Saturday, August 04, 2012

Report from Mel's WW2 reunion

Dear Friends,

Just wanted to share a little of the reunion of Mel's 87th Infantry Division Legacy Association with you. There are maybe 150 people here at the Reunion at a large hotel in Warwick, RI --34 surviving veterans of World War II and the rest children and grandchildren and assorted relatives of the vets, including some who have continued to be involved even though their fathers are now deceased. They come from every corner of the U.S., though the majority are from the Northeast, and of course Florida, to which so many have retired. This is really Middle America in all of its permutations, but a really kindly, warm and fuzzy face of Middle America. People are here for each other, a wonderful spirit of voluntarism and everyone looking out for each other.

Battle flag of the 87th Division 
On one level obviously, the whole thing is a tribute to the unfathomable experiences the members of 87th Divison, living and dead (the youngest, like Mel are about to turn 87, the oldest surviving veteran, Walt Clarke, is 95) went through on the frozen battlefields of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and during their triumphant drive across Germany the following spring, ending near the Czechoslovak border on the last day of the way, May 7, 1945. On a deeper level, there is shared connections of the vets and their loved ones and survivors with each other.

Gen. William McAuliffe said
"Nuts" to the Nazis
To say that death was everywhere around them during those months is an understatement; for example, of the 42 men in Mel's unit at the beginning of the fighting in the fall of 1944, only 7 were still alive at the end of the war. Who died and who survived was completely about grotesque games of chance. One guy spoke about watching his entire unit get decimated while he escaped unharmed a few yards away; Mel was blown into the air by an exploding shell, but came down unharmed. Wiliam Foster of northern  New York State, who remembers Mel from the fighting as "a damn good soldier", remembers diving for cover into a foxhole during a German artillery barrage and finding himself on top of a dead German soldier. He jumped out and ran for another hole, hich he now remembers as a foolish thing to have done. Every night they would dig holes to lie down in their sleeping bags in the tundra like snowy terain; inability to get warm was a constant torture during the Bulge; in the morning they would slither out of the slepping bags to find them frozen to the ground and would have to cut the bags loose with knives...

Mel in conversation at the reumion
The vets speak of returning from that hell to normal lives back home--Mel who was then all of 19 and 20, said he "went back to being a kid." Somehow the miracles of the human brain made it possible to put the war experiences behind them ad lead amazingly normal lives; only many decades later did they feel the need to begin to process the experience together and realize in many cases that they had experienced traumatic stress disorders that had impacted their subsequent lives in ways they still often cant put their fingers on or articulate. But the overwhelming impression is of genial, balanced and good humored men of whom Mel is an Exhibit A (everyone here appreciates his warm and intelligent sense of humor and his wonderful eccenticites like the canes he whittles filled with  birds and whimsical human faces).

Faces in the crowd at the mixer
Last night's 'mixer' was a feast that ended in a sing-along of sons of the era (White Cliffs of Dover, We'll Meet Again and the previous generations (Bicycle Built for Two, This is the Army Mr. Jones)...One veteran got up and sang a less reverential send up of the army life, filled with words like 'shit' and 'asshole' at which all laughed uproriously. People reminsced and socialized and looked at photos and maps and documents chronicling the searing experience of the 87th with a sense of wonderment, sometime reverential and sometimes  irreverant. One is reminded of Kurt Vonnegut's famous throwaway line about the bombing of Dresden and all the other horrors of the era all of these folks lived through. "So It Goes," he wrote.

Walt Clarke, 95. is the oldest
survivor of the 87th. He was
a surgeon during the fighting
So it went and so it still goes in Syria right now and on  other assored battlefields around the world; so it has gone for our own Israeli cousins for all of these decades...and how fortunate most of us have been to have escaped having our own lives seared by these horrors. Without getting too pompous and teary eyed, our luck is due in large part to the sacrifice these guys made on the battlefields of Normandy, the Ardennes and so many other fronts; and the tenacity of our valiant Russian allies; who smashed the Nazi blitzkrieg in the snows of Moscow and Stalingrad and saved all of us not only from having to fight but of complete incineration at the hands of a system that tried to murder every Jew in the world.

To paraphrase the Who, I dig my own generation--we had a vision of a new non-exploitive and egalitarian society and did our best to create it against heavy odds..maybe it was "only the fitful dreanms of some greater awakening" to quote Jackson Browne, but I immensely proud of it and feel honored to have lived it. That said, I'm ready to cede the 'Greatest Generation' moniker to Mel and his comrades. Did they ever earn it!!

Leslie will arrive here shortly anbd more events for the rest of the day. I'll report again tomorrow...Here are a few pix...sorry on the quality...more pix to come with next report


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