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War and remembrance.

May 24, 2009, 1:11 pm

On this day sixty-five years ago, American forces broke out of the Anzio beachhead and began the long process of pushing the Germans out of Italy.  In American military history, the invasion is known as a poorly executed near disaster.  In my family’s history, it is remembered as the moment when my father came to terms with the role of  chance in an individual’s life.

At Anzio, Allied war planners hoped to outflank the Germans by landing fifty miles behind the Nazi lines.  Although the initial landing on January 22 went well, the general in charge was too cautious and did not press his advantage.  The Nazis under Field Marshall Kesselring regrouped and counterattacked, pinning the soldiers down at the beachhead.  It took the Allies some four months and 43,000 casualties to advance.

My father was one of the millions of American men who were plucked from farms, cities, and classrooms to land on the beaches of Normandy, Okinawa, and Anzio.  Before the war, he had never been further than 50 miles from his small town in Michigan.  The first member of his family to attend college, he was thrilled when he was accepted to Central Michigan University.  But then the war, and the draft notice, came.  He enlisted in the Navy to avoid the Army.

After  90 days in midshipman’s school in Chicago, he found himself on a Liberty Ship heading to North Africa.  Within two weeks, he was the skipper on a Landing Craft Tank, a small flat-bottomed craft with a dozen crew members and the unenviable task of landing men and machines on the beach during amphibious invasions.  He had never even seen an LCT before, but the Navy placed him in charge of one the day before an invasion.

On their second run toward the shore, catastrophe struck.  The chain holding the LCT’s anchor snapped off, and the ship, tossed by waves, smashed to shore.  The crew members hesitantly emerged to find themselves on the deck of a disabled craft, onlookers to history.

There wasn’t much to see at the beginning.  The infantry came; tens of thousands of Americans massed on the beach, then headed into the hills.  But then the Nazis counterattacked.  Most of the fighting took place a few miles inland, but the men on the beach still took cover from occasional bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe and artillery shells lobbed from the nearby hills.  My father’s ship and crew never took a direct hit, probably because the Germans didn’t want to waste their ammunition on them. Mostly, they sat on the deck, watching the soldiers stream by and begging water and rations from them. The days dragged on, because the Navy could not spare the time to pull them off the rocks. Both sides regarded the handful of men on the beached boat as unimportant, which, in a war, is not entirely a bad thing.

I was born when he was already well into middle age, so his memories were distant by the time I began to pester him about them.  He always emphasized the surreal aspects: how he had never wanted to go, yet had served nearly four years; how he didn’t know how to swim, yet had captained a ship around the world.   Mostly, though, I remember how stunned he was by his own survival, when so many around him had died.  If not for the accident in Anzio, which put his ship out of commission for five months, he might have been sent to Normandy.

When I was backpacking around Europe in the late 1980s, I took a detour to Anzio from Rome and snapped some pictures.  Later, when I showed the photos to my dad, he stared hard at the Italian families playing on the beach where, four and a half decades earlier, he had seen men die.  “Golly,” he finally managed to say.  Then he got up and left the room.

Anzio was just the beginning for my father.  He helped invade southern France, against little opposition; he delivered supplies across the Pacific. After the war, still denied the privilege of going home, he helped command a bigger amphibious ship, an LSM, up and down the Yellow River in China.  The scrapbook of this Michigan farmboy contains photos of Roman monuments, Moroccan beggars, and crowded Asian markets.

He came home to the GI Bill and VA loans.  He had grown up in a one-room house without running water or electricity, but after the war a grateful government sent him to graduate school and helped him buy a piece of the American Dream in a Southern California suburb.  The war was the most terrifying event of his life, but it opened up a world of possibilities.

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