Speak in Silence of Egypt

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It’s the end of July. It’s hot. The Guns of August are here. Each July the Tour begins and ends before the August day my father was born. This year was the 100th time around for the Tour de France. I must watch in respect.

Somewhere squirrelled away in my house is picture of the man who was father. He seated up upon a full sized wheel leading the Macy’s day parade. Pop’s passion for the bicycle is best expressed by the day he woke me up early for a “short ride”.

He made me ride 75 miles across New England to have lunch in this “perfect little Irish pub” owned by a WWII buddy of his. We rode back home for dinner. He was 30 years my elder. I was in Division I NCAA athletic training shape at the time. I could not walk normally for days. To him it was “fine day” for bit of touring.

In the same sparse bundle of pictures is one of Pop as a young man perched on a stone in front of the Great Pyramid. His companions are a mix typical of the English army in North Africa in WWII. There are more brown faces than white. They are not just brown from years fighting Rommel and the Afrika Korps in places like Tobruk (now spelled with a “q”), Bengasi, and most recently at El Alamein. A few of the men are Indian. Some are Nepalese.

Pop had polio as a kid. You’d never know it to look at him. He skated a mean hockey right wing. No army would ever have him. That didn’t stop him. He volunteered for the American Field Service in 1939 years before the US entered the war to end all wars. He was attached to the English 8th Army and primarily to what was called the “Indian Expeditionary Force” as an ambulance driver. He told me once, “most of the men in the picture never came home but that was a fine day”.

He spent the entire long reach of WWII picking up wounded and bodies in all the worst places. 2.5 million Indian soldiers volunteered and a great many died in WWII.  Their total losses get confused as the Indian volunteers served in multiple British and the “independent” Indian armies.

My father was attached to the English version of what in the US Army might be the modern Rangers. They were professional British soldiers although most hailed from Nepal - the badest warriors of the bad. The Gurkha were already famous soldiers then. Small men with bright happy smiles and knives you never saw or touched but once according to the myth.  

The Germans and Italians were terrified of them. In North Africa in the long retreats and attacks they went out each night like wraiths. They routinely left sleeping enemy watchmen in foxholes alive and killed every other enemy man they could find around them. My father served with them for years. He claimed that not once EVER did he hear a wounded man of them so much as groan. As Pop put it, “It was not done.”

At Anzio (aptly named Operation Shingle) he went out one raining night to retrieve 8 of these severely wounded men. Some men were missing limbs - some were stomach shot. All were far from being among the walking wounded. The term “walking wounded” simply did not - could not exist for them. They were stacked like cordwood in the ambulance when during the return trip a flash flood washed the truck off the road, rolled it over in slow motion, and dumped it into a flooded ditch.

No one cried out during the accident. Pop thought they had to all died. He opened the rear doors and found a bloody pile of now nearly drowning men. He had no choice but to pull them out by whatever means and drag them up to the safety of the road. 3 died silently in the process. The waking rest apologized that they could not be of more help. One without most of his lower arm and other wounds did manage to help. He died silently sitting in the mud after all the rest, including the dead, were out of the truck and up on the road.

I believe before he arrived at the Anzio beachhead Pop was sent home to the US. These days we’d call it PTSD. Then the term then was “shell shocked”. He stayed about a month or two and immediately went back. He made four crossings of the North Atlantic.

He said that third trip was the “worst” in a Liberty ship stuffed full of young men with others of its kind were sunk in the night. He never liked sea travel much. He forever hated air travel more. There was a war story there at the beginning or the end of that return trip he would never discuss.

I asked him more than once (as growing kids are wont to do) why he went and as I put it at the last time after I found out he came home once, “Why in hell did you go back?”

“My father, my brother, and I all went down together to enlist in the US Navy on the day England and France declared war on Germany. Your grandfather was born in Rhodesia. He was both a US and a British citizen. He also spent a lot of his childhood in Europe. As a headmaster he took US high school hockey teams to play there every summer. I think maybe he was the first person to do that. For us Social Fascism was bad news and Hitler was worse. We’d seen the Nazi brownshirts in action.

Every one of us thought the US Navy would take me in some capacity in a Reserve role at least. They couldn’t or wouldn’t in spite of the fact Daddy was a ranking Reserve officer.  I joined the Field Service instead. All of us expected the US would enter the war any day. That didn’t happen.

The AFS shipped me to England and then to Egypt almost immediately. Daddy and my brother ended up in the Pacific.

When I came back to New York my brother was already on a destroyer somewhere protecting aircraft carriers off Midway or someplace. Daddy was in charge of the hush hush logistics for island hopping campaigns in the Pacific. I missed his last leave home before he left for the Pacific by only a couple of weeks. I never saw him again after the day I initially left for Europe in 1939 as it turned out.

Why did I go back?

Mother made me sit for a formal photograph in my AFS inform. After I went back she had that made into a painted portrait. Years later she sent it to us in California. I could never hang it on the wall for anyone else but me to look at.

For everyone else in the US the war was really starting. It wasn’t over. If I went to a party, everyone there talked about how heroic they were going to be in their new uniforms. The big deal in New York was how the US was going to save England from defeat.  Maybe. Maybe not. It wasn’t over and for me it began a long time before.

They didn’t know any better. In retrospect, almost all of those men were much too afraid to ask. I was like a Martian. “You were in North Africa since 1940?” Me being an ambulance driver in the English Army was some misunderstanding. Was that heroic or gruesome?

A real life lesson in world history wasn’t going to help. Keeping the Germans out of Egypt and away from the Suez wasn’t something important to them.

By 1945 I ended up serving in every Allied army. The English, the Australians, the Indians, and even the French for a little bit. After Anzio, I was attached to the US Army. We went up Italy and into Germany with Patton.

The Americans were by far the most gung ho about killing people and at being killed. The English and the Germans were appalled by the American causalities. In the end the German soldiers were kids. Some couldn’t grow a beard but they could still shoot.

Why did I go back? Doing that made more sense to me than listening to the talk.

I think the Gurkha got under my skin. They didn’t kill needlessly. They didn’t die needlessly either. Get it over with and go home. If it was worth doing, do it. Do it really well. Go home with honor.

The honor, courage, and duty may seem noble to people who are not soldiers, but it was practical as hell considering the circumstances we were all in.

They were intentionally grateful for and respectful of the smallest things. They had nothing but life, the life of their friends, and their service. They used the same knives to kill their enemies and cook their friend’s dinner. They thought this was funny, no big deal, and important all at the same time.

As to the silence-  At Anzio a Gurkha sergeant told me this – ‘We train our children not to cry in pain. Silence keeps you, your family, and your friends alive.’

The war was not their war. Their homes were never threatened. Their children were never at risk. Their simple way of life was not obviously threatened. The families of those men still lived in caves in a nearly lifeless dessert in Nepal. Most knew they would never go home. Perhaps some would go home with honor so they volunteered.

I went back a second time because I think I began to vaguely understand why they served – why they volunteered. Some deserved to go home.”

My father died a decade ago of a truly horrific and rare neurologic disease. 

The US Government refused until five years before his death to recognize his service in the American Field Service as that of a veteran of the Second World War.

He was proud of the long delayed honor.