Survivor’s Guilt

My grandfather’s name was Walter. Born in 1920 to Polish immigrants in Detroit, Michigan, he was raised in a Polish neighborhood closer to downtown than the house my grandparents bought and lived in for over 40 years. I always longed to experience what it was like to live there in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The ‘old neighborhood’ as they called it was spoken of as if it were in another world. Yet, the distance was relatively short being no more than a thirty minute drive. It was a treat to visit the street my grandparent’s former homes were on. When they talked of how things used to be I was left with a feeling I had been cheated somehow for drawing my first breath in the early 1970s. The highlight of the trip was stopping at George’s Coney Island, a surviving family business, frequented by my grandparents as teens. It felt like going back in time. The food was delicious and the atmosphere foreign to anything I frequented. It continues to be a struggle to find hot dog chili remotely tasting like what they served. Like other ethnic groups the Detroit Polish-Americans congregated over time in the same city neighborhoods. This became a safe haven for newly arrived immigrants still adapting to speaking English and the American culture. The Polish at this time were often stereotyped as a people who excelled at the gritty, messier industrial jobs. My grandmother still talks of how difficult it was for her mother-in-law to launder her husband’s work clothes. My great-grandfather worked a job situated somewhere at the beginning of the automobile production line. He probably labored daily doing something akin to pouring hot steel at a foundry plant. Alas, the information is lost. My grampa found work as many did with companies where a family member already worked. In his instance, he joined his father working at Ford Motor Company. Not married yet in 1941, he most likely still lived at home. My grandfather was 21 when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred and like many men he quickly found himself in the armed services. He enlisted with friends and neighbors at Fort Custer, Michigan. He was assigned to the Army. 

As a child I sometimes asked to see the old uniform hanging in my grandparents wardrobe in the basement. Olive green with flashes of gold stripes and other mysterious symbols, it was the strangest garment I had ever seen. I suppose I was afforded the chance to don his military jacket, but I don’t recall now. In later years, Grampa tended to be rather melancholy and irritable. I learned getting him to talk about his days during the war could sometimes breath more life into him. I would ask him what he did during World War Two. I wanted to know where he traveled and what battles he fought. He would explain he was a sergeant in the Army and he never went overseas. But, if you sat longer with my grandfather and kept subtly asking questions he would reveal more. Despite only having one year of high school recorded on his enlistment document, my grandmother would proclaim he was very intelligent. She would speak of how he was alway reading and made a point of learning about the world. Gramma felt he could have been a doctor, lawyer or some other white-collar professional. People who he served with in the Army would also recognize his intelligence and good work ethic. Making rank of sergeant speaks to his ability to command and lead.As a child I naturally could sense this. He wasn’t the type of grandfather who would get down on the ground and play with you. Grampa was also often serious and severe if crossed.

As the war progressed the birth of what would become the U.S. Air Force began in earnest. Some of the men in his squad encouraged my grandfather to take a ‘test’ as he explained it. From what I gather an aptitude test of some kind was administered to discover new talent for the U.S. Army Air Forces. All military air units were still incorporated under the command of the military branches they served with. The United States Air Force only become a separate branch of the military in 1947. My grandfather being at the very least moderately intelligent did well on the testing. He learned soon afterwards that he was being reassigned into the Army Air Forces. He was to be sent off to school. Grampa was not happy about this change. He had formed a close bond with many of the men he served with. But, as my grandfather would say there was nothing to be done about it.  Orders were orders and this was wartime. Having only attended a year of high school, he found himself struggling with the coursework. Yet, I pause and consider my own children who have had difficulty adjusting to living at college. Capable and intelligent they too found a strange environment hampered their ability to score better grades until they got settled in. Perhaps, my grandfather was affected by similar feelings? He ultimately failed out of the training school. There’s no existing details about the kind of training he received. Was he learning to be a pilot? Navigator? Engineer? Mechanic? Until the family can access his military record we won’t know.

For most of the war, if not its entirety, my grandfather was stationed in Washington state. He was at one point deployed to a group maintaining barrage balloons protecting the Seattle area. Early in the war there was real concern the Japanese would successfully mount an attack on the naval installations along the West Coast. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in people’s memories. The United States Navy was handicapped by the destruction of much of the fleet in Hawaii and an assault on Seattle or Los Angelas was a real possibility. Photographs my grandfather took show a barracks out in a forest setting at times buried in quite a bit of snow. Mixed in with the black and white pictures is one of his own postcards sent home. It is postmarked from Renton, a suburb south of Seattle. Boeing has had a substantial manufacturing presence there since before the war. Could the snow in the photos indicate the barracks was situated close to Mount Rainer? Holding up the scants details of Grampa’s service against the historical record of the progression of the war in the Pacific theater is one way to surmise how his war career might have unfolded. The beginning is established in his enlistment paper.  In Michigan at Fort Custer he received basic training. How long did he stay? This is an unknown. But, I can’t shake the lingering, unsubstantiated memory I have of him telling me he was a drill sergeant who trained new recruits. Perhaps this is something I misunderstood or made up. If true would this have been an assignment he first had at Fort Custer. Wouldn’t he likely have stayed in that capacity? 

Travel to Washington is a certainty, but when? Was he still in the Army when based around Seattle? There are other records of Army men in European theaters who deployed barrage balloons. It is possible he worked his way up to rank of sergeant in this capacity while still in the Army. Training men to deploy and maintain barrage balloons would account for my memories of being told that he drilled others. The opportunity to test into the Army Air Forces might have been afforded to him simply because he was geographically close to a major airplane manufacturing site.  His time manning anti-aircraft balloons makes most sense if placed earlier in the war. Threat to the West Coast lessened greatly as American forces regained the advantage at sea after the battle at Midway. This would have allowed for reallocation of men and resources to other needs. I do know the group of men he served with earlier were eventually to Europe and transfer into to the Army Air Forces ultimately landed my grandfather the job of servicing military aircraft. He built or maintained P-51 Mustangs. Grampa’s experience working on the automobile production line would have endowed him with skills easily transferable to such a task.

Whatever the actual sequence of events, he clearly formed a lasting connection with the men he served with outside of Renton, Washington. Like everyone else my grandfather lived through a time of great uncertainty. He might not have been overseas in a forward fighting group, but he was not immune to loss and tragedy. Clearly my grandfather found a sense of purpose during the war and it afforded him opportunities he never would have had. His move to Washington itself was unlikely without the war. How strange and different things must have seemed away from Detroit. Soldiers were awarded leave time. I imagine him visiting Mount Rainer, the temperate rainforests, Seattle and the Pacific Ocean. He was in San Francisco at least once because he spoke of an awful experience he had there. Grampa could be a heavy drinker. He definitely enjoyed his high-balls every afternoon. When my own father developed a taste for wine my grandfather adamantly refused to touch a drop of it. He regaled us with a story of becoming dreadfully sick while on leave in San Fransisco with his buddies. The culprit was a sweet cherry fruit wine. He harbored an intense distrust of all types of wine ever since. The cherry wine obviously left him with an unforgettable hangover. More to the point, young men and women were suddenly thrown all over the world into dangerous situations. Even in safe places you never knew if someone close would be gone in the near future. Leave was an oasis in time when a soldier threw caution to the wind and lived life to the fullest. Veterans of World War Two speak of great camaraderie and life long friendships built during the war.

Nearing the end of the war, the group of men my grandfather served with in the Army was finally deployed overseas. I am not sure if this is the same group of men he was with while working with the barrage balloons. Regardless, this contingent of men found themselves in Europe. After D-Day and its immediate aftermath moral was high. The Axis powers were showing signs of collapse and everyone hoped the war in Europe would soon end. The Nazis were in retreat seemingly everywhere. But, the German military would not surrender yet. It lashed out once more with a large scale offensive which would become known as the Battle of the Bulge. My grandfather had already been reassigned to work on the P-51’s in the Army Air Forces. When news arrived he was devastated to learn that his old squad was caught up in this battle. The Allied Forces were completely surprised. The death toll was high. Undoubtedly Germany would soon be defeated, but for my grandfather’s men it didn’t matter. They all died in the Battle of the Bulge. Until the day he passed, he was a victim of survivor’s guilt. Grampa spoke of how he should have been with his unit of men. He didn’t understand why he had been fortunate enough to avoid overseas deployment. For him it was a strange twist of Fate his buddies had coaxed him take the Army Air Forces test. If not for that decision he too would have been at the Battle of the Bulge. My grandfather tried to make sense of this proclaiming that it just wasn’t his time. 

After the war Grampa wanted to return to Washington to take advantage of an opportunity to work in the aviation manufacturing sector. My grandmother refused to go owing to the fact that her mother was widowed. He survived the war physically, but there was a part of him that didn’t survive. His closest war time friends died and as far as he was concerned he had in some way cheated death. This guilt and a natural tendency towards anxiety and depression colored the entirety of his remaining life. He wasn’t the easiest person to get along with at times, yet I think he did the best he could. Solidly ensconced in middle-age myself, I understand now how life no matter what your circumstances are buffets you about. We all have our share of emotional and physical scars.  Without a doubt my grandfather looked upon his time in the war as one of the most important things he did. Unfortunately, he seemed trapped by the long passed events of the war. It was if a part of him couldn’t move on. Maybe this explains why he was emotionally distant at times. I’n not passing judgement. He was the man he was. I only wish I could have understood him better. Reconstructing the events from an important part of his life helps me to better remember him. I suggest when truly listening to someone’s story it is easier to identify with their joy, pain, struggles, and triumphs. If you’re lucky what’s revealed is a glimpse of their soul.