A Soldier’s Story

Of fathers and sons, peacetime and wartime, cushy berths and hellish foxholes, and the bonds that reach across the years and beyond the grave.

When my two daughters became young adults and questioned me about the Age of Aquarius and what it was like to grow up in that era (“What did you do in the the Sixties, Daddy?”), I endeavored to explain how I and so many of my generation were able to secure for ourselves what I call, with loving homage to William Hurt’s character in The Big Chill, a “cushy berth,” the features of which included some, and sometimes all, of the following:

Smoking dope; occupying buildings; playing guitar in a band called The Missionaries; getting tear-gassed at the Moratorium in Washington, D.C.; participating in be-ins and happenings; traveling cross-country in a ’52 Chevrolet painted with flowers and butterflies in Day-Glo colors, making the scene in Haight-Ashbury, and enjoying the Summer of Love (where we were sure to wear some flowers in our hair); reading subversive writers; renting a cheap apartment on Paradrome Street in Mt. Adams and enduring eviction from said apartment for “lewd and lascivious behavior” (or was it for “preversions?” See: Norman Fell as Dustin Hoffman’s suspicious landlord in The Graduate); watching the submarine races from Mt. Echo Park; taking the girls home early and meeting the guys at Skyline for a late-night chat; playing Muni-league baseball with Stegner Food; missing Woodstock to write a paper and viewing the moon landing and Vietnam on TV; becoming a suspect in the local police department’s dossier of undesirable individuals; generally avoiding the draft by any means possible (i.e., modestly proposing, in writing and in person—and in vain—that teaching freshman English at the University of Toledo was essential to national security, thereby entitling me to a student exemption); failing the draft induction physical (and qualifying 1-Y) in Cleveland because of high blood pressure and flat feet (See: Arlo Guthrie in Alice’s Restaurant); and earning graduate and undergraduate degrees, one of which incorporated a short but stimulating dalliance with the United States Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

Eugene Miller Sr. on maneuvers stateside before shipping off to Europe
Eugene Miller Sr. on maneuvers stateside before shipping off to Europe

Photo courtesy Gene Miller Jr.

I spent the entirety of my military career as a 19- and 20-year-old ROTC cadet in a Xavier University armory adjacent to an athletic field that doubled as a parade ground. In my day, ROTC was a required course, not an elective; every student enrolled in four two-hour courses spread out over the fall and spring semesters of the freshman and sophomore years. Unless you were exempt for reasons of physical or psychotic disability, these hours were required for graduation. In 1964, the revolution had not yet reached our conservative campus. At one student rally, a small but vocal contingent of radicals (way ahead of their time, by Cincinnati standards) chanted “Rot-cee must go, Rot-cee must go;” to which the rest of the student body, in great puzzlement, shrugged, “But why would we want to do that?”

Our instructors were an odd lot. Some had reached the 20-year mark and were content to babysit snotty, entitled college kids until retirement; others, more gung-ho, saw real possibilities for recruitment into the regular Army ranks. The students too were a mixed-up bunch: some were desperate for the scholarships that would cover the final two years of tuition, some behaved like Bill Murray in Stripes, and others, like myself, had mixed feelings. As the son of a combat vet, I had a filial obligation to take this stuff somewhat seriously, yet I could find within me none of the essential attributes and resources that make for good soldiering.

One day each week, this motley assortment of dedicated real Army guys met with mainly indifferent cadets in the classroom. We studied, among other things, military history, protocol, terminology, and strategy; Hannibal; the Schlieffen Plan; basic leadership skills; spectacularly obscene military expressions (Army-speak); the assembly and disassembly of the gas-operated, en-bloc clip-fed, .30 caliber M-1 rifle; Cuba; thermonuclear conflict and the fallacy of “duck and cover”; topography; and map-reading. In one important exam, I managed to call in a barrage of 105mm howitzer rounds onto an orphanage. When our instructor returned my paper, he said, simply, “Not much of a map-reader, are you, Miller?” No, Sir, I wasn’t.

Though I’m ashamed to admit to any of this, even now, I feel a need to clear my conscience. Every Friday morning, before he left for work, my father tied the tie for my dress uniform; it was a ritual that neither of us fully understood nor questioned. Why is it that a 19-year-old male could not yet tie his own tie? The reasons are too psychologically terrifying to dwell upon. Suffice it to say this was a co-dependency and an embarrassment to which I had become accustomed. But there came a day when my dad, with little thought for his son’s reputation or self-esteem, left for work early, and in the final stages of donning my uniform I noticed, next to the spit-polished boots and the Brasso-shined buttons, a brown, un-tied tie. Jesus, was I in trouble.

After a few aborted efforts at making a knot, I decided the only respectable thing to do to avoid a bucketful of demerits was to “consult” my neighbor across the street, a Navy veteran named Dawson Todd, who’d served proudly on the battleship USS New Jersey and would surely know how to tie a tie. Dawson was a good ol’ Alabama boy gifted with a terrific sense of humor and a penchant for the occasional alcoholic beverage. When I explained what I needed, he started laughing and couldn’t stop: “What kind of a gol-durned soldier are you if you can’t even tie a gol-durned tie?” he managed to blurt between guffaws. “God help us if the Russkies attack!” That night, with my father’s help, I learned to tie a gol-durned tie and decided it was time to grow up.

I was not the only cadet who realized his true destiny as a civilian on the drill field. Once, following a series of ill-advised commands, my best buddy Joe Acito marched an entire platoon into the wall of the armory as the Burger Beer theme song played Sousa-like in the background. Acito had been on our cadet major’s radar for a while, having twice faked “M-1 Thumb” while performing “present arms,” and having once loosened his tie while in uniform. The cadet major was a humorless guy and, purely out of spite, began calling Joe “Mr. Ahkito,” hoping to humiliate him by disparaging his ethnicity and implying a Japanese ancestry, even though Joe was as swarthy an Italian as you could possibly be. The men in the platoon had obeyed Joe’s orders, as they were expected to, and gleefully marched themselves into a heap, legs pumping in left/right cadence but bodies going nowhere. The cadet major rushed to the scene to restore order: “Ahkito, you are a complete moron. I could carve a better man out of a banana.” Mr. Ahkito and I would receive no commendations for meritorious performance on the practice fields of Xavier University.

Only once did I find my life in immediate danger. It happened on the one and only day we ventured to the indoor rifle range for target practice with a .22 caliber, bolt-action, single-shot training rifle and live ammo.

We had assumed the prone position about 50 yards away from a series of bullseye targets. Our instructor, a sergeant major, was a grizzled, decorated veteran of World War II and Korea. Not a man to be trifled with. As range officer, he stood just off to the side of the group and explained carefully and ominously that we’d been given five bullets each but that we should “NOT TOUCH THE AMMUNITION OR LOAD THE RIFLE UNTIL I AM SAFELY BEHIND YOU.” As soon as he shouted the word “YOU,” a shot rang out, and the sergeant major hit the floor so hard he bounced. He may have bounced twice. Having been on the receiving end of unfriendly fire in two wars, coming perilously close to being killed on American soil by some yahoo cadet who couldn’t follow orders was an indignity he did not take lightly. With a speed uncharacteristic of his age, he grabbed the culprit by his shirt collar, shoved him up against a wall, and went all R. Lee Ermey on him for several minutes (See: “spectacularly obscene military expressions” and Full Metal Jacket for clarification). The rest of us held our collective breath, waiting to see whether the sergeant major would kill the guy. He did not. Cautiously, we resumed our target practice.

Unlike me, my father, a child of the Great Depression, could tie the hell out of a military tie. He’d had plenty of practice. At age 19, 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, he’d enlisted in the Army in January 1943, having left Elder High School after an altercation with a priest who had, I’m told, mocked his threadbare clothing and social status. My father, Eugene L. Miller, Sr., was a proud man who did not take kindly to bullying or insults, particularly those intended to impugn his blue-collar, working-class background. Apparently, after punching this priest, he was transferred overnight to Western Hills High, not a welcoming place for a young boy just ejected from a Catholic school. A year later, without a diploma, he ended his formal education; the remainder of his training would be taken care of by Uncle Sam.

Having grown up on a farm, my father knew his way around firearms and he knew how to lead a target. Subsequently, after 13 weeks of basic training at Ft. Sheridan in Illinois, he was assigned first to Coastal Artillery, then to Battery C of the 381st Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, an outfit stationed in desert locations out west in Washington, Oregon, California, and Texas. (According to my mother’s meticulous notes, he spent time in at least 11 camps stateside before he went overseas—not too shabby for a kid who’d never traveled farther from Cincinnati than St. Leon, Indiana.) I have photos of him standing near a sand-bagged, boulder-strewn gun emplacement, bayonet fixed on his M-1, and he definitely looks like the kind of guy who would punch a priest. He’d grown up pretty fast.

By July 1943, he’d been promoted to sergeant and was promoted to husband first class when he came home on leave and married my mother, June Flora Ballinger, on December 7 of that year (he jokingly called his anniversary date a “second Pearl Harbor”). Because my mother was a convert to Catholicism and not a baptized-as-an-infant Catholic, the priest who married them insisted that they be joined in matrimony in his parlor, not at the altar, like regular Catholics. This too was a priest who desperately needed to be punched in the nose. Yet, amazingly, neither of my parents bore a grudge against the Church. According to a letter dad sent to his sister Betty in April 1945, the only letter of his I possess, he said the rosary each night before turning in. He and my mother remained devout Catholics for the remainder of their lives.

Miller and his wife June on their wedding day in 1943, flanked by his brother and sister
Miller and his wife June on their wedding day in 1943, flanked by his brother and sister

Photo courtesy Gene Miller Jr.

Faith, once entrenched, is difficult to dislodge. For luck, my father carried with him at all times a St. Christopher medal, St. Christopher being the patron saint of safe travel and safe passage. Years after the war, questions were raised about St. Christopher’s bona fides and he was booted from the liturgical calendar, a hard pill for all of us traditional Catholics to swallow. At any rate, thank you, St. Christopher, for keeping my father safe as he spent more than three years in harm’s way. The medal now hangs on my keychain.

In late 1944, when the War Department determined that the continental U.S. was no longer vulnerable to enemy attack from the air, the 381st was transferred to the infantry for further training at Ft. Meade in Maryland. My father’s berth, which had never been even remotely cushy, suddenly became even more uncomfortable.

During his infantry training, my father attended Mines and Demolition School for about five weeks. This is a dangerous business, this work with touchy and sensitive high explosives. All went well until the final week of instruction, when my father was riding in a deuce-and-a-half truck and a soldier who was sitting a few feet away holding a land mine managed to detonate it, killing himself and wounding several others, including my father, who was treated and released from the base hospital. He told no one that he had lost much of the hearing in his left ear, a condition which would likely have disqualified him from combat and entitled him to a life-time disability payment. When I asked him years later why he never spoke up, he said he didn’t want to be seen as someone who had shirked his duty and that there were so many other disabled vets much worse off than himself who needed the money much more than he did. Thus did my father ensure himself a bumpy ride with General George S. Patton.

As best I can tell, my father landed at Le Havre in late February 1945 and made his way across France to a replacement depot (“repple-depple” in GI parlance), where he was ordered to report to 4th Armored Division headquarters; that March he was assigned as Assistant Squad Leader to Company B of the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion. Much of what I know about his experience in the 10th AIB I learned from his squad-mate, Private First Class Dick Lukehart, a terrific and articulate guy with whom I exchanged dozens of letters from 1999 to 2002. According to Dick, Company B went almost immediately into battle, crossing the Rhine under fire at Oppenheim and participating in one of Patton’s most serious blunders, the effort to rescue Allied POWs at Hammelburg Prison Camp, 50 miles behind enemy lines. (Patton had reason to believe that his son-in-law, Lt. Col. John Waters, who’d been captured in 1943 in Tunisia, was a prisoner in the camp.) The task force itself—roughly 300 men in 57 tanks, jeeps, half-tracks and other armored vehicles—consisted of elements of Company A and C of the 10th AIB; Company B was tasked with opening the road to Hammelburg with a nighttime attack on a town called Schweinheim (literally “pig-town”), just outside Aschaffenburg.

By crossing the Rhine at Oppenheim with lead elements of the 4th Armored Division, my father inadvertently became part of Patton lore: As many of you know from your reading of World War II history, Patton was determined to beat Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery across the Rhine and did so by landing several divisions at least 24 hours in advance of Monty’s own crossing. Patton also made good on a promise he’d made in his stump speech to Third Army troopers: On March 23, 1945, he paused on a pontoon bridge mid-crossing and urinated in the mythic river, within full view of the Signal Corps cameras, his men, and his personal photographer, who recorded the event for all posterity. Diffidence was not the general’s most endearing quality.

We tend to think of this final stage of the war as one of mopping up, of taking large numbers of prisoners in relatively safe venues. There was that, of course, but it was also a time of terrible attrition and astonishing brutality, when the defense of the Fatherland meant killing as many Americans as possible. And the serious killing went on until the surrender on May 8, 1945.

Resistance at the road through Schweinheim—nicknamed “bazooka city” by the GIs, since the majority of the residents appeared to be armed with heavy weapons—was so fierce and so unexpected that what was anticipated to be a short engagement turned into a five-hour firefight; intelligence reports had apparently failed to mention the location of an SS officers’ training school in nearby Aschaffenburg, whose staff and cadets, together with the civilians, joined in the defense of the town. In the darkness, armored vehicles found it difficult to navigate, so the boys from Company B set fire to the town with white phosphorus grenades to light the way through to Hammelburg. On top of the already heavy losses in men and machines, B Company found itself under heavy artillery fire, which stopped only after the company commander managed to reach the headquarters of the 22nd Armored Field Artillery Battalion, which had misunderstood map coordinates and had shelled American troops for more than an hour. (Another idiot presumably unable to read a map, but this time it was not an academic exercise.) Today we call this, euphemistically, “friendly fire”; it happened all too frequently in the confusion of battle in WWII. As it turned out, my father’s first time in combat included a little bit of everything: SS fanatics, Volkssturm fanatics, Hitlerjugend fanatics, intelligence failures, friendly-fire casualties, and unfriendly-fire casualties. Welcome to the war, Dad.

Combat vets have a noun and an acronym for Hammelburg-type operations: the noun is chickenshit and the acronym is FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition). So, if you’re wondering what happened to the Task Force once it cleared Schweinheim, it was, in plain language, shot to pieces: Of the nearly 300 GIs involved, 26 were killed in action and only 35 made safe passage back to Allied lines; the remaining American soldiers were taken prisoner. Every vehicle was destroyed. Lt. Col. Waters was wounded and returned to the Hammelburg prison; Major Abraham Baum, leader of the task force, was also wounded and captured. Both men would be liberated from POW camps two weeks later. Patton ruefully admitted his error in not sending a larger force to accomplish the mission and endured a serious reprimand from Eisenhower.

My father seldom spoke of his experiences in the European Theater: Combat vets have seen and done things that no one, especially kids in their late teens and early twenties, should ever be forced to see and do. When he reminisced about the chaos and carnage, he did so reluctantly, apologetically, remorsefully: “I shot a kid,” he told me once, his voice trailing off. “He couldn’t have been more than 16 or 17 years old…but there was nothing else I could do.”

He was, of course, correct: In a kill-or-be-killed situation, one has few options, since a bullet from a teenaged Hitler Youth can kill you just as dead as a bullet from a grizzled Stalingrad veteran. (I’m reminded of the last photographs we have of Adolph Hitler, inspecting his “troops” outside his bunker in Berlin, pinching the cheeks of the baby-faced boys standing at attention before him in Nazi uniforms.) My father hadn’t shot a kid, he’d shot an armed combatant. But the distinction was lost on dad, a good man with a finely tuned moral compass.

There are moments in life when one’s personal history intersects with the greater, grander zeitgeist, when one unwittingly becomes a player-participant in an extraordinary event that changes our perception of the world. Such a defining moment occurred for my father on April 4, 1945, as he patrolled with his squad on a hill above the small town of Ohrdruf, the site of the first Nazi concentration camp to be liberated by American soldiers—specifically the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion, my father’s outfit.

What he and his squad faced when they walked through the camp gates seems unfathomable even now: corpses piled high in sheds, mass graves, cremation pyres, a gallows. But it was all too real. With a Leica camera he’d “requisitioned” from a German family, my father snapped photographs of what he and his comrades had discovered. (These photos would be clipped together in his World War II scrapbook/photo album and marked “adults only—off limits.” Years later they were opened for view only after my brother and I had grown old enough to understand what we were looking at—as if this could ever be understood.)

Ohrdruf was overshadowed by its close neighbor to the north, Buchenwald, but it was the first grisly and ghastly evidence on the Allied front of what soon would be known as the Holocaust. So appalled was Ike by the unspeakable horrors of Ohrdruf that he summoned Patton and General Omar Bradley to view the atrocities for themselves. He also ordered the local townsfolk to tour the camp, bury the bodies of the dead, and gaze at the living dead (the town mayor at least had the decency to go home and hang himself). “We are told that the American soldier does not know what he was fighting for,” Eisenhower told reporters, “now at least he will know what he is fighting against.” (He later cabled the following observation to General George C. Marshall, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time: “I made the visit [to Ohrdruf] deliberately in order to be in a position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge the allegations merely to propaganda.” A prescient guy, Ike had seen the deniers coming, 40 years down the road.)

My father was there for all of this. Before the journalists arrived, before the political delegations arrived, before the generals arrived, before the American public and the world at large knew the full scope of the evils of the Third Reich, he had taken photos, photos that documented the worst genocide in recorded history. When he came back from the war, likely suffering from some form of PTSD, he said almost nothing about what he had witnessed. But any Holocaust-denier in his vicinity would surely have been punched in the nose. T.S. Eliot says somewhere that human beings cannot bear too much reality. Was this too much reality for him? I wish I’d asked him.

Armored infantrymen enjoyed the enviable luxury of riding into battle atop the M4-Sherman tank or inside the M3 half-track, their best approximation of a cushy berth under the circumstances. Each squad was assigned to a halftrack which functioned as home while the men were in the field. The name of my father’s halftrack was “Battleship,” the letter “B” signifying attachment to Company B. Typically, the squad dismounted when the combat situation called for infantry tactics. The men took turns manning the .50 and .30 caliber machine guns and provided suppressing fire when necessary.

It was on one of these occasions, in late April 1945, that my father’s squad left the relative security of their vehicle and began conducting a sweep of an area known to be frequented by remnants of the Wehrmacht. After completing the sweep, they were returning to their positions when a single mortar round landed near the squad, not far from my father. Doc, the company medic, took a direct hit. My father ran to offer aid, and it is likely that Doc, or what was left of him, died in my father’s arms. (“So it goes,” as Vonnegut would say cynically after every death in Slaughterhouse-Five). He never mentioned this story; one of his army buddies shared it with me in a letter 55 years later.

Already traumatized by his macabre stroll through Ohrdruf, he would have been hard-pressed to process the reality of Doc’s death, not only because it had happened so close to the armistice—GIs were being killed right up until the end of the war—but because Doc had come to the 4th Armored Division under circumstances that reveal deep flaws in the military mentality. Doc himself had often told the story of his transfer to his fellow soldiers in Company B, so there was little reason to doubt its veracity.

The story goes like this: Doc was a staff sergeant at a base hospital in England, far from any overt hostilities (a very cushy berth). While stationed there, he began an affair with a nurse, a commissioned officer from the same hospital. Fraternization between commissioned officers and non-commissioned soldiers was strictly forbidden, a violation of the military code of conduct; when their affair was discovered, Doc was court-martialed and found guilty. He was busted in rank to private and transferred to the infantry; in other words, he was given what amounted to a death sentence, since it was axiomatic that riflemen in a frontline infantry company were far more likely to be killed or wounded in combat than in any other branch of the service. Such transfers were a common form of punishment and discipline during World War II. It’s a sad commentary on military justice, and I’m reminded of one of Yossarian’s many lamentations in Catch-22: “The enemy is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on.”

My father watched the war’s end from a politically pre-determined stop line in Czechoslovakia. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Combat Infantry Badge and came home to re-enter civilian life in January 1946. He held me in his arms for the first time (I’d been born the previous June); went to work; purchased a home in the suburbs; bought his own business; saw one son grow up to become a college professor (me) and another (my brother, Kenny) a veteran and a union pipe-fitter; stayed married to my mother for 40 years; remained a stalwart Catholic; contributed productively to his community; made a better life for his family than he’d had for himself; survived two open-heart surgeries; and died in 1996. In all those years he rarely said a word about the war. (“War is hell,” he once remarked succinctly to his grandchildren.) He certainly never thought of himself as a hero. He’s buried in St. Aloysius cemetery in Bridgetown next to his wife, who had died in 1984. His grave is marked by a rectangular white granite stone marker supplied free of charge by the U.S. government. I go there as often as I can to lay wreaths and flowers and to say to them both: Thanks, thanks for everything. I’ve taken my family twice to Europe to re-trace the route of the 4th Armored Division and the 10th Armored Infantry Battalion. So my daughters won’t forget.

Gene Miller (left) and his brother Kenny in 1968.
Gene Miller (left) and his brother Kenny in 1968.

Photo courtesy Gene Miller Jr.

When I think of the difference between the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation, and of my military experience and my father’s, I remember what Dick Lukehart wrote to me, modestly, back in the year 2000, downplaying, as always, his role in the grand scheme of things: “Your generation had it rougher than mine trying to figure out movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. I never did get that one straight in my head. Association of time and space is way over my head.”

Then I think of Pfc. Lukehart and Sgt. Miller huddling in a slit trench or dodging bullets in a ravine or taking prisoners or returning fire from behind a half-track, and I see two men whose knowledge of time and space is far more profound than any philosopher’s, and far more compelling than my own.



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