Monday, January 05, 2009
My Father: A Veteran's Story – Part 2
by Norman Costa
[Part 1 of "My Father: A Veteran's Story" can be found here.]
The Meaning of War
There is nothing about war that is to be celebrated. As an art, a force, or an institution, war is the killing of people and the destruction of property in the name of, and in the service of, a people or a nation state. I recommend Christopher Hedges' “War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning.” It is a searing account, of not only the devastation of the acts and scenes of war but, of the disability, suffering, and destruction that follows war. The best book on war is still “The Iliad”, by Homer. Beginning with the first part of “My Father: A Veteran's Story” I wanted to tell a story about one soldier's war that had many facets: heroics, cowardice, sacrifice, selfishness, futility, redemption, atrocity, generosity, suffering, loss, randomness, meaning, and enigma. For my father, it was all of the above in terms of what he experienced and what he observed. For reasons that I can't explain, his first combat experience in the Battle of Graignes (Part 1) was THE defining event of his life. No other vet with whom I spoke had the same transforming experience in Graignes as my father. I am very proud of his military service, and so is he; but it was not without the blurring of the distinction between the light and dark elements of his own human nature. He confided to me an act that I have never disclosed before to anyone. We were talking about the reprisal executions by the Germans following the Battle of Graignes. In particular, he was talking about the execution by bayonet of the wounded paratroopers who were being tended by the local priest and his priest friend. He told me that he and others shot their own German prisoners. I don't know how many, or when in the battle it happened. The GIs had no resources to guard, feed, or give medical assistance to any prisoners. In his mind they had to kill the German prisoners or else they would put their own situation in further jeopardy. However, he allowed no excuse to the Germans for killing the wounded American soldiers. He said, “They had the resources to take and keep prisoners. We didn't.”
His story was the same as for many Americans who went to war: pride, opportunism, adventure, being 'young and dumb', patriotism, obligation, duty, 'having more balls than brains', breaking the boredom of life, anger, rage, and fight. Let's not forget the absence of a real sense of their own mortality before they experienced combat. After the war, his story was still the same for many veterans, except the American culture after World War II had no tolerance, nor understanding, for the severe costs to the returning GIs that would last them a lifetime. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for the WWII veteran was a sentence to a lifetime of grief, sadness, dissociation, repression, anxiety, self destructive behavior, depression, and a sense of isolation from loved ones and family. For some it ended in suicide. One GI who took his own life was a Medal of Honor winner for extreme heroism as a medic and saving many lives at the risk of his own during the worst of a three hour battle. He was a friend of my father for many years.
There is another reason I am telling his story. I want to be able to understand my own. There's an old Irish saying, “You can't tell your own story until you've told the story of your father and grandfather.” So this telling is also a part of a very personal journey.
Frank P. Costa was born in New York City, in his mother's bed, on March 18, 1917. His Sicilian parents, Benedetto and Maria, named him Francesco Paulo Costa. He is one of ten children who survived to adulthood. They lived on the upper east side of Manhattan in a brown stone building known as a five-story walk up. My grandparents owned the building and two others like it. My grandfather was a shoe maker, a cobbler, who had his store front on the first floor. In the back of the store, behind a curtain, was my grandmother who sold and served bootleg liquor during prohibition (after 1918). Clients would stop in for a drink on the way to work – two bits ($0.25) a shot; others stopped in on their way home. Now you know how they were able to own three apartment buildings. They lost two of the buildings during the Great Depression.
Dad and his brothers were not large framed or muscular in appearance, but they were strong and rugged. From the age of nine or ten, the boys worked for an ice vendor and carried ice blocks to kitchen ice boxes in the walk up apartment buildings. The shortest and smallest framed was Guillermo, my uncle Charlie. During the war he fought in the Pacific and was one of a five man 81-mm mortar crew. Uncle Charlie carried the 45 lb. base plate for the mortar. It was just like carrying ice.
At age 15 and 16 my father became a boxer. His daily training routine included a run around Central Park. In my teens I met some of the old boxers who taught my father how to box, especially how to take punches, protect your head, and stay in close at the same time. These old guys were still feisty, punch drunk, and manning street corner news stands. The boxing training saved his life in Normandy. He killed a German soldier with his trench knife in hand-to-hand combat. He mentioned the incident frequently, when I was a kid, though he never gave any details. Looking back, it was something he wanted to talk about with somebody, but never found the opportunity to do so. In later years I asked my father about the incident, he looked at me surprised and said he never killed any soldier with his knife. That was the end of the discussion. My mother confirmed that he did kill a soldier in hand-to-hand fighting. It was in one the first letters she received after Dad went into combat in Normandy. Only in the last ten years did I understand that my father and so many other veterans were suffering from PTSD. Once I came to that realization, so many questions from my childhood through my middle age suddenly came into focus. So many things I did not understand about his behavior and his life became understandable.
At age 25 my father volunteered rather than wait to be drafted. Always looking for a way to make an extra dollar, he decided to join the submarine service or the paratroopers. Thank God he choose the paratroopers because he had claustrophobia, undiagnosed until he was in his late 70s. Both services paid a monthly $50.00 dollar hazardous duty pay, on top of a soldiers base pay and combat pay. He trained in Alliance, Nebraska. My mother took a bus from Jersey City, NJ out to Alliance to marry my father. A soldier could not get married without permission from the company commander. At first the Captain declined permission and told my father to send his fiancé home. He relented and the company Chaplain, Father Veret, officiated at the wedding ceremony. My parents had their wedding dinner and honeymoon in a hotel in town, September 19, 1943. Twenty-four hours later my father shipped out. My mother didn't see him again for two years. She took a bus back to her apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey. Nine months later my brother, Frank, Jr., was born. At the time of his birth, my father was fighting in Normandy, France.
Back to War
Following the battle of Graignes in Normandy and the escape of the 507th to friendly lines, Dad went back into combat. Miraculously, most of the 507th Regiment that fought at Graignes made it back alive. After the war the ruins of the Norman church in Graignes were cleaned up, but it was never rebuilt. Today, the remains of a partial arch and remnants of several walls are a memorial to the paratroopers and the citizens who fought and died in Graignes, June 6 through June 15. The bell from the original church was salvaged and now peels from the tower of the new church, a few kilometers away.
The 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment, was eventually sent back to England for R and R and training. The men of the 507th referred to themselves as a bastard outfit because they were assigned to different divisions and did not stay with the 82nd Airborne Division. Eventually, they were assigned to the 17th Airborne Division. My best guess is that the 507th was a battle tested headquarters company – mortars, communications, and heavy machine guns – and they were needed to provide a core of experience to a newly formed paratroop division. The experience was going to be put to the test.
The Battle of the Bulge
The Germans launched their surprise winter offensive in the Ardennes Forest going though Luxembourg and Belgium, northeast of France. Their objective was the deep water harbor of Antwerp, Belgium and the Allied fuel depots en route. General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, ETO, ordered every available Allied combat division into the battle to halt the German winter offensive. One of the first to arrive was the 101st Paratroop Division, the famed 'Screaming Eagles' depicted in the TV series, “Band of Brothers”. Soon the 101st was surrounded and cut off along with General McCauliff and his men in the area around Bastogne. Seven main roads converged on Bastogne, including the one to Antwerp. Bastogne became a choke point in the German advance. The German offensive stalled outside Bastogne, Belgium. Bastogne was a smaller battle within the larger Battle of the Ardennes Forest (now known as the Battle of the Bulge.) The Allied objectives were the breaking of the German siege of Bastogne, repulsing the German offensive along a broad front north west, and south of Bastogne, and destroying as many German troops and matériel as possible.
The 507th and the rest of the 17th Airborne Division was flown in troop transports to a military airport outside Rheims, France (as best I can determine). This was not going to be a combat parachute jump. Instead they were loaded onto trucks, the famous army deuce-and-a-half, and driven north. The convoy traveled for hours, without stop, over rural mountain roads. At night the drivers were forbidden to use lights and navigated by staying very close to the truck in front of them, relying only on their unaided night vision. One of the trucks near to my father's truck, drove off a cliff. He could hear the soldiers screaming as the truck was going over and after impacting below the cliff. Several soldiers were ordered off one of the trucks and told to render whatever assistance they could to the survivors. The convoy did not stop. I don't know how far or how long the convoy traveled. Eventually, they reached some terminus and the 17th Airborne Division debarked. I think the 17th wound up northwest of Bastogne, and fought their way east and south.
The Cold and the Snow
I got more details on the environmental situation from my father's buddies in the 507th than I ever got from my father. One veteran told me they were in snow up to their chest. There was no base camp, no tents, no shelter from the elements. It was the worst recorded winter in 50 years. All Allied soldiers were outside, and had to fight, eat, sleep, and fight some more while exposed to the cold. The same veteran told me that a soldier next to him had frozen to death over night. This was not uncommon. The usual practice was to rouse the soldier next to you every half-hour to see if he was still alive. It didn't always work.
The Battle of the Ardennes Forest began on December 16, 1944. No doubt it was only days later when my father was sent into action. The terrain was alternately hilly and flat, with some areas peaked and especially difficult to traverse. In time, the German offensive turned into a defensive battle of survival as they tried to retreat, orderly, to their pre-offensive positions. The rear guard German defenses were usually on high ground with trenches dug on the ridges. My father described one of the assaults on the German held high ground this way: “We fought as a large unit [the 507th Regiment], not like at Graignes. This was a whole lot better. You loaded your weapon, took all the ammunition you could carry, started up the hill, and kept shooting till you got to the top. When you got to the trenches, they [the Germans] were all dead.” He was never any more specific than that.
When they secured the hill they occupied the trenches. The battle tested veterans, my father and a lot of his fellow paratroopers, did not want to occupy the trenches overnight. They surmised that the German artillery had their own trenches well marked and zeroed in on their maps. After the Allied forces took a defensive position, the German artillery was likely to drop shells on the trenches. But, they had a new Captain who wanted to dig in on the hill and occupy the trenches, against the entreaties of his more experienced, lower ranking officers and noncoms. I can only guess that he thought the trenches and fox holes would be sufficient protection. In the following single artillery attack, the 507th would lose more men than in the entire battle of Graignes, in Normandy, France.
The Artillery Barrage
The artillery shelling started. It was as awesome, dense, destructive, and murderous as anyone could remember. Dad remembers the fierceness of the cold during the artillery attack. He remembers the cold because the fragmentation wounds of the soldiers would freeze very quickly. The cold alone saved many soldiers by keeping them from bleeding to death. Soldiers all around him were being killed and wounded. One soldier had his back opened by a shell fragment and went running wildly, and screaming in hysteria and pain. The medics were ministering to the wounded in the midst of the terror from the German 88s. The wounded were being carried by single soldiers, one by one over their shoulders, back down the hill to an aid station and ambulance. It was too dangerous for several men with a litter to carry a wounded soldier. After unloading a wounded soldier, they would run back up the hill, where medics were binding up more wounds, and carry another soldier to safety and medical attention.
Then there is the story of Father Veret, the Catholic Chaplain. At one of the reunions of the 507th during the 1980s, my mother asked one of the veterans, “Did you know Father Veret? He married us in Alliance, Nebraska.” Across the dinner table the vet replied, “Did I know Father Veret? Let me tell you about Father Veret. He saved by life!” The vet told how he had been carrying wounded soldiers down that hill, over his own shoulders, and then going back for another. After a short time his uniform was soaked in the blood from the wounded he carried. He was not injured himself. On one of his trips down to the ambulance, Father Veret ran up to intercept him and took the wounded soldier from him and put him on his own shoulder to carry the rest of the way. Father Veret had seen the vet's blood soaked uniform and assumed he was wounded, also. Father Veret said, “I'll take him. You go and get yourself taken care of [at the aid station].” Of course, the vet turned and started back up the hill to get another wounded paratrooper. He turned around just in time to see Father Veret loading the wounded soldier into the ambulance. A direct hit from a German 88mm artillery shell destroyed the ambulance and killed Father Veret and all the wounded inside.
Meanwhile, on the hill the deadly artillery barrage continued unabated. A single shell hit five soldiers. My father was one of them. When the shelling began my father did not have his helmet on. Someone else grabbed it and put it on within a millisecond after the first burst. Fragments from his burst left a gash on his head and one on his leg. He was out of commission, but alive. It was January 4, 1945. Fortunately, his were only flesh wounds. After the shelling he was tended by one of his fellow paratroopers. His buddy bandaged him with a field dress kit. The large gauze pad was placed over the open gash on the top of his head. The long cotton extensions for tying were wrapped under his chin and then back over his head. With a humor only soldiers could muster on a battlefield, he tied a large bow over Dad's head. He stood back, admired his impromptu fashion statement, and said, “ Costa, don't you look pretty!” Dad remembered for the longest time that one of the other four soldiers was wounded and three were dead. He knew them all. Decades later, at a Regimental reunion, my father was waiting for an elevator in the hotel lobby. When the doors opened, one of the soldiers who was killed in the artillery burst that wounded my father was standing in front of him, very much alive. 'Lazarus' had returned from the dead. 'Lazarus' was seriously wounded and sent back to the States. It took nine months of convalescence before he could leave a hospital. That night Dad and Mom had dinner with 'Lazarus' and his wife. Nine months of treatment with morphine had left him sterile. They had no children. My father's convalescence was much easier and returned him to active combat duty. He was billeted with a Luxembourg couple. They tended to him, fed him, and taught him a handful of French phrases.
In 1994, the fiftieth year after D-Day, I was with my father in Bastogne having a bite to eat. We sat next to a local couple. Dad started rattling off all his phrases learned in 1945 from the Luxembourg couple. “Pahsay moi lay sucra.” “Ooo aay laze allamain?” “Parlay voo Anglay.” ... Dad was with two buses of 507th vets and some of their wives and children. There were two children of a vet, a Captain, who died in the past year. They hoped to accompany their father on the reunion, but that was not to be. The other vets who knew their father would talk about his actions in the War at different stops on the trip. At one stop in Normandy, where a small plaque along the side of the road memorialized a place of fighting and sacrifice, we got out of the buses. I believe Eddie Shapert was with us, a veteran of Graignes. Eddie told the story of the assault up the hill from this spot. It was led by the recently deceased Captain whose son and daughter were with us. The story went something like this. “Your father was one of those crazy Gung-Ho officers who carried a Thompson submachine gun and led his men straight up the hill time after time. I said to myself, “This sunavabitch is going to get me killed”. So I decided to stay right behind him because that was probably the safest place to be. He gave the order and up we went with me right behind him. We took the hill with your father in the lead.”
The Invasion of the German Homeland
The 1994 tour began in reverse chronological order and started in Germany where the 507th had their second and last combat parachute jump, the famous 'Jump across the Rhine'. I believe it was in March of 1945. Their military objective was the capture of the Krupp Armament factories. This time the jump was far more successful in dropping everyone where they were supposed to land. My father never talked much about the fighting in this battle except to say that it only lasted a few days and then the German army gave up in Division strength. Their heart was not in it. One story was very poignant, though. My father was inside an abandoned German house with one of his buddies. The home and its furnishings were beautiful, well kept, neat, organized, the wood was polished, there was not a speck of dust on the piano, and the whole place looked very comfortable. Apparently, the occupants left everything in hurry, and possibly only hours before. Immediately, my father's associations went back to Normandy and Belgium. The people he met there were farmers, and quite poor at that. In Normandy and Belgium the Germans had confiscated every scrap of food, cloth, leather, wood, metal, draft horses, and any other resource they could get their hands on and shipped them to Germany for distribution to the war effort. The farmers in Normandy were wearing wooden clogs because there was no leather they could use for shoes. In this German home, however, there was no manifest evidence of sacrifice or deprivation. If anything the home, furnishings, and comfort of the inhabitants were completely untouched by the war. In his own mind, a story was being played out that ended with, “... and these were the people who started the war.” He was enraged at the vision of their comfortable lives – a comfort that came at the expense of innocent farmers now living in near poverty. He took his M1-A carbine and shot up the entire contents of the house. He remembers the sounds of the pings made by the piano strings when severed by the bullets. He was very pleased with himself.
The End of the Fighting
My father was appointed the military Burgermeister (Mayor) of a small town, for about one week, until the trained civil administration units of the army arrived. His first official act was to liberate all the wine cellars in the area. He doled out the bottles to the all the paratroopers in the 507th and asked, “Do you want red or white?” When the surrender of Germany and the end of the war in Europe was announced the reaction of my father and his buddies was not what I had envisioned. We all know about the spontaneous celebration, jubilant hugging and kissing, and the cheering of the huge crowds in New York City's Times Square. For the men of the 507th, it was almost anti-climatic. It was more like, “Good. We had a job to do, and we did it. Now we can go home.” It was not like Times Square. Laster in 1945 his outfit was shipped home on a troop transport. The trip at sea lasted three to four weeks. State side they were quickly demobilized and discharged from the army. He first went to see his parents in New York City and then made the trip to Binghamton, NY where my mother and brother were staying at my grandmother's farm.
There is more that must be said about my father's story, and that of his fellow soldiers. I don't think I will be able to do it for quite a while. In time, I hope I can finish the story, but it won't be soon.
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