Coming Home

I know I have left Rudy on the dock in Scotland waiting for a troop ship to bring him home to his Duchess. At last he is on his way across the Atlantic with an unexpected encounter awaiting him on the dock at New York harbor.

 

August 10, 1946

Dear Duchess,

I am back on the dock in Scotland waiting for another troop ship to take me home to you. We set sail on August 8th, but had engine trouble a day out to sea and had to turn around. We are all very disappointed but what can we do? That’s the Army for you, ‘hurry up and wait’ right till the end.

I hope to send this letter on another ship sailing today and maybe it will get to you before I do. I have been dreaming about you and our farm every night for the last week, finally letting myself think about going home. I never want to travel again.

Your loving husband,

Rudy

 

He folds the delicate blue airmail letter/envelope, addresses it and walks across the dock to another ship getting ready to steam across the Atlantic. He doesn’t let himself think about how he longs to be on this other ship. He keeps his mind on rounding up the boys, now men, who are still under his care and command until they reach the port of New York. He hefts the duffle bag holding the dog tags of those he lost over the past year and sighs. There are so many things he didn’t tell his Duchess in his letters home – his mother either. The most recent secret is why it is taking so long to get onto another troop ship. The hold of his ship was filled with so many coffins it’s taking at least 3 days to unload them from the one hold and then load them into the other one. He sits and watches this process for a while wondering how there can be so many coffins a year after the war officially ended. He has seen the rows upon rows of white crosses marking the graves of U.S. and other soldiers buried in foreign soil.  Why do some get taken back home while others still remain in France and Belgium and the little country with the funny name, Luxembourg? Even General Patton lies buried in France. He cannot imagine his own dear   mother and wife not being able to visit his grave, not being able to picture the cemetery and surrounding countryside he might be buried in. This thought gives him a shiver and he turns away from the ships and looks for his ‘boys.’

The Mexican and the Indian are throwing knives into the dock, like they always have. They are almost twenty now but look like they are 40. The laughter they share as each one throws the knife further and further down the dock does not make it to their eyes. They have seen too much, experienced too much in the past year and a half, to smile all the way through their bodies yet. He spies his friend Al who will be going back to the coal mines in Pennsylvania in another week or so. And over there is ‘Ole Pitt’ who wrote with such a fine hand the other fellas had him write letters home for them. Pitt had grown up in a little shack in the mountains of North Carolina, so how he learned to write so beautifully was anybody’s guess. It was his secret to keep.

They all had secrets to keep. Secrets about the war, secrets about their former lives, secrets about their hopes and dreams when they got back home again.

He had wanted to be someone who made a difference and do something grand in the world. Well, he surely had participated in a grand undertaking to destroy Hitler and his armies. Unfortunately, along the way people on both sides had their everyday lives destroyed, homes reduced to rubble, livelihoods ruined.

He hears a commotion down the docks and realizes the new troop ship is ready for boarding by him and his unit and the thousands of other soldiers and sailors and airplane pilots heading back to the USA.

They walk briskly up the gangway, but even at a relatively fast pace it takes another whole day to get all the guys and their gear on board. Standing at the rail he watches a group of women in uniform, probably nurses, being escorted to another part of the ship. He can only imagine what they witnessed and took part in while in war-torn Europe. He can’t even envision his Duchess being a part of the war and its aftermath. He is so glad she is safe at home with her parents, teaching school and not having to deal with the memories of the smell and sounds of the dead and dying in every village he walked through.

 

They set sail once again and this time will keep steaming across the Atlantic until they reach New York harbor. He tries to keep the remaining members of his unit together. It is clearly not so important now that they are heading home, but he doesn’t want to have any of his boys getting hurt or falling overboard. They have managed to survive all the horror, and a freak accident now would be too much for him to bear.

The Army food is still awful, but there is plenty of it for a change and he and ‘his boys’ can sleep above-deck if they want. There are no more mandatory blackouts to keep them safe from enemy aircraft. They doubt the Japanese will be flying overhead. It gives him a chill just to think that could be possible.

Communication, ship to shore, is still patchy so by the time they hear that U.S. pilots in the Pacific have dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – 2 names he has never heard of and probably can’t spell – the war over there is already over.

When this announcement is made over the ship’s crackly loud speakers everyone cheers. Gone now is the new fear that this troop ship might be diverted to the Pacific Theatre to fight there. He didn’t know how he would have told his wife and mother he was heading to another battlefield. One even more remote and strange than Europe had been. He wonders how his little brother was faring on his island battleground. Was his ship part of this bombing of Japan’s mainland or was he right now steaming towards the United States from the other direction? He wouldn’t know until he himself was back in Western New York. He thought how lucky he was to live in the same state this ship docked in. He could walk home if he absolutely had to. Hadn’t he walked across Germany and parts of France, England and Scotland over the past 1 ½ years? He worried about how ‘his boys’ would all get to their homes. The Mexican to Texas, the Indian to Oklahoma, Al to Pennsylvania, Ole Pitt to North Carolina. The Army moved you where you needed to go on your way to the war, but left you stranded on a dock on y our way back home. He’d help them if he could.

He made sure they all had dimes for making phone calls to their mothers, or wives, or sweethearts. He made sure they understood they had to figure out how to catch a train or Greyhound bus to make their way out of New York City. What he didn’t know and could never have anticipated were how many soldiers, sailors, airmen, medical corps and support personnel were swarming the docks of New York harbor trying to do the same things he and his unit were. The lines at the few phone booths were impossibly long and mustering out could take hours or even a day. But for now he had time and space to dream about home.

At night he would look up at the stars over the Atlantic and send a prayer of thanks skyward that he was alive and had all his limbs and both blue eyes. So many of his fellow passengers were on crutches or in wheelchairs or with bandages wrapped around their heads.  Some were crying or muttering to themselves. He sent up another prayer for the souls of the boys he had lost in Europe, for the released prisoners of Dachau, the woman whose house he had commandeered, her lost family.  He thought this would be the last time he thought about any of them.

 

The next morning as the dazzling sun came up behind the ship, land was sighted up ahead by the lookouts. It was a wonder the ship didn’t do a somersault as everyone rushed forward to get a look. Now they saw many other troop ships all around them and some aircraft overhead streaming ‘Welcome Home’ banners behind them. He could hear the men shouting on the other ships and they all tried to out-shout one another. He was jostled and elbowed as more men and some of the nurses attempted to get closer to the railing. He stepped back to give others a chance and stepped on the foot of his friend, Al.

‘We made it, Al. We’re home.’

They punched one another in the shoulder and grinned and grinned as the Statue of Liberty loomed ahead.

Now they were being directed by tugboats into a slot at the over-crowded docks. Music filled the air as swing bands played Glen Miller songs. Welcome Home banners fluttered down from the tall buildings while thousands of people filled the streets and sidewalks and docks or hung out of  windows for as far as he could see. He thought they must have landed on a National Holiday, then realized their return was the cause for celebration. With Japan’s surrender the war was truly over and all of New York City was in a party mood.

Three hours after docking, he stood at the top of the gangway with his duffle bag on one shoulder and the smaller bag with his dead comrades’ dog tags in the other. The delicate cup and saucer Lisle had given him wrapped tightly in a scarf and nestled in with the tags. He took the last step off the ship, leaving the brutal, heartbreaking past year and a half behind him and stepped onto the wooden planks of the dock and out into his bright, new future.

The mustering out was taking place right on the docks. The Army had given up funneling the troops into offices set up for this purpose and military personnel were trying to get lines formed outside. It was difficult to keep the excited, jostling young men in line, especially now that they no longer felt they needed to follow orders. They were sick and tired of following orders and standing in lines and waiting for the next thing to happen. They just wanted to sign a paper and go home.

At desks, young men and a few women were taking down information for their discharge papers. In the background a group of three women were signing on a platform raised high above the crowds. He wondered if they were the famous Andrews Sisters. He couldn’t be sure, but they sounded divine and were singing in English whoever they were.

The smell of roasting chestnuts and hot dogs and popcorn wafted over the docks from the street vendors lined up along the sidewalks. His mouth watered. He had forgotten food could smell this good.

After 3 hours of switching his heavy duffle bag from shoulder to shoulder, it was his turn. The young woman seated at the desk was perhaps in her mid to late-twenties with blond hair and brown eyes that looked vaguely familiar to him. He had seen so many women in Germany who looked far older than their years that it was hard for him to tell anyone’s age. But those eyes….

She asked him the standard questions: ‘when did you arrive in Europe?  Whose command were you under? Where were you stationed? Do you want any help from the Army? Medical, financial, transportation home?’

He answered her questions and said he’d take some counseling sessions just for something to say that would keep him at her desk longer. She said if he wanted to stay in New York City another day or two he could get whatever medals he was entitled to.

‘No, ma’am. I’m going home today if I can. The medals can wait.’

As he turned to leave he saw the name on her lapel, V. Wickersheim, and asked, ‘What does the V. stand for?’

‘Viva. It’s a name I took while living in Paris. It means life or to be alive. I felt grateful to be alive at the end of the war, to have survived the years I hid from the Nazis and finally escaped to France. So grateful to find passage to the United States and get this job, even though it is temporary.  All of my family and many of my friends from those days are dead or missing. I don’t know why I am telling you this,’ she says with a nervous laugh as she looks over her shoulder to see if anyone is listening.

Her sad eyes lock onto his for a moment and he turns to leave. But something about what Viva just said make these words come out of his mouth unbidden: ‘I forgot to mention I was in the village of Dachau for a few weeks after that prison camp was liberated.’ He doesn’t know why he said this. He wanted to forget about those few weeks, about the emaciated prisoners he saw there, about the townspeople who pretended they knew nothing about the camp even though the whole town smelled of death and decay.

The pen she had lifted in readiness for the next soldier in line stopped in mid-air.

‘You were there?’ she whispered.

‘Yes. After liberating the camp my unit took over a farm close by to hold the prisoners until they could be safely moved to an Army hospital. The war officially ended during the 2 weeks I was there. Many of the liberated prisoners died though we all tried our best to save them, including Lisle who owned the farm.’

‘You say her name was Lisle?’ Another whispered question.

‘Her husband, Heinrich, had died in 1942 but Lisle was there keeping the farm and buildings the best she could, waiting for her two children to return when the war was over. She thought they were most likely dead. Heinrich, Jr. was a soldier for the Nazis, sent to the Russian Front and Gretchen joined the underground movement in the late 1930s. Lisle hoped she had escaped to France. There had been no word from either child in years.

Viva clutches her chest and cries out, ‘I am Gretchen! My mother is still alive? When I heard Dachau Camp had been liberated I assumed the townspeople were killed by the Allies in retribution for allowing the Camp to be there.’

Gretchen gets up from her folding chair, eyes shining with tears and hugs him tight. She takes his hand and leads him away from the table leaving a long line of soldiers cursing and yelling after them. They wend their way through the crowds and into a building. They stand in front of a glass-paneled door and she points to a telephone on a desk inside the office.

‘Call home from here, Rudy. How else can I ever thank you for giving me back my mother?’

She kisses him lightly on the cheek, takes a deep breath and removes her nametag.

‘I am finished with this French name. Now I can be Gretchen again. I will find my mother and bring her to America where she will be safe.’

She walks back out to the lines and lines of men waiting impatiently to be discharged. For the first time in years there is a genuine smile on her lips as she looks up and says, ‘Next?’

Rudy’s hand shakes as he dials the number he has been longing to dial. He pictures the telephone wires stretching across New York State to Middleport, the wires humming with the rings. He holds his breath in anticipation of hearing the voice he has been longing to hear these many, lonely months.

‘Hello?’ says a quivering voice still unused to speaking into a telephone.

‘Hello, Duchess? I’m home.’