Earlier this week my sister observed the 70th anniversary of my parents’ wedding by sharing the bill for the reception: $270.16 for 105 guests, including $99 for 18 bottles of champagne. Today, for the 75th anniversary of VE Day, I offer these pages from my dad’s war journal:
“TODAY IS VE DAY – The Germans have surrendered unconditionally to us. The terms were signed in Rheims at 4:41 GMT yesterday. The hostilities end official at 12:01 GMT tonight.
“It is hard to believe – that after nearly six years of war the Allies have driven the Germans from Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, Russia and a score of other countries and forced defeat on them on their own soil. Yet it’s true; no more 88’s or ME0109’s or anything.
“We heard addresses by Churchill, Truman, and King George today. We also attended an informal Thanksgiving service at 3:30. Even the Germans seem glad. They knew it was only a matter of time.
“Half of our mission is accomplished. Now we shall either occupy Germany or head for the other war.
“A day later he learned that they’d be assigned as security guards ‘near Nuremburg for awhile.”\'”
He’s glad it’s over; there’s only a hint here of what he had endured. But on the first page of the Engineer’s Field Transit Book he used to record his thoughts, he explained his reason for journaling:
“I am going to keep this diary so that in future years I may remember more clearly the day to day events of my Army career. I especially want to remember – in the days of normal living coming again in the not too distant future – the days of hell of our present existence in combat. For, as Sherman said, war really is hell – crowded with misery, discomfort and uncertainty – uncertainty as to whether or not you’ll be alive in the next minute.
“In the peaceful sort of living which was once normal and which will follow this conflict, surrounded by the things which I have longed for so constantly, I may lose sight of this fact. Old memories will soften with time. Thus, the mission of this diary: to remind me, should I need the reminder, what it was like, and to make me work unceasingly to make certain that my son does not march off to war; or if he does – and I say this with the sad knowledge that our fathers fought for the same ideals – he goes prepared.”
My brother never did go marching off to war, mostly because his age cohort was too young for Vietnam and too old for all that followed.
Not because humanity had somehow come to its senses about senseless armed conflict. Lord, have mercy.
I don’t know if my dad’s old memories ever did soften. He pretty much never spoke of the war. He loved the Manhasset Memorial Day parade but he wouldn’t think of joining the VFW. There were just a few of things we knew about his war experience when we were growing up: He wouldn’t eat Spam because he had more than enough during the war. He wouldn’t go camping because he slept outside more than enough, too. He had never been so cold in his life as he was in Germany during the winter of ’44-’45. And finally, he and his comrades once used the frozen carcass of a dead cow as a dining table. Why he thought to share that, I do not know. Much, much later, he told me the war had stolen his youth, and one of the things that was really important for him in raising a family was making sure that his children were able to enjoy that time in their own lives.
All this despite the fact that he had been eager enough to go; this is how he described the day he showed up at Local Draft Board #8 to be examined and sworn in:
“There are a few moments in your life that you never forget, that become clearer if anything as the years pass. This was one of them. Late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the massive windows on the western side of the building, and in the huge interior or voices carried far. It was like a cathedral. The color bearers marched in and faced us and a colonel stood ready to administer the oath. With right arm raised, we received the oath of allegiance after him and I can truthfully say that it was one of the proudest moments of my life. … Perhaps I grew to manhood then and there, I don’t know. But man or boy I was now Private Davidson of the United States Army!”
It’s hard to express how comforting I find it to see my dad’s handwriting, as distinctive at age 20 as it was in all the years I knew him.