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Remembering Dad on Veterans Day
By John DeDakis
Last edited: Monday, May 26, 2014
Posted: Monday, May 29, 2006



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John DeDakis

• Healing from Grief
• A Son Remembers His WWII Dad
• I'm Afraid to Write!
• Wow
• Behind the Scenes in a Troubled Newsroom
• Who Should Direct the Movie of my Novel?
• Why I'm a Man Writing as a Woman
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A Son Remembers His WWII Dad

When I was nine or ten years old, my father took me to a college basketball game.  As the clock ran out, a trumpeter in the pep band thought it would be cute to mark the demise of the rival team by playing Taps. 

 

          Dad was not amused. 


“Shut up!” he roared.


The trumpeter played on, oblivious.


Dad got to his feet, fists clenched.  

 

“I said, ‘Shut up!’” he bellowed even louder.


Embarrassed, I cringed in my seat.  I’d never seen Dad this upset.  But most people in the noisy auditorium were unaware of my father’s wrath.  His anger was drowned out by cheers, and by laughter at the Taps-playing trumpeter.

Later, Dad explained to me that his strong emotions went back nearly fifteen years when he was an officer on Gen. William Woodward’s staff during the 104th Infantry Division's assault on Nazi Germany.  Under the leadership of Major General Terry Allen, the "Timberwolves" had seen unbelievable carnage as they fought through Holland, Belgium, and into Germany.  Some men had become numb to it.   


Dad told of seeing a couple soldiers carelessly tossing dead bodies into the back of a truck to be hauled away from the battlefield.  As Dad watched, a passing officer angrily chewed out the men:


“These are soldiers of the United States Army,” the officer yelled, “and they will be treated with respect!”


Whenever Dad told that story, his voice trembled.


Fast forward.  Spring, 1995 – fifty years after the Nazis surrendered, and some thirty-five years after Dad’s anger boiled over at that basketball game.  His emotions were still raw as we sat together on the back porch of my home in suburban Atlanta.  Over the course of three days, I held a small Radio Shack tape recorder between us as he talked about his life.  Not surprisingly, his days in combat with the 104th took up most of the eight hours I captured on tape.


Dad was a shy man, placid, slow to anger; rarely did he show much emotion of any kind, except laughter – he loved to laugh.  So, it was unexpected when, during a taping session, he suddenly broke down and wept.  He’d been describing the day he came across a group of Timberwolf infantrymen who’d been caught in a crossfire and slaughtered. 

 

“If it hadn’t been for those guys in the infantry,” Dad said, swiping at his tears, “I never would have survived the war.”


Dad's been dead nearly twenty years now.  I went in his place to the 56th Timberwolf reunion in Atlanta Aug. 28 to Sept.3, 2001.  There I had a chance to relay his appreciation of the infantry to several of the Timberwolf veterans I met: George Bacon, Emmett Burke, Jess Carpenter, Robert Clark, Warren Colglazier, Art Decker, Mel Falck, Albert Fontana, Walter George, Vern Gilbert, Warren Jershky, John Rison Jones, Jr., Dick Karst, Matthew Kiley, Earl Lutz, Art Mason, Dick Matthews, John Montgomery, Navy Myers, Herbert Orton, Ernest Peters, Warren Pugh, Paul Radlinsky, Floyd Shockley, Art Sorenson, Charles Todd, Robert Tresnak, Phil Tretola, and Keith Zimmerman.


And I listened as many of them talked about sphincter-tightening experiences. The memories were old, but the tears were fresh.


One told me, “Think of the worst you could go through, then double it.”


Another said he wrote down his story, but hid the manuscript in a safe deposit box for his children to read after his death.  “It’s too awful to talk about,” he explained, “plus none of them seem very interested in what I did during the war.”


One infantryman recounted the shock and horror of finding the bodies of some of his closest foxhole buddies “dead in the street.” 


“I just shut down completely,” he said.  “My emotions turned to ice. Suddenly, I had no one I could talk to.”


“Could you pray?”  I asked.

“I could until [the] Nordhausen [concentration camp],” he replied.  (On April 11, 1945, the 104th liberated the Mittelbau-Dora camp in Nordhausen, Germany.  The bodies of 5,000 starved prisoners were stacked like cord wood and the few hundred survivors were like walking skeletons.) He told me it took years, and the help of several understanding people, to restore in him a semblance of faith.


“How did the war change you?” I asked several of the men I met.


“It made me mean,” a few confessed.  Some said it took years, and the patience of long-suffering spouses, before they were able to overcome their anger -- anger they didn’t even know they had until others pointed it out to them.


During my time with these men, I tried to resist my journalistic instinct to probe.  Mostly, I listened.  It was a rich experience.  An experience, I fear, will be lost forever if more of us don’t encourage these men to tell their stories for history.


I’m glad I went to the Timberwolf reunion.  For awhile, at least, it was like being with my dad again, talking about the days when he was young and freedom was at risk.

***

John DeDakis is a novelist and former Senior Copy Editor for CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" in Washington.  John's father, N. George DeDakis, remained in the Army Reserves after WWII, retiring as a full colonel in 1960.  He practiced law in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and died May 29, 1996 at the age of 88. His son was with him at the end.  
 

 

 

 

Web Site 104th Infantry Division Home Page
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Reviewed by Lois Christensen
My cousin Paul who now resides in the Indiantown Gap Military Cemetary told us often of his war days. He got over just as the war ended, but had to stay to help too, and said he had k p duty, guard duty, some frightening nights on that, he pitied the little children over there, everything was war torn and bombed. He often spoke of his army buddies and how they sometimes traveled to France, for a rest. He stayed over 2 years, and came home to find a baby sister was born, just months old and me 2 years older. He had never seen us. He came to Hershey Park, where we were having a picnic and took me on the merry go round and I cried he said. To this day I admire him for his stories he told, miss him, he died at age 76, and love him dearly. He was an uncle to all my kids and more. Loved to reminisce about the war in his last days and I loved to listen over and over to his stories. They never forget once in a war.
Reviewed by Mr. Ed
It's wonderful that you got your father's WWII memories on tape, John. Far too many of our valiant WWII vets are now gone, their memories with them.

My father, also a WWII veteran, died in 2000; and he sadly never even got to see the finally completed WWII Memorial in DC.

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