My father, Bill Waller, was stationed in Scotland for several months before the Normandy invasion. While there, he had his picture taken wearing Highland dress. As a child, I smiled at the photo of my daddy wearing a dress. Since then it’s occurred to me that if his ancestors had stayed home instead of emigrating, he might have grown up wearing the kilt.
He rarely spoke about the war, and I knew not to ask, so I know few details about his service.
He enlisted several months before his draft number came up, nearly a year before the war began, expecting to serve the required two years.
He rode a boxcar from Southern California to Hershey, Pennsylvania in November of 1942, and was stationed there until he shipped out for Europe. He hit Omaha Beach on June 19, 1944, instead of on June 6, and instead of swimming, he drove.
He said the coldest place he’d ever been was Cologne in winter.
He lost his hearing as a result of bomb concussion but tried to keep it a secret. His buddies pretended to hear airplanes and ran for foxholes; then, when he dived into a foxhole, they laughed. An officer finally saw the prank in progress and sent him back to Paris, where he spent the last several month of the war in hospital as an ambulatory patient.
When he came home before daylight in October of 1945, his mother-in-law met him at the door. He handed her his hearing aids and said, “Don’t tell Crystal about these.” My grandmother, of course, told. After several days of shouting, my mother told him hearing aids were no different from glasses and suggested he retrieve and wear them.
In the ’70s, when Anzio aired on television for the first time, his brother’s step-son commented that he couldn’t imagine how soldiers could get off the LSTs and hit the beaches while under fire.
“There’s nowhere else to go,” said my father. That’s the only remark I ever heard him make about actual combat.
My mother told me that when his brothers were talking about looting that occurred on the battlefield, he said, “I’ve seen them cut off fingers to get rings.” Then he walked out of the room.
I’ve heard it said that “One a soldier, always a soldier.” In my father’s case, that didn’t appear to be true. To him, military service was a job. He took it seriously, as he did every job he ever had. There was work to be done in Europe, and he did what he was necessary. But when he got home, he gave my mother his uniforms and told her to get rid of them. He spoke highly of Gen. Omar Bradley; he had little good to say about General Patton. He read Eisenhower’s memoir of D-Day twenty years after. He sometimes spoke about men he’d served with, but never those who had died. He didn’t join the American Legion or the VFW. He didn’t go to Veterans Day parades. He didn’t seem to want public recognition of his service.
My mother said of all the men she knew who went to war, he was the least changed. He came home, put it behind him, and went on with life. But he rarely used the shotgun he’d had since he was ten years old. The sound of gunfire bothered him.
He didn’t watch Anzio or any other war movies, but he never missed an episode of M*A*S*H*. I asked once whether the Army was really like that. He grinned sheepishly and his eyes began to twinkle.
At first I thought he’d given the easy answer, but that twinkle showed he was telling the truth. What he didn’t want to remember, he did his best to set aside. He chose to keep the part he could smile at.