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Letters From the Front

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Letters From the Front: A Year in the Life of an Infantryman
These letters were written between February 23, 1943, and March 25, 1944, a harrowing thirteen-month period during which my father, H.A. Lowery, traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to two continents and three countries, participated in two armed invasions of Hitler’s Festung Europa (Fortress Europe), was severely wounded and nearly crippled by enemy fire, and lay in a hospital for four months. The letters were written mostly in the form of the popular V-mail but also on ordinary writing paper. There is only one correspondent, his wife, my mother, Helen F. Lowery, although he also wrote letters to his parents and his sisters; those letters are not extant. At the time of this correspondence, my father was 26 years old, my mother was 23. Only his letters survived, so it is a one-sided portrait of my father as a young man, more specifically of one year in his seven decades of life.
My father entered military service on March 1, 1935, when he was 17 years old. He joined the Oklahoma National Guard, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 179th Infantry Regiment of the 45th “Thunderbird” Division, attending annual drills for five years, six months and fourteen days. He was paid $1 a day. He started as bugler, became a supply sergeant, then mess sergeant, and finally first sergeant of the company. At that time, the division’s shoulder insignia was a swastika, an old Indian sign of uncertain lineage. When Nazi Germany’s swastika attained worldwide infamy, the 45th insignia was changed to another Indian sign, a Thunderbird.
On September 16, 1940, he entered active duty when the Thunderbird Division was called to service. He and his fellow southwesterners were sent to Camp Barkeley near Abilene, Texas, on February 28, 1941, where I was born five months later, on July 21, 1941, at St. Ann’s Hospital. The 45th Division moved to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, on April 5, 1942, and my brother, Richard, was born on November 10 that year. Two days before his birth, on November 8, the 45th was shipped to Pine Camp, New York, for winter training. Later, in January 1943, the division moved to Camp Pickett, Virginia.
On June 8, 1943, the 45th Division was loaded on troop ships, heading for North Africa. The men arrived two weeks later, on June 22, and were transferred to Arzew, French Morocco, where they immediately underwent more amphibious training: the 45th was tapped to be part of the invasion force of Sicily, only eleven months before D-Day in Normandy.
In Italy, he was with a mission that helped rescue Indian soldiers in the British army who had escaped a prisoner of war camp. Later, he was awarded the Bronze Star with a “V” decoration for valor. The one time he talked about the mission, he implied that there was great loss of innocent civilian life, women and children; children, he said, “no bigger than you were at the time,” were killed because of a fear of their betraying a hiding place. He could not compose himself enough to talk about it.
At one point, the 45th Infantry Division was on the front lines for 38 consecutive days, a record at that time. Casualties were high. It was brutally hot in Sicily, “Oklahoma weather,” my father called it, and cold, snowy and rainy in the rugged mountains of Italy. Casualties included the dead, the wounded, and also those who found themselves in the hospital with malaria, trench foot, and other maladies. I once asked my father how he made the rank of First Sergeant so quickly. He replied, “Hell, I was the only one left.” It was a rare soldier who lasted long in the same platoon or the same company during wartime. Most divisions operated shorthanded, and the 45th was not immune. It was common for regiments to not return to full strength until after the war. As one of my father’s comrades commented to my mother, “There are very few of the old Co. F boys left who haven’t been killed or wounded.” Indeed, as Flint Whitlock noted, quoting John Mahon, “Of the eighteen National Guard divisions that saw combat in World War II, none suffered higher casualties than the 45th. In fact, only three Regular Army divisions lost more men in Europe.” It was inevitable that my father’s luck would run out.
While in Italy, my father was wounded, on November 8, 1943, three days before the 25th anniversary of Armistice Day, which ended World War I. He was sitting with members of his company in a bomb crater on the high ground near Pozzilli, overlooking the Volturno River valley. They had just finished breakfast. Nearby was an ongoing interrogation of a conscripted Polish laborer. Without warning the group came under fire; a German mortar shell came winging into the camp. There was no time to take cover; falling flat on the ground was the only defense.
My father raised his hand in front of his face in an instinctive defensive reaction. The shell exploded within a few feet of my father’s right hand, blowing off his index finger above the first digit, his middle finger completely, and the tip of his ring finger. It also broke his jaw, nearly blinding and partially paralyzing him, and lodged shrapnel into his back at the left shoulder and into his buttocks. His face and head was embedded with shell fragments and pieces of his steel helmet and plastic helmet liner. The force of the cone-shaped blast went outward and up and killed or wounded nearly everyone in the platoon. Ironically, my father was saved by being so near the blast.
When my father awoke, his first thought was the new pair of gloves that had been ruined by the explosion. Gloves were hard to come by, and he had been especially happy with his recent acquisition. He couldn’t hear and he was bleeding from severe head wounds. His ear had been almost entirely torn off. He could see only from his left eye. The heat from the blast cauterized his fleshy hand, and he wiped more blood from the right side of his face. Hundreds of pieces of shrapnel pierced his temple; for the rest of his life, he would occasionally reach up and squeeze out minute metal shards from around his ear. He said that he looked for his Thompson machine gun, slung it over his left shoulder, and began to crawl in the general direction of an aid station. He said that the pain overcame him and he passed out several times.
My father was sent to a hospital in North Africa, where he stayed for nearly four months, and from there he went to the Army Navy General Hospital in Hot Springs, Arkansas, for months of more surgery on his hand, back, and head, forcing long recuperation. He had no sense of taste. It was discovered that fragments from the shell had lodged in his brain. Clearly he had been through a great deal, and he was suffering from feelings of loss.
My father was an outdoors man, raised in Oklahoma, with hard work the norm. He loved hunting, fishing, and carpentry, and he must have wondered how he could enjoy that life with only one good hand.
Maybe he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome. It wasn’t called that then, but after the war, he was edgy. For several years, whenever an airplane flew overhead, he would rush around the house, shouting in panic, and turn off the lights. Among the tests he underwent at the hospital was a psychological profile. He scored badly when the tester asked him a hypothetical question of what he would do if he was flying a plane with a load of bombs and had to make a choice of whether to crash-land with the bombs or drop them on a German civilian target. “I’d bomb the bastards,” he evenly replied. But this behavior soon mitigated. By the time I was old enough to know him, he was a gentle man, full of compassion. He used to joke that one day we’d all go to Italy and search for his missing fingers.
In Arkansas, the surgeons reamputated his fingers and sewed the ends of his fingers over what was left, and there was a spider-look network of stitches at the end of each digit. He underwent several plastic surgery operations on the right side of his face, and he looked as I would always remember him. His right side had a plastic look, the skin pulled taut, never seeming to age or frown. The left side was puffy, normal looking for a middle-aged man.
As a child, I was fascinated by the disfigurement of his hand, often reaching up to grab and hold it. When I leafed through the family pre-war photo albums, I would discover pictures of him with a full right hand, and I would run to him so that I could compare the two versions.
In the intense heat of Arkansas and Oklahoma summers, when I saw him shirtless as we worked around the house, I would carefully hold his right hand or run my fingers over the black hole that blotched his back near his left shoulder, and I would ask him, “Does that still hurt, Daddy?” He would pretend that it did and I would blench in horror, my stomach sinking. Then he would laugh and pull me around to his side and wrap his arms around me.
Eventually he regained nearly full use of his right hand, and he could fire any hand weapon the army provided him, despite having a trigger finger of only about a half-inch. He could handle woodworking tools expertly, and it was impossible to think of him as handicapped.
I have used my father’s medical records to recreate his life during this one year. Among those records are his physical examination file when he joined the army. This file contains the fingerprints from the severed fingers.
  • Dedication
  • Acknowledgments
  • Daddy Goes to War
  • Color Prints
  • Childhood
  • The Letters
  • Preparing for War
  • North Africa
  • The Invasion of Sicily
  • Italy: The Mainland of Europe
  • Healing
  • The Rifleman
  • The Author
  • Bibliography

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