Jan Elvin on Five Things I Wish I’d Asked My Father about World War II

Jan ElvinThe following is a guest post from Jan Elvin, author of The Box from Braunau: In Search of My Father’s War (AMACOM 2009).

Five years after my father died, I finished my book about Dad’s experiences during World War II. I had spent a lot of time holed up in libraries, museums, and places like the National Archives doing research about the war. He’d left a journal of his time in combat, excerpts of which are contained in the book, but I wanted to make sure I properly filled in the blanks left by the journal. I delved into the history of battles, the strategy, and dusty old records of the 80th Infantry Division.

I was able to answer many of the questions I had about his military service. And since Dad and I had a few conversations about the war in the year or so before he passed away, I was able to get more information about his personal experiences.

But in truth, writing the book after his death raised many more questions than it answered. Learning about the battle plans, the After Action Reports, and all the dates and times regarding his war made me want to know how he’d felt about it. So as Father’s Day approaches, I decided to pull together five things I wished I’d asked my father about World War II, things only he could answer. Doesn’t hurt to ask.

These are a few questions I might have asked him over a warm cup of coffee, sitting on the couch one morning, or over a beer down at the pub. I’m going settle in with a cup of coffee now and pretend Dad is sitting with me. I’ll start with the questions in a gentle manner, since he didn’t like to talk about this subject very much:

Who was your best friend during the war?

I know that in your war journal you mention Graham quite often. He was a friend from your hometown of Frostburg, Maryland but he received a serious head wound not long after you entered battle in France, and was sent home. After that, who, if anyone, took his place? Did you have another best friend?

Describe two incidents, one humorous and one serious, that you remember most vividly from the war.

How did you deal with fear?

I know from your journal that you were very frightened during some of the artillery shelling and thought you were going to die more than once. Were you ever scared enough to think about running the other way? And I often wondered, what keeps soldiers from doing that?

What was it like to come home?

And what might be more interesting, and surprising — what was it like six months later? Was it hard to adjust over the longer term?

Lastly, I want to ask about Ebensee, the terrible concentration camp

I know now that you went to this camp and observed it only days after it was liberated by your Division. You had nightmares for years and suffered from your memories of that camp. You even said that it was far worse than anything you’d seen in combat. But did you ever talk about it before I asked you about it five years ago?

Anyone who has the chance to sit on the couch somewhere with a veteran, particularly a veteran of the Second World War, might try asking some questions. It will probably lead to an interesting conversation, and one you’ll be glad you had. So grab that cup of coffee (or glass of beer), and don’t forget the tape recorder.

Jan Elvin is the author of The Box from Braunau: In Search of My Father’s War (AMACOM 2009). She was founding editor and, for seventeen years, chief writer of the NPP Journal, a quarterly publication of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. Learn more about Jan at her website and blog.


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