Friday, November 6, 2020

Letters and Rumors


Oberst (Colonel) Gebhard Vorwald stepped outside into the cool air of a lovely November day. He lit his cigarette and thought of his son, Werner, killed in action in North Africa in 1942. Today was Werner's birthday, he would have been 40 this day. As he did every day, he wondered how his grandson Gerd was doing. The lad was scarcely 18 and was a lieutenant in the Army, assigned to the 275th Infantry Division in the West. He had seen the casualty reports from his grandson's unit, they were losing men at a rate which just couldn't be sustained for very long.

Working in Signals at the Army Headquarters at Wünsdorf outside Berlin gave him access to information which wasn't available to others in the Army. He had seen the message traffic ordering Gerd's division to be pulled back into the Reserve and rebuilt. Perhaps his grandson might make it out of the Hürtgenwald alive after all!

1Lt Nate Paddock was sitting inside his tent reading a letter from his mother. It was full of news from home, the weather back there, and, of course, the rationing. His mother always mentioned the rationing. She felt that she was doing her bit for the war effort by obeying all the rules about hoarding and rationing. She still mentioned the day she had turned in her old pots and pans and was convinced that somewhere over Europe her old cookware was now a bomber or a fighter, raining death and destruction on the Nazis.

Paddock sighed, if only she knew the harsh reality of this war. He had just sent off the last batch of letters he had written to the families of the men killed in his company - fancy that, he thought, his company - over the past few days. He had also written to his predecessor's family, 1Lt Gus Chambers, which Captain Josephson said he didn't need to do, but he wanted to tell that man's mother and father just what a superb leader their son had been.

In truth, the words seemed hollow somehow. How do you tell a mother and father that the boy they raised, the boy they watched grow up, would never be coming home again?

Oberst Vorwald recognized the young Gefreiter from the Signals Section post office. He thought for a moment, trying to remember the young man's name, oh yes, Georg, Georg Alberg from Königsberg in East Prussia. It was starting to bother him how he was beginning to have trouble remembering people's names. But at the age of 64, he supposed it was something to be expected.

"Herr Oberst! A letter for you." The corporal nodded rather than saluted, hard to salute when you're carrying a satchel of mail and only have one arm. Young Alberg, as the colonel recalled, had lost an arm in the spring of 1940. He had served with Rommel, the same as his own late son.

"Good afternoon Georg, how are you today?"

"Better Sir, I'm glad the weather is warmer, my stump always aches when it's wet and cold."

"Yes, yes, I certainly understand that!" Oberst Vorwald, as he always did, slapped his left hand against his wooden left leg, the one he had lost at Verdun as a young lieutenant.

The two men, separated by a generation yet united in the blood they had shed for their Fatherland had a good laugh. Then Gefreiter Alberg nodded again and continued on his rounds. Whistling as he did so.

"Is it alright if I come in Sir?" Paddock looked up to see his old platoon sergeant, Sgt Stephen Hernandez, standing in the entrance to the tent.

"Of course, Sarge, come on in, take a load off. How are you feeling?" Paddock couldn't help but notice that Hernandez sat down in the camp chair very carefully. Though the bullet which had put him out of action had gone through the muscles of his lower abdomen without hitting anything vital, Sgt Hernandez had learned just how much those muscles were used. He was very careful in how he moved.

"Well Sir, I feel like a ninety year old man, but I'm alive. I'll take it. So, you have Charlie Company now?"

"Not officially, word has it that regiment has a captain looking for a job. Makes me a little nervous, what has this guy been doing all along if he needs a job now?"

"You never know L.T., could be a guy coming back from hospital. I've known a few like that, you might luck out and we might luck out, getting some veteran officer for the company. We'd also get you back in 2nd Platoon! Help me keep those jokers out of trouble."

"Well, we won't know for a day or two, for now Charlie is mine, all mine." Paddock did his best imitation of a movie villain laugh, which Hernandez appreciated. He had been afraid that the young officer might be too far down in the dumps after the events on Bloody Hill.

Winking at the young lieutenant, scarcely five months out of West Point, Hernandez chuckled and said, "Don't quit your day job just yet L.T."

Oberst Vorwald returned to his office, stood next to his desk, and finally had a chance to look at the letter in his hand. It was from his grandson's unit. A wave of panic washed over him, letters from a loved one's unit were almost never a good thing.

He opened the letter, read the first two lines, then sat down heavily in his chair.
Sehr geehrter Oberst Vorwald,¹

I had the honor of serving with your grandson in the Hürtgenwald. He was a good man and a good soldier. It is with great sorrow that I must tell you that your grandson died leading a counterattack against the American unit assaulting our position. He was an inspiration to his men and a great help to me as his company commander.

Please accept my condolences on your loss.

Mit Hochachtung,²

von Lüttwitz, Commanding

5th Company, 2nd Battalion, 983rd Grenadier Regiment 

Mein Gott³, Vorwald said to himself, how am I going to tell his mother and grandmother this news?

My boy's boy, the last of my line...

"Dear God, how can I live with this?"

Outside the sun was setting, the red light of an afternoon in late fall lit the office with a warmth the colonel did not feel. A warmth he believed he might never feel again.

¹ Dear Colonel Vorwald
² With Respect
³ My God
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  1. I feel sorry for the man who gave his family to the German wars in the first half of the 20th century, you write well. Then I think of the 104,000 Americans still buried in Europe from putting the Germanys back down in the first half of the 20th century. And the ones stationed there for the last 75 years so we didn't have to bury more Americans putting the Germans down still again.

  2. The Human Misery Factory was working three shifts then, and as a result of he War would be in production to this very day.

  3. @Rob: I had a physics professor that spent a lot of time in Germany. He mentioned that when the Germans are united, the world will notice it. He wasn't a big fan of Reunification. He thought the fourth Reich was a distinct possibility.

    When grandma passed on, I got the letters sent to my grandparents in '68. The ones Steve sent, and the ones the USMC and government sent. LBJ's letter was perfunctory. The governor of Oklahoma was heartfelt. There were no letters from the field commanders at all. I guess by 1968, that didn't happen anymore.

    I can't imagine writing letters from the front to the folks back home. I do distinctly remember there being sunlight, but darkness shaded everything and everyone. Just like the black crepe around those three pictures up there. I was just a kid, so it was osmosis I guess.

    1. Our government lost its soul somewhere along the way, if it ever had one.

    2. Started in Korea. Something about that war, the way the politics got so involved in it, the way the nascent 'Peace' movement started turning people against the conflict, the way the bureaucrats in the Pentagon became grasping of all power, even of letters.

      It's one of the reasons I think that Eisenhower won election, a kickback against the corporate mentality that nearly lost us what should have been, as seen by the US people, an easily winnable war against pseudo-barbarians.

      And then Kennedy took over, who never saw a small conflict he didn't want to be part of, until the butcher's bill came due (what he did or didn't do at the Bay of Pigs was criminal.) And then LBJ and Bobby Strange and that's all she wrote about compassion and common sense in the military.

      It basically took the Volunteer Army and years to reform personnel issues. And then we got Billy Jeff and then the Lightbringer and I don't know how to fix the upper echelon of our military except to maybe do to them what Stalin did to his upper crust. The credible rumors and actions against a sitting president?

      Sad, very sad.

      At one time our government, back when it was small, had the souls of the men who fought for it. Now? It's a bureaucrats' world. And Trump signed his death certificate when he signed an executive order removing protections from firing and dismissal from senior bureaucrats.

      I weep.

  4. It is funny Sarge - I still have buried away the letters from the late 80's and early 90's that my mother wrote to me from when I was in college. The written word has a way to collect that the electronic word does not.

    One of the most powerful versions of this I have seen was from We Were Soldiers Once And Young, where the officer's wives are walking around performing the notifications.

    1. Letters will be around for a long time.

      Emails, not so much.

  5. Hey AFSarge;

    Well Written, That's the danger of generational families serving. My family has served the republic since the revolutionary war, not a brag, just a thing, we guys(and a few gals) do at least a hitch or a career as our duty to the republic. My son is the first one that expressed no interest in joining, and the attitude from one of my Aunts when I mentioned it was "well that's good, the Family has paid the debt long enough, a son not joining is not a bad thing." I am still hoping that he changes his mind, but I won't pressure him. Well anyway enough of that. As far as the Germans rising up, I don't see that happening, they have been effectively defanged in my opinion. Several generations of "feel good Social Justice nonsense" and the Germans will not even defend their civilization against the migrants that "Auntie Merkel" invited in and they have taken over and the few Germans that have complained have found the state on their case and when there is any incidents with Germans and the Migrants, the State sides with the Migrants. I still have friends over there and they tell me that, it is forbidden to criticize them, they get in trouble. So I don't see a resurgence of the 4th Reich. Sorry about the bit of politics on your blog.

    1. Merkel and the host of East German bureaucrats that took over the combined Germany after unification have killed Germany more effectively than France and Britain after WWI at the Versaille Treaty signing. Death from within. A cancer.

      Very unhappy to watch.

  6. Your writing has shown the commonality we’ve had

  7. I do not like the concept of some unattached Captain just floating around waiting to be reassigned. By late '44, too many incompetents started making their way back into the front, where they were pushed out of earlier. Dangit.

    As to generational loss. It's one of the things that made France so war-shy before WWII. So many families lost all male members that, basically, whole 'names' that had been around since the times of Charles Martel were wiped out. And a host of old maids was made. One of the fixtures of French village and city life was always some woman, getting older, who watched over her section of the street. Because she had no other thing to do, no family left, just a pension.

    The casualties of war aren't just a single name. They include all the people connected to the name, up and down the timeline.

    Dangit, the gloominess of the Forest has really gotten into us all, hasn't it?

    How are the cats?

    1. The cats are well, demanding on the one hand, keeping me company on the other.

      People belittle French military prowess, not realizing that France started bleeding men when the Revolution started. When 1940 rolled around, wasn't much left.

    2. Nothing wrong with the typical French Soldier that having better commanders and politicians over them wouldn't help. I mean, how many died in WWI before the average soldiers staged basically a mutiny because the same tactics only seemed to work to increase the number of dead and wounded?

      And, yes, the French Revolution cut off too many good heads. The losses from the Napoleonic Wars were just brutal. And then the Franco-Prussian War and issues in the Far East and in Africa before WWI and after just kept the bleeding going around. It's the generational loss of WWI that really broke the heart of the nation, and with it Marshall Petain.

      Nothing wrong with any of the French war equipment at the beginning of WWII. They had hot planes, good tanks, excellent machine guns and rifles, more trucks than Germany, better laid out log bases and tactical and strategic stores ready. Their navy was first rate, their subs were excellent. They had everything, including well-trained troops. Just... inflexible leaders, leaders with poor vision, unsupportive politicians and a disheartened public. Sad. They had the ability to stop the Nazis in their push to the west, had the ability to stop them cold. But the officers and troops that could have weren't allowed to, amongst a host of other reasons.

      Glad the cats are doing well. As to demanding and accompanying, that's what cats do quite well. And they are very intelligent creatures and will find you to demand scritches when you're feeling down or pooky (a state of overall unwellness, whether physical - like a low grade fever or bad allergies, or mental - like from winter sky syndrome or rainy weather malaise.)

    3. Well said, on both counts, French and cats.

    4. I think in 1940 I read somewhere that the French tanks were actually superior to the Germans

      I read some astounding statistic on my book in World War I

      If you were to take the ghosts of the French dead from World War I and have them march in columns of four that would be a column about 150 miles long

    5. The French tanks were mechanically better, however, most had a turret which required the commander to both load and fire the gun, while also commanding his tank. Radios were not issued at the individual tank level, I think it went down to company, not ever platoon. Also French armored doctrine sucked.

      That last bit seems low, depends on the number you use for dead and the spacing in the column. But yeah, it's at least 150 miles long.


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