07 June 2011

Uncle James and the Bombing of Dresden

My Uncle James is 88 years old.  He's a gentle soul, belying his experience.

As a 14-year-old, his father abandoned him and his mother, and he lived hand-to-mouth in the Depression, shooting squirrels for the family protein and going to high school only half time so he could work to support his Mom.  The family farm was foreclosed and they had to move into an attic in Somerset, KY.

During World War II he was drafted and sent to the European Front.  Because he had not landed at Normandy - he arrived a month later - he was treated like scum by the others in the regiment he "joined".  He was just filling in for their dead friends.

On December 16, 1944, his platoon was at the German frontier with Belgium, the "Lead Dogs" of the push into Germany.  He didn't realize until the next morning that what became known as the Battle of the Bulge had begun and was already engulfing him.  As the Lead Dogs, they were the last ones out.  Several non-commissioned officers, who had treated him and the other late-arrivals with contempt, sent them down a road to guard an intersection - then they headed north.  Uncle James' platoon were the sacrificial lambs, and it took James nearly 15 years to come to grips with that horrific act.  Of the 25 privates sent down that road to protect their NCO's butts, only 11 were alive by 18 December.  I did some research on this on my own, and I believe that the NCO's who did this to James and his buddies were probably caught up in the Malmedy Massacre - where ~500 American captives were herded into a field near Malmedy, Belgium... and machine-gunned down by elements of Joachim Pieper's 1st SS Panzer Division.  There is justice in this life for some people if not for others.

There followed 6 months of starvation and cruel slave-labor where James' weight dropped from 186 lbs to 95 lbs (he's 6' tall).  He was deliberately poisoned once.  His POW train was strafed by an American P-51 once.  After six months of living with death all around him, James was repatriated to American lines by the Russians in mid-May 1945.  All this time Aunt Alice and my Grandma Wynn had no idea if he was alive or dead.  It must have been just as bad for them.

James was working on a Komando - a slave-labor team doing hard scut-work for the Third Reich - when the terrible bombing of Dresden took place, and he watched the scene unfold.  The final bomb-rack was cleared only 30 meters from him.  He described the horror of this period to me and I built a website to document it - and to honor him.

I have a photo on this website of James at graduation from Boot Camp in Tennessee, and the day he was repatriated on the Czech-German border.  His sandy hair is the same, but he is skeletal by comparison.  He pointed out that in 6 months his hair and fingernails didn't grow at all.  He also mentioned in passing that his feet have been numb for the last 66 years from the frostbite.

There is a lesson in Uncle James' life: no matter what kind of a hand you are dealt, just do your best and be kind to people.  James didn't blame the Germans (his mother had been born in Germany just 60 years earlier), and he got over his deep resentment toward the US Army for what they did to him and his little family.  He harbored no resentment that he had to show his dog-tags, letters from the Red Cross, and his German POW tags to prove he was a veteran - because someone had lost all his paperwork.  He harbored no animosity for the fact that a Bronze Star given to others in his Battalion for surviving the Bulge wasn't given to him until 60 years later... because he had been in a German POW camp at the time.

A record of this amazing story, with maps, photos, and additional details, can be found here.

James made two important points for me:

When he was in the Intersection of Death, hearing German infantry go from foxhole to foxhole and shoot and shoot and shoot, James became convinced he was about to die. He was profoundly aware of his failure to take care of his aging mother and his young wife.  Then he heard a voice: "Just like you and I are talking now, Jeff," that they would be OK.  That HE would be OK.  For the rest of his life, James never doubted where that Voice had come from, and was determined to live his life in an appropriate fashion.  He has never feared death since then.

In my last conversation with my Uncle James, he said this:
All that's really important, Jeff, is to seek and then follow The Lord's Will.  If you do that you will be happy, because you will be doing what you are here on this Earth for.  

I once heard an interesting expression:
Harboring hatred is like drinking poison, hoping it will hurt the other person.


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