From the Woolner Family
© Leslie Woolner Bardsley
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Frank Woolner
Journalist, Headquarters, 3rd Armored Division

Post-war year of writing unknown

  Up in the Bulge I met a guy who said he'd never go home, and that was true because he died the next day. How he died is not at all savory and it doesn't figure in the story. The main thing to remember is that this Joe called his shots. At least that's what I used to think.

But then I met another dogface driving a 3rd Armored Division tank through Cologne. He chuckled bitterly and said: "I'll never go home, Buddy, I've had it."

You get to thinking about things like this. Your mind circles the fact and tries to make allowances for coincidence. But, still, there's the ugly possibility, the unbelievable and yet quite clearly defined evidence of prescience.

I watched the guy. Naturally I didn't shadow him or anything like that; but every week or so I'd see the outfit moving up or back and I'd say casually: "What's with Drawbridge? Is he still around?" And he was always around, so I began to lose that nasty feeling. When they told me that he'd gone back to the states on a merit furlough I actually heaved a sigh of relief. The kid was wrong and I was wrong. Good deal.

So then I forgot all about the matter, excepting for an occasional snow job on the new men. I went about my business. We moved across the Rhine at Honnef and chased Jerry right up through the Hohe Venn to Paderborn. There was a big day when the Spearhead clipped off 101 miles. It was hot and sunny. There were clouds of dust in the air. There was the stink of Nazi vehicles burning. It was just like Normandy. You felt good for a little while and you loved the long, green hills: they were like Pennsylvania farmlands. And, even with the dust you could smell clean evergreen.

Prisoners? You couldn't count them that day. They came out in company strength waving white flags and trying to surrender. There were Belgians and Frenchmen and Russians all along the road too - slave laborers. They waved and shouted and bon-joured until you felt like a hero.

That was the day! That was victory. There was a high tension of excitement in the air. You felt all buoyed up so that you didn't give a damn for the occasional flurry of burp-gun resistance or the SS jokers with their panzerfausten. Nothing really mattered excepting the drive, the satisfaction of it, the downright exaltation of a complete breakthrough. We drove all day and most of the night, and in between we pulled guard.

That guard duty was almost restful. There wasn't much opposition after the flank had been turned and we were in the blue. You could lean back in the shadows and cover the area without being seen. There was time to think of home and the queens who were waiting there. You'd look up at the stars and figure back to what time it was in Boston, and you'd wonder what the place looked like after a couple of years.

Then there'd be a little sound in the night and you'd snap out of it, trembling. You'd press the back of your index finger up against the safety catch on the M-1 and you'd stand there in the shadows, tense and listening, staring into the dark.

You'd relax, finally. There was nothing out there. But still you'd be afraid. Fear was a constant shadow in that war - in every war - I guess, and uncertainty too. You'd think about the war and you'd think about the future and the future was dark with that dull pain which is a soldier's constant companion. Two ways to get out of the front line: a wound, or death. Would it ever end? Would you ever go home?

Home was America - all of America. Home was peacetime, and it was even the period of preparation. The months of military training had mellowed surprisingly in retrospect. There were pleasant memories.

Remember Leesville, Louisiana? That was a boom town by an army camp. There were ten thousand soldiers glutting the place on a Saturday night, crowding into the Red Dog saloon and around the red hot babes who plied a trade there. It was raw and loud but it was a part of real America, as much a chapter in U.S. history as Louisville, Kentucky. Broad Street and the zoot suiters and the bus line which stretched for blocks and blocks after a hard weekend. You remembered and you grinned out there in the darkness of Germany all by yourself.

Or, perhaps it was California and that first sand storm on the Mojave when the whole horizon seemed to lift in a coffee-brown, rose-topped wave of wind and sand and rain.

American provincialism takes an awful beating in the army. You find yourself homesick - but home is strangely enough a complex article made up of little towns and big cities from coast to coast: Los Angeles boulevards, Washington, D.C., the snowy frosting on Pennsylvania hills, and the sleepy loveliness of Richmond, Virginia. They were all there, sweet in the changing, uncertain, troubled mind. Everything was there: the show places of Europe and the little out-of-the-way spots where you battled furiously for a lousy hedgerow or bivouaced for a night in the rain. They were there and somehow you could never say which of the many places were most important.

There was the dry winter in England. Farmers wrote angry letters to the Times, complaining. Unless rain were forthcoming, they cried indignantly, the crops were doomed. Meanwhile we maneuvered over Salisbury Plain in fog and mist and pelting showers. The tanks bogged down and the bedding mildewed. Roses bloomed in December, and a million bright little snails crawled lushly over the dripping shrubbery. Dry winter.

There was NAAFI coffee and Land Army girls and WAAF's and ATS and buttered scones. What the hell is a scone anyway?

Of course England wasn't all rain and cold. You could recall pleasant interludes: a pass in Torquay where the sun shone brightly and warmly and you had to climb a mountain to the Red Cross billets. When you thought of England you naturally thought of London - but Torquay was nice, and so were the little towns of Somerset, the moss and the thatched roofs, the leaning, aged architecture and the windows that were all warped out of shape but still fastidiously clean.

London was almost frustrating in its drabness and suffering, but still it held the atmosphere of power and there were always the feverish, black market trades in synthetic joy. There were the extremes: the Strand and Picadilly Circus. There was a zest of animal living about the latter: a strange, nightmarish quality about its habitues - the old man who ostensibly hawked newspapers but who actually dispensed a more prophylactic article. And there were the girls, the immortal, immoral girls who waited in dim doorways and spoke in clipped, Cockney accents. The ageless case of the soldier and the street girl - the dark, the sordid and painful fruit of loneliness and greed and gnawing prescience. The soldier and the girl. A flashlight momentarily flickering and a bargain made. London was powerful. London was jet propelled and half mad with pain, its life raw and sullen as new blood steaming on cold pavement.

You'd remember London all right - its searchlights and its air raids. The high whistle and crunch of bombs. The terrible curtain of ack ack. The unreality of it all. And the underground. Hyde Park, Green Park, Knightsbridge. The bombed-out people. The dirt and the sullen, dogged bravery of people who had nothing to lose and nothing to win.

You remembered Leicester Square, not the square itself, but the little avenues which run off on queer tangents. The small, musty book shops right out of Dickens, and the little men who seemed to emerge half materialized from the shadows as you entered. The thin little men of England, and the yellowed little women, frail and pedigreed as the books they husband so carefully.

You remembered all right. You remembered the stateside pass and the grinding preparation for combat in England. You weren't a soldier then. No man is a soldier until he has been under fire. That came later and it came with soul-shocking force. You came through the first action which is always the hardest. You expected to die. You were vaguely surprised when it was over - for the moment. And then, of course, you knew very well that it was just a matter of time. You'd never go home.

Okay, then, it's all over. The war is all wound up, tied with a red ribbon and packed into the musty, national-needled books of history. You can forget about it now. Forget England and concentrate on home. Forget Omaha Beach and what lay there on D plus the skin of your teeth. Forget St. Lo and Argentan-Falaise, the long drives and the mud and the dust and the dead. Put Mons out of your mind, and the Siegfried Line and the Rhine. Do you have to remember a great general lying in his own blackened blood on the road to Paderborn? Forget it. Forget Dessau where the bloody trail ended and a friend was cut down the day you came out of the line for the last time in the west. It's good to forget.

But you can't. Of course you can't. It's all there and you're home, back to the bright vision - but the vision is strangely clouded.

It's not the same. The difference is the way you wake up sweating in the middle of the night, all befuddled for no reason at all, scared again, and wondering why? There's nothing to worry about. This is home. This is America and you know America, you understand its motives, its very earth, its people. America is like a good terrain map. It's all there, easy to read.

Only - while you were gone - someone had added a scarlet overlay.

You'll never go home.

You'll never be able to say: I am at home and therefore I have no interest in what the rest of the world may do. Too many places and too many events have boiled to the surface since that was true. The feeling is made up of many things: among them the sorrowful memory of Normandy and the sad rain of those early days, the slim poplars bowing in the wind and the planes and the tanks and first blood.

Recalling it all, here in the vacuum of new peace, you know that, physically, you are at home. The pain remains. Forever and forever in the back of your mind will be the refugees of Europe, the tired, bedraggled humanity and the dead. The padre staring at the wreckage of his church. The emaciated slave laborers of Germany. And, again, the multitudinous dead.

Sure, you've come home - but it isn't the ultimate and it isn't true. Home is a frame house on Main Street. It used to be a one-shot to Chicago or a trip to New York now and then. It was an abiding affection for the hills of home, the trim streets and the chain stores where you could buy a hog or a harness. It was appreciation of art, American or foreign, and it was congenial living. Scotch, and name your label. Cold beer, Bing Crosby. And let Europe fight her own wars.

Some of it is the same but, whether you like it or not, the army has left a deep furrow. Discuss American civil affairs and you automatically contrast them with those of Britain and France - even Germany, the arch enemy. Consider beauty in civic architecture or form. Broadway and Hollywood Boulevard? For the rest of your life you'll be comparing, thinking, wondering about America in relation to the rest of the world. You'll be recalling things seen in the lightning-flash interludes of war.

Paris, and the lovely Champs Elysees.

The Dom, at Cologne, still magnificent, rising like a shaft of pure light out of bomb rubble.

The glorious Europe and the horror of its modernity. The homeless people stumbling forever forward like figures in a bad, half remembered dream.

You'll never go home.

The world has constricted in these war years. You'll never go home because your eyes have been opened to the earth's ailments. You have become a world citizen through a baptism of fire. The world and the army will be with you forever, for better or for worse. And, rising out of the complex depths of memory, you'll always see the homeless, starving masses, and the ruins - and the lucky dead.
It's finished now and too much has been written about the whole show.

We came through Paderborn, clapped the lid on the industrial Ruhr and swung east, drove hard for the Weser River: crossed and arrowed for the Elbe and Berlin! Civilians and children they were using - armed them with panzerfausten for the Fuhrer. And of course they couldn't stop us. It was the high road to victory. Blood on the cobblestones. Tanks and heavy artillery blasting forward. Prelude to the end.

And, watching the last push in Europe, I thought of that Joe in the Bulge who called his shot. And I wondered again about Drawbridge. He went home.

What about Drawbridge? Did he enjoy his stay, knowing what was going on in Germany. Did he wonder about the minority who pursued pleasure as usual while casualty lists grew long? Did anyone ask old Drawbridge what his "Spearhead" patch meant, and why he was wearing the little purple ribbon with the white edging?

Did he really go home and feel the old "at home" feeling? Or was he maybe restless and hating himself for being that way: delighted at seeing his folks again, and yet ....

Yet, knowing the recollection of sadness for things seen in far off places: the pinched faces of undernourished English children singing Christmas carols under a bomber's moon, the waxen faces of the young dead in Normandy dust: the immortal spires and the long, sweet hills: the ever-present longing for life overshadowed by the presence of death. The dead men and the tangled destinies of Europe.

Sometimes I wonder about Drawbridge. I think he was right. I think he was unconsciously right. He'll never go home in the old sense because the world is still suffering and he is a part of that world. Because he is an American, in fact, he is even more.

This is the reason. In all of the agonized places, in the bitter hearts of the men and women and children who exist on the tortured continent of Europe, there is one single emotion. It is not love, for the peoples of Europe hate each other with the most virulent of hates. It is not compassion or understanding. The tangled destinies of Europe have long banished that quality of thinking.

The common emotion is faith in America. The old world masses have this one thing in common: they look to America as one looks to the eternal light. Each in his own way the little men of Europe see in America the hope for a better world, they see an admirable power of righteousness, a miraculous potential for production, wealth, and freedom. There is still a dream in the world. There is still a shadow of the old, idealistic America. But there's a scarlet overlay.

One land only can save the world today. That land is America. The instrument of saving must be Peace. The disciples of the faith must be the American veteran, GI Joe. He alone has the necessary background for the understanding of humanity; and that is because he has been in the silent places with misery and death, and in the strident battles which came before.

GI Joe can, and must, save the world today. He comes back to civilian life with the tools of Peace made inflexible by the flame of war. He must never go home in the old sense of the phrase because, wittingly or unwittingly, the American soldier has emerged from this conflict a world citizen. There is no longer any room for militant provincialism on the face of the earth.

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