On that Christmas Day Company I, First Platoon, was very hard hit. My good friend Oliver Coghill was on my right and a buddy named Palko was next to him. Both were killed, and I could hear Lieutenant Lawson calling for his mother.
– Excerpt from the written account of the combat experiences of my uncle, Darrell Burdette Searls, former infantry soldier in Company I of the 290th Regiment of the 75th Division, United States Army, 1944-1945
For many Americans, Memorial Day is just another excuse for a three day weekend where people can party with family or friends, grill hamburgers and hot dogs or barbecue, and drink the alcoholic beverage of their choice. But it wasn’t created for that purpose, at least not originally. Memorial Day began as a somber remembrance following the Civil War, and it was started not by any government but by a group of Union Army veterans of that horrendous conflict.
Three years after the Civil War ended, on May 5, 1868, the head of an organization of Union veterans — the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) — established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. Maj. Gen. John A. Logan declared that Decoration Day should be observed on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all over the country.
The point of this observance was, in the words of General Logan, to …
[I]nvite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”
Today, unfortunately that intial purpose has long been forgotten. It’s become just another opportunity for Americans to take time off, go on vacation and, above all else, shop.
Not that politicians haven’t made gestures to remind us of what they wish to emphasize about the holiday. As the official Memorial Day page for US Department of Veterans Affairs informs us, in 2000 Congress passed a bill signed into law by then President Clinton, The National Moment of Remembrance Act, “[t]o ensure the sacrifices of America ’s fallen heroes are never forgotten.”
The millions of soldiers who were slaughtered and died in those wars, in our prevailing culture of nationalism and uber-patriotism, have been posthumously transformed into glorious heroes. Their deaths are spoken of with almost an god-like reverence, as courageous warriors who sacrificed themselves to preserve our freedoms, thus stripping them of their very humanity.
Even more profoundly, they rarely mention what wars do to people. Any realistic depiction of war’s horrors, and the the damage and harm it causes to individuals, families, communities and entire nations is pushed aside and ignored. Anyone who dares to contradict the prevailing patriotic narrative about America’s wars is shunned, told to shut up, or labeled an American hating traitor.
But what war does to the bodies and minds of our vets, should be at the heart of any remembrance or observance. War is not a glorious adventure in which heroes selflessly sacrifice themselves for our country. For most vets, it’s a terrible nightmarish reality in which, as the saying goes, the living often envy the dead.
I have no personal experience of war, but my oldest uncle, Darrell Searls, now deceased, saw combat in WWII. Specifically, he fought in the “Battle of the Bulge, oft described as the “greatest battle in American military history.” Certainly in terms casualties suffered by American soldiers, and particularly deaths, it ranks right up there with the “greatest” of all American battles.
I knew him as a great storyteller, and his friends and colleagues remember him as a noted raconteur, always ready with a witty joke or amusing anecdote. Yet, during all the time I knew him, the one life experience he did not discuss was the story of his service in WWII. Only late in his life was my aunt, a former editor, able to convince him to write about his time as a combat soldier. His wartime memoir of that time in his life tells a true story of what it is like to be one of the men and women our leaders send off to fight in our wars.
His Army division, the 75th, was the least experienced and youngest unit in the US Army in 1944. It was nicknamed the Diaper Division because of its youth. Many of its soldiers were literally 17 and 18 year-old kids straight off the farms of the Midwest. They arrived in LaHavre, France on December 13, 1944, three days before the German Army launched its last great offensive of the war against American forces in the Ardennes Forest. The American commanders were caught completely off guard. It was arguably the worst intelligence failure of the war, as undermanned American units guarding that part of the Allied line were quickly overrun by a concentrated force of Panzer divisions.
While my uncle and his platoon camped in misery in the rain and mud at an assembly are in northwest France, the German Army’s advance continued unabated, helped in large part by bad weather that kept American warplanes grounded. Out of desperation the 75th Division was committed to the Battle of the Bulge to support the flank of the 23rd Armored Division on December 20th.
Almost all of the soldiers in the 75th Division had no combat experience, including many of their officers. The parts of it I’ve chosen to include here cover the 47 days thereafter until he was removed from combat duty. I’ve italicized the official US army archived morning reports for his platoon whenever he cites them. His first day of actual combat came on Christmas day, 1944. What follows are brief excerpts directly taken from his memoir:
Finally on Christmas Day, as we approached the little crossroads of Werpin, we made contact. […] As we got up onto the road, we came under German machine gun fire … Once across the road, we were out of the field of fire and could proceed up the wooded hill that was our objective. Three tanks on the road gave us covering fire, but their shells bursting in the trees on the hill sounded like firecrackers and were not very reassuring. For concealment, we went through a barn and out a back door, where the battalion commander patted each man on the back as we went through. Three days later, he was relieved and hospitalized with combat fatigue. The stress of sending men to their deaths was too much for him. […]
We could hear bullets snapping around us, but other than the two prisoners, I didn’t see any Germans until we crested the hill and I saw a group running away in the distance. The range was fairly long; but firing several rounds at the departing runners, I could see my tracer bullets flying among them. They all went down, either because I hit them or for cover. I don’t know which, and I don’t want to know.
On that Christmas Day Company I, First Platoon, was very hard hit. My good friend Oliver Coghill was on my right and a buddy named Palko was next to him. Both were killed, and I could hear Lieutenant Lawson calling for his mother. Sergeant Bay was also killed, but not before he apparently wiped out a major position of a German machine gun unit that was probably responsible for our casualties.
My impression was that casualties were much worse than the report indicated. It appeared to me that only about a dozen of us were left, and I was the ranking soldier as a Pfc. I gathered up the survivors, and we continued along the ridge; but the Germans had left. We came upon one German body; and I ordered a young private to “stick it” with his bayonet, an action we had been trained to do to be sure that the person was dead. The boy was reluctant to do so but followed my order, and the resulting crunch suggested that the man had been dead for some time.
The next morning a captain found us and directed us to go back down the hill and to connect up with our outfit. He warned us that we would see a lot of dead guys on the way. He was right. L Company had been making a frontal assault across an open field at the base of the hill we were to take and had suffered terrible casualties.
Moving through their positions was an almost otherworldly experience, like visiting a wax museum and viewing subjects frozen in time. One particular tableau is with me to this day. The morning was bright and sunny, with a slight breeze. As we filed past one group of bodies, we could see that one GI with a head injury was lying on his back, propped against a log, and that a medic bending over him had started to bandage the wound when he too was hit. The ends of the bandage were streaming out in the breeze.
During the next few days our company dug in along the ridge line we had secured on the crest of a hill under trees looking out over an open field. […] The Germans attempted one attack but were decimated by a tremendous barrage.
Just before the attack, I was working on improving my foxhole, which at the time was about waist deep. I had placed my cartridge belt, trench knife, and canteen on the rim above and in front of the foxhole. Suddenly a shell landed 50 yards out to my right.
I crouched in my hole as 3 more shells exploded almost simultaneously right above me. I looked up to see that the trees had been blasted away; and where I had been in shade, sunlight now streamed into my hole. The handle of my trench knife had been severed, and my helmet was split from the top to the bottom rim. […]
By the time my uncle was removed from active duty for “combat fatigue” in the first week of February, 1945, all of his “friends and acquaintances” were either dead or had been wounded so severely they had been removed from combat duty. My uncle was fortunate. He survived and was never sent back into combat after receiving his diagnosis (today’s military uses a different name for it: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, but its all the same thing).
Studs Terkel famously titled his book of interviews of WWII veterans “The Good War.” My uncle’s memoir, however, that no war is good, though some may be necessary. The plain fact of the matter is that the only good thing about WWII was when the fighting stopped. As my uncle once said to me in a self-revealing moment of understatement, “War isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” And I left out many of the worst things from his memoir to which he bore witness: shootings of captured German POWs by US troops, accounts of self-inflicted wounds used by members of his company to escape combat, and the constant terror and fear he endured. The brief excerpts above are bad enough.
Today, I honor my uncle’s memory, and his courage in writing honestly about the reality of modern warfare. There was nothing glorious about the war he described. It must have been very painful to dredge up the memories of his many friends and comrades and even enemies whose deaths he witnessed, but I am grateful that he did.
Many people who never witness war up close and personal, including many stay-at-home Generals and Political Leaders, speak with patriotic fervor of the honor and glory and sacrifice of the members of our armed forces, but their words ring hollow to me. All wars, even a war of necessity, constitute the worst activity in which human beings can engage.
Both the leaders of Nazi Germany and Japan started WWII as a war of aggression. Before it ended tens of millions of combatants and civilians died, often in atrocities: the terror bombing of cities in England, Germany and Japan; the genocidal mass murder of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and other groups deemed sub-human; and lest we forget the first use of atomic weapons against the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Under international law, wars of aggression long ago were outlawed and are considered war crimes. After the end of WWII, leading Nazis and Japanese militarists were rightly indicted and judged guilty for initiating a war of aggression. Defeating those murderous regimes was necessary, but that didn’t make it a “good war.”
Sadly, it is now our government that is engaging in numerous wars of aggression. Yet, none of our current or former political or military leaders have been indicted for starting and continuing these wars of aggression, nor are they ever likely to face an international tribunal to adjudicate their responsibility for those war crimes.
Today, somewhere in the world, US soldiers are participating in armed conflicts, whether as part of a special ops unit, pilots dropping bombs on the innocent and guilty alike, or soldiers who remotely control aerial drones of which President Obama has made such great use since he became Commander-in-Chief of our nation’s armed forces.
My daughter’s boyfriend is a member of the NY National Guard, part of the US Army Reserves. A day doesn’t go by when I do not consider the possibility that he very well may be sent off to fight in some faraway country against people who pose no real danger to the national security of the United States.
On Memorial Day we should remember those who fought and died in our wars, but not for the purpose of glorifying their sacrifice as mythical heroes. Instead, their deaths should be a reminder to us that war is the cause of horrific slaughter. It ruins so many other lives it touches, both among combatants and civilians alike. War destroys everything and everyone it touches.
The observances of Memorial Day should be a lesson to us not to treat war and armed conflict as mere geopolitical games between great powers, but as a real and terrible act that should only be taken as a last resort, and only when the lives of our people and the security of our nation is truly in imminent danger.
That’s not the lesson most politicians, elected officials and all those who profit from our nation’s wars want us to take away when we remember our war dead. But those deaths should remind us that war kills people indiscriminately and without mercy. Those who it kills are lost to their loved ones forever. Their deaths leave a void that can never be filled.
War is the darkest stain in the history of humanity. When you take the time to reflect upon what it means to remember our nations’ war dead this weekend, and also I would add, to reflect upon all our surviving war veterans, many who live with debilitating mental and physical ailments, reflect on that.
Thank you for reading,