The Closest I’ve Ever Come to War

I’ve been thinking about war a lot lately. I’ve never been to war–never fought in combat. I’ve never been in the military, either. But I’ve been thinking a lot about all my family members and friends who have. When I sat down and thought about it, there’s been quite a few people I’ve known who have been to war.

One man who I idolized and adored growing up was my Granddad. He was a real American hero. Granddad flew 39 missions over Nazi Europe during WWII as a flight engineer on a B-17 bomber and was shot down over Memmingen, Germany, in 1944. He ended up spending a year in a German Stalag. But he survived his experience and came home and raised a family and lived the American dream, albeit modestly, but richly.

He had a huge impact on my life. I am so blessed to have known him. I realize most of us are partial to our own. But Granddad was truly a special person. Despite the hardships and toil he endured growing up during the Great Depression, and his honorable service to our nation during its darkest hour, he was kind and gentle to everyone he met, yet calmly firm.

One moment with him stands out in my mind, as if it happened yesterday.

When I was a kid, my parents and I would spend some summers in Indiana with my Grandparents. Now, my Granddad smoked. Many did back in that day. It was actually socially acceptable to smoke cigarettes back then. So, he asked me if I would like to go up to the gas station and get some gas and cigarettes, and then get some breakfast. I was only about nine years old at the time. Of course I agreed!

We stopped by the gas station then headed over to a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant he liked to frequent. We were led to a table by a young waitress. Now, for some reason, I remember very vividly the expression on the waitress’ face. She looked sad–depressed–not happy at all. But the one thing about my Granddad was he would always treat you as if you were the only person in the room.

Granddad looked at the young woman square in the eyes, smiled, and said, “How are you!?” Writing that in words really doesn’t do it justice. When he asked you how you were, he truly meant it. He really wanted to know how she was doing. He cared. It wasn’t an act. He proceeded to ask her about her day and displayed an amazing warmth and concern for her plight. It warmed up the whole room. Her reaction was one I will never forget: her face lightened, almost glowed, and slight smile appeared, then a full one. He treated her like a queen. It was obvious to me, even at such a young age, that he had done something very good–very good, indeed.

Granddad never treated people like dirt. He truly respected the dignity of all people. He didn’t shout and quarrel. I often wonder if it was because he had seen so much suffering in his life that he deeply  valued good relationships with others, no matter their station in life. He had seen all the wretchedness of what man’s hate can bring forth. He wanted no part of it. But he was a fighter. You better bet your bottom dollar on that! He knew the true cost of hate and rage. He knew life wasn’t a game. He didn’t have to prove it, he already had.

A few years back, my Grandmother died following a seven-year bout with Alzheimer’s Disease. At her funeral I ran into my Granddad’s brother. I hadn’t seen him in years. He was also a WWII veteran and served as a AA gunner in the Navy. I tried to get as much information about Granddad, and his memories with him, as I could. We also talked rather candidly about the war with me. I was surprised, but he struggled with the use of the atomic bombs on Japan. It really troubled him. The things these guys saw really baffles the imagination, especially for those of us who were not there. Sadly, Granddad’s brother recently passed.

One of the things I learned from my mother following Grandmother’s funeral was Granddad’s brother had experienced an eerily similar battle experience at sea as my Granddad had in the skies over Europe during WWII.

From what I understand, the flight engineer on a B-17 bomber sat directly behind the pilot. The role of the flight engineer was to oversee and monitor the four big engines on the B-17 bomber. If the bomber group was jumped by bogeys (enemy fighters), the flight engineer would jump on the twin-50 caliber machine guns located in the top turret of the fuselage.

On one mission, Granddad had to man the top turret to fend off an attack of German fighters that had come in very close to the B.G. (bomber group). Some of the German fighters and had gotten mixed up amongst the formation. Although such a tactic by the Germans could cause the formation to break up, it is not without substantial risks to the attacker.

The later model B-17 bombers sported no less than thirteen .50 cal. machine guns. Bomber groups would form a box formation in order to combine their firepower when under attack. For an inexperienced German pilot, jumping into a group of B-17 bombers could be a very prickly affair. The power of the .50 cal. round is devastating. It doesn’t take too many hits on an aircraft from a .50 cal. round to bring it down, if not completely destroy it.

A young German pilot got so close to my Granddad’s ship that he shot him down. This story was related to me by my mother. Apparently the German fighter was so close he could look the terrified pilot squarely in the eyes. Granddad estimated his age at 19 years old. The poor kid knew he was going to die. Granddad said he never forgot it. It was the one time in the war, in the midst of combat, where he paused and asked, “Why do men do this to each other?” It deeply affected him.

Ironically, half-a-world away, at around the same time, 1944, my Granddad’s brother’s ship was under attack by Japanese fighters. It was a major attack. He ran a twin 40mm Bofors Anti-Aircraft gun located on the deck. He shot down a Japanese pilot during the battle who was so close to the ship he locked eyes with the young Japanese pilot right before his death. Granddad’s brother estimated the petrified pilot’s age at around 19 years old. Needless to say, this memory never left my Granddad’s brother and was related to me following his death.

How astonishing that both my Granddad and his brother had a near identical combat experience, just against different enemies. The memory of looking the enemy in the eyes and killing them is impossible to imagine for those of us who have never had to fight for our very lives–day after day.

Like most veterans, and survivors, who have experienced the trauma and terror of battle, they rarely want to talk about it. It seems, for the families and friends of veterans, that the stories come out in bits and drabs, if at all, and usually not until a long time has passed. The memories are just too traumatic, excruciating and awful to relive.

Since Granddad had been in WWII, I wanted to know more about a conflict that resulted in the deaths and broken lives of countless millions. Why do men do this to each other? What caused it all? Could it happen again? What could have been to prevent it? Anything? Is mankind just doomed to repeat this madness over and over again–the veritable definition of insanity?

My study of the Second Word War began in earnest when I was about nine years old. My father bought me a subscription to a weekly magazine published in the U.K. called The History of the Second World War. At first I just pored over the pictures of soldiers, planes, tanks and trucks–typical boy. But when I became bored looking at the same photograph over and over again, I began to read the articles. For a kid my age, the reading level was over my head–articles by historians, professors, retired military officers, survivors, etc. But I tried to read it anyway.

I started to develop a vocabulary not typically associated with a kid my age. For example, I recall my fourth grade teacher reacting somewhat incredulously when I informed her that I was “developing a contingency plan” for my homework assignment. Additionally, it was not unusual for me, at the time, to inform my friends about some of the “teething troubles the early-model Tiger tanks experienced due to the interleaved nature of the suspension and the complex electronic transmission.” Typically, my historical dissertations would be met with blank stares, as if to say, “Where the heck did you learn that?”

One of my questions was answered fairly early on–the question being, what could have been done to prevent the horrific conflagration of the Second World War? Or what could have been done to nip it in the bud, before it metastasized into a global cancer that threatened the entire world itself.

In 1939, following the Nazi-Soviet pact, the Agreement of Mutual Assistance between Great Britain and Poland was signed. Great Britain pledged to defend Poland’s independence should some other “European country” attack. The British were becoming increasingly alarmed over Hitler’s policy of expansionism (Lebensraum, i.e. “Living Space”), especially following Hitler’s bloodless invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Unfortunately, neither the British or the French intervened militarily, despite their pledges to do so, when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Adolf Hitler later wrote that had the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe attacked the Germans during their campaign in Poland, they would have proved disastrous for the Wehrmacht (German Army). They were stretched too thin. Although the conquest of Poland was relatively quick in military terms, the Polish campaign was much costlier for the Germans than was expected.

So, straight from the mouth of Der Führer, there was a window of opportunity to take him out of the game, but the dawdling and hesitation by the Allies led to disaster for the European continent. Once Hitler had consolidated his power and ramped up his war machine, he marched right through the Netherlands and into France, not to mention Norway. But then it was too late for the Allies to stop the Blitzkrieg. Hitler’s forces were too powerful, and they were on the march.

Just like my Grandparents would always say, you gotta nip it in the bud! Otherwise the problem may grow out of control, and you might not be able to stop it, not without great sacrifice and toil–which my Grandparents’ generation knew all too well.

Now I realize I’m no scholar or historian, just a student of the history of World War Two. It’s easy to second-guess history. But the admission by Der Führer that his flanks were down for a time is telling indeed, if not taunting in nature. What a shame the resolve to confront the little Bavarian corporal was not shown early on by the Allies. They had to find the resolve anyway. They might as well found it early on. How different the world would be today.

But that’s woulda, shoulda, coulda, outghta–another paralyzing human condition that has led to countless bloody conflicts, no doubt. There’s not much sense in spending much time there. It’s water under the bridge–albeit very bloody water underneath the bridge.

I believe the nip it in the bud lesson was one my Grandparents really tried to impart to their children, and me. They had lived the horror. They had seen, felt and experienced the results of what happens when people bury their heads in the sand and ignore the dire warning signs occurring all around them. They paid the price. And many–too many–paid the ultimate price–like the 19-year-old tail-gunner who was killed in my Granddad’s bomber the day his crew was shot down over Memmingen, Germany, in 1944.

In college I studied Journalism and took courses in writing. Since I had some knowledge on the history of WWII, I decided to write about more about it. I even wrote some articles for a now defunct magazine called Military Modeler. I even joined a WWII reenactment group, which gave me access to historically knowledgeable people, and veterans too.

I interviewed a number of veterans. I even interviewed a former Waffen SS soldier and conducted half the interview in German. For me, it was very uncomfortable, considering. I must admit it, after a while the interviews and research started to get to me. Some of the battles that occurred during World War II are shocking in their brutality, scale and scope. And if it started to get to me, just what must these veterans who experienced the deprivation, terror, boredom, humiliation, obscenity, desolation and destruction of war be feeling and thinking? I don’t even want to know! Because what I do know shakes me to my core. Humbling does not even describe it. It’s beyond my ability to understand or imagine.

So many times, if a veteran was willing to share a painful memory (and I never pushed it or prodded), they would start by saying something like, “I remember it as if it were yesterday.” I would suspect I would too, if I had experienced what they had to endure. Another oft-repeated refrain from the combat veterans I had the privilege of speaking to, “If anybody tells you they weren’t scared, they’re lying!”

Many times veterans would tell me some days were better, as far as the fear is concerned, than others. It just all depended. The fear comes and goes in waves–peaks and valleys. But it makes perfect sense to me. Sometimes you have “good days.” And other days, well … not so good. Fear can be palpable some days, even in peacetime. Now imagine an enemy is shooting at you.

One of the things about war that I think is often overlooked is the sheer spiritual, physical and mental exhaustion exacted on the individual in combat, particularly when there is no clear victory in sight and the fighting rages unabated, day after day, month after month, ad infinitum. Of course, it’s impossible to describe if one has never experienced it.

About the closest I ever came to experiencing a bit of the physical exhaustion many our troops must endure in combat and training was a caving trip I went on with three guys who were in the military. They were all very experienced cavers and were, quite frankly, physical specimens. Now, at the time, I wasn’t exactly Peewee Herman. I ran construction crews and was in fairly decent physical shape. But I was nothing compared to the guys I was with. And that became painfully apparent during our excursion deep into the Hoosier wilderness.

Our plan was to hike to a ridge about a mile off a dirt road located in the middle of nowhere. The whole goal of the trip was to start digging out a cave entrance located in a large sinkhole that had been open back in the 60’s, but had since filled in due to lack of maintenance, and the hydrological forces of Mother Nature. We also planned on doing some caving and some ridge-walking. It was a five-day trip deep into the woods of Southern Indiana.

We ate dinner at a Subway restaurant before arriving at the location where we would park our trucks and begin humping our packs and gear to the campsite on the ridge. I made the mistake of eating a foot-long tuna sandwich–which I’ll get to shortly.

Now, I had just set up a new internal frame pack. I had some great new gear and made the classic mistake of wanting to pack it all in. I estimate my pack weighed close to 100 lbs. I was also carrying a collapsible jug filled with two gallons of water, which is like carrying a 16 pound-plus bowling ball. When we parked our trucks and gathered our gear, it was around 10 PM in the evening. We orienteered our way at night using compass and topo map. The temperature was stifling that night–around 98 degrees with 100% humidity. I was already breaking a serious sweat just standing with my pack on.

So, we headed out into the woods. We first made our way down a hill where we stopped to check our topo maps and taking bearings. I was covered in sweat and was already feeling the pain. Now we had to travel uphill. I checked the topo to estimate the distance to the campsite. It appeared I would be humping about five large hills for around a mile. OH MY GOD! I have never felt such physical pain and exhaustion as I did that night humping that pack in that ungodly heat. What made it worse was the fact that it was dead air–no movement, no breeze. We were all equally miserable.

By the time I reached the fourth hill, I was in so much pain that I just threw up all over the side of the hill. So much for my tuna fish sandwich. One of the guys grabbed me a cold juice box. It was the best tasting juice box I have ever consumed. But, despite my pain, I had to continue to the campsite, just took me a little longer than the rest.

We called our campsite “camp swelter.” We were miserable for the entire five days. It made us all a bit grumpy at times too. And if you’ve never spent five days in the sweltering wilderness with a grumpy sergeant, give yourself a pat on the back. It can get kinda interesting.

Our only relief from the misery was when we humped down to the sinkhole, where the temperature was significantly cooler due to the airflow coming from the cave. If it hadn’t been for all the giant horse flies that took large junks of flesh from you at their leisure, it would have been quite pleasant at the sinkhole.

But we weren’t there for “pleasantness”; we were there to dig out the entrance of a cave called “BB Hole.” One guy would get in the hole with a five-gallon bucket and fill it up with dirt and pass it up. We set up a relay line and emptied the buckets and passed them back. Since I was the “construction” guy, I was the one at the end of the line–which meant that every bucket filled with sticky, wet cave mud had to be dumped and scraped out. I worked my butt off on that line.

Entrance to Breathing Hole cave (Credit: © Elliot Stahl)

During our trip we explored Breathing Hole cave. I wrote about the experience in a previous article. Not too long ago, a young Iraq war veteran, Kevin Eve, went missing and was later discovered dead at the back of Breathing Hole cave, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The story of Kevin Eve still disturbs me.  I can’t help but wonder what sort of demons he was wrestling with and why he could go to such great lengths to end it all.

As the trip wound down, we spent the last day doing some ridge-walking–meaning: we would look for possible sinkholes that might hide a cave entrance. We hiked a lot of miles. And once again I became painfully aware of just how physically fit and tough these military guys are. I could not keep up with them. After a while, I was just happy if I could keep them in my sight in the distance. That was a success, as far as I was concerned.

I gained a whole new respect for our military on that trip. These guys are resourceful, tough, and never give up, despite great physical pain and exertion. It’s infectious. And that’s an infection I can live with. But it was also a very sobering experience, considering these guys must endure similar conditions, while carrying full kit, ammo, kevlar and a weapon, under high-stress conditions to boot. My hat’s really off to them. I was truly humbled by the whole experience.

Despite all my adventures with my military friends, I still cannot imagine what it must be like in combat. That’s just something nobody can know unless they lived through it. I can get a feel … I can get a taste … but only those who have experienced war know what it is all about.

The closest I ever came to war occurred at a Bob Evans restaurant years ago. At the time, I was working with a guy a few years my senior who made a huge and profound impact on my life. Now, the names have been changed to protect the innocent. And since we’re discussing war, and there always seemed to be a guy named “Mac” and one named “O’Hara” in every war movie I ever saw, I’ll call my partner “O’Hara.”

Now, O’Hara had come from a really hard-knock life. His father was a grizzled old farmer; and an alcoholic who would beat O’Hara with his fists, then come back tearful and remorseful, only to have the cycle of insanity continue. By the time O’Hara came of age, he was one mean SOB. He has baby-blues that will burn holes right through you. Some guys act tough. O’Hara was the real McCoy.

But the amazing thing about O’Hara was at age 39 he gave up his hard-partying ways and became a 12-stepper. And I mean it when I say this guy completely turned his life around 180 degrees.  He has helped countless people to put a plug in the jug and set the crack pipe down. He’s helped save people’s lives. I worked side-by-side with this amazing man for about two years. His influence was so profound on me, he even got me doing volunteer work at prisons, jails, Salvation Army centers, and the like.

O’Hara and I ran a construction business, albeit a small one. One of our electrical contractors was a Vietnam veteran, who I’ll call “Mac.” As O’Hara got to know Mac better, he discovered he was also a 12-stepper. We also learned that Mac had been a Marine foot-slogger in the rice paddies of Vietnam and had experienced some incredibly intense combat. Mac was so haunted by his memories of the war that he had literally joined every support group known to man. I think O’Hara was a bit concerned that Mac was overdoing it, possibly reliving the horrors of war too much. But at the same time, if that’s what Mac needs to do, then that’s what Mac needs to do.

The only thing I could do was offer Mac my friendship. And I really liked Mac. So one night, O’Hara and I are visiting Mac at a the Bob Evans restaurant where he worked. He had just finished his shift and we sat down to buy him coffee and “tell lies.” As we talked, Mac opened up a bit about all the support groups he was involved with.  I couldn’t help but think O’Hara might be right. Maybe he was reliving it all too much. But it wasn’t my place to say.

Of course, the topic of Vietnam was brought up. Since I have interviewed veterans before, I was careful not to pry into areas where I ought not tread. But the conversation was becoming more somber and sullen.

I don’t remember what I asked Mac at the time. All I remember is the expression that came over his face. He was sitting directly in front of me at a booth. If you’ve ever heard of the “thousand-yard” stare, that would accurately describe what I saw on Mac’s face that night. He looked down at the table and to the left. It was as if he was looking right through it. His eyes became like saucers. But what really left a lasting impression on my was his skin became clammy, almost translucent, like a dead body. It really shook me up. What ever he was seeing in his mind’s eye I knew I did not want to see.

I was concerned that I had stepped in it, and drudged up some really bad stuff. I knew Mac loved blackberry cobbler with a big dollop of vanilla ice cream. I waved down our waitress and placed the order. I saw the life return and color return to his skin and his eyes returned to “normal.” The thought of cobbler was enough to lighten the air. Phew!

I believe that’s the closest I’ve ever come to war, or ever want to.

Conclusion

In closing, I want to relate a recent experience I had with two military veterans.

My plumbing contractor and I meet at his house on a regular basis before we head out on jobs. I’ve gotten to know some of his neighbors. Just like in my neighborhood, we have black and white and we live side by side. One of his neighbors is a black pastor, roughly middle-aged, who had his leg severed in a high-pressure hatch accident while he was serving in the Navy. They were able to reattach his leg, but he walks with a severe limp and requires a cane. He’s a great guy. I love talking to him–very friendly and goodhearted.

A few weeks ago, my friend informed what had happened to him in the Navy. I did not know, at the time, that he had lost leg in service to our country. To me, he’s just a big a hero as someone who give their limbs in combat. He did his duty. He did his job. And he lost his leg, for all intents and purposes.

I saw him painting the inside of his garage. I walked over and shook his hand and thanked him for his service. I told him that I didn’t know he had been through all that and my sincere appreciation and gratitude. He looked at me and said, “You walked all the over here to tell me that?” Then he motioned to a rather stout, stocky friend of his sitting in the corner in a lawn chair. He told me the guy is active-duty. So I shook his hand and thanked him for his service too. He was an Army sergeant stationed at Fort Knox, and an Iraq war vet.

After I had thanked them both, the Sgt. looked at me with his hand over his heart and said, “This is why we do what we do for people like you.” We damn near both choked up. Amazing.

I would like to sincerely thank all of our veterans, past and present, for all they do, and for the sacrifices they and their families make in defense of freedom and liberty. There are no real words that can suffice. But I hope everyone will go out and thank a veteran. Because it’s not what it will do for you, but what it means to them.

About Brent Parrish

Author, blogger, editor, researcher, graphic artist, software engineer, carpenter, woodworker, guitar shredder and a strict constitutionalist. Member of the Watcher's Council and the Qatar Awareness Campaign. I believe in individual rights, limited government, fiscal responsibility and a strong defense. ONE WORD: FREEDOM!
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