My American cousin, Billy, paid his first and only visit to Ireland in 1947. He was a soldier in the airborne forces which had crossed the Rhine in the final conquest of Germany in 1945. He was young (22), handsome and personable, and he briefly became the source of much heart-throbbing amongst my teenage girl friends.
The uniform which he wore looked very crisp and tailored. He told us that General Dwight D. Eisenhower had designed the jacket, and he called him “Ike” as if he had been a personal friend.
There are only a few things that I now remember about those days he spent with us, except, perhaps, that he used words which had not yet come into our Irish vocabularly. While we were familiar with the lingo of western cowboys the twang of eastside New York-ese was not a feature of wartime films in Clonmel cinemas.
He did not speak about his war experiences, but sometimes mentioned, in passing, his “buddies,” when, I recall, his mood became sombre. He was just a few weeks back in his billet in Northern Germany, when he was discharged from army service and he returned to civilian life in the United States.
It was decades before I met cousin Billy again, and this time only for a few hours in Kennedy Airport in the interval between flights. He was now a grandfather, was looking forward to retirement and playing lots of golf. And this time he spoke about his war experiences.
Europe was a place so sad and disconsolate in his memory, he told me, that he had never been able to return, even though it was now a place of peace and prosperity. He remembered the early months of 1945 when the weather was bitterly cold, and the terrain hard and frozen.
And frozen, too, in his memory were the scenes of cities and towns and villages in rubble, and dead people, and broken bodies and blood and mangled flesh. He was particularly familiar with the latter because he was in “the medics,” a group of young soldiers who went out with stretchers and first-aid equipment, often in the teeth of battle, and who brought the wounded back to the field hospitals.
The Rhine was the last great natural defence in the final battles of World War II. The river, with its islands and cliffs and gorges, was also the great psychological barrier to be crossed. There was enormous loss of life, both military and civilian.
And there, in the airport so many decades later, as he recalled his visit to Ireland, he talked about the war memories which, for most of his life, he had deliberately chosen not to talk about, even to his nearest and dearest. He told me that one of his greatest fears had been going out into the dark and unknown territory to recover the victims of night-patrols.
Often the only way casualties could be located, he said, was by piercing screams, demented shouting and cries of terrified young men calling for their mothers, even though their mothers were thousands of miles away, across the Atlantic, in Idaho or Kansas or the Carolinas.
There was always the prospect of finding a dying buddy, a particular friend, whose life depended on you, and whom you could trust with your life. Buddies became even more important than families in the grotesque circumstances of war. There was a very special bonding: a sharing of trauma; a common cause; a constant shared danger.
That airport meeting was the last time I met cousin Billy. There were cards and letters on St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas. There was a promise to come to Ireland when he retired. He died shortly after that retirement.
But a few weeks ago, I felt I met some of cousin Billy’s buddies, in a very large US military cemetery on the road to Maastricht! I was visiting Aachen in the German Ruhr, and from the map I saw the Dutch city, so familiar to us from EU legislation, was just a few kilometres away, situated on a small salient of the Netherlands between the German and Belgium borders.
These were borders fiercely contested in World War II. But now, there are no visible borders, on passport controls, no distinctive marking on the road. Yet, there was a change in the character of the architecture and the language. The villages were more the sráid bhaile familiar to us in Ireland, rather than the comfortable compact Germanic clusters. And, protected from the traffic, on both sides of the road, well-designed cycle tracks offered easy and safe travelling facilities to schoolgoing children and their parents on the way to the shops for work. (Would Irish local authorities please copy!).
The long sweeping avenue access to the cemetery was bordered by oak trees. It lay on a small incline, overlooking the catchment of the River Maas, a tributary of the Rhine. And like all such legacies of war, it was stunning in its simplicity and overwhelming in its statistics.
These statistics, carved in stone, said the 8,000 US soldiers, casualties of the Rhine offensive, were buried on this land donated by the Dutch government; that 2000 more were “missing” and their names were carved on the circular walls which surrounded a pool. This represented 32 per cent of casualties and 60 per cent had been taken back for burial in the United States.
The “missing,” the unaccounted for, are still being located, discovered by a farmer when ploughing a field, or in the rebuilding of a house in the village. Still unidentified, they now find their last resting place in these burial grounds.
I walked amongst the white monuments, shining in the sun. The Cross marked the grave of the Christian, the Star of David the Jew. There were few who had reached their 30th birthdays, most were in their early twenties.
The majority came from small, insignificant towns spread throughout the United States. Like me, there can be few who had ever encountered in their school geographies, the small area of an escarpment over a river, where they were to die.
On that recent September day, the cemetery was a clam, tranquil place. There was a poignant beauty in the symmetry of the monuments, in the smooth green lawns, in the splashes of colour of the flowers laid by visiting relatives and in the splendid oaks which sheltered it.
And then one remembered the screams of the wounded and dying and the cries of young men calling for their mothers.