Interview with the Colonel
by J. Stefan-Cole



The Colonel can be a hard-headed man with zero tolerance for doubts that he is right in his assessment of and place in the world. I am less certain, more of a perpetual work in progress, innately suspicious of sharp lines. We've given up arguing points of view, the Colonel and I. Maybe he finally gets it that the positions I take, when I take them, are not rebellions but sincere. But I don't feel like a freak anymore and I even bare my teeth once in awhile to let him know I'm no daisy flower he can huff and puff and blow down. In the eyes of the Colonel, I'm sure I'll never make better than non-commissioned officer.

Yet there is one area where we do meet eye to eye: World War II. Some part of me has always been fascinated by that war and era. Starting with the stories he told as I grew up, and the black and white war movies we used to watch (any war movie really, I'm pretty sure I've seen Pork Chop Hill five times), and books. Not so much straight history, but writers of the era, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Malraux, Hemmingway, Camus, Primo Levi, informed by the war. A corner of my awareness was formed back then that I have never argued with or sought to alter. My father gave me an understanding of brutality and heroism mixed in a package that came from the knowledge of true grit. (We're talking John Wayne here.)

Recently he asked me (told me, actually) to watch the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan. He qualified himself by adding that he couldn't stand "that liberal, Spielberg," but admitted he had captured the grit in those first minutes. Of course, I suckered into the whole film though the rest fell into the usual big movie trap of shameless insistence upon ringing out every teary detail of a conventional story.

"I had a different truth from the Colonel."

What I remember more vividly is the movie Patton. Patton came out in 1970 when my father and I were bitterly at odds over Viet Nam. I was starting college, it was a fourth of July and I was home for the summer, feeling every bit the political prisoner. My father told me he was taking me to the movies. I rolled my eyes when he said which one, but I had my marching orders and I went along; just the two of us, no popcorn, no frills. It was an afternoon showing on a national holiday and the theater was nearly empty. We sat in the eighth row, me slouching, the Colonel erect, expectant. Then the screen-sized American flag appeared, and George C. Scott marched in, baton under arm, and started in with that rasping speech, "...I don't like a coward..." and suddenly my father was standing up, and, so help me, he was saluting: proud, tall, firm. I just about died in my seat. He looked down, and gave the command: "Stand up for your flag and country!" It took every piece of nerve I owned, but I didn't do it. George C. was up there and part of me did want to shout, "Yes!" The part that was getting goose bumps, the part of me that wanted to know why I couldn't get all misted up over that huge flag, the part that regretted all that was wrong with the divided country that I had come to hate, that prevented me from standing up and feeling proud. I had a different truth from the Colonel.

On the recent visit, the one where we watched Private Ryan, I asked my father if I could interview him for an essay. He laughed slightly. I explained that I didn't have an angle yet, but that I wanted to go into our old common ground, The War. He smiled and said, "They call World War II the last good war."

I had his interest.



He entered when he was just twenty. He'd volunteered at nineteen. He said he knew the United States was going in, and one way or the other he'd be going too, so he made his move. After basic and quick rise in rank, he entered the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1942 he was granted a five day leave to marry my mother at Fort Riley, Manhattan, Kansas. Years would go by before they saw each other again.

His job, in the European theater, was to build -- in sheer hell time -- bridges over the rivers that, as the enemy retreated, would take the allied troops into Germany; rivers like the Moselle, Rhine, Main and Danube. When his company wasn't erecting bridges or working with explosives, they were engaged in regular combat, and either way they were being shot at from up, down and sideways. He was a Captain, and commander of his own company, the 1014th Engineers.

At one point, nearing the end of the war, but still on combat duty, my father commandeered a Castle in Bavaria. We'll call it Castle X; a good place because it meant a bed, a bath, warmth, shelter. The German soldiers left such places perfectly intact. The Captain followed suit, instructing his men not to plunder and pillage, and he was mostly obeyed. The family of Castle X brewed beer, they were like a feudal lordship in the medieval town. My father let the family and their servants keep to the attic. He respected the ancient Castle, the history of it.

"The Russians went beyond pillage into rape, and anything female was fair game."

But Herr X came to my father one day saying his rare coin collection was missing. The coins were from before Napoleon, and irreplaceable. My father sent his lieutenants out to search for any gold coin. None were found. But an alert officer noticed two blackened coffee cans in the back of a convoy truck. When he lifted one it was heavy, and soot came off on his hands. The cans had been sealed shut. He scraped with a knife and pried one open to find solid gold baked in the shape of a coffee can. A soldier had melted the coins. My father returned the property to Herr X.

The OSS, Office of Strategic Services -- official spy outfit of the war -- had been dropping agents behind enemy lines, and as the war wound down, they continued dropping spies into areas that had been captured by friendly forces, like the Russians. Word reached my father at Castle X that the saviors of Vienna, Russian soldiers, were plundering everything from jewelry to toilets (Communist Russia was apparently short on plumbing supplies). The Russians went beyond pillage into rape, and anything female was fair game. Families began hiding their daughters, even young girls -- still children -- behind stone walls with a hole for air and a shaft for passing water and bread. Fear spread like vermin through the city; the rapes were rampant and no one could stop them.



My father was sent down to cross the Danube with orders to pacify the marauding Russians. But arriving at a bridge, he was met by a Russian platoon whose leader told him, a machine gun shoved into my father's face for emphasis, that he would not be crossing on that day. My father did not argue. He believed the man was prepared, at the least, to crack his teeth with his weapon. He had not been sent to engage in battle with an ally, so he gave the order to withdraw; the whirling hand went up and the cumbrous, three mile long company turned itself around to retrace it's steps, eventually returning to Castle X.

While they had been attempting their mission, the Criminal Investigation Division of the Army (the CID) had taken up the Castle. This was the division intended to keep order, and they did eventually make it into Vienna. But when my father returned to X everything was changed, the castle had been plundered: paintings ripped off stretchers -- cut out without bothering to remove the frame -- silverware gone, antiques, jewels, small furnishings. What ever could be carried out, all stolen by the CID.

"Each time he tells the stories more detail comes out."

My father didn't comment on the actions of the Army's law and order guys, he didn't say much about the Russian rapes. I don't know how he felt about Herr X.

I did ask him if other troops didn't rape women in the war, especially at the end. He answered, "Not like the Russians."

"What about Italians, say, or the Brits?"

"Here and there, every group, sure," he said, "but the Germans were known for discipline, and the British were temperamentally opposite the Russians."

"Why do you think the Russians so much?"

He shrugged. "They were animals. Everyone knew it" I made no comment, that was too general for me; they couldn't all have been, plus I sensed an issue brewing.

I thought of the Serbs recently with Bosnia and Kosovo, rape as a form of systematic humiliation. He said, "The Russians had no objective to humiliate Austrian women; okay, they volunteered to join Hitler, but the Russians didn't care, they raped everywhere they went."

"What about your guys?"

"There were incidents. I remember one town we were camped, there was a division from another company parked in the town. One night there was terrific screaming. Some soldiers were after two women -- not from my men. One of them jumped out a window to get away. She must have broken her legs because she screamed bloody murder for hours."

"What did you do?"

"I told my Sergeant to find her and haul her the hell out of earshot; you can't go back into combat without a couple -- without some sleep."



Each time he tells the stories more detail comes out. This time it was how he had been sent to blow up the eagle in Nuremberg Stadium, the one Hitler stood in front of in all those propaganda shots, the enthralled crowd cheering a goose-stepping military. They blew it up, an eight foot wall holding the eagle, no heroics, just set the explosives and ran like hell.

Didn't he the feel the eerie presence of history in that stadium? The Colonel looked at me. "When you're in a bad place, what you do is get out as fast as you can."



But I'm a writer. I imagine the war from the quiet vantage point of my desk. I try to fill in the details, the dialogue, the setting. He tells his grim stories face up, no flourishes, and not as a father, but as a man. He talks, and I listen to a place where the Colonel was, I think, most himself, the war where, listening, I am most his daughter.




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