In the 1980s and 1990s, family members and friends of my parents, now long dead, told me tales of their service in 1940s, during the Great War, the War to End All Wars..or so they said at the time. World War II. But, by way of preface, these tales bubbled to the surface in part due to my collection of folk tales and ghost stories in the mountains and lowlands of Wales. In the summer of 1987, Colorado College had granted me an award to collect Welsh Folktales, mainly ghost stories. One such story sparked a chord of interest in my Great Uncle, Bud Gill, who listened with rapt attention when I related it and shortly thereafter astonished all around by relating one of his own. Before I tell you his and those that followed, I’ll tell you about Dickie Harris, the Welsh Farmer, who lent his land to the American Armed Forces during World War II.
In the Gwyn Valley, just before you reach St. Davids, on the western edge of Wales, Dickie Harris was plowing his fields with his grand-daughter, a beautiful little girl with sunshine hair, and bright eyes.
[This is a watercolor that I painted of Dickie Harris and his granddaughter plowing the field, the old style.]
Dickie stopped plowing and told me that during the great war, American soldiers and British soldiers set up camp on his lands. German fighter planes would fly low overhead, bombing the land. He told me about his friend, Ronald Stevens, who raised and trained hawks to fight the German carrier pigeons. Of the soldiers who camped on their land and of a big black dog that turned into a wicked hag, who vanished down a well.
As I related this story to my Uncle Bud , he interrupted me halfway through, stating, “Oh, I was over there, I stayed on those lands in Wales in 1942.” I realized then that he was one of the soldiers that Dickie Harris had mentioned. Then we began to share tales of Wales, what it was like then and now, and I asked him if he crossed the Channel. Turns out he had, not only had he crossed it, he had fought at the Battle of the Bulge. “We were starving,” he said. “I remember the hunger the most.” It was hard for him; he spoke quietly and mumbled his words. Also at first, there were other conversations competing for attention. We were sitting in my Great Aunt Gwen’s dining room, all in a row. My family and me, conversing over lunch or tea. Conversations overlapped each other, as they often do in a group gathering. But when he mentioned the Battle of the Bulge, the room grew quiet. And it was just him and me.
“What did you eat?” I asked him.
“We ate out of tins, although those became scarce. And it was cold. I remember that. Little more than a thin blanket to cover us.”
“Oh, where were you? In the bunkers?”
“No trenches. The Germans had the bunkers for the most part. We had trenches. And there were blasts around us. We couldn’t hear. I remember gathering warmth from the bodies.”
“Bodies? You mean the men around you?”
“No, yes, but they weren’t alive. Some had their faces blown off, others limbs. But after awhile all you felt was the hunger and the cold, it seeped into you. I didn’t think I would survive that. But I remember Wales, danced with some pretty girls there, shhh, don’t tell Gwen.”
I wondered if he had forgotten that Gwen was sitting at the table with us. And decided it was a joke, the spark of laughter in his eyes. We tried to get him to tell us more about the Battle of the Bulge, but he talked more about Wales, the good times. Except, for how cold it was and how you never forget trying to obtain warmth from a corpse.
On the way home, my father related the story of his Uncle, his mother’s twin, who was amongst the first to reach Auschwitz. He was a sensitive soul my Great Uncle, whose name I have forgotten. I never met him. He committed suicide long before I was born. An alcoholic who never quite got past the War. My father said that he was an ambulance driver, they’d gone into the camps in the hopes of saving people. But all they found were the bodies. There’s a picture of him somewhere smoking a cigarette next to an ambulance, but I’ve never found it. Even though I vaguely remember seeing it. The ambulances became hearses, and the bodies were from a nightmare. Mass graves. They had saved no one, they were too late. The only ones they had saved were the ones who had not entered the camps. For the Germans, upon news of the Allied Troops arrival, had put the people in the camps in a mass grave and shot them all.
A few years later, I related this tale to a friend of my parents, who told her husband’s story, of how he too was amongst the first in the death camps in Germany. He was a Corporal, and in charge, they’d gone to free the prisoners, but only a scant few were freed. It was a rescue mission, right out of an old WWII film, or a new one…but very few were saved. He still can barely speak of it.
Combating evil leaves a mark, and if we aren’t careful can pull us under. Or so I’ve been told by these men and many others. My Great Uncle Bud Gill, death in one ear, struggling to put the words together, painted a landscape of fear and suffering, with bombs in the air. He saw people get their feet blown off next to him. And he barely could open the tins with his fingers. But he stayed alive based on the love and comradeship he’d experienced in Wales. The pretty girls he danced with, the laughter, and music. He remembered Wales and clung to that memory, sleeping under the stars in the fields outside St. David’s head, while farmers plowed their fields, men trained hawks to fight German carrier pigeons, and shared ghost stories of witches, black dogs, and long-dead soldiers.