December 2, 2023 | Rome, Italy

Two Battles of the Bulge

By |2023-02-24T06:18:16+01:00February 6th, 2023|"Notebook"|
A lost life preserved in ink and paper...

have just spent the last few days reading the letters my mother’s brother, Norman R. Long, wrote when he was a soldier in the U.S. army. It was 1943 when he entered the war and November 1945 when he was discharged.

Norman was just a few years into his studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut when he was sent to England for training. In July 1944, he landed at Utah Beach in Normandy with the First Civilian Affairs Regiment.

Civilian Affairs were not combat troops (although they had the training). Their role was managing liberated territory. Leaving combat troops free to fight, and handling what home-based agencies could not, CA helped rebuild infrastructure, sorted refugees and displaced persons, and kept public order until local authorities were restored — or purged of collaborators.

It was still dangerous work. CA regiments were very close to the frontline, and the enemy lurked even in “cleared” areas.

For days, an amputated human leg lay on the garbage heap below his office window.

Norman ended up in CA because his blood pressure was too high for combat. And because he had traveled in Europe, spoke excellent French and, perhaps most importantly, was a wizard at the typewriter.

Some of the letters I read were “V-mail”, reduced-sized copies of hand-written letters, a technique that allowed the military to handle the large volume of mail. Others were written on the Swastika letterhead of the Nazi German Workers Union. All offer details we don’t always see in standard accounts.

After his training in Britain and after several months stabilizing the situation in Normandy, Norman’s unit moved to Belgium.

In December 1944, Norman was helping the mayor of the Belgian village of Malmedy get back on its feet when German panzers roared in. Norman, the mayor, and villagers took shelter in a cellar. The cellar shook from shells pounding down and German and Allied tanks fighting overhead. Norman always referred to these weeks as the “German counterattack.” But we refer to it as the Battle of the Bulge.

In April 1945, Norman’s unit arrived in the German town of Wetzlar, and CA set up in the Nazi party’s old headquarters. As the headquarters of Leitz, which manufactured gun sights and military optical equipment, Wetzlar had been a target of heavy bombing and was in ruins. Rogue Germans still took potshots at the “Amis.” Former slave laborers and refugees languished in the old labor camps or hid in nearby woods. It was the CA’s job to get them home, while also dealing with their theft of U.S. army property and the occasional revenge killing of their German masters. It was also the CA’s job to handle the Wetzlar burghers who stormed into Norman’s office demanding CA repair their bomb-cratered gardens and shattered windows.

Norman described disturbing and rampant corruption. U.S. officers inflated requisitions and sold the excess on the black market. The husband of a CA secretary was in the SS. Norman’s captain’s secretary (and more) was a “Scottish girl” with a strong German accent.

Norman’s letters throb with the entire spectrum of pain and wreckage, from material to mental. For days, an amputated human leg lay on the garbage heap below his office window. He buys ice cream for a seven year old Polish boy, tough beyond his years, who walked to Wetzlar from whatever camp had devoured the rest of his family.

But much of the pain is Norman’s own.

Fellow soldiers mock him when he stays home to study German grammar instead of going drinking. They are angry that he refuses to use his piano-playing skills to bang out the songs they want. Norman’s attempt to discuss theology with an Orthodox Jew goes badly wrong. His captain detests him. He is practical enough to drive a truck and repair it. But he can’t seem to fit in. He has my sympathy, but I can also feel how his love of music and reading, his clumsiness during a raid on some Poles who have stolen CA supplies, and his outbursts when people are “loud” clearly mark him as “that guy” who just doesn’t get it.

He is strangely childlike. He is baffled by soldiers’ obsession with sex. His idea of a party is a child’s birthday. He orders a fancy cake from the local bakery and decorates the table with wildflowers, only to be devastated when “vulgar” soldiers wolf down the unexpected chow.

Doubt fills his letters. Is his faith in God misplaced? What does it mean to be “mature”? What to do after the war? Pursue music? Become an Episcopal priest? Will he ever find a “nice girl”?

He has moments of joy. Working the CA information desk, he finds he is not naturally shy and awkward, just afraid of being judged. Finding a piano or organ to play calms him, as do walks in the spring countryside around Wetzlar. But his descriptions of these are tormented with visions of talking cows and shapeshifting trees.

He orders a fancy cake from the local bakery and decorates the table with wildflowers only to be devastated when “vulgar” soldiers wolf down the unexpected chow.

Norman writes home about his “old nervousness,” which comes and goes. His mind races and he can’t sleep. When the phenobarbital he asked his parents to send arrives, the pills are quickly consumed.

All around Norman was high drama that goes almost unmentioned, the massacre of American troops at Malmedy and the Battle of the Bulge. But Norman’s real battle was closer, his own battle with mental illness.

After the war Norman started divinity school. He was hospitalized and treated with Freudian talking therapy and medication. The medication regime was primitive. The Freudian emphasis strained relations with his bewildered but loving parents.

Norman eventually got a PhD in French from the University of Michigan and got a teaching position at Wesleyan.

Along with Norman’s war letters, there is one I don’t think I’ll ever read. It was found in his room in 1961 when concerned Wesleyan friends broke in after not hearing from him. It was Norman’s letter of surrender in a battle he decided he would never win.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."