Dad, War, and Me
"Daddy, did you ever have to kill anyone in the war?" The questioned popped into my mind when I was a ten-year-old girl. Immediately, I regretted asking, not sure I wanted to hear the answer. But it was too late.
He looked up from his carpentry project. "What?"
"In the war, did you ever kill someone?" Until that day, I never gave much thought to how he might have participated. I grew up on war stories about the heroism of killing the enemy in World War II. It seemed wierdly normal, unless it was my daddy doing the killing.
Of all the stories I grew up hearing, one heartbreaking scenario about Momma's favorite uncle was etched into my psche. Angelus, (Angel) Herpin, volunteered for a second tour of duty. He couldn't stay home, while others continued to risk their lives.
At his new post, while driving a jeep on a mail run, he munched on an apple from a basket his wife had mailed to him. In the sky above, a German pilot who had commandeered an American plane, flew overhead. Soldiers who witnessed the tragedy said the young soldier made no effort to hide or avoid the aircraft, believing he was in no danger. The airman riddled him with shots from his right shoulder to his left leg. They found him with the fruit half-eaten in his hand.
"Did you know anyone who got killed? Like Nonc Lulu?" Still no reply. Why isn't he answering me?
Dad was an amateur photographer, and he carried his black Brownie camera at his side. After the war, the fruit of his efforts filled several boxes. Sometimes, the family would spend time looking at them. Each one held a story.
One day I raided his cache and discovered a picture I had never seen before. It was of a pile of bones.
As I stared longer, though, I realized these weren't skeletons, but emaciated corpses.
So, I couldn't stop myself. "In the war, Daddy. Did you ever shoot someone? Did you get shot at? Did you know people who died?"
"Yes, I knew people who died." Eyes moistened and his lips trembled.
In his gentle manner, he continued. "But I never killed anyone."
My relief was overwhelming a moment. Then, "Why not?"
Dad turned to me and leaned against his carpenter table. "I worked for a general in the headquarters, away from the fighting. My job was to handle communications so the officers could make decisions about their orders. And, because I speak French, I was as an interpreter." What important work. And he didn't kill anyone.
In the spring of 1945, victory came to Europe, and with it, a promise: This was the war to end all wars. This was gospel to me until twenty years later on one late fall morning in 1965.
My boyfriend and later my husband, Dudley Ellisor, and I sat next to Cyprus Lake on what is now known as ULL, University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He kissed me on the forehead, then stared into my eyes with furrowed brows. "There's a war. Men are enlisting, and I might need to join the military."
"What, no. What do you mean? What war?"
"In Vietnam." He got up and paced with hands deep in his pockets.
"Where's that?" Coming from a World Geography class, the irony did not elude me.
"In the East, near China."
"So, the war to end all wars is a lie."
"Yeah, I guess so."
My mind reeled. "But why do you have to go?"
"Well, students with a certain grade point average can get a deferment to attend college." He had partied a lot as a Freshman, and his grades suffered, making him ineligible.
So, he joined the U.S. Navy to keep from being on the ground with army troops. Since he scored high on the battery of tests given to enlisted men, he was assigned to submarines. In January 1966, he left for Boot Camp. After a short furlough, he left for war.
How could this happen? However, a lifetime of indoctrination taught me well. We're the good guys; they're the bad ones.
During his first tour, I went home from ULL for a weekend. The phone rang. A friend from high school spoke. "Connie, did anyone tell you about John Marceaux?"
Familiar with gruesome reports, I braced myself. "No."
"He was killed when his helicopter crashed while evacuating the wounded."
My legs buckled, and I collapsed on the bed. Not long ago, the soft-spoken boy stuttered while asking me to the prom. My parents made it clear, over the years, we must stand united against our foe and trust our government. But, I had stifled myself for too long.
Seeing body counts and body bags every evening on the news got to me. And now John's dead body was in one.
Then it stuck me, Oh my God, Dudley... My heart blackened. I grabbed a glass container heavy with pennies and nickles and hurled it against the wall, splattering copper, nickel and glass shards around the room.
The door burst open, and my parents rushed in. Stunned, they stood stock still eyes wide and mouths agape. After a moment, Dad asked, "What's the matter, Sha?"
"To Hell with this damned war. John Marceaux is dead!"
Once the venom flowed, I shouted, "This is a crime. It's murderous."
Our boys were required to walk through rice fields while Viet Cong hid in the surrounding forests. Despite being sitting ducks, they endured. Because of the elusive nature of the Viet Cong, carpet bombings were employed, eliminating innocents civilians--women, elderly, and children. War is not fair for either side.
Once I calmed down, I said, "Look, I know you believe in armed conflict, and you would never say anything against our country. I'm sorry to disrespect you, but I don't feel the same way."
Years later, my young husband, Dudley, opened up to me. While on submarine duty off the coast of North Vietnam, he along with his crewmates, spied British ships delivering arms to a North Vietnamese port. The sailors were sworn to secrecy and told never to divulge this information. Our most trusted ally had betrayed us. If the sailors had knowledge of this, our leaders had to know too. Fury raced through my blood like a galloping stallion, filling my head with a thunderous roar.
It took me a while to digest this. As I looked into my new husband's face, I asked, "You mean, the Britts sold arms used to murder Americans?" His head nodded.
"Why? Money? What else could it be?"
Although the term was not utilized at the time, Dudley was afflicted with symptoms of PTSD. World War II veterans who exhibited similar signs were said to be shell shocked.
He came home safe, but not sound. One night he threw me out of bed, believing me to be a Viet Cong. He drank heavily and began to threaten violence, but never acted on the threats. To his credit, though, eventually, he bore his heart to me and told me he was afraid he might hurt me. Our marriage ended in divorce. To this day, he has not recovered. I'm not sure I have.
Twenty-five years later, I sat next to Daddy holding his hand on his deathbed. In all my life I had never heard hiim say anything negative about war. He served uncomplainingly. But, now as he lay dying with tears in his eyes, he spoke softly, "Don't tell Momma, but I don't believe in war either.”