I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.
Dellous was the first word my mother ever spoke. She was a year old and her oldest brother Dellous and her second brother Wesley were swimming in the creek. They were goofing around and hooting and hollering and having fun. My mother was too young to understand that they were playing and she yelled out "Dellous" because she was afraid he was in danger. About ten years later, Dellous was drafted. It was 1943 and he was only 18 years old. He and my grandfather walked up to the highway and stood waiting for the bus that was coming to take Dellous to war. When the bus arrived my uncle picked up his suitcase and got on, leaving the only world he had ever known: the close-knit farming community in southern Kentucky where his ancestors had lived for generations.
Dellous was sent to New Guinea. At one point, the soldiers in his division ran out of ammunition. The commander chose 125 of the strongest swimmers to swim to bring back ammunition; Dellous was one of them. The swimmers were beset by snipers, fatigue, and crocodiles. They swam almost continuously for three days and nights. Dellous contracted pneumonia, but kept swimming until he collapsed, delirious with fever. He was evacuated and sent home, shell-shocked and sick. Apparently, the South Pacific had the highest rate of combat trauma in World War 2: 44 men per 1,000. (This story was told to me by Dellous's younger brother who heard it, not from Dellous, but from one of the men he served with, who attended Dellous's funeral.)
Dellous's war was over, but Wesley's was just beginning. Wesley volunteered when he was 17, was sent to Europe and fought there until the end of the war, when he was involved in the liberation of a concentration camp in Germany, quite likely Dachau. When I was young I found pictures of a concentration camp in a drawer of my grandmother's dresser. "Mom," I asked with horror, "what are these?" Pictures from when Wesley was in the war, she told me and that was all. Whichever camp Wesley was at, it changed his life forever. The things he saw there were so horrific that he re-upped after the war and remained behind in Germany to help with the execution of Nazi war criminals. He only spoke of those days when he was drinking, and hated Nazis until the end of his life. The Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC has a website with a wealth of information on all aspects of the Holocaust.
Everyone agrees that Dellous and Wesley were never the same after the war. For one thing, they both drank and Dellous, who lived in a "dry" county, would go away for days at a time and come back subdued and contrite. Dellous stayed in Kentucky and built a house near the spot that he'd waited for the bus to go to war. Wesley went north to Michigan with his wife Kathy. Even in his 70s, Dellous would go out digging 'sang, as it's called in the South, and he told me that some of the places he went were so remote that if he fell or was snake-bit they'd only be able to find him by looking for the vultures circling. I think he craved the solitude those kinds of places offered. The last time I saw Uncle Dellous, we had taken my young son to visit his Kentucky relatives. It was hot and we walked out into the yard in search of shade. My son found a toad in the tall grass at the side of the house. A toad-frog Dellous called it. He picked it up and gently placed it on my son's hand. My uncle probably already had the lung cancer that would kill him in about a year or two, but no one knew it yet.
Uncle Wesley and Aunt Kathy lived in a small house and had a series of little dogs, including a chihuahua that was fiercely jealous of me and tried to nip me whenever Wesley hugged me. I ate snapping turtle and other wild game at their table and he came to my wedding in 1976. He was about 50 then and a strong, vital man. The second 50 years are supposed to be the best, he told me that day. He made it for about another 25, then developed dementia. At the end, he fell into a coma. Then, one day, he spoke out of his coma: "Soldiers!" he called out. "There's no mercy here, no mercy at all. There's dead bodies lying everywhere." Those were his last words.
Do you know any stories about relatives who served in World War 2? I'd love to hear them.