Through WWII, My Father Carried Poetry


At the moment I’m visiting my parents in Tennessee, and I have been using the occasion to sort out my father’s World War II experiences. As I talked with him, I learned that literature played a significant role. For one thing, he carried Louis Untermeyer’s famous anthology, Modern American and British Poetry, in a duffle bag through the European theater.

Born in 1923, my father was drafted after a year and a half at Carleton College, sent to the University of Chicago for a year so that he could become a French translator, and then shipped off to England in 1944. At the time he was a Private First Class. Two weeks after D Day, a barge dropped him and five other men at Utah Beach, and they were told to live off the land, with my father translating, as they caught up with their outfit. Their assignment was to administer the Norman town of Avranches once it was liberated. Similar groups were designated for other French towns.

Eventually they made to Avranches, only to then witness the German counterattack in the Battle of the Falaise Gap. My father recalls huddling in an upstairs hotel room (everyone else went to the basement) as German bombers pounded the area trying to destroy a key bridge.

The Allies’ decisive victory over the Germans led to the liberation of Paris and the invasion of Germany, and the next assignment of my father’s outfit was to set up administrative offices in Munich. Once my father arrived, his first job was to prevent looting of the Munich museums, but he arrived too late for that. His second job was to run the Munich post office, which they located in the famous Munich Rathaus/City Hall. This he did until he was demobilized at the end of 1945, and he was able to return to Carleton for the spring semester of 1946.

Now for his reading history. American publishers had a program of providing cheap paperbacks of modern fiction to servicemen, and my father remembers reading John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, Grapes of Wrath), Pearl Buck (The Good Earth), Erskine Caldwell (Tobacco Road), and Earnest Hemingway (Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls). While in England, the servicemen could also use the local library, and my father fell in love with the plays of Eugene O’Neill.

Some of these works helped him negotiate the challenges that he would face. Caldwell, for instance, alerted him to southern racism, which my father encountered when he was one of three MPs (Military Police) in the small French town of Romilly-sur-Seine, west of Paris, in the winter of 1944-45. One of them, who had been an English major at Lincoln College, was black (there was a black army division in town), and they had long talks about English and American writers. But the third was a white soldier from Virginia who wouldn’t talk to the black MP and wouldn’t sit down to eat with them.

For Whom the Bell Tolls was also important to my father, helping him imagine what the French campaign might be like since the Americans saw themselves as potentially guerillas. My father said that he was on guard duty reading the novel on D Day and suddenly saw the sky filled with planes on their way to France.

My father’s six-person unit was led by a lieutenant who had read John Hersey’s recently published novel A Bell for Adano. The book is about an American major who liberates an Italian town from the fascists and sets out to improve the lives of the inhabitants. My father’s lieutenant dreamed of playing a similar role in Avranches, playing the hero and winning the gratitude of the citizens. The fact that he was particularly incompetent, however, kept on getting in his way.

When my father was in Munich, for a month he lived in the mansion of the millionaire Popp, who was Ford Motor Company’s German representative and who was in prison as a Nazi. My father spent much of his time in a third floor bedroom reading from Untermeyer’s anthology, especially the poetry of World War I poets like Wilfred Owen, Seigfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg. He was also drawn to the poetry of Robert Graves, who like these others spent time in the World War I trenches but who wrote a very different kind of poetry.

I went back and looked at the Grave poems my father read and can see what he would have found in them. Unlike, say, Owen, who unleashes his fury at the absurdity of war, Graves looks for ways to protect his inner imagination. For instance, his advice in “A Pinch of Salt” to “mask your hunger” seems like a confirmation of the outward fatalism that my father adopted throughout the war to protect his inner sensitivity:

A Pinch of Salt

Robert Graves

WHEN a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw nor strain,
O then, be careful, or with sudden clutch
You’ll hurt the delicate thing you prize so much.

Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail.
When you sieze at the salt box,
Over the hedge you’ll see him sail.
Old birds are neither caught with salt nor chaff:
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.

Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself and turn away.
Mask your hunger; let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
But when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.

When he returned to Carleton, my father put some of his war experiences into short stories and poems. One short story, about a soldier getting the clap, was a bit strong for his civilian readership and got my father in trouble with the president. (He had to be defended by the chair of the English Department.) A poetic memoir, meanwhile, described what it was like to see Dachau three days after it was liberated:

A Memoir

By Scott Bates

This was my experience in regard to Dachau.

We passed by the gate
in the back of ten-ton trucks and couldn’t see much
But the small was terrible.
            They had piled up the bodies
In long symmetrical stacks like cord wood
Next to freight cars hoping to ship them out before we came.
but they hadn’t had time to get rid of them
We drove on by into Munich with the Seventh Army
            And set up shop in the City Hall.

But we found out later that
The infantry men who took the camp were so sick at
What they found that they rounded up all the guards
And shot them on the spot.
            They also killed the SS officers.
It was our job to show to the German public
The movies we took and the ones we captured
Which pictured graphically the horrors of the camp.
We required the people to watch them. They didn’t like it.
            They didn’t believe them either.
It was just a lot of war propaganda to them.
But still after a couple of months we were
Making some headway in breaking through all that Nazi
            propaganda when we read in
The Stars and Stripes about the bomb dropped at Hiroshima.

We couldn’t believe it. Had the Air Force lost its mind?
How could they be so dumb as to do a stupid thing like that!
            Here we were
Trying to get the idea through to the Germans about what
            their government had done
And with one single bomb we had made a dozen Dachaus.
We also realized with terrible foreboding
That we had started a new and potentially fatal arms race.

The first course that my father signed up for in 1946 was “Poetry Appreciation,” with the same professor who had introduced him to the Untermeyer anthology in freshman English four years before. Sitting next to him was a beautiful young woman and they both wrote essays on Archibald MacLeish. Three years later they would marry, and I arrived two years after that.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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