…when heroes were heroes
by Peter M. Winter
No candy,” Mom would say. “Dad wants to send them something they can use. Get a can of beans or a little saucepan or maybe a nice handkerchief for the little girl. And make sure you’re back in time for dinner.” We were eight or nine, off and running for the bus to town, my twin brother and me, each of us clutching a silver dollar. Every November it was the same ritual. Buying Christmas presents for The Box.
Though desperately ill, Dad himself took responsibility for wrapping everything and taking it down to the post office. He’d whistle as he worked, he was always whistling no matter how bad the pain, but sometimes he would curse too when the sticky tape stuck to his fingers. “Damnit!” By the time he was done The Box had grown heavy and I’d see him buckle a couple of times as he carried it out to the car, but Mom knew this was his mission and his alone, so she always left him to it. She was a tough old bird, but she wept more than once at the sight of him. Once tall and strong and happy and loud, a ginger-haired salesman and the life of the party, now diminished and bent, struggling to send off an anonymous box of gifts all the way across the oceans from New Zealand to Germany, to the family of the man he had killed in battle.
He had a rough time of it in the war. One day I unearthed the official history of his battalion and read how he came to be decorated. It happened in Egypt. 1941. His platoon of 30 had been cut down to just six men, several of them wounded. When one of Rommel’s gigantic Panzers lumbered towards their trench, he crawled out from safety and underneath it, slapping a sticky bomb to its vulnerable underbelly as it rolled above him. Not long after that he was badly wounded at Sidi Rezegh in Libya, the bullet went right through him, finally escaping, maximum damage achieved, through his thigh. The few who made it back home to New Zealand with him used to tease him about what he said to the chaplain who crawled out to give him the Last Rites. “If you don’t get your bloody arse down Padre, I’ll be giving them to you.”
Before Egypt and Libya there had been Greece, and Crete. As little boys we would ask him to tell us about it, but he never would. “Only the cooks talk about it,” he would say. “The rest of us keep it to ourselves.” Once someone came up to him, thanked for his service, called him a “hero.” I’d never seen him lost for words before, I could tell he was embarrassed and didn’t quite know how to respond. “When everyone’s a hero, no-one is,” I heard him say to Mom as his admirer walked away. “We had a job to do, that’s all.”
So he hated occasions like Memorial Day, with the parades and the bands and especially the hollow speeches from self-serving politicians, many of whom had ducked their own obligation when called upon. The hoopla struck him as unseemly and self-aggrandizing. He could see it coming, the age of heroic confection, the media manufacture of hyperbolic derring-do spun cynically from selfless duty and humble service. He would rather go out and get quietly drunk with the boys who’d fought alongside him, in the corner of a pub somewhere, finding relief in the humble company of his brother soldiers, not one of them a cook.
But then I fell very ill. That’s when he finally relented and told me the first story, about how he volunteered to take a message to the rest of the company, somehow separated from the battalion. As he crawled across a cornfield just outside Thebes in the dead of night he heard the unmistakable sound of a rifle bolt guiding a bullet into the firing chamber, up on a bank, to his right. Slowly he turned his head. The German soldier had him in his sights. They gazed upon each other, each from very different countries far, far away and now bound close in the very same place by a mutual oath to kill. Seconds went by. Then the German lifted his rifle and with his other hand motioned to Dad to keep going. “Kamerad” he whispered. “Comrade.” Dad carried the burden of that gift for the rest of his war.
In war I’m sure there are many such colliding moments, like when the rifle flash and the flash of personal recognition spark at the very same instant that the deciding, inescapable bullet hurtles off on its deadly mission. No victor, no vanquished, nothing but a mutual and private tragedy between two combatants, brutal in its absolute clarity. Maybe the guy sitting in a trailer in Nevada has such moments too, after he has lined up the sightlines on his video screen, in the fractional instant before he clicks his joystick to send the electrons racing out into the void with their orders to dispatch the killer rocket into a hut or a beaten-up Toyota pick-up in some dusty godforsaken corner of Yemen or Syria or Afghanistan. Maybe not.
When the SS paratroopers jumped by their thousands into Crete, the Kiwi battalion was waiting for them. One trooper came down from the sky near the olive grove where Dad’s platoon was dug in. Dad shot him just as he hit the ground. Then he ran forward with bayonet fixed and brandished high, frenzied and eager to finish him off. He leaped into the stream bed where the German soldier was lying, mortally wounded. He couldn’t bring himself to do it.
All day the two teenagers huddled together while the furious battle for Crete went on around them. Dad was helpless, his field dressings did nothing to stem the blood. Slowly the life ebbed from the German soldier as he lay in my father’s arms. He took off his scapular medal and gave it to my father, along with his compass and a photo of his family that had been carefully tucked away in his breast pocket. They prayed together, the Our Father, endless Hail Mary’s. That day Dad became a Catholic.
My brother has the photo now, the address on the back has long since faded away but you can still make out the family quite clearly, standing together in their Sunday finery in a park somewhere in Hamburg in the late 1930s. Mother, father, son and daughter. The compass sits in a safe deposit box at a bank not far from here. Dad left it for me when he died from his wounds, just a decade after the war ended.
His death blew up our family. We’ve each been looking for him ever since, in our own way. For a long time as I grew up I wished I could crawl into the old cabinet where he used to hang his jackets, where the smell of his pipe tobacco lingered for years like the incense at Sunday mass that hangs heavy in the air and then slowly wafts heavenwards. But now I feel his presence more powerfully than ever before. Just last week his namesake and grandson joined an elite unit of the US Army.
You worry that all those great tales of his grandfather made that path inevitable. You wonder about the family in Hamburg you never dared to meet, complete strangers mysteriously and secretly connected to you and yours, down through the generations, for eternity. But mostly you pray for your son and his magnificent friends, that they may never know of these things.
Sergeant Thomas P. Winter served in the 25th Battalion, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, in World War Two. His grandson, Sergeant Thomas C. Winter, is currently based at Fort Carson, in Colorado.
Peter Winter, son and father, writes from his home on the coast of Maine.