While sitting in a darkened theater last week, my seat suddenly started shaking. Then there was a sharp flash of light.
This wasn’t your ordinary neighborhood multiplex. I was visiting the National World War II museum in New Orleans. The simulated effects were part of an introductory movie. They accompanied the sight of German tanks cresting a desert mound, depicting the battle of Kasserine Pass.
My late father, Roger, experienced the real thing as part of the U.S.
First Armored Division. The battle in February of 1943 unfolded as one of the most humiliating defeats in U.S. military history.
Pretty hard to simulate the terror that engulfed my father. He spoke of his tank being disabled and running headlong toward the rear of the ranks, where they were gathered into a holding area.
Otherwise, he didn’t talk much about the experience. According to my late mother, the memories continued to revisit him in the form of nightmares long after the war ended.
The museum, which began as a memorial to D-Day, has expanded to include my father’s part of the war, the less glamourized theatres of action.
Another was the amphibious landing behind enemy lines at Anzio, Italy, early in 1944. Like Kasserine Pass, the operation did not comprise the Allies’ finest hour. A combination of indecisiveness and poor planning resulted in the Germans surrounding the beachhead, thereby creating a stalemate that radio propogandist “Axis Sally” derided as “the largest self-supporting prisoner of war camp in the world.”
My father came home with a photo of himself and one of his company mates at Anzio. They are posing outside their bunker, looking awfully hale and hearty for two prisoners of war. I carried with me to New Orleans a copy of that photo. My mission was to have the image archived at the museum. The copy was submitted and a dialogue with a curatorial assistant has ensued.
My father’s Anzio memories, much like Kasserine Pass, involved the harrowing experiences typically associated with war. For example, he remembered the sound of the German armor moving into place after their surprise landing had been discovered.
But he also recalled a lifestyle spawned by the unusual circumstances. The two forces, to some extent, worked out some form of coexistence as part of an extended siege that played out in World War I-like close quarters. Imagine that.
My New Orleans mission played out as the coronavirus began to loom large throughout the country. At the museum, being a good soldier meant keeping your distance from others as much as possible and washing your hands several times throughout the visit.
It’s not easy to square the two experiences – other than to appreciate that there’s all kinds of battles and they run the gamut regarding circumstances.
I’m inclined to view the present situation as a battle of sorts. We’re under siege by a virus. If my father could endure hell on earth and hunker down for months to survive Anzio then I can bivouac at home for the time being.
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Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri who covered University of Tennessee athletics for the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1988-2019. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org