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My dad's awful war

By John DeDakis, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Vets in D.C. today for kickoff of HBO series "The Pacific" made John DeDakis think of his dad
  • His father saw carnage during WWII stint as an officer serving in Europe, he says
  • As DeDakis taped his father's war recollections, his normally placid dad became emotional
  • At a reunion DeDakis talked with his dad's fellow soldiers about how the war changed them

Editor's note: John DeDakis is a senior copy editor on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer" in Washington.

Washington (CNN) -- About 250 veterans gathered today at the World War II Memorial in Washington. They were joined by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg to mark the premiere of their 10-part HBO series, "The Pacific."

It was a high-profile public media event, but for me it was personal. For me, it brought back memories of my dad, who fought the Nazis in Europe.

When I was 9 or 10 years old, my father took me to a college basketball game. As the clock ran out, a trumpeter in the pep band thought it would be cute to mark the demise of the rival team by playing Taps.

Dad was not amused.

"Shut up!" he roared.

The trumpeter played on, oblivious.

Dad got to his feet, fists clenched.

"I said, 'Shut up!'"

Embarrassed, I cringed in my seat. I'd never seen Dad this upset. But most people in the noisy auditorium were unaware of his wrath. He was drowned out by cheers, and by amused laughter at the cleverness of the trumpeter.

Later, Dad explained to me that his strong emotions went back nearly 15 years when he was an officer on Gen. William Woodward's staff during the 104th Infantry Division's assault on Nazi Germany. Under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Terry Allen, the "Timberwolves" fought through Holland, Belgium, and into Germany, seeing unbelievable carnage.

Some men became numb to it.

Dad told me about seeing a couple of soldiers carelessly tossing bodies into the back of a truck to be hauled away from the battlefield. As Dad watched, a passing officer angrily chewed out the men:

"These are soldiers of the United States Army," the officer yelled, "and they will be treated with respect!"

Video: Tribute to the 'Pacific'
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Whenever Dad told that story, his voice would catch.

Fast forward. Spring 1995 -- 50 years after the Nazis surrendered and some 35 years after that basketball game. His emotions were still raw as we sat together on the back porch of my home in suburban Atlanta.

Over the course of three days, I held a small tape recorder between us as he talked about his life. Not surprisingly, his days in combat with the 104th took up most of the eight hours I captured on tape.

Dad was a shy man, placid, slow to anger. Rarely did he show much emotion of any kind, except laughter -- he loved to laugh. So, it was unexpected when, during a taping session, he suddenly broke down and wept.

He'd been describing the day he came across a group of Timberwolf infantrymen who'd been caught in a crossfire and slaughtered.

"If it hadn't been for those guys in the infantry," he said, swiping at his tears, "I never would have survived the war."

My dad, N. George DeDakis, remained in the Army Reserves after WWII, retiring as a colonel in 1960. He practiced law in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and died May 29, 1996, at the age of 88.

I went in his place to the 56th Timberwolves reunion in Atlanta August 28 to September 3, 2001. (The unit's final reunion will be September 1 in Chicago.) At the Atlanta reunion, I had a chance to relay Dad's appreciation of the infantry to several of the veterans I met -- and I listened as many of them talked about their experiences. The memories were old, but the tears were fresh.

One told me, "Think of the worst you could go through -- then double it."

Another said he wrote down his story but hid the manuscript in a safe deposit box for his children to read after his death.

"It's too awful to talk about," he explained, "plus, none of them seem very interested in what I did during the war."

One infantryman recounted the shock and horror of finding the bodies of some of his closest foxhole buddies "dead in the street."

"I just shut down completely," he said. "My emotions turned to ice. Suddenly, I had no one I could talk to."

"Could you pray?" I asked.

"I could until [the] Nordhausen [concentration camp]," he replied. (On April 11, 1945, the 104th liberated the Mittelbau-Dora camp in Nordhausen, Germany. The bodies of 5,000 starved prisoners were stacked like cordwood and the few hundred survivors were like walking skeletons.) He told me it took years, and the help of several understanding people, to restore in him a semblance of faith.

"How did the war change you?" I asked several of the men.

"It made me mean," one man confessed.

Some said it took years, and the patience of long-suffering spouses, before they were able to overcome their anger -- anger they didn't even know they had until others pointed it out to them.

During my time with these men, I tried to resist my journalistic instinct to probe. Mostly, I listened. It was a rich experience. An experience, I fear, that will be lost forever if more of us don't encourage these men and women to tell their stories for history.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John DeDakis