When the bombs first fell in Malmedy, Belgium, 75 years ago Monday, my father was shaving — standing at a sink in a second-floor room he shared with two other soldiers in a hotel the US Army had commandeered.
“The morning of December 16 started as usual,” he recalled decades later in an unpublished memoir.
“Suddenly we heard cannon fire,” he wrote. “Moments later shells were landing in the street outside our quarters. More shells and the windows were blown into our room. Grabbing our medical pouches, we headed down the stairway at the end of the hall.”
Amid the confusion, my father was ordered in one direction and his two roommates were sent elsewhere. One of them — Staff Sergeant John Winter, his best friend in the Army — was killed, as was their company commander. They were among tens of thousands of Allied casualties during the last big Nazi offensive of World War II, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge.
Before that attack on Dec. 16, 1944, “our own unit had been dormant for weeks,” my father wrote. “A degree of complacency existed amongst us.”
In the days afterward, “we were literally in panic. Convoys moved in all directions. Equipment and personal belongings were left behind. We moved from one town to the next, further and further backward . . . back and forth. Sometimes returning again to the same town and a new location every few hours.”
My father was a sergeant in the Army Medical Corps, and as he and others in his unit raced from town to town, “somewhere we had a dead German soldier on our hands. Perhaps he died after we picked him up. I don’t remember. We buried him in a shallow ditch in case we were captured and still had him in the ambulance.”
For a day or two, he was assigned to a hospital in Huy, Belgium: “My job, give injections of penicillin. So many casualties, by the time I finished one round, it was time to start again.”
Those memories, rekindled decades later, found their way into the book he wrote — a memoir that could easily have never existed.
Born in 1921, Donald S. Marquard was a prolific recorder of life’s events, large and small. He began writing diaries at age 9 and kept them on and off until several days before dying of a brain tumor, at 76.
He also was a lifelong dedicated letter writer, and while in the Army — in basic training and Europe — he sent hundreds home to family and friends.
In the mid-1970s, after his father had died and his mother was in a nursing home, he was cleaning out his boyhood home in a Connecticut town along Long Island Sound. In one box, he was surprised to find some 400 of his wartime letters that his mother had saved.
Taking them to our family’s home in Vermont, he let a decade pass before opening the envelopes one day to find that some letters were beginning to fade.
To preserve the text, he copied them all out in longhand. In his memoir’s prologue, he said he probably wouldn’t have summoned “the courage to start” had he “realized the task before me.”
During those hand-cramping months, he found that re-reading what he wrote long ago revived long-forgotten memories he had never mentioned in letters that were subject to Army censors.
In his late 60s, having retired and joined a writers’ group, he began to fill in the gaps — including his memoir passages about the early days of the Battle of the Bulge.
By contrast, he had been far more circumspect on Dec. 20, 1944, in his first letter home after the battle had begun.
“Dear Ma,” he wrote under his handwritten dateline “Somewhere in Belgium,” a purposefully vague location he listed in every letter, always in quotes.
“Everything is going alright,” he told his mother, “and I’m well but have been rather busy the last few days so that explains why I haven’t written.”
Busy not getting killed, to be precise.
Offering reassurances was a common theme in the letters home after his unit left England the night of June 12, 1944, and headed across the English Channel during the invasion of Normandy.
In his first letter to his mother after landing on the Sugar Red section of Utah Beach early on June 13, he noted that he was now writing from “Somewhere in France.”
“Am doing alright and feeling fine,” he wrote. “At last I feel that I’m really helping out in my small way.”
That last phrase, “in my small way,” provided the title for his memoir.
History books often celebrate the exploits of generals and heroes, but wars are largely won or lost by those whose days and nights are rarely recorded. My father wrote about the ordinary experiences of ordinary troops.
In the military, you wait in line a lot. He wrote about boredom, too.
“Believe today is Sunday if I’m not mistaken,” he wrote home in late June 1944. “It’s rather easy to get mixed up on the dates and days now for one day is just like another.”
Like soldiers throughout history, he traipsed through countries he had never expected to visit, complaining about rain and welcoming sunny days. The weather was a safe topic for letters reviewed by censors, but he summoned more pointed images in his memoir.
“With much debris everywhere, it was sometimes difficult to drive through with a vehicle,” he wrote of his time in France. “Dead farm animals, bloated to enormous size by the heat and sun, lay in the fields and farm yards. Yet among all this, people survived and were attempting to put their lives back in order.”
As he and other soldiers pushed on through Normandy, “a German reconnaissance plane would fly over our area. ‘Bed Check Charlie’ as we came to call him. ‘Ack, Ack’ guns would cut loose as the dull thud of the shells bursting echoed high above us. One morning when I awoke, I found a piece of shell lying in my bedroll.”
My father probably owes his survival in part to serving in the medical corps. Though not a doctor, he had trained to be a funeral director before the war, studying anatomy and physiology at a junior college. That was enough to earn a medical corps assignment.
He treated all manner of ailments. Some paratroopers who landed in Normandy before the ground troops “were emotionally unable to adjust to the demands placed upon them,” he wrote, adding that in later years they probably would have been diagnosed with PTSD.
My father also treated Nazi soldiers captured during the invasion. Using rudimentary German language skills, he struggled to communicate.
“I still recall a German whom I endeavored to help,” he wrote in his memoir. “He kept pointing to his ear. I thought he had an injury and shaved a portion of his head. His only problem was that he couldn’t understand me!”
This year, the 75th anniversary of the action he saw in 1944, I’ve been paging through his memoir and letters, reading about his wartime experiences on present time’s corresponding days.
He had inscribed for me a Xeroxed copy of his memoir as a Christmas present in 1993, less than four years before he died. I was in my 30s then and distracted in the way of children-turned-adults who are busy building careers.
I’ll always regret not reading his memoir immediately and asking questions, even ones he might not have answered.
What had it been like for him to know that, at 23, he lived and his best friend died because they went separate ways leaving a stairwell? Did he feel some sense of duty the rest of his life to live up to the quirk of fate that gave him another half-century?
But in one sense, reading what my father wrote about World War II — in letters as it unfolded and in memoir looking back when he was older — is a way of having the conversation we never had when he was alive.
He speaks to me and others through his writing, excerpts of which I post occasionally on Facebook and Instagram with his wartime photos — introducing his first-person accounts to an audience he surely sought by writing a memoir.
On the day the Battle of the Bulge began, my father was a sergeant, and Staff Sergeant Winter was his immediate superior. Since training stateside, they had spent nearly all their days together, including killing time with a 12-hour card game during a train ride through England, rowing on the River Thames while awaiting the Normandy invasion, and rooming together on Winter’s last night alive.
Yet whenever my father mentioned his friend, in person or on paper, he always called him Sergeant Winter, not John. Military respect never faded.
In the mid-1980s, I was a copy editor at Newsday, on Long Island, N.Y., where the headquarters was across the street from an enormous national cemetery. After the war, my father had visited that very cemetery to join his friend’s family for the burial, after Sergeant Winter’s remains were brought home from Europe.
The first time my parents visited me on Long Island, my father asked to visit the cemetery, where after some searching we found his friend’s grave.
His memoir was not yet written, and he had talked little about the war, so I had no sense of the enormity of the moment. My father was someone who laughed easily and cried never, but on that morning his voice broke as he and I stood by a grave he had last seen decades ago.
“My friend Sergeant Winter,” he said softly. “I miss him.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.