Max T. Russell
For the Daily Reporter
My father died recently. He was 92. You could say he survived the German assault on Bastogne, Belgium with barely a scratch while truckloads of his 101st Airborne buddies were killed by bullets or blown to pieces. That’s not exactly true.
Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge was what my dad wanted to be remembered for, but he never pretended to be anyone’s hero.
He suffered battle nightmares in recent years and despised being asked about his war experiences. His medals made no difference at all in his behavior around home. His forceful belief was that such terrible battle action earned him the right to live as he pleased. He left a field of wreckage equal to wartime destruction in the lives of family, neighbors and strangers.
Nevertheless, I called him up recently and suggested a detailed professional interview of the lighter side of war. “Let’s do it,” he said. His health was failing fast and I knew he might not last until I was able to get down to his home by the border. So I made several phone calls to begin collecting information.
The stuff of many great stories is in details that at first seem boring. My dad kept saying, “I don’t remember,” to which I replied, “You don’t have to remember, Daddy. I will draw the information out.”
“Did you know a soldier in the infantry named Otterson, O-t-t-e-r-s-o-n?”
“A-u-t-e-r-s-o-n. He was in my company.”
“How do you know how to spell the name?”
“I was company clerk.”
“How did you get that job?”
“Someone saw me typing one day.”
And so the typewriter became a story in itself that my large family probably has not heard.
I also found out that my dad enlisted in the Army without knowing anything about why America was at war. “I didn’t care,” he said. The same man came to hate war and to steer people away from enlistment that had a likelihood of combat duty.
I asked about the accordion he obtained in Berchtesgaden, Germany. He said his company was marching through the town and he saw a barn. “I was afraid a Kraut might shoot us in the back.” My dad grabbed his carbine rifle, approached the barn and threw the sliding door open. On the concrete floor was the inventory of a local music store.
No Krauts appeared, so my father helped himself to a small accordion, case and all, and caught up with his company, the heavy instrument in one hand and 70 pounds of Army gear on his back. Later, at a liberated concentration camp, Polish prisoners danced to Private Russell’s polkas. He said it was “the craziest thing.”
My father told about playing guitars on the front line with his sergeant, who later became my Uncle Hubert, whom my father once said he should have shot in the foxhole when he had the chance. Both men passed on before I could get those details.
I grew up around all kinds of WWII and other veterans. Fifteen years ago, my dad gave me a photo of himself with a group of army buddies, all teenagers. I got it out and looked at it after he died. Immediately I believed, for the first time, that war had damaged him way down deep.
I don’t need my father to be a hero. I’ve learned that laying your life down every day can be just as tough as going into combat. Living can be harder than dying. I’ve met many unarmed heroes who lay their lives down continuously without getting medals or standing ovations. My father recently told me that military service doesn’t make you a patriotic hero. He considered enlistment one way of performing service.
That’s one of my favorite memories of him. He was a war casualty himself and a little more honest than I thought.