In December 1944, my father was with his unit in a rest center in the town of Montecatini near Florence, a distance of 85 miles from the front. He was a Private First Class in the 350th Regiment of the 88th Division, U.S. Army. At the age of twenty, he had gone from being a college sophomore to a combat soldier. They called themselves the Blue Devils, but the 88th has also been dubbed the Draftee Division.
In spring 1944 the United States launched an experiment. For the first-time in history, it sent an all-draftee division into sustained combat. The place was Italy, the unit was the 88th Division. Aaron Strauss, my father, was one of the laboratory rats. He was an infantryman but not a rifleman, serving in a weapons platoon rather than a rifle company: a less romantic but perhaps more typical assignment and only somewhat less dangerous. Although he never came face-to-face with an enemy in battle, he was exposed daily to the enemy’s artillery barrages, which is what killed most of the Americans who died in Italy.
He hated the war but considered fighting it to have been among his proudest achievements. He never thought of himself as a veteran but would never want to trade places with someone who sat the war out. He fought in Rome, Volterra, and in the Apennine Mountains, where he saw men die, but his preferred vision of Italy in later life was of a tourist destination.
Neither a hero nor a protestor, Aaron typified the reality of the citizen-soldier: a quiet man who does his duty. He served as an antidote to the two misperceptions that dominate what Americans think about war today: that war is either good and romantic, like the Second World War, or bad, like Vietnam. The truth is that war is always bad but frequently moral nonetheless.
This is what Aaron discovered the moment the shooting started for him, outside a small town north of Naples. From May to December, 1944 he was in continual battle, from the heat of Campania to the cold of the mountains outside Bologna. The North Apennine Campaign of fall-winter was the worst, a brutal slog against the entrenched German defenses of the Gothic Line.
He hated the war but considered fighting it to have been among his proudest achievements.
The sources paint a picture of staggering losses. In September-October 1944, five thousand men in the 88th Division had been killed or wounded. From September 21 to October 3, the 350th Regiment alone lost 1420 men, forty per cent of its total, most of them at Monte Battaglia. That means a slaughter as bloody as that which lay ahead in Okinawa. And the casualties kept coming in the Apennine mountains in the winter.
Aaron remembered an occasion that fall when he was in a schoolhouse that was shelled and he was struck by fragments: not a serious wound. Earlier that year, in Tuscany, he and his unit were advancing through the fields on an ancient hill town, when an enemy shell landed at his feet. Fortunately for him (and for me), it was a dud.
No wonder my father started to think, towards the end of his time on the line, that he was going to die. My mother, Diane, once recalled how, in the early 1950s, Aaron took out a photo of the ten men in his squad and pointed out the ones who got killed or wounded -- six or seven of them.
Cold, weary, worried by the continuing losses to enemy artillery or to disease, depressed by the endless war and the unconcerned folks at home, the American soldier in those days took what comfort he could in bars and brothels. One memoirist writes:
Groups of infantrymen would throng the red plush anterooms of the whorehouses, drinking bad cognac, often as not indifferent to the doubtful pleasures of going off for a mechanical quickie with one of the girls. (Douglas Allanbrook, See Naples. A Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995, p. 215).
When Christmas came, or Chanukah, which fell in mid-December 1944, every soldier had reason to pray for victory and peace. A year later, all was quiet on the battlefields, but not without more months of obscene slaughter and misery.
Neither a hero nor a protestor, Aaron typified the reality of the citizen-soldier: a quiet man who does his duty.
My parents are gone now. After a rough start in the Depression and war, they went on to live great lives. And their children, grandchildren, and greatgrandchildren live even easier lives.
In many, many ways, we live in a better country than our ancestors. But our prosperity depends in no small part on the sacrifices of earlier generations. And in one way, we have to wonder if today’s Americans are better. If called to the heroic efforts of our forebears, would we be up to the job? Would we do our duty?
Something to ponder during what, I hope, are happy holidays for everyone.