The Death of All Things Gentle
January 1945 – Germany
It was snowing sideways, wind-whipped pellets of frozen water pinging against the weathered faces of the miles long line of prisoners. The going was slow, and would only get slower, as the snow accumulated on the ground, making each stride laborious.
1st Lieutenant and Pilot Bob Dempsey and his fellow POWs had had only an hour to prepare for this forced march through hoary weather. Russian allied bomb runs were made so close to Stalag Luft III, their home for the past 9 months, that planes flying overhead had etched the sky with contrails, as if carving a message of hope to the POWs.
The German hierarchy at the prison camp decided unilaterally, with no input from Berlin, to move the thousand or so prisoners, in spite of the increasingly stormy weather. This decision, brazenly made un-endorsed by the high command, was rare in the structured German army. Little did the Commandant know that Liberation was a scant 3 months away and there would be no repercussions for his hubris.
With only an hour to gather their belongings, Bob and his barrack mates had tried desperately to devise ways of bringing as much of their possessions as possible. Crude sleds were devised and loaded, rope being used as a harness. But through simple wear and tear and the shaky nature of the construction, most of these sleds broke apart and were discarded by the roadside, each prisoner reduced to keeping only that which he could carry. Mainly extra warm clothing and Red Cross food, housed in backpacks, and even shirt fronts.
Artillery fire was audible to the northeast. Though rapid at first, due to a burst of fear and adrenaline, the march slowed as the snowfall became heavier and the wind continued to whip through.
Bob was almost certain he was in the front third of the march line and, though he could not see the beginning of the line, as the road tended to meander, he guessed by the presence of so many German guards that he was closer rather than farther from, the head of the line.
The man in front of him stumbled and almost fell. “Easy Joey, easy,” Bob said to the First Sergeant, stepping forward and helping the man regain his footing. From the side where his back was now turned came the thudding pain of a rifle butt striking him right between the shoulder blades, sending him sprawling into a small snow bank.
“No touching!” the guard barked in guttural English. Though never friendly and rarely even neutral, the roughness and impatience with which the guards normally treated the prisoners had been ratcheted up, as the Germans were no happier than the Americans to be trudging in almost zero temperature after midnight.
Bob got up slowly and re-found his space in line. He had no sled, choosing instead to travel light, escape never far from his conscious mind. His neck and spine were throbbing, in spite of the 3 layers of clothing he was wearing. The blow may have broken something, and he constantly shrugged his shoulders, listening for any telltale grinding or cracking.
Joey turned quickly with a look of both thanks and guilt. Bob nodded and waived as if to say, ‘don’t worry about it’.
The next mile or so seemed like five, as Bob’s mind wandered to the historic Bataan Death March he’d read about. It somehow comforted him to be engaged in a similar, if not as historic, journey.
A rapid burst from a semi-automatic weapon startled everyone. Bob looked back toward the sound of the gunfire, and saw two of his countrymen fall where they stood. An enormous guard, whom Bob recognized even in the dark, leaned down and dragged each man with one hand, pulling them out of the line and leaving them to bleed and, subsequently, die in the growing snow bank. Bob had no idea what the men had done to deserve such a fate, but it was clear now that the Geneva Convention, mostly adhered to while in camp, was being interpreted much more loosely now by the guards.
Bob could not see who the men were that had been shot and realized he had stopped moving. He quickly caught up to Joey, who was furtively looking over his shoulder, his eyes wide and frightened.
From the right side, a long thin gun barrel appeared and with a cacophonous boom, Joey’s head was blown from his torso. As Bob stood stunned, watching his friend’s hairy skull bounce crazily away he realized, as the First Sergeant’s remaining body slumped to the ground, that he was covered in his friend’s blood.
“What the fuck, asshole?” Bob screamed, taking a step toward the guard.
Almost instantly, three rifles were pointed at his head.
“Don’t stop. Keep marching.” The guard who had decapitated Joey said evenly, glaring unblinkingly at Bob. It turned out to be an easy decision for Bob, survivalism being the single most honed instinct in a prisoner of war. Now was not the time to attempt a stupid act of heroism, one that would surely result in a similar fate as that of his friend.
Bob staggered forward, as if he was attempting to walk before his mind had decided to. Wiping Joey’s blood and viscera from his face with his sleeve, he quickly caught up to the next soldier in line, who was pulling a sled made out of a door he had torn off the hinges of his barracks. On it was piled a variety of items that seemed to be tied securely in place and gave the sled enough weight to keep it from bumping too much over the terrain. Staff Sergeant William G. Hawkins glared back at Bob, his scowl writing an entire paragraph of warning to the 1st Lieutenant, wordlessly extolling the virtues of silence and moving forward.
Bob nodded, the slight neck movement making him wince, reminding him of the rifle butt, which could have been aimed for his head and his own fateful drag to a snow bank.
Every couple of hours there was a ten minute rest stop, where soldiers could be seen visibly collapsing into the snow, almost oblivious to the well-below freezing temperature. Artillery continued to hammer from the north, its booming a not so subtle reminder for the Americans that Russian Allies were approaching, and hope was not all lost.
As sunrise approached, two of the guards walked quickly through an untended field of weeds toward a farmhouse with an enormous barn looming behind it. They returned after speaking with the owner and the line suddenly curved sharply and abruptly to the right. The barn would prove to be a very necessary respite for the foot weary soldiers. They ate their meager Red Cross rations and attempted to fall into a fitful sleep. Most were unsuccessful. Though they remained at the ready for a continuation of the march, it wasn’t until sunset
that the march resumed. The Germans felt it safer to travel under the cover of darkness. “These fucking meatheads think of everything,” Bob thought as he re-situated the remaining food in his shirt front, vainly searching for some degree of comfort.
What had been sporadic gunfire from the rear portion of the line had become almost metronomical now in its regularity. Bob no longer looked back, as it was obvious the Germans had shucked the yoke of common decency purportedly afforded by the Geneva Convention, and were now using the slightest excuse to murder American soldiers in cold blood. They probably saw it as thinning the herd. One less potential escapee.
Up ahead of Bob, as daylight started to dominate the sky, he could barely discern the front portion of the line, bordered on both sides by a phalanx of helmeted Germans. The snow had stopped, and the wind had diminished, but it remained overcast and bitterly cold. In spite of the frigid temperature, the pace seemed to pick up, as if the weary soldiers were buoyed by the simple concept of light.
With daylight came the odd scene of most of the surrounding trees and shrubbery being draped with chaff, a metallic paper resembling Christmas tree tinsel that had been thrown from Allied bomber planes in great quantities, in order to render enemy radar detecting devices ineffective. It further brightened the spirits of the men, as it signified, unequivocally, allied advancement into Germany.
Bob had been trying to keep a vague tally of men shot, though it was difficult as the semi-automatic weapon bursts emanating from behind him could have simply been the overzealous slaughter of one man, or the spraying of multiple soldiers. He would never know.
Their initial destination was Nuremberg, site of many Nazi Party conventions and rallies. Nuremberg was just past the halfway point between Berlin and Munich, which was located in southern Germany.
Though marching through the snow gave a sense of timelessness to the soldiers, they’d been told the second leg of the journey would be by train, a forty mile journey leaving from Spremberg. Nobody Bob had talked to knew where Spremberg was or how far they would have to march to get there. Not knowing was a tough pill to swallow, as one’s imagination tended to wander to horrific conclusions.
At midnight of the third day of marching, they arrived at Spremberg, a small town with a wooden rail station that was surprisingly well lit. There they were perfunctorily wedged into rail cars much too tightly, with little or no room for movement. What the soldiers did not know was that their journey mirrored eerily that of the 4.3 million Polish and Russian Jews in Eastern Europe, who were unknowingly rolling across the continent to their deaths.
Bob Dempsey was a strapping 23 year old Ohioan, born in Columbus in 1920, raised by a jittery mom and an unfeeling father with a limited capacity for love and an unlimited love for drink. Bob was a mirror image, physically, of his father Hal, with a wild shock of blonde hair, and broad shoulders to compliment his six foot frame. He’d hated having his hair cut for boot camp, but he knew it would grow back. He’d been adorned the nickname of Whitey by his high school friends, and liked the sense of identity it gave him.
Bob would grow to believe that all fathers were aloof, unfeeling, and emotionally unreachable. Tragically, he would also grow to become such a man.
As a young boy, his father worked two jobs while his mom ran the household. Bob’s younger brother Bill came along in 1930, joining the Great Depression as the newest editions to the Dempsey family. Hal lost the higher paying of his two jobs, and continued on as bartender at McGovern’s Den of Antiquity, known as The Dainty, which served their mostly blue collar neighborhood in Cleveland.
Fortunately for the Dempsey’s, a lousy economic scenario tended to draw people to the bar, not away from it, so Bob had steady, if not lucrative work. The term ‘Depression-Proof’ was born at The Dainty, according to Richie, Bob’s boss and the establishment’s owner.
As a teenager, Bob eschewed what he considered the more mundane aspects of youth, like organized sports. Sure, he played baseball in the streets occasionally with his neighbors, but he had no passion for the game.
He liked to read, and became a regular at the local library. Both the library, and consequently the books, became his escape from a life of overwhelming apathy and indifference. He never quite could figure out the source of his boredom, as his active mind should have been a fertile ground for substance of both thought and action. He felt no real love from his mother or his father, and saw very little of it between them, either. In literature he found rich tales of love and emotionally charged relationships between men and women. He would wonder sometimes if such things were a fairy tale.
Sometimes, at a friend Jack’s house, he would see Jack’s parents embrace and steal a kiss between them. The stealthy nature of it gave the interaction a whiff of taboo, and greatly intrigued Bob. He wondered why he’d never seen his parents display affection for each other.
Three days after shipping out from Fort Bragg to Thorpe Abbotts airfield in Norfolk, England, Bob received, in very shaky script, a letter from his mother informing him his father had committed suicide. Bob simply held the letter in his hands and stared off into nothing. Finally, the Corporal who bunked next to him shook him, startling him.
“You OK, Bob?”
He glanced back at the letter, folded it and put it back in the envelope. “Yeah, I think so.”
Though required by USAAF regulations to pass this sort of data on to his superiors, Bob kept the life-altering, stunning news to himself. Later, he wept for what would turn out to be the last time in his life.
He was in a foreign land. With the weight of his father’s death growing heavier with each day of silence. And there was the shame of suicide, seen by many as a signal of failure, of giving up, of weakness.
He knew his mother would tell Doris. She would expect to hear from her husband. He had no intention of calling her. What would he say? The letter had stated there would be no funeral, reflecting the shame and embarrassment his mom was clearly feeling. He scribbled off a quick note to Doris, telling her they would have to deal with it when he got back home.
That never happened.
On his 17th mission over Berlin, on a rainy April 19 in 1944, Bob’s B-17, the Dorothy Dee, named after his wife Doris, was shot down while preparing to drop a 500lb incendiary bomb on a train station in southern Berlin. At the time in Berlin, 1.2 million people had been evacuated to rural areas, so Bob had little concern about collateral damage or loss of civilian life. Plus, the anonymity of dropping bombs on unseen victims allowed most pilots a very restful slumber each evening.
Though each B-17 was escorted to the German capital by an RAF P-51 for this particular raid, 69 B-17s from the Eighth Air Force were nonetheless lost. The Luftwaffe lost 160 aircraft. And, while the Allies eventually replaced their losses, the Luftwaffe could not. Despite the loss of those B-17s and scores of airplane personnel listed as either deceased or MIA, US Military intelligence considered the raid a success. Bob and his crew might disagree.
Bob never found out if the Dorothy Dee was hit from a Luftwaffe air strike or from ground to air support, because he saw neither. Most of his crew parachuted to the ground before impact and all were quickly rounded up by the Germans. Bob had landed in a tree and wrenched his back. Though manhandled to the ground by soldiers, he eventually was fortunate to be treated by a kind German doctor who quickly realized that Bob should be moved as little as possible. He was in a hospital for a week, then hastily shipped to the camp in Sagan, a small town on the Bober River, 100 miles southeast of Berlin. The heavily forested land surrounding Stalag Luft III (Camp Air 3) gave a fraudulent impression of serenity and woodsy peacefulness. Life inside the camp was anything but. He encountered no one from his crew, and could only hope they were safely ensconced in another prison camp, and had not been murdered.
Life as a prisoner of war turned out to be as inhumane as Bob anticipated. Though usually treated fairly, the prisoners quickly ascertained that the guards’ level of brutality seemed directly connected to their mood at the time. Unprovoked assault was not uncommon, though no soldier, to Bob’s knowledge, had died from this abuse. Reporting such behavior to the authorities proved fruitless, and most men resigned themselves to practicing the art of stealth, staying below the guard’s radar.
The train trip to Nuremberg proved to be the unraveling of many of Bob’s fellow soldiers. After a few hours, the stench of fecal matter permeated the chilly cars, as men soiled themselves and tried, unsuccessfully, to muffle their shameful sobbing. Bob saw brave men, men whom he knew to be of very tough stock, cave in to the circumstances and lose not only their dignity, but their hope of getting out alive.
Oddly, seeing this galvanized him. Though dispiriting, watching this display of human weakness, behavior that Bob could only define as personal surrender, only strengthened his resolve to see it through. Fuck the Germans, fuck this train, and fuck wherever the hell it was they were going. He managed, by shuffling his boots, to squirm his way six feet toward the only opening in the car, a two foot by two foot hole about ten feet off the floor. When he was situated beneath it, he breathed deeply, as fresh air poured through the meager opening. Only about half the occupants of his car remained standing. Some of the fallen men were being tended to, though there was little help to provide other than succor. Bob turned toward the wall of the car, refusing to watch.
His front row seat to the brutal decapitation of a fellow soldier had produced permanent, deep to the core, damage to Bob, but this train ride was the beginning of the death of all things gentle.
November - 1945
For the fourth night running, Doris was unable to get to sleep. Though exhausted, her husband’s tossing and turning, and sporadic nightmares kept her on edge, and she was never close to nodding off.
Tonight had been particularly gruesome, as Bob seemed unable to go any length of time without snapping upright, bathed in sweat, shivering. Usually, Doris was able to hold him and rub him back to sleep, but now, as he tossed from one side to the other, they were both completely awake.
“Honey?” Doris kept her voice low and soothing. “Maybe it would help if you talked with me about it?”
He grunted, laying with his back to her. Implacable. Intractable. Unreachable.
Doris thought back to the day she’d received a letter from her husband, while he was stationed overseas, written shortly before he was shot down over Berlin. She knew it by heart.
Dear Baby Doll,
Hello honey, how is the sweetest little girl in the world tonight? I hope you are well and in love with me, because I miss you something awful. I wish I could take you in my arms tonight dolly and tell you how sweet you are and how much I love you. I have had a long hard day so please forgive me dear for only writing a short note. I received your wonderful birthday card, and also one from Mother, and I will write her and thank her as soon as I can. Well sweetheart, I will close now and go to bed where I can dream of my darling wife.
The stilted formality of her husband’s prose didn’t obfuscate the romantic and loving tone of the letter. It was one of her favorite things, and she re-read it often, hoping against hope that the letter-writing Bob would somehow suddenly materialize and replace the stolid, tortured, soul-less carapace that now shared her bed. He looked much the same as when he’d enlisted, but the Germans had permanently altered his interior landscape, forcing her to navigate upon real estate that was now scorched earth, and which she no longer recognized.
Her life had devolved into a laborious lesson on how to love this suddenly hollow man, and she recognized with agony that she would probably never again know the man she fell in love with. This realization did little to quell her sleeping problem.
Three months after Bob’s return, knowing she was pregnant with their first child, and feeling resigned to her fate, she flirted with the idea of a back alley abortion, even entertaining the option of divorce, almost unheard of then, especially for practicing Catholics. She never revealed these thoughts to her husband.
And she never pulled the trigger on either decision.
On April 29th, 1945, Patton’s 14th Armor Division liberated Bob’s camp and fellow prisoners of war. The journey back to allied territory and, ultimately, to America, began almost immediately. Strewn with a veritable slew of bureaucratic landmines, most of the men’s route home started with transportation by truck ten miles Northeast to Landshut, and from there they were flown via C-47 transports into France.
Impatient, over-eager prisoners, faced with delays and the inevitable clogging of communication lines between the mazes of departments in the Pentagon involved in bringing soldiers home, chose instead to flirt with desertion accusations and hitch-hiked toward France. They would eventually reach American processing camps, the first step on the way home. Though Bob chose not to partake of this daring method of getting home, he did connect with a couple of fellow POWs in a bar in Paris one night, where the theme for the evening was loudly toasted: “Take the ‘er’ out of liberation and what have you got? Libation!”
The beer never tasted colder or sweeter than that evening, as Bob got his first real introduction to the true anesthetic powers getting drunk availed a man who was trying to forget.
Years later, Bob would recall that night. He’d think of all the restraints a wife, six children, and a job put upon him. The sameness of his days, the boredom of knowing what each day would hold, sometimes froze him in the morning. He would be unable to get out of bed.
Libation, liberation, my ASS, he would think, and begin the desultory roll out of bed to start another day that would not be spent in Paris.
He’d never come close to resembling his romantic image of himself. He’d embraced, on the surface only, the white-picket-fence American Dream that post war soldiers were encouraged to pursue.
When you live life, for any period of time, along the knife-edge of death, no matter how horrific the experience, everyday normal life no longer holds the capacity for intrigue or suspense.
The birth of his first child in 1945, a son, had little impact on Bob. Sure, he paced the waiting room, lit a cigar at the news that it was a boy, and kissed his wife when he finally got in to see her. But there was no excitement. No eagerness to begin the journey and challenge that was fatherhood. In 1944, Doris had become pregnant during a whirlwind weekend leave back to the states that was afforded Bob after he befriended a General. Upon his triumphant return from Paris, the news did not exhilarate him, as Bob would have thought. He’d felt a residual sadness, an inexplicable wall of water of cynicism wash over him, and he’d always remember with incredible clarity the crestfallen look on Doris’ face after she’d told him. Years later, upon reflection, he realized her look must have mirrored his.
He was bringing a boy into a world where one human being would shoot the head off another without thinking twice. A world where ‘Man’s Inhumanity to Man’, Scottish poet Robert Burns’ mournful wail to the gods about his fellow man, could easily be adopted as the defining line about man.
Somewhere in Germany, between The Great Depression and The Industrial Revolution, Bob’s faith that life held the capacity for fairness had died a bloody, irretrievable death, probably at the exact instant his friend Joey’s head had bounced once on the thin layer of snow and then settled softly in the more cushioned final resting place of a snow bank. Without fairness, it was but a short leap to ‘survival of the fittest’, and Bob had unwittingly made that leap, a leap accompanied by a squeak and then a slam as the door closed behind it. There was no going back. His thought process was now germinating from a premise fueled by a visceral response; atavistic, instinctual, and no longer encumbered by analysis and reasoning.
A world that was, on paper, recovering from World War II, but in reality was simply realigning for the next horrific conflict. A world that almost never would be at peace.
He could easily have been referring to his soul.
The Korean Conflict preceded the war in Vietnam, but by the time these wars scudded across America’s skies, Bob already had a large family to occupy him when he wasn’t working. In the 50s, what happened in Korea had little impact on the Dempseys. Not that Bob had no empathy for this generation of soldiers. He simply did not want to dwell on war. He had more immediate responsibilities. His success at 3M was mirrored by his growing family, even if his two daughters born that decade were not planned. Though he’d had a hand, granted a heavy hand, in the raising of Bob Jr., when it came to his daughters, Bob was at a loss.
And once the revolutionary 60s got jump started by Kennedy’s assassination, things snowballed; culturally, sociologically, and in the Dempsey household. By 1965, there were 6 Dempsey siblings, 5 of which remained under the roof in San Carlos. Bob Jr. had been ousted two years earlier, and had found himself back on his feet, going to college and working to put himself through while living with the family of his best friend.
It was at this juncture that Bob’s own perceived lack of control was reversed, and his rule took on a much more physical style. He was going to recapture the flag.
Patrick and Henry, the two latest, and according to Bob, last of the children, would have a very young front row seat at the unraveling of the family structure. With each year, as the 70s loomed, Doris became more rebellious, and the kids would run roughshod over her authority, mirroring what they saw their father do. It was a household where everybody, eventually, lost, but Doris, the smallest inhabitant, suffered the most.
Bob’s second youngest; Patrick had begun to show a proclivity for both sports and smart assed remarks. Bob was threatened by both, but only aware of the one.
Patrick’s rebelliousness, coupled with his clever wit and sarcastic outlook, odd for someone so young, grated his father on levels that went all the way back to boot camp, where nary a question was EVER posed to anybody with an insignia higher than yours. The kid was too young to have embraced the bullshit sifting through college campuses these days. The “Question Authority” posters and the anti-religious rhetoric. Bob wondered where the little bastard was getting his ideas.
The cultural landscape of the 1960s was dotted with landmines and hidden sniper fire, thus Bob felt it was only appropriate for his family domicile to occasionally resemble a war zone. In fact, he often prompted such an atmospheric change, setting up an environment where he was most comfortable, where the chain of command was almost never challenged, and where it became, figuratively, kill or be killed.
Bob’s burgeoning insecurity stemmed from his ever growing stable of children, prompting him to employ a tactic he’d first observed from the German camp guards. Divide and conquer. As long as his children, and Doris, could not band together, his control would never be compromised. The key figure in this strategy was his wife. He knew they both appeared as authority figures to the children, but he was, no, he needed to be, the authority figure. The more he could undermine her authority, the more he would be the sole recipient of those looks of fear and trepidation from the troops, indicating surrender. Then turning the kids on each other would prove easy. He’d reward a child for ratting out a sibling who broke a rule or violated a family statute which, of course, sowed seeds of mistrust and even hatred amongst the five kids. This strategy performed double duty as well, keeping them fangless and feckless in any effort to rally against him en masse. Adopting the POW camp standby of grooming a stool pigeon became the pernicious secret weapon Bob folded into the family fabric, a termite unknowingly eating away at the foundation. Bob instinctively knew, as all soldiers do, that the elimination of trust was a huge move on the chess board of war strategy when trying to weaken an enemy.
The first time Bob heard his wife utter the word ‘divorce’ was in reference to their neighbor, Debbie Antonelli, who was apparently leaving her husband and splitting up a family with four children under the age of 10. Her husband Tony was a casual acquaintance of Bobs. They’d passed the time over the years, commiserating about sports and the best way to keep the lawn green, while sharing the good natured roll of the eyes when the occasional complaint about one of the wives surfaced.
Tony was as devout a Catholic as Bob, and upon hearing the news of marital discord, Bob wondered how the two Italian Catholics would reconcile divorce with their beliefs. There was no wiggle room in Catholic ideology when it came to marital failure. You worked it out. And prayed.
Bob wondered how Tony had lost control of his marriage, and also worried whether or not he’d done the same. Doris may have harbored thoughts of divorce, but she had no life skills to live on her own. Her reliance on Bob was total. Or so he thought.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.