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First Person : Wars of Generations: A Vietnam Veteran Finds His Father, the Soldier

November 11, 1988|CHARLES R. BABCOCK | The Washington Post

My journey back to the battlefields of Europe where my father fought started with a phone call one afternoon last June.

"This is Russell Murphy," the caller said. "I served with your dad in the war."

I remembered, faintly, that "Murph" had been one of my father's World War II buddies. He invited me to go to France to dedicate a memorial to the men of their unit, the 29th Infantry Division, which had been part of the D-day invasion force at Omaha Beach. When I said I couldn't go, he suggested I come to a reunion of their rifle company, Company I, 115th Infantry Regiment.

My father had gone to one of those reunions once, a few years before he died in 1979. After mentioning Murphy's call to my wife that night, I found myself thinking back to my childhood, to a metal ammo box in the attic of our house in Louisville, Ky.

Box of Mementos

The box was filled with my dad's war mementos, old snapshots of comrades, his Combat Infantryman's Badge, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals, dog tags, letters and military orders, a German Luger pistol and a dagger with the words Alles fur Deutschland etched into the blade.

As powerful as the souvenirs were to my imagination, they had never been brought to life by stories from my father. He wouldn't talk about the war. Like many youngsters, my three brothers and I liked to play war games, and we had pestered my father on occasion to tell us the stories behind his medals.

The most he ever offered was to tell me when I was in high school to go see a German movie, "Die Brucke," or "The Bridge." It was a graphic, realistic portrayal of fighting and dying near the war's end. I don't remember him saying, "That's the way it was," but the message was clear.

He was silent on the subject even when I got orders to go to Vietnam as an Army lieutenant in 1969. His only advice, as he saw me off at the airport, was: "Keep your butt down."

I was surprised to find Murphy's call pulling at me. I wanted to learn more about what my father had done in World War II and why he was so reluctant to talk about it.

I started with my mother. She told me that she wrote my father daily and sent him baby pictures of me constantly. She was terrified when she got his Purple Heart medal--before she even knew he had been wounded.

She also told me that my great-grandfathers had fought in the Union Army in the Civil War and that her father had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in World War I. My uncles had served in World War II.

Although the Babcocks are hardly a warrior family, I was struck by the continuum of war in our history. I thought my search might give me a context to understand how war had affected my family, from Chickamauga to Normandy to Vietnam.

I also found myself caught up in my own feelings about war, feelings I had not confronted since returning from Vietnam 18 years ago.

What I discovered about my father and myself is remarkable only because there are so many other stories like it. They are stories that should be learned, especially by a nation that has such a short memory, a nation whose youth learn of wars from comic books and movies.

And so on a hot Saturday morning in July, I hitched a ride with Al Ungerleider to a reunion of Company I of the 115th in Salisbury, Md. He had been a lieutenant in my father's outfit in 1944, and, as I eerily discovered, had served as a colonel in Vietnam at the same time and place as I.

Looking for Anecdotes

The American Legion hall near Salisbury, Md., Company I's headquarters, was filling up when we arrived. I introduced myself around the room, eager for an anecdote--maybe a story of Ray Babcock pulling a comrade to safety under enemy fire. It soon was obvious that many of the 70 men gathered didn't even remember my dad.

A few did. Ray Bowser of Ford City, Pa., and Walter Hedlund of Lowell, Mass., said "Babs," the radioman, had been one of the few company members to go through the war without a serious wound. Later, he became company communications sergeant, then first sergeant, the top enlisted man.

My father grew up in Erie; his dad helped build locomotive engines there at a General Electric plant. My dad was the first in his family to go to college, working in an ice cream plant to earn money before entering Grove City College, where he met and married my mother, Jane McNary of Pittsburgh. They had just returned from their honeymoon in Cleveland when they heard about Pearl Harbor.

Like millions of other young men, my dad tried to enlist. He was rejected for officer training because of bad eyes and a steel plate in his foot from a boyhood accident. But by late 1943, the Army was willing to overlook his frailties; he became a rifleman at age 25.

A Hurried Greeting

I was born in March, 1944. My father was allowed a hurried visit to a Pittsburgh hospital to see me before shipping to England. My grandfather assured my mom they would never put him in combat because he had so little training.

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