Veterans’ Unspoken Stories Surface in Photos, Letters

My Dad, like so many other veterans of war, didn’t talk about his experiences as a soldier in World War II when I was kid growing up. My brother Richard and I played ‘army’ with his canteen, his backpack and some of his hats, but we never asked him, nor did he volunteer, to tell us how he had carried or worn those things during his four years of service with the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion.  He kept those stories to himself until my younger brother, Brad, when writing a paper for his eighth grade American history class, coaxed some out of him. Until then, we knew little about those years of his life.

My Dad cut a striking figure in his army uniform but he rarely spoke about his miliatry experience when we were kids. You can see the insignia of the Red Dragons on his scarf in this picture.
My Dad cut a striking figure in his army uniform but he rarely spoke about his military experience when we were kids. You can see the insignia of the Red Dragons on his scarf in this picture.

But I remember as a kid, stumbling across some small black and white prints that had been stuffed away into a drawer. I quietly leafed through the pictures. The images were unreal. I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing but it made my stomach turn. What were these? Where did they come from? And why were they tucked back into a drawer that was rarely opened?  Feeling as if I had accidentally come upon someone’s dark secret, I carefully placed the photos back into the drawer just as I found so as not to reveal that they had been disturbed.

As far as I know, those photos remained there for a very long time, long after I had gone off to college and moved away. Frankly, I didn’t care if I ever saw them again but it didn’t matter because those stark, unedited black and whites were stamped indelibly into my mind. Only after my brother started the conversation with my Dad about his service during the War did we begin to learn the full details of those pictures and how they came to be.

The flag of the 2nd Chemcial Mortar Battalion was proudly displayed at the last battalion reunions my father attended,
The flag of the 2nd Chemical Mortar Battalion was proudly displayed at the last battalion reunions my father attended,

My father’s unit was a special unit, assigned to many different divisions during the course of the War, depending where they were needed. When other units would finish up a mission and be sent home for some R&R or discharge, my father’s would move on to the next.  By the end of the War, his outfit had seen 511 days of combat, more than any other, except for one, in the European theatre. His introduction to war started in North Africa, moved up through Sicily and Italy, into France and finally into Germany during the final days of the War.  There, shortly after Munich fell (where my Dad also was), he and some men of his unit walked into the nightmare we now know as Dachau.

The main gate to Dachau through which my father entered with the men in his unit.
The main gate to Dachau through which my father entered with the men in his unit.

What they saw could not be described, or, if it was, would not be believed. Perhaps realizing that this would be the case, my Dad reached for the camera he carried and took as many photos as he could probably handle before stashing it safely back into his pack. If anyone doubted his eyewitness account to this camp of death, my Dad would have something to prove what he was saying was true. Those were the photos I found.

Who knows how long those photos remained as negatives or when he finally brought himself to turn them into prints.  My Dad finally did begin to share that experience, especially during his later years with my sons.

Coincidentally, just hours before my Dad was in Dachau, another American soldier and his men were in a jeep pulling up to the gates on the opposite side of the camp. He saw before him a German officer wearing an armband with the Red Cross on it and carrying a white flag. The American in the jeep was Lt. William Cowling, who, like my Dad was from Kansas. Although the two did not know each other then, Cowling later married a girl from my Dad’s hometown and became the father of one of my best friends from high school. Like myself, she knew only a little about her father’s wartime career until the later years of his life. Her father had written an emotional letter home to his family the day after the liberation of the concentration camp recounting the details of that day. Cowling also had filed an official report for the Army, but it was detached and distant, devoid of the emotions he revealed to his parents. After he returned home, he seldom spoke about that day until, as my friend said, late in his life.

U.S. Army officers from the 42nd Division meet German officers who surrendered to Lt. William Cowling in this photo taken by Cowling.
U.S. Army officers from the 42nd Division meet German officers who surrendered to Lt. William Cowling in this photo taken by Cowling.

There are many more stories like this one, of old soldiers keeping their terrible memories of the War to themselves, or putting them on paper only to be put away somewhere until years later. I was reminded of all this, and of my Dad’s own story about Dachau, just recently by the teacher of my French class. She began the class that evening telling us, in French, how she had just been given a letter written by her father from the War. It was something she had never seen before, she said. In it, he detailed how his unit had been positioned outside Dachau and told what that had been like. I followed her story as closely as I could (my French isn’t yet fluent) but when she began to talk about Dachau, I listened even more intently. After she concluded her story, I recalled to her my own Dad’s experience at Dachau and then also told the group about my friend’s father, Lt. Cowling.

My Dad share a story from his World War II military service with my son as they look through photos on display at one of my Dad's army reunions.
My Dad share a story from his World War II military service with my son as they look through photos on display at one of my Dad’s army reunions.

It seemed so random to me, that we could be sitting in the same room, after both our father’s had passed on, and discover that we were in some way linked by the history of our respective fathers’ military service.  Just like that between my high school friend and myself. (Or my husband and myself as I wrote in my November, 2013 post) I suspect that happens more often than many of us know. It points out to me that war brings people together in strange ways, long after the shooting has ended and for generations to come. But the stories disappear as those who know them pass on. That’s one reason why it’s important, on Veteran’s Day or any other day, to honor these people, to listen while you can to their stories, to ask about the photo and to thank them for surviving.

To read more about my Dad’s military service click here. This one was built by my brother, Brad. You can create a tribute ”shadow box’ for your own family member here. You can also learn more about the ‘Red Dragons’ of World War II in the book ‘Finding My Father’s War’ by Walt Eldridge.

5 thoughts on “Veterans’ Unspoken Stories Surface in Photos, Letters

  1. cheryl: my cousin Ribert J. Drennan was also at Buchenwald and Dachau which was an artist colony before a death camp. Robert was in a Chemical unit and is now 96 years old living in Medford, Massachusetts.

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