Private Lives

My grandfather was too old to fight in World War II. He went anyway. (He lied to get into World War I, too--but was booted after recruiters learned he was underage.)

In 1943 he was an orthopedic surgeon, his practice finally taking off after the Depression, when patients often couldn't pay for their care--but when their broken bones required as much attention as their broken lives. Now his services were needed again. And so, over forty, with bad ankles and two growing kids, he enlisted.

He wrote letters home, lots of letters, filled with the sorts of mundane details he was allowed to reveal. Details about the mail, and the food, and the lack of mail, and the lack of food. None of his contemporaneous accounts have the violent, horrific drama of the first minutes of Saving Private Ryan, Steven Spielberg's movie that is reminding veterans of exactly why they served--and telling those too young to be reminded what sacrifices those men made. Still, the letters say plenty.

April 21, 1944: "At last I have a great deal to write about and now I can't write it. Censorship has been clamped down very tightly. I am not supposed to write about the weather but I guess it would do no harm to say that I feel cold most of the time. My quarters are by far the best I have ever had in the army but there is no heat. The food has been lousy but that is the fault of our own cooks." At the time, my grandfather was in England, awaiting the invasion of Normandy. D-Day, the 6th of June.

June 8, 1944: "I imagine you people at home are all excited about the invasion. You are probably far more excited than the people are here and you probably know more about how things are going than we do. Americans should not complain about being kept misinformed. You people get far more news than the British do...I guess I already told you that I have been transferred to a field hospital. They are 300-400 bed affairs and we are supposed to do most of their surgery. It has been so long since I have done any surgery that I often wonder if I can ever get really interested in it again."

June 16, 1944: "Received a letter from you today written the day of the invasion. Your concept of my activities amuses me somewhat. You must think I am right in there fighting. As a matter of fact, I have not heard a gun fired, a bomb explode." That was about to change. Although in the first days following the invasion, the wounded were tended by medics and evacuated to England, within two weeks tent hospitals would be set up just behind the front lines. My grandfather was assigned to one of the first.

An undated note: "Arrived in France yesterday. Came in on the beach and hiked 10 or 12 miles, carrying about 40 lbs. We were simply exhausted when we were finally bivouacked in a field. No bedding or blankets and was it cold. It finally started to rain. We were finally picked up and brought to an evacuation hospital where we were furnished cots and a blanket. I am starting to work tonight & there is plenty of work to do. We are about 6 or 7 miles behind the front & the roar of cannon is almost constant...I doubt that I will be in one place for any great length of time & will probably get no mail for a long time. Keep writing anyway."

July 1, 1944: "Have not written for a few days because I have been really busy. Just a case of working & sleeping...The Germans here were living very well previous to the invasion. The officers particularly evidently lived in very high state. They still do even in combat. How they keep their clothes & uniforms so well-pressed is beyond me. The Americans all look like bums & do not care what they wear. I saw a lot of Germans around here who did not look so good, either, because they were very dead...There is no entertainment of course, but we don't have time for it anyway." That's because they were operating in makeshift hospitals, sometimes around the clock, sometimes so long that my grandfather had to be carried off to bed because he could no longer walk. But he couldn't write about that because of the censors, and he wouldn't have written about that anyway. He was a very private man.

July 8, 1944: "I don't remember how many days it is since I wrote you last. I simply cannot keep track of time. I know I have moved a couple of times since I wrote you & I have been really busy. It seems as though I do a long stretch of night duty & fall in bed exhausted only to be awakened in an hour or so & on to somewhere else where you are immediately put to work again. We are more than willing to keep working but I believe I would do better work with a little more rest. I had no idea I could do as much work as I have. I believe they save the most pitiful case for you to look at about 15 minutes before you are scheduled to quit. Of course there is only one thing to do & that is to go ahead with it but it knocks an hour or more off your sleeping time. Almost everyone takes it in stride with very little complaining because one cannot help but feel that he is doing something of great value."

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