shrapnel blasting everywhere, they were hard to spot. I saw one and dove for it, arms flailing. There was a cry of pain.
“John! John, wake up!”`
I blinked in the sudden glare of the lamp at our bedside. My wife Tib was clutching her ear. “You hit me!”
I stared at her, at the dresser, the wallpaper.
“Was it the same dream?” she said,
I nodded, part of me still back on that hillside in Italy.
“Can you talk about it?”
I shook my head. WWII was long over and yet, I thought, as I made a cold compress for Tib’s scarlet ear, the guilt over that night was as sharp as ever.
Actually, the guilt began before I reached Italy. I hadn’t waited for the draft. If you volunteered for the Army out of college, the promotional flyer went, you’d be sent to officers’ training. But I’d barely signed the enlistment papers before orders changed. Soon I found myself on a sooty, jam-packed troop train headed for basic training in the 110-degree heat of Camp Wolters, Texas. Three months later, with hundreds of other newly-graduated privates, I disembarked from a troop ship in Algeria, assigned to the Repple Depple in Oran.
Army slang, someone explained, for Replacement Depot. “Guess we’re headed for Italy.” Back in Texas we’d watched news reels of the amphibious landings on the Italian coast. These were “great victories,” of course, as were all reported battles in 1943, but apparently the successes had been bought at a staggering cost in lives. Replacements for these lost men, I realized, that’s what we green, hastily-trained kids were. I began the slow trek up the boot of Italy walking in dead men’s shoes.
At first we traveled in open trucks, strangers, facing each other with our M1 rifles between our legs. During basic training, and on the troop ship, I’d made friends, but we were separated, split up, assigned to fill out the ranks of decimated units. In front of me were battle-toughened soldiers returning to the front from rest-and-recuperation leave.
As we got closer to the combat zone, it was out of the truck and onto paths with 30-lb-plus packs on our backs. At the end of a day we’d bivouac in an open field or an abandoned farm, once outside a deserted, still smoking village. Occasionally we passed bodies. A German soldier stripped of coat and shoes. A blue-clad old man beside a dead donkey.
We seldom knew where we were. With road signs removed and town names painted over, we knew only that we were in rocky hill country somewhere south of Rome, and that the sound of artillery fire was getting closer. One morning our lieutenant assigned four of us to a reconnaissance patrol. An hour later we rounded a boulder and almost bumped into a Panzer. As the tank’s turret swung toward us we discovered undreamed-of skills of dodge-and-evade.
Foxholes became harder to dig as the paths became steeper, the ground stonier. “Keep digging, soldier!” the sergeant would bellow each time I slowed down. Once in a while one of the veterans would offer a bit of advice. “Never go into a field where you see onions. Jerry mines those.” “Mortar attack,” another old-timer advised as our shovels hacked at the scrabble on a hillside, “that’s the worst.” They were timed to explode at head-height, he explained, jagged shards of hot metal flying in every direction. “That’s when you’ll need a hole – any hole -- in a hurry.”
A hole! Any hole! It was the only thought in my head, the night the mortars hit. The night that would replay in my dreams forever after. With shrapnel thudding all around, I dove into the first foxhole I saw and flattened myself against the stones, jamming my fingers in my ears against the roar of what seemed one endless explosion.
Next instant the breath was knocked out of me as something landed on my back. The weight crushed me against the earth, rocks stabbing my chest.
It was a second before I realized that another soldier had dived into the foxhole on top of me. I struggled to breathe, spitting dirt from my mouth, as we cowered together in that shallow pit with the sky exploding above us.
Then there was a scream. “I’m hit! O God!”
The body above me was jerking. “O my God!” he screamed again. “O God!” Something wet and warm was soaking into the back of my shirt. The boy above me stopped shouting. My shirt got wetter.
It was a million years before the shelling stopped. The body pressing on mine didn’t move. I tried shouting “Medic!” and got a mouthful of dirt. For a long time it was totally dark. No movement, no sound above me. Then on the rim of the foxhole I saw moving lights, flashlighted medics coming close.
The weight on me lifted. A voice. “Are you hurt bad, soldier?”
“I’m okay,” I managed to get out. “The other guy. He was hit.”
“We got him. He didn’t make it.” I felt my shirt pulled up, fingers probing, voices conferring. “Looks like it’s the other guy’s blood.”
The other guy’s blood… The guy who took a hunk of shrapnel instead of me. By the time I got to my knees and looked around in the bobbing lights, they’d taken him away. I never saw his face, never knew his name. But since that night he’s never left my side.
There were other deaths. Three times -- perhaps because I could type -- I was asked to inventory the gear of some guy who was going home in a coffin. With every form I filled in, the question grew more acute. Why him? Why not me?
The closest I came to dying myself was not enemy fire but illness.
One day, instead of moving forward, we were herded into a field hospital for hypodermic shots. “What’s it for?” I asked. “Roll up your sleeve, soldier.” Two days later I was running a fever. In tents all around men were moaning and vomiting. It seemed our entire company was sick – high fever, chills, headache, eyes and skin strangely yellow. The deadly outbreak of hepatitis was eventually traced to a contaminated batch of Yellow Fever vaccine, given in anticipation of the European war ending and transfer to the Pacific.
They ambulanced us to the U.S. military hospital just outside Naples. And there again I watched others die. The guy on the cot next to mine. Another two cots away. Every morning, empty cots. Why them and not me?
It’s a question asked by combat veterans after every war. It even has a name. Survivor Guilt. Some ex-soldiers handle it by grouping together for support with other vets. Some handle it through their faith, but at that point I had none. I dealt with survivor guilt by clamming up. Willing none of it to have happened. Refusing to talk because that would make it real.
It doesn’t work, of course, silence. No one guessed my secret turmoil because in most ways my life was rich and full. Tib and I had a great marriage, children and grandchildren, rewarding jobs at Guideposts where we met hundreds of inspiring people and helped them tell their stories. In time we found our own church home; faith became the center of our lives.
And even with all this, the nightmare kept recurring. And with it, the question that haunts veterans of every war. Why not me? Every wedding Tib and I attended. Every baptism at our church. Every time I held a grandchild in my arms. The boy in my foxhole never held a grandchild.
One day in the spring of 1989 when Tib and I were on living in Normandy, our daughter, her husband and their 10-month-old came to visit. Our son-in-law was eager to visit the American Cemetery, so the four of us walked, little Jeffrey on his daddy’s back, along those long, long rows of white crosses and Stars of David stretching out of sight. The others went ahead, but I stopped before grave marker after grave marker: 1923-1945, 1923-1945, 1923-1945… Again and again, my birth year over the body of a 22-year-old who could have been – should have been? – me.
Twenty-five years later, when Guideposts asked me if I had anything to say to today’s returning soldiers, I discovered to my surprise that I did in fact have something to say to all of us who come home with memories we cannot talk about. Because we have another kind of secret, too. We have a window into the unspoken pain of others.
A simple example occurred back there in the American Cemetery. A few rows away I noticed a man, maybe in his mid-40s, standing alone like me, staring at a grave marker. I strolled over to him, asked him for the time, and we started chatting. Suddenly he began to cry. “I never knew my dad,” he said. At once our conversation became personal. But from the start, with my question about the time, I was praying. Not with words but with caring and listening. We kept in touch for years.
Ever since the war it’s as if I had a second set of eyes. I can spot a lonely person a mile away. Someone grieving at a grave site is obvious, but I can see through the heartiest, most glad-handed, all-smiles guy or gal in the room. When I’m granted this kind of vision, I wait, and if God opens a door, I step through. It’s led to some amazing, always private, friendships over the years.
That’s what I have to say to today’s returning vets: we have work to do. And the wonder, for us war-scarred types, is that it happens not in spite of the pain, but because of it.