing. Here I lay, in the middle of it all and couldn't do anything. I heard myself saying "Dave, you're at the end of your rope." Yes, I began praying for my loved ones at home.
For two days and two nights, I lay there between the fighting, only the bitter cold winter air stopping the flow of blood from my leg wounds. Late on the second day, there came a lull in the battle and the most beautiful sight in the world appeared over the ridge of the mountain. I saw a squad of medics, led by an officer, each one holding and waving a large white flag with a bright red cross. God had answered my prayers! A temporary truce had been arranged so that each side could pick up its dead and wounded. I was picked up and put on a stretcher. As I was being carried down the other side of the mountain, I could hear the fighting resume once again. I closed my eyes in an effort to drive the thought of this cruel war out of my mind.
On Christmas Eve, at the 300th General Hospital in Naples, the doctors discovered a deadly and serious infection in my right leg called gas gangrene. Quickly and frankly, they told me that I must sacrifice the loss of my leg in order to save my life. The pain felt unbearable but I managed to whisper, "What are we waiting for?" From then on, everything was a blank to me until I remembered opening my eyes and seeing a nurse at my bedside. Through my thick, dry lips I muttered, "Merry Christmas." The nurse seemed shocked out of her senses. She ran for the doctors and the chaplain who soon appeared, surrounding my bed. Seeing the puzzled look on my face, the chaplain explained that as soon as my leg was amputated, I began sinking fast and that he had been asked to perform last rites as I had been expected to die the following morning. During that Christmas day, the chaplain white faced, kept coming back, each time patting me on my shoudler and repeating the words now immortal to me, "My son, be forever grateful."
How could I ever be ungrateful? If God had not answered my prayers, I would not live on this earth. Moreover, I often think of my buddies who made the supreme sacrifice for our country and those who are more seriously disabled that I am as a result of their war wounds. My only prayer is that the sacrifices my buddies and I have made in the cause of preserving our American way of life has not been in vain. Now that we are on the threshold of another war, I wonder?
I was struck by a couple of things upon rereading this today. My grandfather never really spoke much about religion but it clearly played an important part in his life. I still love the fact that the Army sent a chaplain even though my grandfather was Jewish. I guess you take what you can when you are on the verge of death and/or unconscious.
And I love the last two sentences. Just five short years after the sacrifices of World War II, he is openly questioning the necessity of fighting in yet another war. Or am I misreading what he is saying? I wish I could call him to ask what he meant.
In December 2003, Youthlarge and I went to San Pietro where we met the town historian. We gave him the copy of this story which he published in his latest book.
My grandfather really lived up to his ideals from this writing. He was the most grateful person I have ever known. He took such pleasure in every small detail of his life. Even as he was in his last few days, he took so much pleasure in having a chocolate milkshake. He was and will always be what I aspire to be.
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