In April of this year, my family came down to New Orleans to visit. It was the first time here for most of them. Sometimes it’s easy to take the things in your own backyard for granted, until someone opens your eyes.
We did all the predictable tourist stuff…toured the French Quarter, rode the streetcar, went to Audubon Park, walked on the Moon Walk and looked over the Mississippi, took a swamp tour at Honey Island, drank like fish. I dragged them all over New Orleans. They had no plans and no intentions and were happy following my lead.
The only thing my brother Mike asked is that we visit the National World War II Museum. Since Mike generally asks for very little (at least from me…his wife and kids might disagree), I was happy to oblige. It’s not generally my subject matter of choice, even knowing that my own grandfather had died in World War II. I don’t watch many war movies or documentaries, nor do I read much on the subject.
The National WWII Museum opened in New Orleans on June 6, 2000, 56 years after the invasion of Normandy, thanks to the efforts of author and historian, Dr. Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers). That being said, it is truly one of the best and most fascinating museums I’ve ever been to, and I think as a family we spent somewhere between three and four hours perusing the exhibits. I appreciated the small theaters scattered throughout the museum, showing short films that documented the progression of the war. Seeing articles that actually belonged to soldiers fighting the war—rations, weapons, letters, etc.—made it seem more real.
Visiting the museum piqued my interest in World War II, and I soon found myself on Netflix renting the series Band of Brothers, mostly because of my new-found interest in the subject matter, and only a little because I’m recently crushing on Frank John Hughes, one of the stars of the movie. Out of five stars, I’d give the series six. It’s fantastic, overwhelming, enlightening, and heartbreaking.
Soon I was asking my mother for more information on my grandfather, and she pointed me toward the Indiana Military site. My grandfather, a native New Yorker, was a 1st Lieutenant in the 106th Infantry Division, 422nd Regiment, DHQ. His division was activated in 1943 in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and then transferred to Camp Atterbury in Indiana for advanced training before leaving for Europe. According to the 106th Infantry Division Web site created by Carl Wouters, “The 106th was the last of 66 US Infantry Divisions to be activated during WWII. Being one of the more unfortunate higher numbered divisions, the 106th were repeatedly stripped of manpower that was needed elsewhere.”
My mother was able to glean some information from diaries left by my grandfather and from survivors of his regiment, at least one of whom STILL keeps in touch with her to this day.
She wrote on the Web site:
“They arrived at the front on December 11-all green troops. Since officers were allowed to ship an additional trunk....my father did. His men thought it wasn't like him to do that. When he got to the front lines, he opened it up. It was filled with long johns and dry socks for his men. That's the kind of man he was.
Around Dec 16, he was on his way (to or from) headquarters when he and other soldiers were captured and taken prisoner. One man escaped-got back to his lines-and told them Lt Krol had been taken prisoner. A rescue party was formed. (with many volunteers).
From his men we heard............There was a group of 11 to 16 GI's being guarded by a Nazi soldier. The soldiers were in the open-forced to lie down in the snow. As the rescue party drew near..........my father saw them and ran in the opposite direction to draw the attention of the Nazi guard. He succeeded. He was killed, the rescue party saved the others. He earned a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.”
The Indiana Military Web site also includes a scan of the obituary from the New York Times and of the official notification my grandmother received telling her that her husband was killed in action at the Battle of the Bulge.
While the Allies eventually triumphed, the Battle of the Bulge resulted in approximately 81,000 American casualties, many of those fatalities, one of which left my mother without a father when she was little more than a year old.
I wish I would have known my grandfather. My mother tells me that he had a degree in English, and I think he and I would have had a lot to talk about.
My father served in the military as well. He was in the U.S. Navy in the 1960s, stationed on the USS Saratoga. Fortunately, my father left the Navy long before the Saratoga was deployed to Vietnam in the 70s.
My father was a quiet man a rarely spoke of his time in the service. My knowledge comes from what I learned from my mother, what I’ve seen in several books, and the very little he told me, mostly only when plied with a few beers. He traveled to many different places, but I think he preferred home. The only souvenir I have from his travels is a decorative wall hanging that says “Souvenir of Malta — Island of Sunshine and History.”
He may not have spoken much about his time in the service, but he was most certainly proud of it, and often sported a U.S. Navy hat.
Today I am still learning about the wars this country has fought, about my grandfather, about my father, and about the hardships endured by all. It’s a humbling experience, and it has made me feel both grateful and ungrateful at the same time for all the things in this life that I don’t appreciate.