The younger Vernon White watched a generation of young Polish, Italian and Irish farmers leave his small town of Westfield, Mass., for the war, and saw them return a few years later. "Some of them came out of it just fine," he says. "But most them were alcoholics. I lived on Prospect Hill. There were a half a dozen of them who were drunk on the street--I'm talking about falling down. You'd sit them up. But nobody acknowledged there was something wrong with these guys, they just said, 'They're drunks.' "
Why were so many of these young men, who had won the war and returned as heroes, so determined to throw their lives away? One answer is survivor guilt. "I was in combat for 29 months, and I wasn't wounded, and I apologize for that," says Bob Williams, who served as a machine-gunner in North Africa, Italy, France and Belgium and now lives in South Salem, N.Y. When I ask why Williams feels a need to apologize, he says, "I don't know. How come the fellow next to me was killed and I wasn't?"
Murphy seemed haunted by the same question. "The real heroes are dead," he said darkly on many occasions. For no matter how many machine-gun nests you knocked out, there were always those other moments, the ones you never spoke of. The time a wounded and dying buddy cried out for help but you couldn't get to him because of enemy fire--or so you told yourself. The time you hesitated or almost ran--the times only you know about and secretly condemn yourself for.
But even worse than the guilt about what you didn't do, is the guilt about what you did. When Al Umbach, of Palm Coast, Fla., talks about the first German soldier he killed, his breathing becomes labored, his voice burdened. Umbach was a farm boy from Long Island, drafted into the infantry and thrown into action for the first time in the Battle of the Bulge. "The Germans were retreating, and there was a raised railroad track. They were going over this track, and the one guy, I hit one guy and--what bothered me--he never, he tried to get up and I took him out again and I-- you know, that, that's nasty. I kept thinking, 'Don't stand up, please don't stand up.' I felt anger that the guy didn't have sense enough to stay down--that's about all that I can--I don't really--you're trained, you're trained, it seems kind of cold and everything, but that's what we were trained for. You knew, I mean, the one thing that an infantryman knows and is drilled into him is that if somebody points a gun at you, kill him first before he kills you."
Yet Umbach can't help thinking about that young German these many years later. "I wonder if he had a family, if he had a girlfriend. I had a girlfriend before I went overseas and I married her--we've been married for 50 some years. You not only think about that one person that I killed, but all the young men on both sides that lost so much of the future."
My father never discussed his first kill, except indirectly. When I was 15, he and I went to see the film "Straw Dogs," directed by Sam Peckinpah. In the movie, Dustin Hoffman--a pacifist who discovered, in Peckinpah's words, "a few nasty secrets about himself"--was forced into a confrontation with local villagers, and in one ghastly scene he beats a man to death with a fire poker. Afterward, Hoffman looked down at what he'd done with an expression of abject horror.
From the shadows beside me, my father's clenched whisper came like a cold wind: "It'll get easier."
And, of course, it did, for many of those young Americans sent overseas. Paul Fussell's searing memoir, "Doing Battle--the Making of a Skeptic," chronicles his experiences as an infantryman in Europe. It provides sobering counterpoint to the recent batch of feel-good war books. In it, Fussell describes an incident in France known among American infantrymen as "the Great Turkey Shoot." In a deep crater in a forest, someone had come upon 15 or 20 German soldiers. Their pleas to surrender--most were in tears and despair--were ignored by our men. Laughing and howling, they exultantly shot into the crater until every single man was dead.
In the Pacific, the fighting was even more animalistic. When I grew older, my father did describe, with great bitterness, coming upon a squad of Marines who had been captured by the Japanese. They had been lined up in the kneeling position and beheaded. As an added flourish, their penises were cut off and stuffed in their mouths. "So you know what happened when we took some Jap prisoners?" Dad said. "A couple of Marines would be ordered to take them back to the base. They'd never make it. The Japs would be shot while trying to escape." He told me that story a number of times, but never said he took part in the assassinations.