I wrote this poem to Metera for Mothers Day, 1945 during interludes in combat, and therefore in piecemeal fashion. In the course of sweeping through a German town, searching houses for weapons that could presumably be used against us (guns, swords, etc.), I had looted a packet of stationery from a desk. The paper had an edging/design of sky-blue, Metera’s favorite color, and I intended to use it for my annual Mothers Day poem to her. As it turned out, it was attractive in more ways than one.
I particularly remember one interlude; it was April 1, 1945, Easter Sunday that year. Our company was resting briefly, for a day or so, in a small German village which had not been particularly damaged. A beautiful spring morning it was, so very quiet, except for the church bell ringing down the street. Through a window I watched the few Germans (almost all aged) who had not fled, walking sedately in the sunshine to their Easter church services, neatly dressed – an anomaly, a gem of a sweetly peaceful scene, isolated for a moment in the midst of the ugly brutal setting of noisy battle which had preceded and soon followed it. Instead of on the usual bare ground, I had slept luxuriously Saturday night on the bare springs of a bed (another soldier had dragged off the mattress for himself – we shared the bed, so to speak). We felt so good.
Suddenly, we were ordered out, on the double. We grabbed our packs and rifles and were packed into trucks. Off we rumbled to the east, winding through destroyed villages and in between them the roadside litter of damaged or abandoned vehicles/equipment, relics of battle recently past. We finally came to and crossed the Rhine River into a large city. It was Hanau, a now-silent wasteland of heavily bombed ruins in every direction. There were no humans to be seen.
As we crossed the Rhine River over a temporary pontoon bridge (the original stone bridge had been destroyed by the retreating Germans, its location marked by stone stumps and rubble protruding from the flowing water), I was suddenly startled and greatly excited by a small wooden sign: “Built by the 282nd Combat Engineer Battalion” (meaning the pontoon bridge). My brother’s outfit! George and I knew that each other was in Europe and in combat (we were both in combat units), but had not the slightest idea, of course, of where the other was, among the hundreds of thousands of troops spread over hundreds of miles in the constant flux of the European battlefronts. So, you see, it was a miracle to see that sign (the even greater miracle came later, when we actually met). My sudden joy and eager anticipation of possibly spotting further clues of George’s whereabouts soon, however, diminished.
There was the sound of the battle ahead. And as that grew louder with our approach, the happy brotherly feelings were suspended and replaced by the focused fear and tension of imminent combat. We rumbled on, silently listening to the frenzied cacophony of rifle and machinegun fire, mortars, grenades, and God knew what ahead – but no big artillery, and there was some relief in that.
Finally the trucks lurched to a stop, and we disembarked in a valley at the foot of long meadow-slopes. These were topped by islands of woods separating fields, where the action was erupting. Tensely, we made our way up the slopes. They were littered by several American tanks, freshly disabled/destroyed but not burning, silent monsters now. (See Footnote A). The climb was uneventful.
However, when we reached the top of the slopes we were immediately nailed by rifle fire. We hit the dirt, firing wildly into the woods 100 yards or so away, and at anything that moved in the fields between. The stuttering rifle fire was punctuated by German burp-gun bursts, made distinctive by their high rapidity.
As I sprawled there on that soft field, firing away, suddenly I became aware of something. A lot of bullets were hitting near me and not around the soldiers several feet away to my right and left! In instant desperation I tried to press/wiggle every part of my body into the earth, I fired no more. The bullets struck on. I tore off my helmet, frantically dug a depression for my head to be lower, and slammed it back on my head. I had to be still, melt into the earth, don’t move! The deadly bullets kept thudding and flying near me.
Finally one of the others – my friend O’Dell I think – yelled that there was something light-colored on my pack, it was making me a target. And there it was: the attractive blue-edged stationery I had earlier looted, and had shoved into the back of my pack. Sprawled face down as I was, the bright color was elevated, like a bulls-eye on a mound of olive drab-me. For Christ’s sake! Keeping as flat as I could, I struggled out of my harness – and flung my pack away. I’ve never thrown anything more mightily, at least from a prone position.
So no more bullets nearby, the firing slackened, and finally ceased. Then across the quiet field a German voice began crying for help, sporadically, “Hilfen!” A wounded soldier left behind, presumably, at the Germans resumed their retreat. (We understood they were trying to reach the craggy Alps, not too far away. We dreaded the prospect of mountain-fighting against such a stronghold, and prayed we could stop them. We surely didn’t that Easter Day.) A gung-ho lieutenant, Leaphart, was helped behind us with a leg wound, exhorting us loudly as he hopped along, leaning on a medic. “Hilfen!” the German cried on in the distance. We stayed in our positions, tensely waiting for whatever was to follow.
Then, sometime later, I was pulled out of the line. I went to a wooded area nearby, to be available as a runner (messenger between company and battalion headquarters). Of that wooded scene I have only fragmentary but vivid recollection. I remember a dead soldier was brought there. He was a handsome husky youth, his hair was black. He had a small mustache, nicely trimmed (no doubt during our brief rest in the peaceful village earlier that day). The only evidence of injury was a small bloody spot on his chest, probably a bullet wound. I remember dully thinking what a terrible event had just occurred to him and to his family, and they knew nothing of it.
I walked a few feet into the woods and sat down, my back against a tree. After a while, I took out a piece of paper and worked on this poem. (I forget whether I began it there or resumed previous jots. At any rate it was not on the blue paper, I had already discarded that baggage.)
As I wrote and thought as best I could poetically, I overheard conversation between two medics, over by the dead soldier, they obviously didn’t know I was still around. They were collecting the youth’s personal effects, to be forwarded to his family. I heard one medic urge the other, who seemed reluctant, to keep the wrist watch, “If you don’t take it, somebody else will”. I dully wondered what all they were stealing from their dead ‘buddy’ and his family, soon to be so shocked and bereft. I sadly wrote for quite a while, awaiting messages to run.
It was in that interlude and milieu that most of this poem was composed, and every word, every thought, every line, was felt in my guts.
Date: February 15, 1983
(Formerly of Company G, 14th
Infantry Regiment, 71st Division)
I see silver tinsel floating in the sky, tinsel high bombers
Drop to confuse the reaching ack-ack…….
Brittle shrapnel tinkles on hard-fought streets – - expired
Killers tinkling under advancing Infantry feet …..
Armored cars move with hearty roars, artillery roars, tanks clank
And roar …..
Snipers lie in waiting, and I cover my helmet with netting.
When tinsel adorns blue lit Christmas firs …..
When tinkling echoes pleasant drink or Christmas season glowing …..
When hearty roars mean Greyhound coaches passing in the sunshine …..
When we call netting veils, we shall see you.
Oh, black-fog war, with violence scarlet, oh cruel-fanged war,
Oh war that rips deep roots,
Oh monstrous fury wrought in blood
Who breathes in explosive bursts!
You smash the tissues of our care-built life,
The fragile frames of years,
Yet peace will come to save and heal,
Yes, peace, sweet peace, sweet love and rest.
Then will the soldiers lock their arms,
Their services closed, well-ended.
Then ships and States, to trains and homes,
To love ones perched with waiting.
What can I say of that matchless day,
How brilliant the burst of joy
For us who fight, but more than all,
For our mothers, anguished daily.
We sacrifice in total war,
We flinch and cry together.
But none can hurt nor can they brave,
Like a battle-soldiers mother.
For a mothers life is her child’s life,
The graying hair, small work-etched lines eloquent on the
Sweet kind face …..
You shape and form our mind and dreams,
Give comfort, our hurts consoling.
My words are feeble, swirling in awe at you,
Mother- gentle, tender and fond.
Who bears to watch your sons at war,
Your heart in silent torment, your sacrifice colossal.
When coughing mortars cease probing with fingers of death …..
And whispers are used to romance in the night …..
When body traps are set for rats, not men …..
When mines harvest coal, not luckless limbs.
Yes, when all the world at peace once more
Resumes its trades and comforts,
We will return, and with pride and relief
Kiss you, our immortal mothers.
Written by: Spryos Vutetakis