In my hallway hangs a painting of my father in his AFS dress uniform from World War II. The portrait was painted from a photograph when he was at home after what we would call today a tour. There are no metals on his chest. There is not a bit of braid or a single symbol of rank. The uniform is incredibly plain. I’ve seen the original photo. The artist did not skip the details or embellish anything.
If you look briefly, you also might believe it is painting of a boy dressed up as a soldier.
I have another old photo of Pop from the same time perched on a stone in front of the Great Pyramid of Gisa. His companions are a mix typical of the English Army in North Africa in WWII. There are more brown faces than white. The men 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 that most of the men in the picture never came home, but that was a fine day.
Pop spent the entire long years of WWII picking up wounded and bodies in all the worst places.
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.
For most of my childhood I thought the Gurkha were something he made up.
The Germans and Italians were terrified of the Gurkha. 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 the Anzio beachhead he went out one rainy night to retrieve 8 of these severely wounded men. Some men were missing limbs. Some men were stomach shot. All were far from being among the walking wounded. The term “walking wounded” simply did not - could not exist for them. The men were stacked like cordwood in the ambulance when during the return trip a flash flood washed the truck off the road. The flood rolled it over in slow motion and dumped the truck 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 rest apologized that they could not be of more help. One without most of his lower arm and other wounds did manage to help. The man died silently sitting in the mud after all the rest, including the dead, were out of the truck and back up on the road.
Before he arrived at the Anzio beachhead Pop was sent home to the US. These days we’d call his condition PTSD. Then the term then was “shell shocked”. He stayed about a month or two and immediately went back. Altogether he made four crossings of the North Atlantic.
He said that third trip was the worst. He sailed in a Liberty ship stuffed full of young men. Other ships in the convoy were sunk in the night by U-Boats. Pop never liked sea travel much. He hated air travel far more. There was a war story there but he would never discuss it.
As kids are wont to do, I asked him more than once why he went. After I learned as an adult that he came home once I asked, “Why in hell did you go back?”
He answered me only once.
“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 in Europe every summer between the wars. I think maybe Daddy was the first person to do that. For us Social Fascism was bad news and Hitler was worse. We’d seen and experienced 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. The Navy couldn’t or wouldn’t do it in spite of the fact Daddy was a ranking Reserve officer. I joined the Field Service the same day instead. All of us expected the US would enter the war any day. It didn’t happen that way.
The AFS shipped me to England and then on to Egypt almost immediately. Daddy and my brother ended up in the Pacific years later.
Why did I go back?
When I came back to New York after Egypt 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.
Mother made me sit for a formal photograph in my AFS inform. After I went back she had that made into a painted portrait. She was probably sure I was going to die. Years later she sent it to us in California. I could never hang it on the wall for anyone else to look at. I kept it in a closet.
For everyone else in New York the war was really just 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. The war certainly wasn’t over. For me the war began a long time before.
People didn’t know any better. In retrospect, almost all of those men were much too afraid to ask what war was like. 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 simply gruesome?
A real-life lesson in world or military 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. By the end of the war 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.
Honestly, the Gurkha got under my skin. They didn’t kill needlessly. They didn’t die needlessly either. Get the fight 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 like noble concepts to people who are not soldiers, but these were practical as hell considering the circumstances we were all in.
The Gurkha 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 their 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. Before the British came we were hunted.’
WWII was not their war. Their homes were never threatened. Their children were never at risk. Their simple way of life was not obviously threatened. At that time 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 men deserve to go home to peace.”
My father died 15 years 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 never received any veteran benefits that we know of. He never complained about it either.
My father was proud of the long-delayed honor.
Pop chose to wear the regimental ties of the regiments he served with in the war to work almost every day. He never really spoke about this. His tie collection was substantial. It took me years to understand that this simple, silent, and unnoticed act. This was his way to make …