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Let There be Peace

Recalling the horror and futility of war
Dottie Neil. Photo by Paul Neevel.
Dottie Neil. Photo by Paul Neevel.

I have just returned from a celebration of Christmas presented by the Eugene Cascade Chorus. As I write this column, the echo of the words “Let there be peace on Earth” lingers in my mind. If there is anything I could wish for this tired old world, it would be that sentiment.

I know that we are not privy to all the information that is behind the decision to continue sending troops to Afghanistan, but I, like many others, am very sorry this terrible war has to continue.

In an interview, Oliver Stone, who served in Vietnam, was wounded twice and received the Bronze Star for acts of heroism under fire, said that his movies demonstrated what war is actually about and became a redemptive process for dealing with his feeling about his Vietnam experience. As a writer and director, Stone has tried through his movies to explain the horror and futility of war. When asked if one adjusts to the chaos of war, Stone replied, "It multiples. Violence begets violence. It just gets worse. Innocent people get killed by accident. Mistakes happen."

When I listened to the interview, I thought of the book I'm currently reading entitled, The Longest Winter by Alex Kershaw. The book tells the story of the Battle of the Bulge during World War II when our troops were fighting a last ditch stand against Hitler and his maniacal attempt at world domination. 

The book captured my interest as it told of an event my husband, Bill, lived through but which he was never able to talk about when he returned home. The information I found came from his service papers and letters from friends who served with him.

As a college student with one year of his education completed, Bill was called into the service in January of 1943. His discharge papers indicate that he had completed courses in English, German, mathematics, algebra, trigonometry and history. This student, an only child with a happy, sunny disposition, left his parents and a wide group of friends to enter military training at Fort Knox, Ky., where he spent 12 weeks learning International Morse Code and studying to became a radio operator. 

After basic training, he was transferred to the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he completed 21 weeks of a 22-week course in aviation cadet training. At this point, he was forced to leave behind the dream of a lifetime and was reassigned to the European Theater where plans were under way for the allied invasion of Europe. In December 1944 his armored infantry battalion trudged through the heavy snow of the Ardennes Forest during one of the coldest winters on record. 

They reached the village of St. Vith in Belgium where on Dec. 16, 1944, the Germans began shelling the area and moving their forces until St. Vith was surrounded. On Dec. 22, Bill and other members of the headquarters company were captured, and on Christmas Eve they were packed into a building near the rail station which was being shelled by allied bombers.

Miraculously the prisoners escaped that onslaught. According to a letter from a friend and fellow prisoner, George, who wrote to the children and me on the occasion of Bill's death 25 years later, 1,200 men were loaded into boxcars for a five-day train ride enroute to Poland and Czechoslovakia. As the Russians were advancing on that front, the train returned to Germany and the prisoners were forced to march down the autobahn. 

George explained that Bill dressed the shrapnel wounds that he (George) received the morning they were captured and as they marched down the super highway, they had to find material to cover the holes in their shoes to keep their feet from freezing.

Men were falling out of the line of march and were never heard from again. It was bitterly cold and since the Germans had no place to put the prisoners and very little food, they kept them marching.

When George became so weak he felt he could not go on, Bill practically carried his friend to keep him going during the next couple of days. George explained, " Your father could hardly carry himself, but he would have no part of allowing me to fall out of the line."

When Bill and George finally escaped their captors, only 600 of the original 1,200 prisoners survived. George and Bill made two attempts to escape. They were recaptured after the first try but on the second attempt they made it to a German village where they were finally rescued by allied forces. 

In a tribute to their father, George explained, "If it hadn't been for Willy, I wouldn't be here today. Your father was not a big man in comparison to my 6-foot, 1-inch height but he was big in many other ways. I could search the world and never find a man "big" enough to fill his shoes."

When Bill entered the service he weighted 168 pounds and when he was freed from captivity and sent to Camp Lucky Strike in Le Havre, France, for recuperation before being sent home, he only weighed 100 pounds. 

While reading The Longest Winter and going through Bill's papers, the thought that kept coming to me was: How can anyone justify sending our young men to fight a war and put them through the horror they could not talk about for the remainder of their lives? When will we ever learn that peace on Earth, good will to men — finding answers through mediation and understanding — would be a better solution to aggression?