04 November 2008



From the 11/03/08 Gloucester Daily Times
'Unknown Soldiers' no more
By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

November 02, 2008 11:15 pm

Sixty-five years in the making, Joe Garland's vivid epic of World War II and the soldiers in whom it never ends — himself included — has arrived in bookstores, timed for Veterans Day.

It is called "Unknown Soldiers, Reliving World War II in Europe."

The title-subtitle also identifies who, along with the journalist-historian-author, is doing what in the 508 pages between the hard covers.

This remarkable work is a group memoir of an infantry platoon and a personal memoir of the odyssey of the author to understand and redeem his soldiering time by giving voice to his buddies' previously unshared recollections.

Garland's story knits together the oral histories he gathered in the decades after he returned home in one guilty piece.

"Unknown Soldiers" is also an exhaustively researched and liberally footnoted history of the campaign of the Thunderbirds, the 45th infantry division.

With Garland and his closest buddies' scouting intelligence and reconnaissance (self-dubbed "ironheads"), the Thunderbirds were driven and slogged their way across Sicily, up the Boot of Italy, past Casino and Anzio and to the gates of hell, which the Nazis called Dachau. Under Patton and lesser legends, they were dying and killing so frequently and in so many honorable and ignoble ways the reader loses count.

According to the combat report of "The Fighting Forty-Fifth," which at full strength was at 14,300, half frontline soldiers, Garland reports, 7,265 Thunderbirds were killed or missing in action by war's end.

Two are pictured "living it up" on the cover, in the photo of Dom Trubia, one of the original ironheads who was joined up with Garland in training at Fort Devens.

"In a week," George Ruder, the blond in the middle, "would be machine-gunned in an ambush in the Rhone Valley; a few weeks later," Bob Coleman on the right, "would be killed by a German shell in Rambervillers."

In the war narrative and the Roll Call for survivors at the book's back, the reader gets to know the stories of 41 "unknown soldiers," officers and enlisted men who fought with Garland and then dispersed into the post-war world.

Trubia, Garland writes, "was the most beloved mentor in the Perry (N.Y.) public schools when he retired in May 1978, due to ill health. When I traveled to Perry to interview him that September, he was gaunt from the cancer he'd been battling for years, but the old zest shone through. He died the following April at fifty-five."

A healer, not a doctor

The book began in 1943 as the scribbled notes of an enlistee who had escaped from Harvard where he was in training to do what Garland men did — become a doctor.

The tradition stretched back. His father was a pediatrician and editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Garland came upon his fork in the road in a classroom. Needing only to pass organic chemistry to get a military deferment and into Harvard Medical School, Garland flunked with a "sense of freedom and relief and excitement and curiosity," he recalled in an interview. Raised to be a healer, he enlisted in the infantry, where the job was to kill.

"Not just distance killing, but man-to-man combat, the essence of war," he said. He said he took the training, "twisting the bayonet" to facilitate with drawl, for example, as "play acting."

For the future journalist, columnist for the Gloucester Daily Times and author of more than 20 books of local history, the young soldier's note-taking seemed almost involuntary. "I remember telling ma I knew how to write, but I didn't know what to write about," Garland recalled in the interview at his home on Eastern Point last week.

The note-taking began immediately and eases the reader into the story.

The scion of a line of prestigious Boston doctors, Garland is soon in basic training in South Carolina with a bunk of characters who could have come out of "Sgt. Bilko" or "M*A*S*H." They included Omar Forand from Maine, an illiterate who knew not right from left and switched eyes in target practice, "thus complicating the scoring," as Garland writes. "We prayed that Omar would fight the war with a mop."

A year of fighting later, Garland's last action was inglorious. Under artillery fire, he and two fellow ironheads, Hank Mills of Altoona, Penn., and Andy Zapiecki of Toledo, Ohio, were racing down a rickety ladder from an observation post on a French farm when the ladder broke.

"I plunged from the loft in a free fall ... and joined the pig pile in the shallow cellar," he writes, ripping up his left shin sufficiently that he was flown to a hospital in Naples.

Survivor's guilt

The physical wound healed, but Garland never returned to "action with my buddies in France."

"There's no way to say what happened," he said in the recent interview, but Garland suspects his influential physician-father back in Boston pulled strings to keep him out of harm's way for the remainder of the war.

He writes, "Perusing his journal 50 years later, I found that he'd approached his Harvard classmate, Massachusetts Congressman Christian Herter, who 'had no luck' with the War Department."

The hidden hand left deep scars.

"Dear old Jimmy Dowdall, 96 now and one of the last four of us left alive in our platoon, was wounded three times before they declined to return him to his buddies," Garland writes in the "Up Front" introduction and explanation for the book.

Survivor's guilt set in. It drove Garland to struggle with his notes, his story of a war he could not write. A lifetime passed, in journalism and authoring books about Gloucester, from a family home with wife, Helen, the foxhole correspondent he loved, left and fell in love with again many years later.

"Yet, though I wrote and rewrote, I still could not get myself and our book past the roadblock of my first day in action. Why?" he wondered.

Only with the help of Jonathan Shay, the psychiatrist and author of the landmark study of what clinically is known as "post-traumatic stress disorder," did Garland liberate his conscience to allow the book to flourish.

What Garland felt, Homer wrote, tortured survivors of the Trojan War 3,200 years ago, and survivors of the Vietnam War a generation ago, and those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan today.

"Thus the letdown of my buddies, thus the 'guilt,' thus the book," he wrote. The circumstances explain the 65 year gestation of this work, making it seem strangely natural for a wise elderly author to be working with the author's brash, youthful alter ego in grand and tragic adventure with other young witnesses to the apocalypse then.

The impulse to give meaning to the lives and voice to the men who were all the soldier that he was (and then some, he would assure you) but who — like the rest of us — were not gifted with Garland's correspondent's skills, insured that mundane moments of war come alive to readers.

Were it not for Garland's locally infamous, mule-stubborn, obsessive streak and need to purge his guilt, to research, write and publish the book, we would not know about how Herbie Illfelder, the "awkward intellectual, the practical joke butt," died in the mountains south of Casino.

It was this way, as told to Garland by their mutual buddy, Frank Merchant, who had been hospitalized with trench foot when the story got to him; Merchant kept it to himself until the scribe returned to tease it out of him and put it on page 134 opposite the winter line map of the cruel campaign up Italy.

"Herbie had been sitting on the edge of his foxhole when they brought down some prisoners," goes Garland's transcription of his interview with Merchant, who returned from the war to become a professor of English at a small college in Kentucky. "And they were interrogating one by his usual methodical manner when mortar shells started coming in. He, as very often, paid no attention. They said the prisoner slid into the hole, and Herbie sat there and kept on with his job and got a whole bunch of shrapnel in his back. Within a day or two he died."

It is enough to know how Herbie Illfelder died, and Garland, after reporting this small scene, picks up the narrative, leaving moral findings about this and all other casualties of the war to the reader.

"That rocky, slippery, treacherous, shelled and sniped-at route that was our life support by back and mule pack would be our main highway to hell and heaven. Beside it, farther up the slope was a grave with a cross and a German helmet on it. Within burp-gun range at the end was the southernmost parapet of Hitler's Fortress Europa."

The columnist and author James Carroll found in such writing "the clear-eyed — but also painful — gravity of the truth. If war is a ghost in the soul," he wrote for the jacket, "'Unknown Soldiers' is the rubrics of exorcism. Simple, unembelished, therefore eloquent. Such truth alone brings freedom."

Dying, killing, eating, slogging, sitting, shivering, hiding, digging, nothing that was experienced in his war by him and his buddies and their commanders or that bore on their fates was overlooked, ignored, and seemingly nothing was forgotten, no matter how far afield or off the beaten track the scent took the truffle hound for truth.

Through his own original notes and sketches, maps and photos, and interviews, 90 hours of them, taped many years later with the survivors (and available on the book's Web site) emerges a book that assembles these human scale tales with the epoch's famous and infamous scenes.

Where possible, Garland slips historical fine-tuning (for example, the firsthand account of a massacre of guards at Dachau) into footnotes to avoid interrupting story's flow. Together with the core stories of the GIs, Garland's attention to finding and reporting the facts of the events makes "Unknown Soldiers" a major work of history.

Setting out to heal his buddies' private pain by giving them voice, Joe Garland, this doctor-to-be who never was, did so only after healing himself.

In the tyranny of time, the events Garland writes about here are sliding quickly out of consciousness. So it is unlikely we will ever get any truer history off better contemporaneous notes of a warrior and living recollections of unknown soldiers.

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.

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