The Homecoming

Bookmarked to the Saturday Evening Post

       Thankfully, most people have no real references to war other than books or film. As much as governments want to think they can, war will never be regulated. 

       War is mankind's capability for dispensing evil at his very worst.

        All laws, rules and any sense of civility are discarded because failure in a war is not accepted until all avenues for success are exhausted. The end of a war for the veteran is always an emotional one.

Abbreviated from a recorded interview

       When the war ended, I was in Germany outside Hamburg. Few of my friends were still alive but I have managed to get through the war untouched. Hardly a scratch. 

       I never really thought about it but I knew it was inevitable that I was going to die. I would hear bullets zip past me, then thud into people all around. Some would scream for a time, others would just fall over dead. 

       Once a mortar round landed closer to me than one of my friends. Apparently a tiny fragment went into his brain killing him instantly. I was blown over, but not a scratch.

       The war was nearing the end when I began to take stock that I might live. I thought it was a bit ironic that I might die on the last day. Perhaps in Japan. There's a strong rumor that those in Europe at the end of the war will fight in Japan.

       Then one morning I was huddling in a foxhole talking to a corporal in my squad. We just had a fierce fight with Hitler Youth SS just a couple of days before. It was terrible. Nothing but a bunch of young teenagers, really. They fought hard and we had to kill most of them. They killed some of us too. A few surrendered and a bunch were badly wounded. So bad, they died.

       Anyway, over a tannoy (loudspeaker) came a voice, "The war has ended! The war is over! Germany has surrendered."

       "What did they say?" I asked my buddy.

       "The war’s over!" he said through his blubbering.

       I cried too. I couldn't believe it. The war was really over. I wanted throw my rifle away right then, but the word is we will have to go fight the Japanese. 

       After weeks of hard training and drilling, they suddenly call us to formation and said, "The following names, please step forward."

       Finally they called, "Sergeant Spencer, Robert L!" I stepped out. I'm kinda expecting to hear that we're moving out for the Pacific.

       Instead a captain says, "Okay, all you heroes are going home. You have enough points for immediate discharge. Prepare your gear to move out in the morning."

       One guy keels over, Ker- thunk! I couldn't believe it either. I have some medals I kinda forgotten about. 

       Fortunately, I have avoided Purple Hearts. I heard talk of cumulative points allowing some soldiers to go home and I am grateful to have enough.

       The last two and a half years seemed like a lifetime. I left home when I was eighteen and I had just turned twenty-one a few weeks earlier.

       The next morning we load up on an army truck. As we move through the day we join a building line of Jimmies roaring westward. The convoy goes for miles. The day passes as we ride from one part of Germany to another, stopping only to stretch and relieve ourselves. 

       During this time we were giddy with talk about home and what we were going to do with the rest of our lives. During quieter moments, I was lost in reflection about my luck. Except me, every man on my truck has a Purple Heart medal for a wound of some kind. Some have two, and a few have three. They have other decorations too. 

       Finally some of the trucks, including the one I'm on, pull into a field with five field kitchens strategically dotting it. After some hot chow of meat, potatoes and gravy- some kinda stew I think- we sack out. Early the next morning we get up, take down our tents, grabbed some coffee and biscuits, and start to travel.

       Before long we were deep into France.  It was sad to see the plight of the French people.  They are starving beggars under the Nazi regime.  As we slow to travel through a village of narrow streets, people in rags swarmed around the trucks, apparently pleading in French. Most of us toss them our box lunch of K-rations.

       A couple of days later we arrived at a harbor and there's some ships waiting; six Victory Ships and one huge, white hospital ship, the Louis Milne. We're told that these Victory Ships are faster and we'll cross the Atlantic in half the time of Liberty Ships. We board the SS Fisk Victory. The small convoy of ships pulled out without an escort of destroyers, unlike the trip over. Also unlike the trip over the seven ships are all lit up. 

       The whole trip I felt like I was in a dream. I thought about all the friends who had died or were terribly wounded. Sometimes I would pray, asking God was there a calling for me. I still can't believe that when thousands of bullets went whizzing through air, none found me. Had you'd been there, you'd understand the impossibility of surviving as well as I did. Once, a guy on the left side of me was struck with three or four bullets. Another on the right side had his head shot off.

       After about a week at sea I guess, someone yells out, "Hey everybody, we’re home! Go up on the top deck, and you can see it."

I run up to the main deck with a bunch of guys and we’re pulling into Newport News, Virginia. After two and a half years of living through hell in Africa and Europe, I still can't believe it: the United States of America! There's a big sign that says, "Welcome home, boys!"  I just can't believe it. I’m really home alive. I never expected to survive the war. I just seen too many people die.

       They call my name and I stepped down the gangway. When I got off, I dropped my duffel and kissed the asphalt. I really did. It hit me again that so many of my friends were left behind. Some dead on hot, dry sand, others died in cold, sopping mud. They will never see their homes, or families and friends again. As hard as I tried not to, I cried. 

       Then we were sorted by states. I was from Texas so I was sent over to an officer where a formation was assembling.

He takes us to a big warehouse where he says, "When your name is called, go to the paymaster and collect your back pay.

We collect our pay and travel allotment, and I have a little over a thousand bucks! That was 1945 and it was a lot of money. I know it’s more than enough to buy a brand-new car right off the showroom floor.

       Then we march to another building and the officer tells us when we hear our name, step up, salute the officer who's giving you your discharge papers, make a turn, go back, you're discharged from the Army. They begin calling names in the vast cavern and men shuffle about. I do what I've been trained to do for years: hurry up and wait for an intense climax.

       After sitting in a wooden folding chair for hours I faintly hear, "Sergeant Spencer, Robert L." called several times.

Suddenly I realize it’s me they’re calling! I walk up there, real nervous like. They give me a paper and I salute. I walk back and sit down. The officer in charge of my group says with a big grin, 'You don't come back here, buddy. Get the hell out of here.  You're discharged!"

       I salute him and he says, "Hey, buddy. You don’t salute me. You're not a soldier anymore."

       "I'm sorry, sir."

       "That's okay, Mister Spencer. Now go on home!"

       I take the train to Beaumont, Texas, so I’ve had almost a week to prepare myself. When I leave the train I go to a telephone booth and suddenly I'm nervous again.

       "Hello? Who is this?" I ask the young woman on the other end. I didn't recognize the voice.

       "I'm Nelda. Who is this?" Nelda's my youngest sister but she sounds like a grown woman.

       "This is Bob.'

       "Who?"

       "Bob."

       "Bob?"

       "Yes, it’s me. Your brother, Bob. I’m back from the war."

       "Bobby!" she screams.

       I hear a clunk-thunk. She dropped the phone. And passed out.

       Frances, my oldest sister - I recognized her voice, immediately picks up the phone and demands abruptly, "Who is this?"

       "Frances, please don't get excited. It's your brother, Bob. I'm home.

       "Oh my GOD! Bobby?" She started crying. "At the train depot? Don’t move. We'll send somebody."

       "No, don’t. I'm coming home. I'll take care of it. Just tell everybody I'm coming home.'"

       "Bobby, oh please be careful." She started crying again. "Oh my god," she says over and over.

       I hang up because she doesn’t.

       As the cab turns the corner, my family and all the neighbors are waiting for me. I get out of the cab, and they're grabbing me. Mama’s trying to grab me, and my father and my sisters. Grinning neighbors try to shake my hand or hug me.

       Across the street Mary Combs comes running and she’s crying. Mary’s my girlfriend. She was fifteen and I was almost nineteen when I left for the war. She fights through the crowd to grab me and hugs me. She doesn’t say a word. She just clutches me and cries.

       People are still pulling me here and there. After about two hours, some of the neighbors disperse and we go inside to dinner. Somehow, mama has already made a big dinner but I can’t eat. Besides, Mary won’t let go of my hand.

       I finally realize I’m really home. The war is really over.