My grandfather, Guy I. Wetherell, would have turned 90 this past weekend, but he passed on in August 1999. Cancer finally did what the Nazis couldn’t do in the 1940s, and the Mafia couldn’t do in the 1950s and 60s. I think of my grandfather often, despite never really having seen him much growing up. He lived in Mississippi, while I grew up in Michigan. Despite this, I felt close to him in several ways. I was named for both of my grandfather’s, so my first name is the same as his. I had a huge interest in reading, which he had, often having his face buried in some book or newspaper. I was also the only one he would speak with about the war-not only among the grandchildren, but with anyone. He never told my mother or grandmother the things he shared with me. I always considered myself fortunate in that, with even what little I know of what he experienced, knowing more than anyone else. His talking about his experiences with me was more than just my right as the eldest grandchild, and I hope it was more my interest as a young, somewhat nerdy kid that would read everything that could be read about World War II that made something in him want to tell me the things he did.
As most young people do, especially when grandparents are concerned, I had a difficult time picturing an older person as they were when they were young. It wasn’t until I was a teen that I finally saw a photo of my grandfather in his Army uniform. He was tall, lanky, and bespectacled with a slight smirk on his face, something he would do even into his older age. He looks all of maybe 14 in the photo. But I remember one night in particular; when I was probably around 9 or 10, and had been sleeping (I had the top bunk of a bunk bed I shared with my younger brother). My grandfather, grandmother, and parents had gone out for the night. As a kid, I could wake up just by sensing someone’s presence in my room (something that came in handy when my brothers would come in to grab my toys to play with), and I suddenly woke up a bit fearful. I looked over the edge of the metal rail ringing my bed and saw a pair of men’s dress shoes. My eyes slowly crept up along the man’s form, from the legs up to the jacket, and settled finally to the smirk on my grandfather’s face which broke into a slow smile. I was very relieved to see it was him. I think he thought it was funny to see my reaction. I remember that smile to this day, and for years, every time I would wake up suddenly for no reason and open my eyes, I used to think maybe I’d see him standing there, smiling at me. Lately, it’s been more of a hope that I would.
My grandfather had killed men. He told me so. There was the German he killed with is rifle. He told me in the most matter-of-fact way after handing me a Nazi patch he had ripped from a German overseas cap back in 1944, something he had taken from a man he killed. The eagle with the swastika in its talons fascinated me. It still does. It was like holding history or even the Holy Grail in my hands. I automatically asked how he got it, and he said he killed the man wearing it. I asked how, and his answer seemed so simple, so easy, as if I should have known the answer all along: “With my rifle.” I wasn’t the smartest kid in the world, but I knew what it all meant. He had been young. The German he killed had been young. Probably neither had wanted to be where they had been. Surely neither had wanted to kill, and definitely neither wanted to die, but it came down to the German or my grandfather. My grandfather was quicker, or smarter, or luckier. It doesn’t matter now, only it does, because if my grandfather hadn’t been faster or luckier, perhaps a German grandson would have been handed a patch by his German grandfather, and the grandson would have thought: there but for the Grace of God…I do think that, and I know I wouldn’t be here now if my grandfather had not killed that young man.
My grandfather had also killed an SS man and had taken his dagger for a souvenir. But after being wounded and taken back to England, he believes one of the doctor’s or orderlies stole it from him. I felt more comfortable knowing he had killed an SS soldier, because they were supposed to be the evil super-fanatics, and that was alright with me, although I still feel sorry my grandfather had to experience such things. I’m not entirely sure whether that Waffen-SS soldier had belonged to the 2nd SS “Das Reich,” or the 17th SS “Gotz von Berlichingen,” but it hardly matters now, only it does, because it’s history and more important, it’s my grandfather’s history. I often felt gyped that I never got that SS dagger, not only because of what it meant to him and because it was rightly his, but because I have seen them sold online for thousands of dollars, and one of those going to some rich collector could once have been my grandpa’s. I never wanted that dagger because of what it can fetch on Ebay, but because it symbolizes something I was always raised to believe, and that is that Good triumphs over Evil, and that’s what my grandfather and all the millions of other young men from America, Great Britain, and the other allied countries were doing. That vastly oversimplifies everything, and I am old enough now to understand that the world and its problems cannot be reduced to such a delicate degree of black and white, but I know my grandfather came from a time when it almost was.
My grandfather was also lucky in that he had been convalescing in a hospital back in England when his division had been sent into the nightmarish Hurtgen Forest, not only once, but on two separate occasions. The 9th suffered horrendous casualties for very little ground gained. In this 50-square mile forest, the Americans had lost some 33,000 casualties total, in what is still the US Army’s longest battle. My grandfather’s infantry regiment, the 60th, suffered a 100% casualty turnover rate there. Once again, if luck or fate had not intervened, my grandfather would have survived Normandy only to become a casualty in the Hurtgen, and I would not be here. I am very aware of these twists of Fate or Karma. I do not mean to suggest my grandfather deserved to live when other young men did not. I wish all of those young men could have had a chance to have lived out their lives. But it was not to be. My grandfather survived, got married, had children, got a good job, and did everything that was expected of him. He didn’t talk about the war, and buried it deep. But he cried after watching ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ he got his grandson to join the Navy instead of the Army, and he continued to be a hero to his family years after his death. I became interested in history because of him, and in fact now have a career in the history field and that had everything to do with his influence on me. My grandfather was a survivor and had the chance to live out his life, when many others from his generation did not, and I know he was happy for that chance and did the best he could. If only we could all say the same.
Finally, I had a dream about a year ago that I was speaking to my grandfather, and in the dream, he told me the name of his friend, a man that had been killed next to him somewhere near the Perriers-St. Lo Road on July 18, 1944. The question of that man’s identity has burned in my brain for years, and is the one thing I would ask him were he still alive and I was able too. That man had died from taking shrapnel in his stomach from the same German 88 shell that tore into my grandfather’s left knee. I can still picture the scar, looking like a pale white jagged half-moon on his kneecap. He bore the scar to his dying day. But in the dream, my grandfather spoke the man’s name as clear as a bell. However, due to being half asleep or somewhat forgetful, I only remember the first name he gave to me was John. From some research I have done, there were close to ten men from the 60th killed that day, and at least three had the first name John. It’s been awhile since I’ve looked at my research, so I may be wrong with the numbers, but one day I will get around to narrowing it down and then try to find out more about this man. A man that most likely my grandfather did not know well at all, but in his dying moments was one of the last people he had spoken with or laid eyes on. There are so many stories out there that will never be told, and many things between family members that will go left unsaid forever. That dream also says to me that I need to listen more, and better. I don’t remember if we parted ways in that dream by saying goodbye or that we loved one another. I do remember when he was dying of cancer; the final time I spoke to him was by phone. He knew it was the last time he would speak to me, and I knew it too. I was a young man, and knew it would be forever, but I didn’t KNOW it, as I really had no gauge on what forever was. I didn’t feel as if it would be, and the realization did not hit me then as it does now. He told me he loved me, and I told him I loved him and it nearly killed me because it was the first time I remember him ever saying it to me. But it wouldn’t have mattered, because I knew how he felt about me, and he knew how I felt about him and in the end, it’s enough. It will always be enough.
Happy Birthday Pop-Pop. Thank you for helping save the world. We need more men like you now.