Two years ago I wrote a post about my father’s service during World War II and how little I knew about it. Since then I’ve tried to learn more about his time as a 20 year-old soldier in Europe.
I asked the National Archives and Records Administration for a copy of his military personnel file, but a sweeping fire in July 1973 destroyed his records, along with those of 16–18 million fellow army veterans. NARA suggested I contact an auxiliary agency for Dad’s final payroll record.
Which I did. The payroll worksheet includes his rank (private first class — so much for the claim he’d been promoted to corporal!), his date of return (November 22, 1945, six months after the war ended), and his date of honorable discharge (November 27, 1945, from Fort Dix, New Jersey, a short bus ride home to Brooklyn).
But it didn’t tell me which dots on the map he pointed to the night he looked over my shoulder at our world atlas.
So I prevailed on the Awesome Sister to fetch Dad’s old Eisenhower jacket from her attic. The insignias provided crucial, but not conclusive, clues. Here’s the right shoulder patch, which denotes his battalion:
I searched the internet high and low before discovering a matching insignia. It belongs to the 143rd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion. Which makes sense! One of the few things he shared was that he manned an anti-aircraft gun. He also mentioned having responsibility for a fleet of vehicles, backed up by this photo.
The 143rd was highly mobile and expected to move at a moment’s notice.
Here is the left shoulder patch.
So back to the internet to search for the 143rd Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, Battery A.
Lo and behold, it turns out a former member of the 143rd, James Frank Alban Sr., wrote a history of the unit! So I can finally list the places my dad pointed to, right?
Alban includes a roster of the 143rd, and my dad’s name isn’t included. So I may be totally wrong. Maybe other anti-aircraft battalions wore the same insignia. Maybe Dad was transferred and never got a new jacket. Or maybe the error is Alban’s. I need to do more research before I deem what follows more than educated guesswork.
But assuming Dad was in the 143rd . . .
After a two week trans-Atlantic voyage, his British transport ship docked at Liverpool in late July 1944. For all I know, he may have passed a snotty brat only recently out of diapers, John Lennon, before billeting in Staffordshire, where the 143rd readied its equipment. During the last week of August 1944, he crossed the English Channel to his first dot on the map, Ste. Mère Église, France.
The next dot was Rennes, a small city 216 miles west of Paris. The 143rd advanced to the City of Lights on September 6, three weeks after liberation. When the Awesome Sister, her family, The Fabulous Wife, and I went to Paris in 2006, we found the spot on the Place de la Concorde where Dad took a photo and snapped one of our own.
Dad’s battery set up near Nanterre. But the Germans weren’t counter-attacking, so the 143rd was re-assigned to driving supplies from the port of Cherbourg — the next dot on the map, and perhaps where the photo of my dad in a muddy field was taken, for as Mr. Alban recalled, “It seemed to rain twenty-three out of every twenty-four hours and the field, after constant use as a parking lot, became a mass of soupy mud. Trucks sank in up to their axles and we to our ankles.”
The 143rd returned to Paris in November 1944, but right after Thanksgiving it was ordered to Huy, Belgium, and then to nearby Liège, where it settled uneasily as V-1 rockets buzzed overhead. (The 143rd did not suffer any casualties from those attacks.) A few German reconnaissance planes flew by, and Battery A shot one down — perhaps the reason my dad said “one” after I asked how many Germans he killed.
When the Germans launched the Battle of the Bulge, Battery A was dispatched to Werbomont, Belgium, then east to Manhay. The group was strafed by German P-47s on December 26 but held fast, and served as support for the ground forces that eventually turned the Germans back.
That was the last consequential action my dad saw. But he wasn’t finished adding dots. Namur, Belgium. Verviers, Belgium. Aachen, Germany. Duren, Germany. On the Rhine near Remagen, Germany. Dransdorf (near Bonn), Germany. Then Mosbach, Germany (near Heidelberg) before returning home.
An impressive line; I sure hope it’s the one he traced that night way back when. If it turns out I’m wrong, well, I inherited his humility, so I’ll own up and try even harder to find out what he did in the war — and, of course, continue to consider myself blessed he was my dad. As another Father’s Day approaches — it’s getting close to 50 without him — I find myself more grateful than ever I am his son.