If you do a book, I’d buy it,” Calvin Leavitt told me. His intense blue eyes calmly surveyed mine from his corner chair in the pristine trailer home he shares with his German war bride of fifty years.
Last year, in a meeting at the historical society in Goshen, New Hampshire, where my family has lived for the past nine generations, I had volunteered to film oral histories of the town’s World War II veterans. My third interview was with Leavitt, who described for me his experiences as a driver with General Patton’s Field Headquarters. When he suggested I write a book, I heard myself blurt out, “I don’t know how to do a book, but I can do a film and we can show it at Old Home Day.” That gave me seven months to track down the forty-five men and one woman whose names are inscribed on the bronze war memorial in front of the town library. In 1940 the U.S. Census counted 342 living in Goshen; nearly one in seven served in World War II. I was able to trace all but two, and in the process I became the de facto guardian of several life legacies. From these veterans I also learned profound lessons in dignity, grace, and timeless friendship.
“We had some bad times there,” recalled Billy Harold simply. A machine gunner in Italy, he lost his entire squad—twice. The first time was at Anzio; the second, before the monastery walls at Monte Cassino. Last July, nearly sixty years late, he received the Bronze Star for not abandoning his gun to the Germans. If you need a lesson in understatement and grace under pressure, Billy is your man.
Another former machine gunner, Clyde Childs, told me that during the winter of 1944–45 he and his comrades had crossed the Rhine, taking a town a day to avoid sleeping in the snow. When Childs stepped on a land mine, he was evacuated to a field hospital where a fellow soldier tried to steal his wallet. “You know, I’m not dead yet,” Childs told the man, pulling out a gun. “If you need the money, I got two dollars. That’s all I got, but if you don’t put that wallet back, you ain’t goin’ home either!” Childs got back his wallet and kept his gun, despite a commanding officer’s order to relinquish it.
Days later, in a Paris hospital, an army surgeon told him his left leg would have to come off. “I don’t think so,” came Childs’s reply. “You’re here to save people, not cut ’em up.” Two weeks after I interviewed Childs, he suffered a massive stroke and lost his speech. I shudder to think how nearly his story was lost. Now, when I visit him in the understaffed veterans’ hospital where he shares a dank room with three others, I can only hold his hand and wish him safe passage.
Among all the veterans I met, Donald Hurd emerged as my hero, a symbol of hope. Motherless from age ten and sent to a childless couple to work for his room and board, Hurd is one of the legendary Iron Men of Metz, who after 107 days on the front lines took Fortress Metz, on the French-German border. Seventeen interconnected forts surrounded by twenty-eight concrete and steel bastions, Metz had not been taken since 451 A.D. War journalists of the time nicknamed Hurd’s 95th Division “the Bravest of the Brave.” He gave of himself because he believed in working for the greater good, regardless of the price he had to pay.
To hear these soldiers’ stories, in their own words, is a powerful reminder of a tradition that goes back to The Iliad and The Odyssey: the hero’s journey and homecoming. These are lessons we can all learn from—and honor.
Deborah Scranton’s documentary will air on New Hampshire Public TV this spring; see http://www.storiesfromsilence.com for details.