Labor Day has always had a double meaning for my family. Twenty-four years ago and two weeks earlier than expected, my wife went into labor on Labor Day, and the next day Jennifer was born. It was the last time my children were ever early for anything…
We just spent the Labor Day weekend visiting my daughter and her grandparents in Oklahoma. Both my mom and dad are in their mid-80s now. My dad was a navigator on a B-17 bomber during the last few months of WW2. He dropped napalm on Nazi submarine bases and food on Dutch starving because their fields had been flooded by the Germans. For the last several years, my mom and dad have attended reunions for surviving members of his bomber group. It was at one of these gatherings that they met Neal.
Neal was staying with my parents last weekend. He and his wife were driving from Georgia to Utah for this year’s reunion. Neal is the same age as my father, but looks about ten years older. He suffers from COPD and has to use oxygen now. He doesn’t talk much and sleeps most of the time. When you ask him questions, he answers but rarely elaborates. Here’s what I know of his story…
Neal got to England a few years ahead of my dad. He was a B-17 radio operator, positioned in the back part of the plane near the bomb bay. He won’t talk about about it, but his wife told us that on one mission, the tail gunner was hit and Neal cradled the man’s shattered head and brains in his lap until he died. Twenty-one missions into a twenty-five mission rotation, his bomber was shot down over Germany. The plane broke apart in mid-air and the crew in front, all officers, were killed. Neal’s parachute was in that front part of the plane, but on this particular mission someone had packed an extra. He found it and jumped, but was so low that he broke his nose and crushed some of the bones in his back. He had shrapnel in his skull but never mentioned it until after the war.
He was captured and shipped to a prison camp for enlisted men in Lithuania. Neal keeps the awful details of that trip to himself, but he won’t get on a boat or go on a vacation cruise because he’s afraid the terrors of that voyage will return. Later, he and his fellow prisoners were crammed into a boxcar and moved to Poland, a trip that lasted two weeks. There wasn’t enough room to sit or lay down; a tiny corner of the boxcar was used as a latrine. In Poland, there was never enough to eat. The daily ration for everyone in his barracks was a shared loaf of bread made from sawdust and soup made from a single kohlrabi. To this day, he eats everything placed in front of him (I watched him slowly spoon leftover salsa after he had finished a large steak, french fries, and salad). His legs are scarred from attacks by German guard dogs and he is still deathly afraid of dogs.
Near the end of the war, with Americans advancing on one side and Russians on the other, the German guards marched their prisoners out of the camp and into a nearby forest. Apparently hoping to use them as a bargaining chip, the Germans moved them from place to place for the next ninety days. This was on the eve of the famous winter of the Battle of the Bulge and Neal told me that he spent the entire first night standing in rain and sleet. As bad as his ordeal had been before, this period seems to have been the worst. There were many days when the Germans did not bother to feed their prisoners at all. Geneva Conventions did not afford the same protections to enlisted prisoners as they did to captured officers and Neal’s treatment was brutal and relentless and impossibly removed from the romantic notions of prison life offered up by Hollywood. After more than sixty years, he still has frequent nightmares.
At one point during the weekend, our conversation turned to politics. Neal is a registered Republican and his wife is a life-long Democrat who votes “for the person, not the party.” She faithfully recites the codswallop she’s picked up from Faux News and right-wing talk radio, silly propaganda jingos like “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” Neal was sitting directly across the dining table from me when I asked him, “Do you think your experience as a prisoner of war qualified you to be President of the United States?” He slowly grinned and shook his head from side to side. The conversation was over.