Essay

At Christmas, where was Grandpa during the war?

By December 27, 2019 7 Comments

He wasn’t exactly a kid. There were kids galore on both sides–18-year-olds just out of high school and scores of 17-year-olds who quit school years before. Not that World War II was a young man’s war. There were boys out there fighting and dying between the French hedgerows, if they had survived the invasion on June 6; but it didn’t take long and they were all men. 

Goodbye from the family

Grandpa wasn’t a kid when he landed in France. He was all of 25 on the first Christmas he’d ever spent away from home on the farm. He was out in the cold in Belgium then, doing what he loved, what he was good at, what the Army determined he should be doing; he was at work in the motor pool.

Seventy-five years ago, Grandpa and the 555th Ordinance Tank Maintenance Company had just moved their operations up the road a ways from Liege, Belgium, where they’d been since early November. The war was getting close again. Earlier they’d spent six weeks at Brest, where the Gerries didn’t quit without a fight because everyone knew Brest was a harbor the Allies needed. In September, 1944, 37 Allied divisions would need 26,000 tons of supplies each and every day. That’s a lot of food, a lot of munitions, and a lot of motor vehicles.

The 555th had been officially commended for their good work at Brest, keeping those M4 Sherman tanks running; but the siege itself could hardly be called successful. By the time the city was in Allied hands, the Germans had destroyed the harbor while putting up a torrent of bloodshed. Finally, the city belonged to the good guys, what was left of it–and them–anyway.

On September 6, 1944, they’d left for Rennes, France,  where they’d spent a month before being moved east to Liege, Belgium, a move they made in only two days. Nothing was moving at the time. The countryside must have seemed almost eerie. No American officer, not even Eisenhower, had guessed that getting as far as fast as Allied forces had into Nazi-occupied Europe. Normandy was a horror. Once off the beach, they’d walked into hedgerows that were soon soaked in blood. Thousands of GIs and Brits and Aussies and Canadians had died. But once they got off the coast, the Wehrmacht many guys saw were high-tailing it the other way.

Conventional warfare that features intense battles always also has long stretches of quiet, of rest and retooling. When the 555th got to Liege, the lull all around made life seem good. Not that there wasn’t anything to do. Eisenhower had his hands full trying to keep troops supplied. Grandpa and his grease monkey buddies were supporting both the First and the Ninth Armies. Nobody sat on their laurels; after all, war creates wrecks.

555th cartoon

Work didn’t slow down, but the fierce fighting that characterized some of their earlier days in France has cooled, even though they were never beyond danger. Two days after they’d arrived at Liege, a V-1, a “buzz bomb,” came down 150 yards from the shop, sending shards of glass knifing into flesh. Two guys got bloodied enough to earn purple hearts. 

Life in range of buzz bombs was no picnic. You could hear them coming, couldn’t miss that infernal buzzing; and when you did, you just knew if one would suddenly go silent, it could be the end of everything. Just because the motor pool was not a hot target didn’t mean one of those death devils wouldn’t go rogue. Even ten or twenty miles from the front, you lived too close to death’s neighborhood.

Just exactly when word got out that Hitler had ordered up a huge gamble to beat back the all but unstoppable Allied advance isn’t clear. When did Grandpa learn that something huge was in the offing? Hitler had demanded silence. No one knew what was coming. The little history book doesn’t detail what the 555th knew, when.  

Operation Wacht am Rhein (“watch on Rhein”) was anything but a watch. Hitler threw just about all he had left into a massive offensive, pushed munitions and manpower into a full-bore blitzkrieg that took aim not simply at the advance of the invading enemy, but at the heart of the front. The Battle of the Bulge burst open less than an hour from where he and his buddies were retooling tanks.

It started, dead of night, December 16. There’s no mention of it in the little book, but it says this for Christmas Day, December 25, 1944: “The first Christmas overseas for the 555th Ordnance Company was spent in the shop from 0745 to 2100.”

Grandpa rarely talked about the war, but when you think about where he was, what he did, what he’d seen and what he’d had to feel, his silence is understandable. Those two years of his life were so incredible, so unlike any other that it must have seemed impossible for him to explain, to define, to document what had happened. Where would he start? It was so ever-lovin’ huge. Besides, would any of it make any sense at all to someone who wasn’t there?

Seventy-five years ago on Christmas Day, Grandpa was hip-deep in grease and oil when he wasn’t under the hood of whatever needed service for the momentous battle just outside the shop door.

Did Grandpa think much about a babe in a barn that Christmas, 1944? I don’t know, but I’m guessing he did. Then again, you know that he knew that that very new-born king in a manger loved him.

____________________________

Grandpa Van Gelder, my wife’s father, died two months ago. He was 100 years old.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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