- Written by Bill Levine Bill Levine
Recently, my retiree-age literature class was discussing the classic ’50s conformity novel, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, as if it were a gripping novel of World War II. In fact, there were raw scenes of the main character’s PTSD-inducing war experiences that impacted his rung climbing in the 1950s corporate world.
Our teacher didn’t have to prompt us into evoking our own baby boomer memories of our dads as former soldiers. Once a classmate mentioned her father’s memory lockdown on his four years of World War II experience, other members marched behind her with their own tales of dads who were reluctant to discuss their overwhelming wartime experiences or who seemed to suffer from PTSD symptoms.
I didn’t participate in this cogent reminiscing because my father’s short, stateside Army service is mundane when compared with tales of the Greatest Generation. My father, Burt Levine, was just one of the 15,650,000 men in uniform and part of the 52% of all men 20–49 who served.
The only action Burt witnessed were bar brawls in the dives off base.
My dad said it wasn’t great being Jewish in the Army. He had been exposed to urban street-turf slurs growing up in Boston, but he shared barracks with soldiers who had never met a Jew or never met one they liked.
But Dad, being a gregarious sort, did have Army buddies, and I got the impression these relationships made his 17 months of service more palatable.
Though the only flamethrower my father witnessed was of a barracks wise guy lighting a match with flatulence, he was, to me, a brave soldier. Pvt. Levine had to crawl through barbed wire with real bullets whizzing over his head in basic training.
Plus, he was apparently an injured soldier — I saw a tiny veteran’s disability check arrive monthly throughout my childhood. Dad said he fell out of a jeep.
My collection of family photos includes only two taken of my father in uniform. One is a composite of his field hospital platoon taken in September 1943 at Lawson General Hospital in Atlanta.
My father never extolled the virtues of Company A Third Platoon, but he did take the time to number and identify most of his fellow enlistees. That photo, though, captures the beginning of my father’s seminal U.S. Army experience that is concluded in a second picture.
The second picture is a wedding-day snapshot of my parents and their wedding party, taken on Aug. 1, 1944, in Atlanta. My dad, in uniform, is next to my mom; they are flanked by my dad’s brother-in-law in uniform and my dad’s sister. Fanning out from this group are my mom’s three bridesmaids.
Undoubtedly, these wartime wedding-party photos with grooms in uniform are a World War II trope, as they emphasize a grace-and-hope timeout from the coarseness and unfathomable uncertainty of war.
A month after this wedding picture was shot, my dad was honorably discharged and had a new life as a dental student in St. Louis. His most valuable war souvenir was his honorable discharge pin, which he always wore in public to ward off evil eyes from people casting aspersions of draft dodging.
During my father’s first semester of dental school, his old unit got shipped out to provide field medical support during the Battle of the Bulge. I learned this from Dad when I was an adult. When he said there were a lot of casualties in his old unit, it seemed he felt more lucky than guilty over escaping a hellish situation. I didn’t feel comfortable asking any follow-up questions.
Even though my father’s wartime experiences were not on the Band of Brothers level, I have no doubt that his service strongly resonated with him over his lifetime.
We baby boomers are the last witness cohort to the Greatest Generation. Ten to 15 years after the war, we were the ones who learned about our fathers’ World War II experiences or our fathers’ stonewalling of these experiences.
We were the intimate witnesses to these former soldiers integrating into the civilian life of the 1950s and ’60s. We boomers are the generation that still has regrets today about questions not asked.
The Greatest Generation is losing its last battle to a most formidable opponent: time. Very soon, all that will be left are a few hearty centenarians.
As my dad’s wartime story shows, even stateside deployments are worth recounting for what was said and what wasn’t. Historians should be firing up their smartphone voice apps and recording boomers’ memories of their soldier dads.
Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and active freelance writer. Bill aspires to be a humorist because it is easier to be pithy than funny. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.