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Thursday, November 10, 2011

More war stories - Charley Wyle, American soldier in WWII

It's Veteran's Day tomorrow. Time for more war stories about my father, Charley Wyle, in WWII. In some of these, I will be quoting or paraphrasing interviews my husband (the Hoosier Gadfly) did with my father some years back.

First, a couple of corrections to my last post. It was not Doc but Charley's other close buddy, a G.I. named Frank, who was killed in the explosion that wounded Charley -- only two weeks before the war ended in Europe. Doc, a medic, was killed while trying to save a wounded American soldier. Also, the large rifle Charley carried was not a grenade launcher, but a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle), a sort of light machine gun.

A related point: my father was very, very nearsighted. He was supposed to be on "limited duty" because of his eyesight. Yeah, right. (His unit, very much including Charley, fought their way through Europe and took part in the Battle of the Bulge.)

At some point before deployment to Europe, Charley's unit was stationed in the desert, possibly in Death Valley. It was very hot in the daytime, but cool at night. One morning, hours before reveille, Charley awoke and realized that a rattlesnake had joined him in his sleeping bag for warmth. He knew that if he moved at all, he might startle the snake into biting him. Accordingly, he lay absolutely still for perhaps two hours. (You may infer that my dad has considerable willpower.) Finally, people started to wonder why he hadn't gotten up, and someone saw the snake and killed it.

Charley's unit was the "Rainbow" Division of the 42nd Infantry, a National Guard unit from the rural south. They did not immediately take to this undersized Jewish foreigner. That changed once they got into combat and saw how tough and determined Charley was. Charley was, as he later put it, imbued with an all-consuming fury. He saw himself as an "Angel of Death" sent by God to destroy the Nazis. (Charley was and is an atheist. He has repeatedly assured me that yes, there can be atheists in foxholes, as he was one. How he reconciled atheism with the idea of a divine mission, I couldn't say.)

After Germany surrendered, Charley volunteered for the (eventually unnecessary) invasion of Japan. Japan surrendered while he was back in the U.S. awaiting that deployment. At that point, while Charley was awaiting discharge, he was assigned to guard German POW's. The prisoners were from the Afrika Korps, and had been captured early in the war. They had not experienced defeat. They were cocky. Their other guards -- who, unlike Charley's comrades in arms, had not experienced Dachau -- had nothing much against the prisoners. The prisoners were supposed to pick cotton, but the guards did not insist. Some guards would hand a rifle to one of the Germans and let him watch the others while the real guard took a nap. When Charley showed up, he took rather a different view of his role. The prisoners were defiant. Charley explained that they might be able to overwhelm him eventually, but he would kill quite a few of them first, and who wanted to be the first to die? They picked cotton.

Charley was naturalized while in the Army. He had first entered New York Harbor as an immigrant at the age of 16, literate in English but unable to understand the spoken English of the customs agents, and mortified by that failure. The second time he sailed into that harbor, he was a returning soldier and an American citizen, greeted by a banner welcoming him and his comrades home.

Charley summed up his wartime experience as follows: "We were defending all that was good in the world against evil. It was the most climactic experience of my life. I feel better about participating in ending the horror than anything else I've ever been involved in, tiny as my contribution was."

Thanks, Dad. Happy Veteran's Day.

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