Not My Question to Ask

I was walking on the treadmill the other morning at the gym* and listening to Sabaton. “Lost Battalion” came up, which sent my thoughts to WWI, then WWII, and Grandpa Carl. He covered a lot of Holland-Belgium on foot, and was one of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne.

His office had various and sundry memorabilia in it, including a small, very simple framed item hanging on the wall. The frame was plain, dark-brown wood. It was perhaps eight inches long by five inches high. In it was a set of black and silver shoulder boards and a collar patch. And a neatly typed note card, smaller than a three-by-five index card. The card read “From an SS officer who no longer needed them.” If you looked closely, you could see brown stains on the silver and black. They hung where he could see them as he turned the light on and off when he came and went from the office.

The first time I ventured into his office (up a steep, narrow flight of stairs, one of two rooms under the roof, plus a tiny washroom), he told me about some of the things there. He nodded to the patches and just said, “After Malmedy we were a little mad.” I nodded in turn and that was that. He knew that I knew what he meant, and it needed no further discussion.

I sussed out very quickly that some topics were not open for discussion or query, as I’ve mentioned before. Bastogne and the Bulge, his first marriage. If he made an observation or said something, then I locked it into my memory because I assumed that he’d never tell the story again. The only time he talked in any detail about Bastogne, he spoke to himself and perhaps the TV, not to me. I sat where he couldn’t quite see me, slightly behind him to the left, and I’m not sure I breathed for ninety minutes. I sure as heck didn’t move.

I never asked if he regretted killing the SS officer. It wasn’t an appropriate question, and not mine to ask. That was between him and G-d. I suspect at the time the answer was “[rude word in GI] no!” Later? It was a different time, different place, and one he preferred not to return to.

If I could go back, or he were still alive, I still wouldn’t ask. I wish I’d gotten to see Saving Private Ryan with him, if only to hear him grouse about the stupidity of some of the things in the movie as compared to what he did. He said that the first fifteen minutes were the only time any film has ever come close to catching what D-Day was like. I’d ask about D-Day, and probably ask more about Market Garden and Wesel, but not the Bulge.

He was a Southern gentleman, for all that he grew up poorer than dirt in the Ozarks and considered Boot Camp to be gourmet dining (and the first time he’d had enough to eat in quite a while). Some things are not discussed around ladies, even ladies who like military history and study it. I tried to be that Southern lady, and did not press. Some questions are not mine to ask.

*Yes, I drove to the gym to go walking. It’s hard to find an incline around here otherwise. And I was safe from inattentive drivers, especially on a dark, rainy morning at 0630.

9 thoughts on “Not My Question to Ask

  1. I possess in my library a somewhat worn paperback edition of “The History and Rhymes of the Lost Battalion,” written by “Buck Private” McCollum, signed by an enlistee in Battery 6, 78th FA, AEF. I’ve carefully read it several times. It reminds my of Great Grandpa telling me stories on the porch swing about his adventures while growing up when there were still bears and cougars in the Midwest, and during The Great War. I was quite young, and all I really remember about his war stories is that they all ended with “and then he died” or “and then we marched them over the hill and shot them all.”

  2. Biggest issue with Sabaton is that people look at you really oddly when you walk around doing that half-singing thing.

    • Then you get to that the point in the song, and belt out “Then the winged hussars arrived!”

      And if someone responds with the next line, you’ve made a friend.

  3. My Dad was bit further North than your Grandpa. His comment about the Bulge was that they had set up a defensive position on the Northern flank, a group of engineers came through after “wiring the road for sound” and they said that anything behind them was German. Fortunately the Germans were more interested in driving to Antwerp rather than pushing North. When I was of a tender age the stories he told were the humorous ones or about the stupidity of the Army, or idiot officers. When I became an adult some of the the more ugly things that happened were briefly mentioned. For example he once mentioned seeing “bodies stacked like cordwood” at a prison camp, no mention of which one or where. And yes, I didn’t ask questions, they were his stories to tell, he’d tell me or not when and if he wished.

  4. A year or two ago, ‘zon suggested a two-book set, =D-Day Through German Eyes=. I bought it on Kindle. It’s a series of interviews with German survivors, after the war was over. The various soldiers relate shock and awe at the scale of the force they were facing, incredulity at its ruthless efficiency, resentment at the attackers given a pass for cruelties the German armies were blamed for, and the difficulties and absurdities of battle.

    One thing that slips in is that the German army used methamphetamine freely to keep soldiers going, letting each one go without rest for thirty or forty hours, effectively multiplying their number.

    U.S. Grant was one of the authors of modern war. (https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/us-grant-and-operations-0) I find myself wondering how he would have assessed the chances of the German cause at various points in the war. Keegan’s =The Mask of Command= includes both Grant and Hitler in its list of studies.

    • At the grade-school level, yes. But at the level of the informed adult citizen whose vote is supposed to shape policy? I don’t mean that it should be presented CNN-style, one-sided with deceptive context. But people who know only part of the story are more easily convinced by propaganda.

      • We’re not talking about the record of history. We’re talking about the questions which it is proper for an unofficial person to ask another private person, about a traumatic period in that person’s life.

        If Mr. X or Lt. X is testifying before a court martial, or a Congressional committee, or if he has agreed to talk to a historian or biographer about his experiences, that is a different kettle of fish. But a family member has more obligation to protecting and caring for family, than for finding out details of the historic record.

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