Private Lives

July 17, 1944: "Don't remember when I wrote last but I know it has been some time. We came to this hospital about a week ago and have done nothing except work & sleep until today when we were given a day off. It was about time because I was becoming too tired to do decent work & even the young corps men on my team were stumbling around as though they were punch drunk...On the whole, I think the quality of surgery being done over here is very high. As far as I have been able to see, only the best-qualified men are permitted to do the work. Naturally when a shortage of help occurs anyone is likely to be pressed into service. So far I have not been asked to do anything except orthopedic surgery. There is plenty of that to do, anyway." What he did not say is what kind of orthopedic surgery he was doing--not simply mending simple breaks, but piecing together splintered bones, cutting off limbs beyond repair.

As the troops pressed on across France, the hospitals followed. And so did my grandfather's letters, with more mentions of mail and food--roast beef one day, when he would have paid $5 for a good bottle of beer--and the endless rain.

August 6, 1944: "It looks to me as if our days of intensive work are over. I doubt that we will ever get heavy casualties again."

He was wrong. August 25, 1944: "I doubt that we will ever have to work as hard again as we worked here. The main reason we were so busy here was that a whole German hospital full of cases was dumped on us. I'll never forget the afternoon they were brought in. We had no beds for them and they were all laid on the grass in an open field. They had had nothing to eat for 4 or 5 days and a lot of them died that night...Most of the Germans captured think the war is lost & will not last much longer but many of their officers still think they are going to win. Personally, I think they will make a last stand on their borders. It will do them no good, but it may take some time."

This time he was right. The war continued for months, and my grandfather continued to operate through it. In his letters are hints of the unimaginable life he'd left behind--my mother had gotten her driver's license, he could use some canned sardines--and as the censorship lifted, he gave more hints of the unimaginable life he was living. And finally, a rare personal note to my grandmother, on January 2 of the new year: "I think it has done you a great deal of good to be separated from me. It has restored your confidence in yourself not to be afflicted with my eccentric personality. I am very proud of you. I only wish that I could be back home with you. Believe me I wish that very much."

Eight months after that, he got his wish, and home he stayed until he died, twenty years later. He never talked about the war, my mother says; I don't know how he would respond to Saving Private Ryan. My guess is he wouldn't see it.

No cinematic vision could be as blood-chilling as those endless rows of cold, hard stones in the Allied cemeteries just off the beaches of Normandy.

The graves of men my grandfather, Major Donald Somers, could not save.

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