I had an uncle.
No big deal there. Most everyone has had at least one uncle, but he was definitely one my favorites.
Uncle Gilbert always seemed old to me. Of course when you’re a kid, anyone over twenty is old. But I remember he always had a slight limp, and years later he grew a goatee, smoked a pipe, and he taught me how to play chess. I also remember at the ripe old age of 62, he went back to school and got his GED.
I heard he got a small pension from the government, and that he had a been awarded a Purple Heart. I never saw the medal, which I can well understand given the story.
Everyone said he was crazy. That he’d suffered from battle fatigue. It was a term applied to a whole host of people, and could mean anything from he was coward to he just cracked up because of what he’d gone through. He’d spent some time in veterans hospitals and, if memory serves, he had occasional relapses that put him there more than once.
All of that was spoken in hushed terms. Insanity wasn’t something openly talked about, but from where I sit, the man was a long ways from that. Beat up? Yes.
Insane? No Way!
What he suffered from we know today as PTSD. What he related in this story means there may have been some brain damage on top of it. With today’s medicine it might have been better diagnosed, and his treatment better.
At the very least, he’d have received a little more respect.
I recall the only time he spoke about what happened to him.
The Invasion of Sicily (also known as Operation Husky) began on 9 July 1943. The island was secure a month later, and when it was over, Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy had been toppled from power. Hitler diverted troops earmarked for battle in Russia south to shore up Italy and keep the Americans and British at bay.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. My uncle came ashore with the 3rd Infantry Division.
A look at a map of Sicily shows it to be a hilly place. The defenders used the terrain to their advantage and made American and British troops fight for every square foot of the island. It soon became clear to both the Italian and German commanders that holding the island was out of the question. What they did instead was a very orderly evacuation. This resulted in making their front ever smaller. They did this by using mines, obstacles, and whatever would keep the Allied Forces at arm’s length. The idea was to inflict as much damage on the Allies while keeping their own combat power as intact as possible for the fight for Italy.
That’s not to say they didn’t put up a fight. They put up one heck of fight.
“We were advancing along a road,” my uncle had said. “The Germans had almost every inch of it sighted in with guns, and they’d been shelling us.
“Ahead of us were German positions, and we’d been moving towards them. It was fire, maneuver to a shell crater. Fire again, then move again. We didn’t dare stay in one place too long. It would have been simple for one of their cannons to swing back, and fire again. The shell might come down right on us.
“We were in one shell crater using it as temporary cover and firing from it. We were close enough to the German lines we could see them not far away. While another squad fired, we would stand and rush forward.
“We’d just gotten ready to rush forward, and as the guy next to me got to his feet, one of those German hand grenades came flying through the air and landed in the shell hole.
“Then I’m lying in the hole. I don’t know how long I was there. Sometimes it feels like only a short time. Sometimes it feels like I was there for days. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t make my body work. I just lay there and somehow that was okay. I was looking up at the sky and that was all I could do.
“I became aware something was on me. When I finally managed to raise my head, it hurt. Someone dead was lying on me. His eyes were open, and blood was drying on his nose and mouth. I knew who it was, but at the same time it was like his name was a million miles away and I couldn’t get it.
“It was Okay, I let him lay there.
“I also couldn’t hear, and I was starting to realize why. A grenade. I remembered the grenade. We’d been getting ready to rush forward when it came into the shell hole. It must have exploded.
“That’s when I felt the pain in my legs. I moved them, which was good. It took a few more minutes though for me to realize that fragments from the grenade had got me in the legs.
“I saw some motion and painfully turned towards it. A couple of soldiers scrambled down into the hole where I was lying. One of them looked at me, said something, but I couldn’t hear him.
“They moved the body off me, and I remember they cut my pants and began sprinkling something on them. It must have been sulfa. It burnt, and I remember passing out.”
“When I woke up again, I was in a field hospital someplace. I remember I could hear, but whatever was being said seemed far away from me. I slept again.
“This time when I woke up, words and hearing seemed normal. A doctor told me I’d been hit in the legs and I’d have a limp for the rest of my life because of damage to them.
“That’s when I found out I was the only one to make it out that hole alive. The grenade had landed several feet from the guy who had been on top of me. His body absorbed most of the blast and fragments, saving me.”
You can learn more about traumatic brain injuries in combat by following this link.