Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Uncle Herman's All Expenses Paid Grand Tour of Africa and Europe

I am reading Jeff Shaara's "The Rising Tide", a novel about World War II. I'm almost at the end, and the action has just moved to Sicily from North Africa so I don't expect that it will get much further than Messina. I don't have a lot to say about the writing, but the book has been enjoyable and informative.

My mother's four older brothers all served in the army in World War II, quite a hardship for a farming family that relied on draft animals and the labor of those four young men. Her oldest brother, whom everyone called Herman ( we did not know until his funeral that his real name was William Benjamin Dillard, Jr.), served with the First Infantry Division, a unit that played a big role in the events depicted in the novel. The novel spends much of its time on armor and airborne infantry, but the events are interesting to me because this was my favorite uncle who would talk about the war only very reluctantly. I never realized just how difficult the early fighting in Algeria and Tunisia had been, how the Allies had very nearly been defeated. No wonder Uncle Herman didn't want to talk about it.

He landed in Algeria in late 1942 and fought the French. I had been led to believe that the French welcomed the Allies with open arms and turned on the Germans right away. Au contraire. They resisted and had to be defeated before the Allies could turn to fighting the Germans. It took until Spring of 1943 to get the Germans and Italians out of Africa.

I used to wonder why the Allies had bothered with the campaigns in Africa and Sicily and Italy if they were just going to end up invading France in a risky operation anyway when it was all said and done. Reading this novel has helped me realize that the Americans needed practice and lots of it. They didn't have any experience to speak of, even the generals whose only experience had been as company grade and field grade officers in World War I. And they needed to weaken the Germans. Also, the Brits wouldn't go for it.

Herman was among the infantrymen isolated in the mountains in Tunisia and very nearly destroyed by Rommel's Panzerarmee. Later, he invaded Sicily, then Italy. When that was done, he went to England and landed at Normandy and fought his way to Germany. Quite the grand tour, I'd say. And he took an ocean liner to get to Europe in the first place. He left his left ring finger in Africa, and he experienced phantom itching where it used to be all his life. He never married, so I don't suppose that he missed the digit that much. Its absence made it easier for the five year old Vache Folle to do chin ups on his little finger.

Uncle Herman never worked out. He just worked hard, and he had the physique of a professional bodybuilder and the strength of an Olympic power lifter. He was bigger than life to me, my hero. He taught me to drive a tractor by letting me sit on his lap while he drove it to and from the fields.

He wouldn't talk about the war unless I bugged the crap out of him, and then he didn't glamorize it one bit. I never knew him to participate in a veterans parade or any such thing. In fact, he reckoned that his service might well have been for nothing. He just didn't know. He looked at the world after the war and wondered whether it was any better than it would have been without the war.

Anyway, I'm sure Shaara has some sequels in the works, and I will read them to find out what Uncle Herman was up to on his European tour.

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