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Tuesday, August 25, 2020


American troops of the 28th Infantry Division march down the Champs Elysees, Paris, in the "Victory" Parade August 29, 1944.  Credit: U.S. Army/Department of Defense photo, 1944.

By Thomas Shess, Jr., a retired newspaperman and magazine editor, who split his career at the San Francisco Examiner, PSA California Magazine (inflight), San Diego Home Garden and San Diego Magazine. 

Millions of men and women went to fight in World War Two.  My dad’s story is just one of them no more, no less important than the experiences of the other men and women, who served when America called upon them.

My Wisconsin dairy farmer father joined the Army in 1939 shortly after the Nazi’s invaded Poland as did so many Polish-American sons of immigrant parents.  He ended his military career in 1948 in Alaska, where he was “stationed” after the war.  So many returned heroes after VE Day, he returned bitter three years later.

Recently, seeing a U.S. Army vintage photograph of American troops marching into Paris in 1944 reminded me he hated the war, the Army and especially talking about his WWII experience in combat. 

Most of what I know of his career came from my mom in later years.  She was a good listener.

She recalled Dad saying to her that marching into Paris was probably the only fun he had wearing an Army uniform.  Years later, sitting next his hospital bed while recovering from his first heart attack I dared to ask him about Paris.  He spat out “ eight #*&^^%$ years in the service Paris was beautiful...” End of conversation.  By 1985, he was dead at age 63 fighting PTS every day.

But no one joins the military to have fun. 

He was one of the waves of soldiers that landed in Normandy in early June, 1944.  He was in an infantry division.  I wish I could remember which one because when my wife and son visited the invasion museum in Normandy they did a good job of identifying outfits involved in the invasion and supporting the invasion.

Why I never pressed him for more info is a big regret.   But, when Dad didn’t want to talk about something—we never did.

Mom said, the one incident that he talked about to her in some detail happened shortly after his division left Paris.  It was then he was blown out of his foxhole by German artillery.  His buddies next to him died a horrible death.  He landed in a nearby thick of hedgerows.  He was lucky he only suffered superficial wounds or so he thought.  He was mainly concussed and suffered hearing and taste loss.  In reality, his brain, his personality was never the same, again.  My mom said, my first husband died in the war and the second husband came home—nice line except for the fact it was the same man.

The last thing he remembered before the blast was simply that it was morning. When he came to it was night. He awoke alone.  He heard no manmade sounds in the eerie darkness.  He stayed put not knowing if his position had been overrun.  He hid until dawn in the under brush, the same thick growth that hid him from sight when his unit pulled out of the area while he lay unseen and unconscious.

That morning he made it to a nearby road and was picked up by another American unit heading to the front.  His wounds must have been more than he let on to us because he said he was sent to a field hospital.  His medical stay put more time between him and his original unit.

In the fog of war, when a body was not found and when survivors pointed out they saw my father before the blast—going by the book meant that missing soldier, who didn’t answer roll call, was presumed to have gone AWOL.

That’s what happened.

Bureaucratic details are few but at the end of the war, my father was court martialed for his disappearance when all of the time he was patched into another unit.  Commanders of his new unit didn’t check where the new guy came from as long as he was performing his duties.  But when it came time to muster out after the Nazi’s were defeated that’s when his trouble began.

The Army listened to his story and only after hearing from officers from his new unit did the brass offer him a “deal.” If he enlisted for post war duty they would clear his record and give him an honorable discharge. 

Of course, he argued.

Why was he up on charges for being blown up and unintentionally separated from his unit.  The verdict was guilty because “we say so.”

After my mom died, I found in her papers my dad’s honorable discharge certificate.  What I don’t have are details.  Why didn’t they believe him and just let him go home?

His widow didn’t have any answers.
Caption: Thomas Shess, Sr., age 22, Private, United States Army, 1943.
 When he first enlisted in 1939 he was sent from boot camp to a unit in Panama tasked with defending the canal.  As the war became more brutal artillerymen on the Panama coast were retrained to go to the European front as infantrymen.  En route to Europe, he was given a short furlough while at Ft. Bliss, Texas (El Paso). That’s where he met my mom, who was a clerk in the U.S. censorship unit, also at Ft. Bliss.

A whirlwind romance ensued and they married.  Then by mid-May he was on a transport ship heading to England as part of the D-Day flotilla.

One side note, when he “re-enlisted” after the war it was a forced plea deal.  The Army posted him as a warehouseman working at various Alaskan military bases and ports.  He spent three winters in America’s Siberia.  It was from there he mustered out.

I don’t care how you cut it—he was sentenced to three years at hard labor because he couldn’t prove his story.  He hated the Army until his dying day.

Looking at the Internet image I discovered shows so many soldiers marching proudly into a liberated city.  I now wonder if my father is in the picture somewhere in that proud mass being anonymous among the ranks and files of the greatest Army ever?

Seeing that image also reminded me on August 25th he would have been 99 years old.  

Cheers, buddy, I think you deserve medal, at least a purple heart, one he never got.  But in reality, his medal was being able to return alive to his family.   Too many soldiers never made it home—never leaving France.

Note: The last day of German resistance in the battle to free Paris was August 25, 1944 paving the way for the victory parades of August 29th.

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