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Tony Gentry

My new book: WWII Mortarman

Updated: May 17

This is my dad at age 23 on the Franco-German border in Alsace, hours away from what would become 150 continuous days of battle in the winter of 1944-45. He manned an M2 mortar in the 99th Chemical Mortar Battalion, part of the U.S. Seventh Army, fought in the Vosges Mountains, battled his way across the Rhine River into Germany, and ended his service liberating a subcamp of Dacchau. He made it back home, which is why I’m here, and can tell the tale.


Here’s the Preface to WWII Mortarman, my new book:


Mama always told us not to ask Daddy anything about the War, but growing up in the 1960s, that was not easy. TV shows at the time included Hogan’s Heroes (a comedy improbably set in a Nazi Prisoner of War camp), Combat (a harrowing World War II drama series), 12 O’Clock High (about a B-17 bomber battalion) and my favorite The Rat Patrol (in which a scruffy crew in a machine-gun armed jeep facing off against Panzer tanks in the North African desert). For years I avidly read the monthly comics Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos (the latter starring Nick Fury, who went on to lead the spy agency SHIELD in middle age), along with the weird GI Combat series, about an American tank crew haunted (and protected by) the ghost of Confederate General W.E.B. Stuart. Wearing our plastic Army helmets and canteen belts, brother Greg and I fired replica Tommy guns in endless neighborhood war games with friends, squirming along the ground on our elbows like the G.I.’s on tv, lobbing stubby corn stalk roots that served for grenades (the Nazi potato masher versions), and boarding the ladders of side-railed coal cars that we imagined to be tanks or landing vessels. What Daddy thought of our romping about aping an era he surely wished to forget I can’t say.


Our house held tantalizing evidence of his wartime service, a handful of ripple-edged black-and-white photographs from the earliest days of Mama and Daddy’s marriage, she giddy in the blowsy skirt and saddle oxfords women wore in the 1940s, he dashing in his uniform. There were even some shots he’d sent his bride from overseas. These pictures were jumbled among others in a dining room cabinet, where on rainy days we four kids could dig them out and marvel that our parents had once been young. I’ve included all the wartime photos that are left in this book.


We had a pair of relics, too. One was an old ornately carved dueling pistol that Daddy left laying out on the fireplace mantle. Greg and I often used it as a toy, including it in our war games, though it was so heavy that we preferred our plastic weapons. Mama finally gave in to our insistent questions and allowed that Daddy had taken it from a dead German officer towards the end of the war. His other booty was the real treasure, though. The swastika section of a red Nazi flag, raggedly knife-cut to fit his pack and signed in ink by 27 of his buddies, their addresses – Fall River, Mass; Plano, TX; Pocatello, Idaho; Saginaw, Michigan – scrawled blurrily below their names. On the upper right corner, Daddy had inked in the date: March 26, 1945. Mama kept that artifact in a wooden chest in their bedroom, but we could go in any time, it seemed, to rifle through her keepsakes and pull it out to study that devilish crooked cross happily defiled by the neatly penned signatures of Daddy’s wartime pals.


That flag fragment hangs framed in my study today (with a caption explaining that, no I’m not a latter-day Nazi). In attempting this narrative, I’ve tried to track down the men who signed the flag. Too late. The youngest among them would be a centenarian, and nothing has come of my inquiries. Why didn’t I make this effort earlier? Why didn’t I finally over-rule Mama’s injunction and ask Daddy about those old pals or try to find them on my own? Well, all I can say is that childhood taboos are hard to break. And it was clear, even in old age, that Daddy preferred not to reflect on wartime memories.


Well, that’s not strictly true. Apparently, when drinking with my sister Kay’s husband Butch, he’d loosen up and share a few choice anecdotes. Butch died suddenly last year, before I’d learned about those talks. So, again, too late. From time to time, though, a brief story would slip out. I overheard him reminiscing with another WWII veteran one day, sharing an eye-opening tale of wartime bliss. And he startled me one night, leaping up to snap off the tv when a guy being interviewed on the old Tom Snyder talk show claimed the Holocaust was a myth. Daddy stood there in his t-shirt and briefs, in a haze of cigarette smoke, and declared: “He’s a liar! I’ve seen bodies stacked from here to Fork Union.” (Fork Union is a town a few miles from our home.) Other anecdotes, as I recall them, pepper this narrative.


The rest of Daddy’s wartime memories died with him. Mama’s gone, too, and all of his six siblings have joined them, either in the Fork Union Baptist Church cemetery or at the old Lyles Church graveyard near their childhood home. What happened, I wonder, to the letters Mama and Daddy mailed each other during the war? I have one postcard that Daddy sent to his older sister Dorothy from North Africa at Christmastime 1943. That’s all.


Mama wrote a memoir that recalls her childhood during the Great Depression and what it was like to be a wartime bride. As she tells it, Daddy used to whistle a bob white quail call when he came a-courtin’. And that’s how she knew he was home from the war, hearing that call again from her bedroom window. The title of her book Then the Bob White Called honors her precious memory. So we do have her side of the story, at least.


What follows is my best effort, such as it is, to tell his. I’ve tried to patch together Daddy’s path through the War, stitching his few personal anecdotes onto sparse documentation about his Army battalion. I’ve also pulled from a shelf full of pertinent wartime narratives, and in footnotes offer links to YouTube film clips that do a better job than my story does at evoking that era before tv’s, cell phones, computers, and air-conditioning, when the whole country was pulling together for a cause. Over time, if I learn more, I’ll thread that in, too. This story is for Daddy’s descendants, my sons among them, who might occasionally wonder about their ancestors from the Greatest Generation. It’s one story among many millions thrown up by the global catastrophe that was World War II. I did this for me, too, of course. A much-belated effort to come up with some answers to the question I never dared ask: What did you do in the War, Daddy?


If you’re interested, you can purchase the book as a paperback or Kindle version on Amazon at this link: https://amzn.to/3HaT9in. If you’d like a signed copy or if you’d like high-resolution digital photos of any of the pictures in it, email me at tonygentry@me.com.


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