Family memories – or are they?

This month marks the anniversary of my father’s birth (in 1927) as well as his death (in 1994). A few weeks ago, Mom gave me the mementos of his service in the Army at the end of World War II.

Looking through the photos, documents, buttons, and insignia, I realized that I know very little about his service except what I remember of the stories he told when I was small. The stories weren’t about big troop movements or action, but rather little, personal events — like the huge snake that slithered across the path when he was training in Alabama, or the crazy way the Army made them put a bright shine on their boots for the march down Fifth Avenue in New York (he was one of the “replacements” added to the returning 82nd Airborne for the parade) and then gave them all demerits for having shiny boots when they reported back to regular duty.

Among the documents is a leather-bound pocket-sized book that I didn’t remember seeing before. It was apparently a give-away from an insurance agent. It included a 1945 calendar . He had made notes in it for several years, including his time in the Army.

The notes are pretty cryptic, but they gave me confirmation of some of the things I thought I remembered. Combined with the other documents, they also contradicted some things I was sure about.

Now I’ve known for years that family memories get distorted as they pass from person to person. My Grandma Estie used to tell the family story about her grandfather’s return from the Civil War. By the time I heard it, it was a very accurate retelling of the return of the veterans scene in Gone with the Wind.

But in this case, my own memory has apparently recreated some things that never happened.

For instance, I was sure Dad was on a troop ship in the middle of the Atlantic on VE day. But the documents show he entered service on May 23, 1945, which is obviously after May 8, 1945. A note for May 10 says he received his notice to report that day. So he was home in Lincoln County, NC on VE day.

His notebook says that he was in New York in November 1945, where he bought a pen, went to the top of the Empire State Building and had a “swell time” (it was the 1940s, after all). No mention of any parades. On November 15, 1945, he shipped out on the USS Boise, which his notes as well as Internet searches show was a light cruiser, not a troop ship. He landed in Plymouth, England, on Thursday, November 22, 1945. He noted that they had a big Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and everything. (Another one of those little historical oddities that he celebrated Thanksgiving where the Pilgrims left England.)

I remembered that Dad was part of the occupation force in Germany, which turned out to be accurate, though I never knew much about what his duties were. He told stories of driving half-tracks, hunting rabbits in the countryside to supplement Army rations, visiting castles in free time, and befriending German families (including a couple of girl friends, of course). Some German names appear in his notebook, but no details. His notebook mentions rough rides in jeeps, but never talks about half-tracks or hunting.

As far as I can remember, Dad never mentioned any hostile action, though his notebook has a cryptic note dated July 19, ’46: “raid by 20 Krauts. Patrol fired on. Armed with rifles. Sounded like war had started again.”

There’s a photo in his collection of an upside-down Army truck with a bunch of GIs standing around. I remember seeing the picture all my life. Somewhere along the line it became in my mind the vehicle General Patton died in. The story was something like this: Patton was killed in an accident and Dad drove an officer to the scene and helped with the investigation. But a brief Internet search showed that Patton was riding in a Cadillac when he received minor injuries. He died weeks later far from the scene of the accident. (Note to conspiracy buffs: in researching this, I found that some people believe Patton was drugged and killed to shut him up when he advocated going to war with the Russians.)

I am also confused now about which part of the Army Dad served in. His separation papers say he was in the 15th Constabulary Squadron, which after a little Internet research is consistent with the uniform in the pictures he kept. But his old uniform patches (that have disappeared from the collection thanks to our childhood fascination with them and his indifference) bore the famous AA of the 82nd Airborne. And I am sure I remember he told stories about driving a jeep for the commander of the 82nd for awhile — or has my memory substituted the officer in question? And there’s that parade up Fifth Avenue in New York he marched in. The one that is documented in the histories of the 82nd took place in January 1946. He was in Europe.

Did he get transferred to or from the 82nd at some point? Was he simply “borrowed” to swell the 82nd for a different parade?

Unfortunately, I don’t think most of this will ever be cleared up. His service records were among those lost in a fire at the Army records center.

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