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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...
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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."

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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