My father told me about his combat experience in World War II just once when I was a boy. I must have been under ten, and we were in a car at night. My clearest memory of what he told me is the story of the deer his unit killed with their carbines, and of their delight in the fresh meat.
Now that he’s in his 70’s, I hear many of his stories: the strange composition of his division, the 99th, and what the German general who couldn’t cross the Elsenborn Ridge said about the 99th after the war; what my father did on the Danube that got him a Silver Star nomination, and how he lost it when he fell asleep on guard duty in a rear area. Sometimes, my father seems to be hiding other stories, such as what he traded his coveted cigarettes for while he was in Paris.
The stories started to flow in 1995, when he went on a trip with other members of the division to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, the 99th’s first major engagement. The American veterans were astonished that, so many years later, the Belgians greeted them like heroes. When my mother describes the cider and chocolates, her face—now half-paralyzed—still lights up. After that trip, my father began to talk about his experiences, and he hasn’t missed the division’s annual reunion since.
My parents live in Texas, so when the 99th’s reunion brings...