Ah, the things we leave behind. I think I’ve mentioned before that Alan’s father, Roger P. Derringer, was an infantry paratrooper during World War II. I’ve called him the Zelig of the European theater because it seems he was everywhere, and he was — southern France, the Battle of the Bulge, North Africa, Italy. Their job was to jump in ahead of regular forces and raise hell.
Anyway, he came home with three Purple Hearts and many souvenirs — maps of the front printed on silk, handmade uniform patches, the thanks of several grateful nations — and a lot of snapshots, many taken with a Leica camera he took off a German officer they captured (and gave to an American surgeon not long after). But the most interesting relic turned up decades later, after he died.
Their regiment underwent training in England, and were billeted at Chilton Manor in the village of Chilton Foliat, a country estate belonging to some titled aristocrat. During restoration work at the estate in the late 1990s, workers turned up what appeared to be a discarded roofing tile, upon which a bored soldier had etched his name:
R.P. Derringer, Sept. 1, 1942
2nd BN, 503 parachute RN
The workers checked the records, contacted his widow and shipped the tile to her. Decent of them, I’d say. Alan’s sister had it framed behind glass, making it difficult to photograph, but you get the idea:
Underneath that, a little parachute:
The 503d was later reorganized and redesignated the 509th, and they fought and died nearly to the last man. Wikipedia’s entry on the 509th says that of the original 700, only about 50 survived to January 1945, at which point the unit was disbanded and survivors plugged into gaps in the 82nd Airborne. Roger’s war ended in a VA hospital stateside. He didn’t tell many stories until near the end of his life, but I think this was the time he had both his arms splinted by a battlefield medic, pointed away from the front and told, “Run, or your ass belongs to Hitler.”
His ass never belonged to Hitler, but he got one of the Fuhrer’s battle flags, liberating St. Tropez. That picture’s in a book somewhere. If it turns up in the estate distribution, I’ll scan it and post it.
Well. Back from Ohio, safe, sound and ready for the new year. Thanks again for all your kind comments. Life is going on, and will commence with some more blogging later today.
Happy new year to all of you.
Jeff said on January 1, 2008 at 9:51 am
“The Things We Leave Behind.” That’s the book that Mitch will never get around to, so the title’s yours, Nancy. Happy New Year, and remember that you can never escape Ohio . . . bwahahahahahahahahaaaaaa!!!!!!!
Marvelous story; glad to know that even Airborne knows the value of strategic withdrawal. In the Marines they told us it was called a “retrograde maneuver.” I’m hoping to advance in 2008, but always listen to the medic.
Mindy said on January 1, 2008 at 10:36 am
Wow. What a tale to have in the family. Glad you’re back.
ashley said on January 1, 2008 at 1:14 pm
Tom Brokaw was right.
michaelj said on January 1, 2008 at 1:15 pm
Considerably better than The Five People, right from the getgo. Really, don’t you think most people have stories like this in their family histories? As much as this might sound like Mitch Albom, people do rise to greatness. No telling if they had it in them in the first place. Maybe there’s a certitude of moral fiber genetically endowed. Was John Brown a driven moral actor or a maniac?
My dad’s 89 and he’s undertaking an autobiography. He taught at the University of Arkansas Med School when the first female, black sudent, Edith Irby Jones, attended. A few years later, he encountered her in her final stages of a life-threatening pregnancy, when she’d been denied treatment at an all-white hospital.
Things turned out well, eventually. My dad raised hell, got her medical attention from a superb (white) obstetrician. Dr. Jones suffered post-Caesarean complications and was unable to nurse. My mom had recently produced me, so she nursed the baby.
My dad was a little late for WWII (served in the Philipines, but hell, sounds like MASH to me, I mean they were doctors), but I think he acted heroically when confronted with racism. I think my mother did too.
Anyway, I see a connection between the unassuming war hero and the unassuming civil rights hero. I saw that connection with Kerry, but what in the world would I know about being a true American ensuring the bourbon supply at the Tejas National Guard OClub iinstead of cruising the Me Kong when Nixon decided to invade Cambodia?
Happy New Year, y’all, the year before President Richardson extracts the troops and welcomes the Other America that does the dirty work.
Dorothy said on January 1, 2008 at 6:10 pm
My dad was a medic in WWII, and was also at the Battle of the Bulge. One of his many stories was immortalized in Tom Brokaw’s second book, “The Greatest Generation Speaks.” I may have mentioned this in nn.c some time ago, so forgive me if I am repeating myself. Tom’s kind inclusion of my dad in one of his books was such a bright spot in my dad’s life! He loved having attention because of it. It was especially cool when he spoke about my dad on both the Today Show and Larry King Live when he was promoting the book’s publication. I think his story starts on page 53 of the book (my copy is in storage right now).
HNY to everyone as well.
Kim said on January 2, 2008 at 8:24 am
Wonderful story. My father-in-law is a WWII vet whose story began — and nearly ended — while getting shipped out from San Francisco. A couple of guys went AWOL, so the ship set sail with my father-in-law staying behind to be the responsible guy to bring in the strays. Once it was square he was supposed to hook up with his unit. By that time his unit had been annihilated somewhere near Africa. He was sent to become part of a unit in the Phillipines. The mail plane dropped him off on some island with a bag of mail, his rucksack, his weapon and no ammo. He hid until he heard the unmistakeable rumble of a U.S. truck making its way to pick up the mail. Pretty amazing stuff for a Southern Illinois first generation farm boy. First generation of German heritage, I might add.
There’s a house in my neighborhood that was used as a hospital for both the North and South casualties in the Civil War. Patients who thought they might not make it etched their names and sweethearts’ names on the windows with diamond rings they carried. The names are still there, and it’s so cool — both romantic and sad.
Sue said on January 3, 2008 at 11:38 am
I wish I could share the great family stories but WWII took too much out of my father. Since the military did not recognize post-traumatic stress disorder at the time (they called it battle fatigue, thought it was a sign of weakness and treated it by sending the man back into battle), my father did not get any help at all until he weighed less than 120 pounds (6’1″) and was basically nonfunctional. Our family paid the price for most of the rest of his life. Sorry, but boys and men are not automatically fitted for the military just because of their reproductive organs. It would have been nice if my father had been an unassuming war hero, but war damages everyone and destroys some. Too bad that we’re cultivating the current crop of destruction right now.
nancy said on January 3, 2008 at 11:47 am
Sue, excellent point. I always thought it was telling that after going through all that he did, Roger hardly ever talked about it, avoided the barstool storytellers down at the VFW, etc. You know what he told Alan when he was starting music lessons? “Pick a brass instrument, so that if you’re ever drafted you can spend your hitch playing in the Army band.” Colin Powell was the most reluctant to invade Iraq. Of course, he’s the only one in that bunch that actually wore a uniform someplace outside of Texas.
Dave said on January 3, 2008 at 7:30 pm
I have known a lot of WWII vets, both working with them and family relatives. The ones that were really there don’t talk about it, I’ve never heard my uncle say more than the most general things about his experiences in the South Pacific, from which he finally came home with malaria.
I’ve known several others and lost an uncle to WWII, Army Air Force. Have wondered about him all my life.