After D-Day

The most disturbing memory I had was the day he was angry at my mother and he broke a broom handle in two and stabbed her in the arm. I saw the wooden shaft plunge into her forearm, I tried to stop Daddy - later I woke up on the kitchen floor. What makes a man do such a thing?

After D-Day

“Home folks think I’m big in Detroit City.
From the letters that I write they think I’m fine.
But by day I make the cars, by night I make the bars,
if only they could read between the lines.
I wanna go home.”
Bobby Bare, “Detroit City," written by written by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis

There are images that never leave a boy’s consciousness. They inform the man he becomes but a certain mystery never recedes. I cannot ever forget seeing my father on the floor of our little house, lying on his back in the living room, kicking and screaming, “I want my mama. I want my mama.” His older brother, Tom, was leaning over Daddy hoping to calm his great angst but was having no success. I was eight years old and was trying to see around my mother’s seersucker waitress dress, fearful and withdrawn. In the driveway, there was a van and two men with white coats who came to the door. My father was a giant but I think they gave him a shot to ease his histrionics because he was stronger than any four men but he was easily handled. They then slipped a kind of jacket over his head and down his arms. The sleeves had ropes and snaps at the end and they were tied and buckled around behind his back. Daddy was sobbing as they helped him out the door.

I knew he was angry. I had seen that and felt it when one of his thundering hands knocked me out or sent my mother or me to the hospital or when he tossed kitchen drawers through the living room window . But I did not know about his sadness. As I became a teenager, I struggled to deal with my father’s antipathy toward me, an almost complete disinterest in his oldest son that I thought bordered on resentment. Maybe he was just angry at all six of his children because we were not what he had planned for after the war. When he got home from France, Daddy figured sharecropping cotton in the Mississippi River bottomland was the way to start his family life but there was no money in such an endeavor. My mother, an immigrant frightened of living in a shack with no electricity or running water, convinced him they needed to go north to look for work in the factories building automobiles and making steel.

Before he had time to think clearly about his future, my father was inside of a loud, cold, and dark factory providing labor for the assembly of Buicks, a car that he could never afford to buy. There were quickly a half dozen children and, in a few years, a $10,500 VA mortgage for an 850 square foot house in a small development across from one of the car plants that made bodies for the automobiles that rolled out of Flint and Detroit and down roads around the world. We were the Dixie Diaspora, gone from the farms of the South in a Great Migration to the industrial North.

There was never a way to know exactly what broke him, but there were recurrent bouts of violence against his family, nervous breakdowns, and eventually twenty-four electroshock treatments at a state mental institution in Pontiac, Michigan. I never saw him drink but there was an unnamed darkness that moved within my father and sometimes he took a razor strop down from the wall and walked around the house snapping it for no reason. Maybe he wanted his children to be as afraid as he had been when he was a boy or when he was young and living with the sound of gunfire and cannon in the war, and we were scared.

I do not know if the war took from me the father a child has a right to expect and love. There was no concept of PTSD and soldiers were obligated to return home, forget what they saw and did, and begin their lives anew. The impossibility of that transpiring and proliferation of lingering mental anguish had hardly occurred to health care professionals. Because my father was good with a gun and became a sharpshooter, he was inserted behind the advancing Allied lines after D-Day, and went into villages with his platoon, tasked with taking out pockets of German resistance. His mission was to walk across Europe killing the boys who were wearing the Nazi uniform. My uncle once told me of my father’s abilities with a rifle and said, “Your daddy could shoot a squirrel out of the air from fifty yards away using a .22 when it jumped from limb to limb.” A useful skill when humans decide to kill each other over territory and power.

The odds were not good for my parents to experience financial success or find rewarding work after the war. They fell in love when he was patrolling the docks on the Southside of St. John’s Harbor in Newfoundland as an MP and before he left for France, they were married and my mother was pregnant with her first child at seventeen and bound for the land of cotton to await her young soldier’s return. Daddy had a tenth-grade education, forced to quit school and work the fields during the Great Depression, and Ma never made it past eighth grade. Even in the great post-war economic boom, they were consigned to menial labor to earn an income. Ma carried burgers and open-faced sandwiches to truckers and factory workers at a roadside restaurant and earned nickel tips and Daddy bent his powerful back to lifting and moving objects needed on the assembly line. Nothing ever improved for them beyond those terms of employment.

Soldier Boy and Island Girl

None of this ever left my mind in those days when I was riding my motorcycle up Mississippi’s Natchez Trace from Texas. My father was lonely and I had questions. I did not expect answers to why he seemingly lacked any interest in my life, or sometimes, I thought, even my existence, but I did hope to reach some understanding of how he became such a troubled soul. The most disturbing memory I had was the day he was angry at my mother for some perceived indiscretion and he broke a broom handle in two and stabbed her in the arm as she tried to defend herself. When I saw the wooden shaft plunge into her forearm and the spurt of blood, I tried to stop Daddy, and later I woke up from my unconsciousness on the kitchen floor. What makes a man do such a thing to his wife?

My father felt a need to return to Mississippi after retiring from the General Motors Assembly plant because a few of his siblings were still living down yonder and he wanted to spend time with them and be around the woods and fields he had known as a young man. People often wish to return home late in life and I wondered if he was thinking about confronting his past in the quietude of those woods where his house sat. Maybe he was seeking more comfortably abiding memories to enjoy in his final years. His proximity to Texas, though, gave me the opportunity to spend time with him and seek a touch of peace regarding what had been missing from my childhood. The slow roll up the tall avenue of loblolly pines lining the Trace relaxed me in a way I had never been when I was around my father, and gave me the courage to confront him, as gently as possible.

Our early conversations were always on the porch of a house he had purchased not too far off the Trace and north of the Choctaw Reservation where he had spent much of his boyhood. I did not sleep in Daddy’s house because of the filth and clutter. He lived almost like a forest creature and never picked up or put away things; a bottle of Ivory Soap was on the fireplace mantle, engine oil containers sat on the edge of the kitchen table, a screwdriver in the sink, dinner plates never washed were in every room, newspapers on the floor, dust and mold spreading across most surfaces, virulent and thick in some spots. I brought my camping tent on the trip, tied to the back of my motorcycle, and slept in his yard near the garden. I told him I liked to be outdoors and that his house was too dirty for me to be comfortable. He ground his teeth but said nothing. Accepting he was no longer in charge was always a struggle for him.

Daddy was not a drinker; even in his most extreme, uncontrolled rages he had been as sober as he was dangerous. I never saw him have a beer when I was a boy, nor was there any type of hard liquor visible in the house. He may have had a nip with his hunting buddies, but we never saw evidence of any drunkenness. In retirement, though, he had been told about a remedy that might help his rheumatoid arthritis, which plagued his back after a life of lifting and carrying and pulling. A friend had informed him that a little glass of whiskey, neat, with a peppermint candy in the bottom of the drink, would ease the pain and ache in his bones. I had hoped it would also loosen him up to tell me stories that had gone untold.

I mentioned I had a fifth of Jack Daniels on my motorcycle in a pack, and some peppermint, if he wanted to sip while he sat the porch swing and waited on the sunset. Daddy got up without speaking and went inside and came back with two of the cleanest glasses he could find, and I got the whiskey off the motorcycle. When I walked back up the steps, he stuck out his glass and I dropped in a peppermint and then poured four fingers over the white and red striped candy. I was determined to hear about a part of his life he had not ever shared. Ma had said that he would not talk about the war to her in the two-plus decades they were married. She thought there might not be anything to tell, but that seemed unlikely to me because he had served in France with the 3rd Infantry Division.

He tipped his glass and fingered the sticky candy in the bottom.

“You reckon this helps?”

“Can’t hurt, Daddy. A little lubrication is good for our veins and bones, don’t ya think?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the whiskey makin’ me numb.”

“Don’t matter, at this point in your life, does it? If it helps you not to hurt and suffer, can’t be all bad.”

“Well, it ain’t no cure and I never said it was.”

“I didn’t claim you did. I just thought it might be nice to have a drink with my father.”

“Okay then.”

A pickup truck passed on the state road about a quarter mile distant and we heard the loud, broken tailpipe blaring exhaust noise down the concrete. The sun was below the horizon and we had not turned on lights, which made me think he might be more at ease because I could not see his face, especially if I could get him talking about France and World War II. Fireflies were rising out of the overgrown grass surrounding his porch. A brief silence quickly became uncomfortable and I decided to start asking questions.

“I was wondering about your time in the war, Daddy.”

“What ya wonderin’?”

“Where were you?”

“That Alsace Lorry-aine part, I think they called it. I don’t remember, exactly.”

“What was that like?”

“Was like war, that’s what it was like. What you think it would be like?”

“I don’t know, Daddy. You never talked about any of it. Ma said you never even told her anything.”

“Well, it ain’t a damned thing ya talk about. It just was, and I got through it. That’s all there is to it.”

“You can’t tell me anything about it? What did you do? What did you have to do?”

“I did what everybody else did, dammit.”

“Which is what? Don’t you think after all this time it might be good to just talk about it to someone who cares?”

“Naw. Hell, naw. Talkin’ about it don’t change a damned thing or make anything better.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Well, there ain’t nothin’ to understand, buddy boy. That’s all.”

“Okay. I guess.”

I extended my arm and held the bottle of Jack into the light from the living room window. Daddy put out his glass and I poured, and then handed him a peppermint, which he unwrapped and dropped into the glass before he sipped. I waited for him to speak again but he said nothing and we both watched the dance of the fireflies grow brighter in the lowering darkness.

What I already knew was that Daddy had been a Private First Class and sharpshooter in the Anti-Tank company of the 3rd Infantry, which was part of the Sixth Army Group with orders to drive the Nazis out of the Alsace Lorraine region of Northeastern France. He was serving in a battalion fighting in that section of the European Theater during the last two years of the war. The U.S. had liberated the Nazi held positions to the north and south as well as Lorraine to the east but were unable to clear the central part of Alsace, which became known as the Colmar Pocket, named after a small town at its geographic center. The battle intensified when the German Nineteenth Army launched Operation Nordwind, attempting to push back the Americans and the French and hold the pocket.

The fiercest part of the combat was from January 22 to February 6 of 1945 during what the Army’s official history described as “incessant fighting” conducted through “enemy-infested marshes and woods, in heavy snowstorms, and over a flat terrain crisscrossed by a number of small canals, irrigation ditches, and unfordable streams, terrain ideally suited for defense.” The topography was made even more challenging for advancing Americans by the weather, which a French General detailed as “uncommonly cold” for the region. The term “Siberian” was used for comparison. Three feet of snow fell during the engagement, temperatures dropped to -4 Fahrenheit, and strong winds scoured the battleground and piled up problematic drifts.

The initial objective of the assault was to reach the 111 River and lay down a bridge to enable armored units to cross and support the 30th Infantry. The portable bridge collapsed as a German Panzer brigade attacked, though, and the 3rd Infantry elements were forced back into fighting house to house and street by street, decidedly outnumbered and outgunned. The snow was knee-deep and thick with mines as waves of German armor and infantry kept coming at the Americans, but they ultimately managed to hold the bridgehead. In a week of fighting and dying and living in the cold, the 3rd crossed the Colmar Canal in rubber boats and moved to capture six towns from the enemy in just eight hours. After enduring 500 casualties, the German garrison was cut off at Colmar, which assured the fall of the city.

The 3rd then moved south toward the Rhine and Rhine Canal and took two strategic bridges to complete what was frequently called “one of the hardest fought and bloodiest battles of the war,” probably because Hitler viewed that region of France as historically sovereign territory of Germany; a loss would also signify the end of German occupation of the country. By the time the Alsatian Plain had been completely secured, the 3rd Infantry Division was credited with annihilating three enemy divisions, including the feared 2d Mountain Divisions and the 708th Volksgrenadiers Division, badly mauling the 186th and 16th Volksgrenadiers Divisions, capturing 4,000 prisoners, ending German occupation of twenty-two towns, and inflicting more than 7000 casualties on the enemy. The final report stated that the 3rd also killed a disproportionate number of the enemy compared to the total it took as prisoners of war.

Daddy had given me a copy of his discharge papers many years earlier and I had read some history of his division. I wanted to know at least a part of what he saw and what he did because I felt that it might help explain his emotional instability and his brutality to his family, and I refused to relent.

“Weren’t you part of that last assault in Northern France, Daddy? Were you there?”

“I was where we went. I don’t even know exactly. I told you it was the Alsace place.”

“What did you have to do?”

“Hell, you know what I had to do.” He sipped the last of his second glass of whiskey and got up from his chair. “I’m goin’ to bed, buddy boy.”

“I want to talk about this some more, Daddy.”

“I know ya do. But I don’t. And I ain’t a gonna.”

His balance was affected by the alcohol and he leaned on the door frame before he pulled the screen open and let it slam behind him. I watched him switch off the living room lights and go down the hallway littered with clothes and shoes he had not bothered to pick up and put in drawers or closets. His broad square shoulders were rounded and seemed to curl forward and he struggled to maintain his proud, erect posture. I fell asleep on the porch listening to the country night and thinking that the world had mostly taken from my father and had given very little in return. I wondered how many there were just like him, trying to act as if nothing had happened to them in their youth.

The Man in Full

The next morning, we drove up to Starkville to change the oil in his car. We also stopped at McDonald’s because they offered specials for seniors. McDonald’s seemed to attract older diners in the mornings, and they sat and drank coffee and ate Egg McMuffins and talked across the tables. Daddy liked to chat with the strangers, probably because he lived alone, and his voice could carry across any room. Instead, on this particular morning, after he had finished slowly eating, he was quiet and stared at his coffee. I waited patiently for him to reveal what he was thinking, knowing that he might not say a word until prompted.

“You asked me to tell you somethin’ about the war,” he said.

“I’ve asked you many times, Daddy. You know that.”

“Well, I’m gonna tell you somethin’, but I don’t wanna talk about it after I’m done and I don’t wanna answer any questions about it, neither.”

The narrative he shared was about an incident that occurred after the 3rd Infantry had ceased combat operations in Northeast France. German POWs were being put on trains to be shipped to repatriation camps and his unit had been ordered to guard the trains and not let anyone escape. Prisoners were loaded onto freight cars, sometimes the same ones that had carried Jews to concentration camps, and the POWs were told getting off was strictly prohibited under penalty of death. Daddy said he did not know if there was a portable latrine or a slop jar that the Germans could use on the train or if they were simply expected to defecate in the same space in which they would travel.

“I was just standing there along the tracks with my gun over my shoulder and talkin’ to my sergeant when he told me to turn around and look up the tracks,” Daddy said. “Some damned Kraut kid had jumped down from one of the cars and had walked off to take a piss. That’s all, just take a piss.”

His sergeant immediately reminded him of his orders. Daddy remembered the brief conversation in great detail. “He said, ‘Take him down, private. We have our orders.’ I told him I couldn’t shoot a man for just takin’ a piss. He said orders was orders and I knew what I had to do. I looked at him like he was crazy, but I raised my rifle and stared at the German a long time through my scope. He was just some blonde-haired damn teenager, didn’t look old enough to be outta school, much less fightin’ in a war. I didn’t see no reason to shoot nobody. The war over, far as we was concerned.”

In this moment, though, it was not, and his sergeant became threatening.

“Private, I am ordering you again to take down the enemy prisoner. Your failure to comply with this order puts you at risk of court martial at the end of the war. Failure to follow yours orders at this point would be very foolish.”

Daddy remembered that last command, but nothing stayed in his memory with the same intensity as when he recalled what he did to POW.

“I lifted my rifle, he was pretty far off, and I thought I could miss him, and he’d be warned and run back into the freight car. But the sergeant said I had been assigned to guard duty because I was a sharpshooter and he didn’t expect me to miss. I didn’t, neither. I decided I wanted it to be quick for him and me and I put a bullet through his head. When we went up to him to check he was dead, we saw he weren’t nothin’ more than a boy, just like I thought. His cheeks was even pink, and I remember his eyes, like he was shocked. He lay there all dead and gone; still had his pecker in his hand.”

“Jesus, Daddy. I don’t even know what to say.”

He sipped his coffee. “There ain’t never anything to say about any of all that, like I told ya before. But I been seein’ that boy just about every day of my life ever since. I think about what his life mighta been like, even, that sorta thing. Just didn’t seem right I had to do that. Still don’t seem right.”

“It wasn’t. But you aren’t guilty of anything.”

“I pulled the damn trigger, didn’t I?”

“But it was war, and you were following orders.”

“None of that meant a damned thing when I saw that boy’s face. Still don’t.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me, too. Have been my whole life, and it’s why I never talked about it. I try not to think about it but still do here some forty years on.”

“I have to ask something else, Daddy. And you aren’t gonna like the question.”

“What? What is it?”

“I need to know what you were thinking and why you stabbed Ma with that broomstick. You could’ve killed her.”

“I don’t know what the hell you are talking about, buddy boy.”

“Yes, you do. You got arrested. She finally filed charges and then divorced you.”

“Well, I know I got divorced but I sure don’t know what you are talking about with no stabbin’.”

“How can you not remember that, Daddy?”

“Cuz I don’t reckon it ever happened.”

“You think I made it up?”

“I just don’t know where that damn story came from and I ain’t gonna answer for somethin’ I didn’t do.”

The two dozen electroshock treatments he had received when he was held in a state mental institution, I came to learn later, had likely obliterated much of his memory. I began to think of this as a kind of grace for my father later in his life because he otherwise would have likely been haunted by his treatment of his wife and children. No further response from me was adequate, so I said nothing.

Riding the motorcycle down the two-lane blacktop the next morning and heading toward Texas, I was unable to stop thinking about my father’s description of the German boy and what war must have done to his family. But the killer also dies, just a lot slower and in different ways than the killed. Understanding my father’s anger at the world as he tried to live his life became a bit more possible for me. His wound seemed more harmful than an injury from an enemy’s bullet or shrapnel, and I had no intention of reopening it.

My responsibility became forgiveness.

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He can be reached at