Those Who Have Borne the Battle

BOOK: Those Who Have Borne the Battle
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Table of Contents
This book is dedicated to Susan Wright, with love and thanks.
She encouraged and joined me in this every step of the way—
as she has in everything I have done now for nearly thirty years.
I also dedicate this work to all of the veterans who have served,
with a special thanks to those whom I have met in the hospitals.
They bear the burden with grace and courage.
They have inspired me and they have enriched me.
Cannons in the Park
HIS IS A BOOK ABOUT America's wars, those who fought them, and the public's understanding of those experiences. From the American Revolution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a significant change in the nature of warfare and in the ways in which this country has approached its wars. I wish to discuss how, over this period of 235 years, Americans have mobilized for their wars and how they have celebrated and looked after those who have fought the nation's battles.
The understandings of wars by participants and contemporaries, the evolving concept of the citizen soldier, the perception of the nature and result of the wars, the abstracting of sacrifice and even heroism: all of these influence the view and the treatment of those who have fought. This is at the core of my interests. In his second inaugural address, coming at the end of the bloody Civil War, Abraham Lincoln stressed the nation's obligation to all “who have borne the battle.” This is a standing obligation. Finally, I am concerned about the ways in which our twenty-first-century wars do not fit easily into the historical narrative—and about the consequences of this for those who are fighting these wars.
This book offers the reflections, the meditations, of an American historian. They have been shaped by my reading of history and influenced by my own experiences. The latter may always be true for those of us who write of matters that we have touched personally; here I would make that possibility explicit. The book is neither an autobiography nor a memoir. It
begins, nonetheless, with my personal story and military experiences, for they have led me to this subject, and they have inevitably helped to shape my views.
I grew up in Galena, Illinois, an old Mississippi River town that was settled in the early nineteenth century for its lead mines. While the mining continued, Galena evolved as a commercial port. By the first half of the twentieth century, Galena was surrounded by farms and some viable zinc mines, but its days as a center of commerce were behind it. The Galena River tributary into the Mississippi filled in with so much sediment that steamboats could no longer come up to the warehouses and docks. It was and remains a historic town, remembered as Ulysses Grant's home at the beginning of the Civil War.
Within days of my birth in August 1939, World War II began in Europe. Though I am technically considered a member of the “Depression” generation, I believe there should be a special classification for those of us whose early childhood memories are of wartime mobilization rather than of the Great Depression.
In 1940 my father went to work at the Savanna Army Depot, a weapons proving ground and storage depot located some fifteen miles away. In 1943, thirty years old and the father of two, he was drafted into the army. He reported in January 1944, and by August he was in Europe, serving in the 723rd Railway Operation Battalion in the northern France, Rhineland, and central European theaters. Eventually achieving the rank of sergeant, he received Bronze Battle Stars but was not directly involved in any hostile action.
I strain for a memory of his leaving—I do have an image of a train, I think at the Burlington Station in East Dubuque, Illinois. He and my mother were both crying. I clearly remember his return from Germany and his discharge in December 1945. He brought me a souvenir, a German military knife. I still have it, but it has been in the back of a drawer ever since I learned the still-painful symbolism of the swastika shining on the handle.
My mother worked during the war in a defense plant that made batteries. I visited her there, a hot and dark place, heavy with black powder, where women sat at long benches doing things that were unclear to me.
She would come home aching tired, literally black with the carbon dust, and would soak in the bathtub.
She and my brother and I saved recyclable goods and used ration books and even participated in air-raid drills, with closed shades and all lights turned off. It was a war, but to a five-year-old, it all became part of normal life. I played with metal soldiers and built model airplanes—I was very proud of a P-61 Black Widow that I built and painted. I still have photographs of my brother, Bob, and me in military uniforms, one in which we are saluting, another of us holding toy rifles. I am sure my mother sent copies of these to my dad in Europe.
When she was free, my mother would walk with us across the old Green Street bridge to Grant Park. We would play there on the swings, the slide, and the seesaw. Overlooking this playground was the park's small manicured hill. A bronze statue of General Grant stood in the middle of the field on top, facing to the south, with places like Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Appomattox inscribed on the base. A large obelisk stood nearby, dedicated to all from the county who served in the Civil War. By one count, there were more than 2,900 men from a county with an 1860 population of slightly more than 27,000. Several cannons sat on the edges of the hill, war trophies from World War I, the Spanish-American War, and, of course, the Civil War. These were always magnets to children, and I was no exception. We climbed and played on the cannons as much as on the playground equipment.
Later I would learn more about these weapons. The small cannon, a Blakely Rifle, was the first rifled cannon used in battle in the United States when South Carolina batteries fired it on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. The Confederate army used the cannon until near the end of the war, when it was captured by General William Sherman. A Galena Lead Mine Regiment served with Sherman when he took the weapon at Cheraw, South Carolina. At the initiative of one of these Galena veterans, the Blakely found a home in Galena thirty years later, a trophy in the park honoring General Grant.
When we walked to the park, we had to cross Illinois Central Railroad tracks. A one-armed crossing guard stood there in a little booth and would hold up a sign telling pedestrians to stop or proceed. His name
was Jake Gunn. He had lost an arm as a young man in a railroad accident, and it seemed natural to learn that he had once met General Grant. Eight other Galenians served as generals in the Civil War, an impressive contribution from a city that then had some 8,000 people. History seemed to hang around.
I had a sense that all of the fathers in Galena were in the armed forces during World War II. Then it seemed that they all came home at once, with a tremendous sense of energy and enthusiasm. Except for those who didn't return. Of the 798 Galenians who served during the war, 18 died, a substantial sacrifice for a small town then of 4,100 people. The 1940 census recorded that there were only 580 males between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four living in Galena. A number of the men who served and those who were casualties obviously were from nearby farms and rural communities, identified as Galenians but not counted there for census purposes. By any count, of those who had gone to war, many had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Few of the returning veterans, including my father, talked much about the war. Some had served with the army or the marines on the Pacific islands, some went ashore on D-day and fought at Bastogne, while others parachuted behind lines or had been shot down and captured by Germans or engaged in naval battles. I would learn of this later, from others, seldom from the men themselves. They were neither teaching about war nor really talking about it. Perhaps because of this, I retain a vivid image of one soldier who had served in Europe showing a few of us some horrifying photos he took when his unit liberated a concentration camp.
When I reflect on this now, I think of how natural it seemed to be in a community of veterans. There was little sense of militarism or of taking pleasure in war. It was simply part of our history, our culture perhaps, and our life. I would later understand that small midwestern cities such as Galena had always recorded high proportions of their young citizens serving the nation's wars. Four hundred seventy men from the Galena community served in World War I. Eighteen of them died, a number ironically the same as, but proportionately much higher than, World War II. The 1920 Galena population was 4,742. During the Korean
War, 131 served out of a 1950 population of 3,826. Three did not return from that war.
I was nearly eleven when the Korean War began and I was able to follow its progress in the morning newspaper. I cheered when MacArthur sent the marines into Inchon Harbor and when he moved the UN forces swiftly into the North. I was surprised by the successful Chinese assault on the Eighth Army, and I followed closely the First Marines and the army's 7th Infantry Division fighting out of the Chosin Reservoir. I was shocked when Truman removed General MacArthur and listened on the radio when the general spoke before Congress and delivered his “old soldiers never die” farewell. I bought a cheap 78-rpm recording of it and never forgave Truman until I was in college and read more about the conflict. And as I read still more, the forgiveness became applause.
For my culture and my time, joining the military was a natural step. The Cold War shaped an expectation of war with the Soviet Union or other Communist countries. We had been conditioned by the nuns at St. Michael's and by the newspapers to prepare for conflict. The draft provided one major tangible reminder of this preparation. One scholar, George Flynn, said that among young American men, serving in the military was “close to universal through 1958.”
Certainly, what we called “going into the service” was a normal rite of passage, more so perhaps for those of us who had never really thought of continuing our education. It was a part of the transition from boyhood to manhood—and it was clearly a pathway on which few girls could walk. Military service seemed a normal choice, along with sports teams, the pool hall, job opportunities in factory, farm, or mine. This all reinforced the male-dominated culture. Moreover, there seemed to be few interesting options available to me. No one in my family had a college degree, and in my school days I had no expectation of continuing to college.
With a peacetime draft still in operation, we had an incentive to enlist at a time of our choosing and in a preferred service. I knew I wanted to be a marine. Of my 1957 Galena High School class of sixty graduates, twenty-five of us were boys; five joined the marines just a few weeks following our graduation. I was seventeen. Six of my classmates joined the army, the navy, and the air force. That number of eleven was far more
than the four or five boys from the class of 1957 who went to college, at least immediately out of high school. Actually, several of us, including all of the future marines, had joined a naval reserve unit in nearby Dubuque, Iowa, when we turned seventeen, and we spent our senior year in high school going to reserve meetings. Each of these decisions seemed natural to our generation. I have a picture of the five Galena marines posing at the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, as part of our high school class trip to Washington, DC.
BOOK: Those Who Have Borne the Battle
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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