June 10, 1944, that’s the day that my grandfather reached the beaches of Normandy as part of the 951st Field Artillery Battalion of the Army’s VII Corps. I cannot even imagine what was going through his head at this time. He was just a young Mexican-American from California, with a young wife and family at home. I’m sure it was a mixture of fear and unknowing. Will he make it back home, will he see his wife again, his children? I say young but compared to the others he was with he was actually one of the oldest, a leader to his group. Born in 1910 he had survived the early deaths of his parents, the depression and now was trying to survive a war and help bring home as many of his comrades as possible. He did make it home, or else I wouldn’t be here without my dad. Anytime I watch Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan I can’t help but to think of him, imagine how a day in his shoes may have gone. I also think of my grandmother and how different it must have been for a military spouse back then. What a difference technology has made for us spouses these days.
Apparently the all-boys motherhood my grandmother experienced was the same destined for me, she just went through a couple more boys than I trying to get a little girl. She had quite a few granddaughters though as well as some grandsons. As certain as I cannot fathom all of my grandfather’s thoughts, feelings and emotions that might have encompassed him at this time, I must say the same for my grandmother. Being a spouse to a soldier overseas one might think she and I had similar experiences. Yes, I am sure the same thoughts crossed our minds. Would we see our husbands again? Would we be left alone, a widow to raise boys to men? Other than those thoughts, thoughts which at one point or another cross the mind of a military spouse, I can’t say we experienced war time deployments the same. I know for a fact too that my husband and grandfather have very different military experiences.
World War II; just that phrase alone comes with such history, such significance, pride, pain and sadness. We are talking about The Greatest Generation. That generation of our history who not only survived during the deprivation of The Great Depression but also went on to fight in and support the country during World War II. Talk about a hard life. Right now going through a deployment myself I feel like I have been running a race for going on 10 months, without a chance to catch my breath, with all the weight of my world only on my shoulders. The Greatest Generation though, they more significantly ran a marathon, for their whole life, without an opportunity to rest and relax… with the weight of the whole world on their shoulders. They had to fight, survive and strive for everything from their very next meal to a roof over their head and not to leave out the fight for their very own country.
My grandfather made it from the blood stained beaches of Normandy, through the freezing snow of the Battle of the Bulge and quite miraculously all the way back home to the sunny central valley of California. By the time he had left the army he was a Sergeant and had earned many campaign ribbons and a Bronze Star. Besides leaving the army with his rank, some ribbons and a medal he also acquired a heart full of sadness and a memory full of horrifying scenes. I can’t sit here and repeat his stories because quite honestly I never heard them first hand. I am sure they ran through his mind clear as day, even at his oldest age. I am sure of that because though I do not know them my father does. The death witnessed at Normandy, the bitter cold of a fresh snowfall, the smell in the air after a night full of enemy barrage, the Jewish faces at the prison camps. Unfortunately, I was too young at 11-15 years old to have the insight to sit with my grandpa and ask questions or take the time to get to know him the way I should have. Most of my childhood years I did not even spend in the same city as him and I was never too close to him and my grandmother. By the time I was living near them in junior high the opportunity to develop that close childhood relationship with either of them had already passed. Out of all my grandparents he was the one I knew the least and the first to pass away when I was just a high school student, obsessed with only my own little world.
I do have a few memories. I remember at least one time that he picked up my brother and I from school and got us a treat before heading home. I remember him at my quincenera, (it’s like a sweet 16 celebration but in the Mexican culture), hugging me and posing for probably my last and one of the few pictures with him. I certainly remember him at the dining room table, trying to eat a meal. He sat at that table a lot of the time when he was older, near the end. I say trying to eat because of the overwhelming grief that would quite often and suddenly take him away in his mind; away from the comfort of his home, and a meal in front of him and back to the memories of the war. Sobbing, weeping, such a sad cry for those lives that were lost. His friends, his battle buddies… his family for all that time spent away from actual blood relatives. I remember him saying how young they all looked.
My grandfather was a sweet man with a kind, gentle heart. That much I did learn in my short time with him. I am sure in all his life he would have much rather spent his time in the army back home with his family. I often wonder what he would think of me when I was in an army uniform and to know I also had my grandmother’s fate as a spouse of a service member. Based on his military experience I would guess he would not want the same for me or my husband. The hardships both he and my grandmother experienced are something he would not have ever wished on his worst enemy. Actually, I can’t even imagine he had any enemies. I know my grandmother had a chance to see me in uniform and I know exactly what she was thinking when we found out my husband would be going on his first deployment. She was so worried for me, thought how hard this would be going day by day not knowing how my husband was doing. My grandfather’s war and my husband’s war are two very different ones and in turn also very different for the families who would wait for them back home. She was always amazed when I would see her during our first deployment and she would ask, “Have you talked to Daniel, how’s he doing?” I’m sure the shock didn’t come from me saying he was doing ok. The shock was from the mere fact that I had just spoke to him over the phone, was able to hear his voice or maybe even see him on the computer. I cannot imagine how long a day, or week went by for her without word from my grandfather, waiting for that next piece of mail from him, praying a car would not drive up to her home.
I have little regret in my life. Getting to know my grandfather the way I would have liked may be one of them. If I ever knew in my young days, before he was gone, that I was destined for a military life I may have done differently. It was just the way my life path took me and for now I can just hold on to what I do have. My grandmother lived long past him, passed away just at the end of last year actually so I was able to get to know her quite well. Her fierce ways, quick tongue and that suspicious laugh of hers, she always had an opinion on everything… from what you were wearing to what you were saying. She was quite opposite of my personality and I think her and my grandfather lasted so long together because their contrasting ways complemented each other. They were one good looking couple who went through so much in their lives, even after the war, always working hard to establish a good life for their family. I’m so proud to call them mine. It is hard to believe that next month it will be eighteen years since my grandfather’s passing. I heard a song the other day that reminded me of him and what I would say if he was sitting next to me today. Grandpa, tell me bout the good old days.