Skip to content

They Were Young Men Once (3 photos)

Friday marked VE Day's 75th anniversary, commemorating the Allied victory in Europe on May 8, 1945

Postcard Memories is a weekly series of historic postcard views and photos submitted by René Hackstetter.

Charlie Walton, Johnny Calhoun and Frank Harmsworth sat at the BS Table as the day stretched out accommodating all of us, including the young guys who had arrived late in the day. The stories poured out as we soaked it up, hoping we might understand their jargon.

They were the last men standing from a cohort that had marched or flown into Fortress Europe to breach the defences and render the world free for us to drink and commiserate. The unit was getting thin on the ground and we considered ourselves lucky to bear witness.

Frank never said a lot, but the caterpillar badge he wore in November was quiet testament to bailing on a bombing run. Johnny confessed one day that the smell of burning flesh never left him after he marched into Belsen. We left it at that having no more to say, silence our only testament.

Charlie didn’t speak, wrapped in his own quiet mourning for those comrades that fell in the mud thinking of their mothers. They would never drive along Balm Beach in their ’35 Chevs with their girlfriends.

Did they drink? Yes, as a means to loosen their anguish from the place it was buried, in their private grief from the living hell they dwelled in, before the purgatory they found here, in this time before they went home.

They shared these grievings with us, their younger comrades, in the hope we would comprehend the murder they witnessed.

In this act of sharing came partial relief - as if from our place of freedom we might understand how they had suffered and bore the burden for us. It left them ruined for the life that followed because they had lost their precious youth on the beach at Dunkirk and at the gate of Auschwitz. Arbeit macht frei. There was no going home.

When they returned, victorious apparently, they felt a mute sense of shock impossible to express, like embedded fragments of grenades or incendiary bombs that kept going off.

That war never ended for them. VE Day comes in May when the flowers are pushing out exuberantly toward the light that they fought to keep close to their hearts. This day celebrates a spring that came after the deepest dark of a November that still clutches at their hearts.

Bless them all brave men of Midland. They were young men once.

Copyright. René Hackstetter April 4, 2020.