During The Battle of the Bulge, the bloodiest battle that U.S. forces experienced in World War II, a young American soldier stationed with his combat battalion in France, sickened from sleeping in wet and muddy foxholes next to the corpses of his friends and eating rancid food, determined he required a vacation. He left his regiment without orders or permission, and hiked into German occupied Nancy, France, where he rested and quietly swam in the municipal pool. A sign read, “Nur Offizier” (Officers Only).
Two weeks later, the weary Battle of the Bulge survivor walked back through enemy territory to resume his position on the front lines. The soldier had been awarded three purple hearts and a bronze star, but his acts of courage did not sway his superiors from arresting the AWOL soldier, and after serving in combat for the remainder of the war, was later court martialed. This soldier was my father.
As I was growing up, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the stories he told were generic, and agreed with the choppy newsreels and movies I was raised on. His stories seemed to support the nobility of serving your country as a soldier and that it was right to fight in a war.
When I approached eighteen in 1968, and the Vietnam War was raging, my dad was dead set against sending me to war. He said, “The one thing that I learned from volunteering into the Army was, never volunteer for anything.” I got enough subtle messages over the years that maybe war wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
Before his death, more than sixty after the Battle of the Bulge, my father finally began sharing more intimate, painful wartime experiences, as we walked together around our North Portland neighborhood where we lived most of our lives. The walks were long even though the distances were short. His walker rattled and his feet barely cleared the cracks in the sidewalk as we ambled along. His memory ebbed and flowed, as past blurred with the present, and the new stories revealed a darker side of war.
It's clear to me now the man who gave me everything he was capable of, did his best to spare me and everyone else the reality of war. After the war ended, his generation was told to "man-up," buy a house and pretend that nothing happened. Despite all he experienced, and the pain he was withholding, he was a loving, generous father. The war had always been with him privately, but at the end of his life he began to talk about what really happened at the Battle of the Bulge as we walked, as it faded into his fog of war.
My father’s revelations gave me an idea about doing a soldiers' oral history of the current war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I feel that soldiers need to tell their stories and we need to hear them. The soldiers that I have been interviewing and photographing have been generous with their stories and intimate feelings. They have taught me what it is to descend into hell and then try to find their way home. Many of the details of my father’s experience are lost with him, but as I chronicle the lives of today’s young soldiers, their story is his story. I hope they can find their way out of the fog. Sixty years is way too long to keep a secret.