VE-Day. It was a day that the world had struggled towards for five and a half long and bloody years. Around most of Europe and North America, it was a day of celebration, joy, and optimism. One down, one to go was the popular saying 75 years ago this month.
When I was asked to write something for this momentous day I admittedly was at a loss as to what to write. As I reflected on the day, and its meaning, one thing kept coming back to me. Their faces. The faces of the hundreds of warriors that I knew personally who had fought that horrible war in Europe kept floating through my mind.
Their faces, even 70 plus years after the war, were still scarred from the strain of battle, their old eyes still showed the terror, suffering, and guilt that had burdened them for so long. So instead of writing a triumphant piece of fluff about a terrible war, I thought it would be more prudent, at least from my perspective and experience, to write about what was on my mind and show you, the reader, a glimpse into what they carried with them for more than three quarters of a century as a result of the war in Europe.
The Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944 and proceeded to slug their way across the Norman countryside until the breakout from the hedgerows in August. At roughly the same time as the breakout, the Allies landed in Southern France and pushed the Germans northwards, while at the same time liberating town after town like their comrades in arms advancing from the Normandy coast. Jubilant citizens of those towns and the countries in the Allied path often showered their liberators with flowers, wine and seemingly endless amounts of unbridled joy and admiration as the victorious armies advanced ever further.
The images of jubilant civilians and smiling American soldiers is burned into the collective memory of the war in Europe in 1944-45. That collective memory dictates the image of the war in Europe as American soldiers defeating the wicked enemy, liberating oppressed peoples across Europe and becoming better people themselves because of the great things they did.
The war was over by May, and the soldiers started coming home soon after. Back to the United States to more adoring crowds and loved ones. Back to the United States to pick up where they left off before they went to war. Back home to start new lives, start new schools, marry new wives, have new kids, buy new houses, start new jobs…and forget the war. The belief was that the GIs from the ETO (European theater of operations) would be able to forget the war just like they could forget any other minute detail of life.
Move on. Get over it.
That simply was not possible. As the world celebrated victory over Nazi Germany and the boys eventually did come home, the war they fought thousands of miles from American shores came home with them. It came home with them in their wounds, in their memories, in their daily life…in their nightmares. For the veteran of the ETO, the combat was a traumatic experience, one of the most traumatic experiences anyone could ever possibly have lived through.
Simply forgetting the things they had seen, forgetting the things they had done, or had to do, was in most cases impossible. Some of the things that were witnessed and done by the returning veterans were things that no one on earth should have had to see, do, or be exposed to. Seeing men eviscerated by artillery and disemboweled by enemy machine gun fire was a scene that was played out again and again, day after day. Having best friends, men who were closer than brothers, bleed to death on your lap, or disappear in a blinding explosion was an experience one simply did not, could not, and would not forget.
Death was a daily companion. It was something that while they never got used to it, they got complacent about it. They accepted death as just part of another day. A hazard of the job. And in so doing, they became hardened men, irrevocably changed by the things they saw and did. Men who, when it came to the enemy, often showed no mercy. No remorse. Very little compassion. Not that they were bad men, or criminals, animals or murderers…not at all.
The combat veterans of the ETO simply adapted as would any other living thing to a horrible, bleak, hopeless world filled with misery and suffering. A world in which it was either kill or be killed. A world in which the entire reason the soldier was enduring this rain-filled, cold, muddy, bloody life lay on the other side of the field behind an MG-42. The reason, who even despite the obvious fact that they were a beaten army and a defeated people, continued to fight day in and day out with ever growing ferocity the closer the GIs got to the German heartland. Any compassion that the fighting men at the front may have had at one time, dissolved the deeper they got into the Fatherland. The training that the Army drilled into them, namely how to kill, was put to use with soul crushing regularity in a war, that to the average GI, seemed as if it would never end.
And then it did.
American boys who in years previous had rarely seen death except in the elderly or infirm, boys that had never taken a life except that of game to feed their families, boys that President Roosevelt described as “the pride of our nation”, had endured some of the most horrendous fighting in history. They had killed people in horrible ways with frightening regularity, and witnessed the most unspeakable crime ever committed by human beings on their fellow man. These same boys were now expected to come home and be the person they were before they left. Impossible.
However, much like the supposed impossible task of defeating the so-called “master race," the returning ETO GI did their absolute best to try and move on. They started new lives, started new schools, married new wives, had new kids, bought new houses, and started new jobs. But for most of them, they never could forget the war. Try as they might, they could never forget it.
We as children and grandchildren of these old warriors saw the signs of the unforgettable memories, but maybe didn’t recognize them until years later. (Hell, you might not have recognized them until you read this.) After interviewing hundreds of WWII veterans and listening to their stories, hearing them talk of their lives, I came to recognize the signs—but also learned what was behind the signs. There were days when dad or grandpa was eerily quiet, or angry, or sad. He was distant, out of touch, wrapped in his own thoughts. Yet he wasn’t being rude or aloof, he was remembering. He was remembering things that were too painful to relate, too horrible for you, who had never seen the things he had to understand.
Maybe hearing the soft rain on the metal roof on the shed in the backyard reminded him of the time he held his best friend as he breathed his last breath in the rain in a cowshed under a metal roof on a farm somewhere in Germany.
Maybe when he would go off by himself for hours and stare into space, he was thinking about the nine-year old boy he had to kill because that same boy aimed a rifle at his squad leader, his brother…his family.
Maybe he would explode with uncontrollable anger when a stranger did something stupid to endanger someone else because it reminded him of the time he saw an entire family dead, splayed about the ground like bloody dismembered ragdolls as a result of an artillery round that landed too short because of a foolish miscalculation.
Maybe he would jump when someone would slam a door because the sound reminded him of the time he kicked the door in on a destroyed, shot up apartment on a war-torn street in Aachen and killed four men at the table as they ate their breakfast.
Maybe he would snap at the kids or grandkids because he just wanted some peace, he wanted to hear nothing but quiet, instead of the constant chaotic cacophony of noises, thoughts, and images that constantly flew through his mind like someone speeding up the time on a movie.
Maybe he always seemed tired because he couldn’t sleep, or more likely, didn’t want to because that’s when the nightmares came.
But he probably never told anyone. He kept the horrors to himself, because that was the right thing to do. Or so society told him. The war left an indelible mark, a deep permanent scar on the souls of the combat veteran GIs, a scar that for many would never heal…never go away.
So on this 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe, be happy, be joyous, but more importantly be grateful to and reflect on the sacrifices of the men who fought that war, in the air, on the ground, and at sea.
For they carried the scars and the memories that were the cost of freeing Europe from a darker, even more and murderous future. Scars that would never go away until their dying day.
I will leave you with the words of the great Ernie Pyle. Ernie was a witness to the horrors of the ETO and what they did to his beloved mud-crunching GIs, and in being a witness understood them, the men, far better than we ever possibly could.
“And so it is over. The catastrophe on one side of the world has run its course. The day that it had so long seemed would never come has come at last. This is written on a little ship lying off the coast of the Island of Okinawa, just south of Japan, on the other side of the world from Ardennes.
But my heart is still in Europe, and that’s why I am writing this column.
It is to the boys who were my friends for so long. My one regret of the war is that I was not with them when it ended. For the companionship of two and a half years of death and misery is a spouse that tolerates no divorce. Such companionship finally becomes a part of one’s soul, and it cannot be obliterated.
Last summer I wrote that I hoped the end of the war could be a gigantic relief, but not an elation. In the joyousness of high spirits it is so easy for us to forget the dead. Those who are gone would not wish themselves to be a millstone of gloom around our necks.
But there are so many of the living who have had burned into their brains forever the unnatural sight of cold dead men scattered over the hillsides and in the ditches along the high rows of hedge throughout the world.
Dead men by mass production-in one country after another-month after month and year after year. Dead men in winter and dead men in summer.
Dead men in such familiar promiscuity that they become monotonous.
Dead men in such monstrous infinity that you come almost to hate them.
Those are the things that you at home need not even try to understand. To you at home they are columns of figures, or he is a near one who went way and just didn’t come back. You didn’t see him lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France.
We saw him, saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference.”
This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.
Seth Paridon has been a staff historian at The National WWII Museum since 2005. He began his career conducting oral histories and research for HBO’s miniseries The Pacific and holds the distinction of being the first historian hired by the Museum’s Research Department. In the 12 years he was Manager of Research Services, Seth and his team increased the oral history collection from 25 to nearly 5,000 oral histories.