Veterans’ Day: Dad’s silence

By Todd Donatelli

I recently found something that had been lost in the woods for over 60 years. It was part of my father. The woods were the Ardennes Forest which runs through Belgium and Germany. My father was a Forward Observer for the 590th Field Artillery Battalion, a unit of the 106th ‘Golden Lions’ which fought in the WWII Battle of the Bulge. In dad’s war journal, written after he returned, are the following entries: December 16, 1944: All hell breaks loose. The next entry is dated April 4, 1945: We are freed.

In the fall of 1944, American and Allied troops were advancing toward Germany more quickly than troop reinforcement and supplies could keep up. In early December, the 106th replaced the 2nd Division in the Ardennes. Having arrived in Europe shortly before this, they were unfamiliar with local terrain. As radio silence was being observed, they were not allowed to synchronize their radios and single cable copper communication line was hastily laid.

The area they inhabited was considered ‘quiet’. They covered a front about four to five times that of military recommendation. Captains of the 106th reported concern about local roads, mostly earthen farming roads, that deteriorated rapidly and were easily cut off. They voiced concern about two rivers immediately behind the troops which made them sitting ducks if retreat was needed. They expressed concern that despite average temperatures below freezing, troops had light weather gear. They were assured Hitler was in no position to attack. Despite Forward Observer’s and villager’s reports of enemy vehicle and troop movement, they were assured it was not what they thought.

At 5:30 am on December 16 the shelling began. some 250,000 Nazi troops descended upon the 16,000 troops of the 106th. On December 19, what was left of the 106th participated in one of the largest surrenders in American military history.

At the time of surrender numerous American troops were scattered in the woods either separated in battle, or as in dad’s case, roaming the woods seeking to observe the opposition. Later known as the ‘Lost 500’, these remnants began to gather in a wooded hillside. For two days they held out amid shelling from opposing troops. On December 21, my father and the others surrendered.

They were transported to Bad Orb, Germany, a camp holding Jews and soldiers. Four months of captivity reduced his body weight from 220 pounds to 110. They were freed on Good Friday of that year, April 4. Dad turned 21 on April 7. He was one of the lucky ones. He lived.

The cloud would descend upon our house about mid December and leave sometime after the New Year, sometimes not until spring. The cloud was dad’s withdrawal. It was in our adult years that my siblings and I began to talk about our paradoxical childhood Christmases: suburban, baby boom era Christmases with cousins and grandparents all about, and dad’s withdrawal. We recalled mom’s story of a nighttime thunderstorm on their honeymoon where dad awoke screaming out loud. It was in these conversations that our need to visit the Ardennes Forest became apparent. At dad’s graveside my oldest brother said, “It is in moments like this that we realize we don’t send young men and women off to war, we send whole families.”

Preparing for the trip involved reading battle journals. There was the journal of a 106th soldier’s POW experience, something dad never discussed. It was dark. I also interviewed Bulge veterans. At times I saw in their eyes that look I had come to know in dad’s, a look only veterans know.

Our guide in the Ardennes was a young Belgian who had become fascinated by this battle during a school field trip. He said that everyone in Belgium knows WWII history and battles like Bastogne. In the village of St. Vith he saw a monument to the 106th and wondered why he had never heard of them. He now runs a website devoted to their story.

For two days, Carl, members of his family and another Belgian family led us through the woods and fields of battle. Carl had drawn detailed map movements of the 106th and the 590th. We walked through bomb craters and destroyed bunkers. We found half buried remnants of copper communication wires and fragments of bomb casings. There were times of conversation and times where they allowed us to venture alone. We shared meals and family stories, including amazing lunches packed by our hosts consisting of meats, cheeses, Belgian pastries and Belgian beverages. They became extended family during this sojourn.

Toward the end of the second day, Carl led us to the wood of the Lost 500. Its area is about 150 yards long and about 70 yards wide. Foxholes are still present. As my siblings and I walked up the hill to the wood, the others, including my wife Becky and daughters, Gina and Leah, held back, letting us go first. When they joined us, Carl produced a written record of the two days these troops spent in the wood and asked if we would like him to read from it. We listened to the account and then began to walk about, sometimes together, sometimes alone.

It was quiet save for the howling wind of a powerful storm moving through the region. What did these men talk about while here? Were there periods of silence between shellings? I listened for dad’s spirit. I listened for the spirits of those with him. I listened to the silence.

In time we would have to leave with what we had learned and with what we had not learned. Some answers were found. Some may never be. I am still listening to messages from the sojourn. They seem to be revealing themselves over time. It is not something I can rush.

I can say something shifted in us as we stepped on that soil and walked through the woods where my twenty year old father walked and fought, through the woods where a certain innocence was certainly lost. I think I have a deeper appreciation for the paradoxical man whose children were everything he lived for and who struggled desperately at times to be present to them. I think I have a better understanding of that look in dad’s eyes.

“We don’t send young men and women off to war, we send whole families.” There was a part of dad lost in those woods. Some of that part was found by stepping into the woods. Some we may never find. All we can do is chose to stand where these men and women have stood and choose to listen to the horror. We can chose not to shield ourselves from the madness of it all. I believe that in some way, standing there tells them we have come to stand in that space where something was required of them, something that can never be returned, standing where no words can comprehend, communicate or compensate. Even if there were words, they would not want us to know them.

On days like this, I think it might be best to leave the loud marching bands and the firing guns at home. If I learned anything in the woods that summer, it is that we must choose to stand in their silence. We must learn to live with and honor that silence.

The Very Rev. Todd Donatelli is dean of the Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, N. C. This article was originally published in the Asheville Citizen-Times and is republished with the author’s permission.

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