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How I Came to Know My Father ~ Part 2

by Sally T. Grove

Using Her Father Chester L. Grove, Jr.’s Diary and Reflecting on What He Had Written

I was 20 years old when I first came to understand my father. He invited me to return home to live with him on Thanksgiving Day 1977 as a way to relieve the financial pressures I faced as a newly graduated college student. It was then that I found a small stenographer’s notebook in a trunk in the basement. As I read through it, I learned about a part of my father’s life during World War II that he, like many Veterans of that war, didn’t share easily.

 “January 11th, we left the good old Terra Firma of the U.S.A. for Europe … January 21, 1945, we landed at Le Havre, France… We had a cold reception on landing. The temperature was below zero… We rode 60 miles in open trucks to Camp Lucky Strike, the coldest ride of my life. We arrived at camp at 2 a.m. frozen stiff. Our night was far from over yet, as we had to pitch tents in the snow and, when we finally did get to bed, we were too cold to sleep.”

I took U.S. History in high school, and I guess I should have known Dad fought in WWII. Still, Dad never talked about the war.

“The camp of former German airfields with a large concrete runway was infested with mines and booby traps. We trained in snow and then knee-deep mud for about a month, making very hard marches. During that time, my feet were frozen so badly that I couldn’t wear shoes for several days.”

Studying history is nothing like reading a journal from WWII. They didn’t talk about the cold and the suffering in our textbook—feet frozen so badly that you couldn’t wear shoes! Thankfully, that is a cold that I have never known.

“On March 25th, we moved up to the west bank of the Rhine. We arrived at 8 p.m., ate, and at 10:30 p.m. with but two hours’ sleep, we started our assault crossing. For hours, our artillery had been hammering the east bank and now the forest was a blazing inferno. Our company crept down the twisting trail to the river’s edge. As we reached the riverbank, we were fired upon by a hail of machine guns and 20 mms, which pinned us to the ground for half an hour. The railroad station to our front was ablaze as a result of the firing… The second platoon tried to launch several boats but was mowed down before they could load them. Finally in desperation, Captain Brown asked for a boat load of volunteers to try to make it across… our whole squad stepped forward…”

Dad was a part of the assault on the Rhine! We learned so little about WWII in my high school history class. We learned almost nothing about the Holocaust or how the United States declared neutrality at the start of World War II in Europe. We did learn about troop movements, and my limited memory tells me that the assault on the Rhine was a big deal. It precipitated the beginning of the end.

“… we got out only about thirty yards before they spotted our boat. Everything broke loose at us but we kept going… halfway across and by this time about two blocks down stream, we again received heavy fire but again paddled through it. Finally we were about 40 yards from the Jerry side, right opposite a high wall on which the machine guns were mounted… this time the jug-heads had our range and were peppering the boats so we decided to swim for it. Stripping off all equipment but our guns, we dove overboard…I was in mid-air when I felt a hot sear in my shoulder…I found that I could not use my left arm, but I managed to swim with one arm to shore…I was the only one of the seven in our boat that was hit…as we hit the sandy beach, they resumed firing on us and the engineer in the boat with us was hit and fell at the water’s edge. The rest of us took cover at the base of a wall about 25 to 30 feet high.”

I have seen that scar on Dad’s shoulder since I was a kid. The scar is as much a part of Dad as the dimple on his chin or his chipped front tooth. I knew his tooth broke during a childhood flight over the handlebars of his bike, and Mom always said Dad’s dimples made him look like Robert Mitchum, a movie star from their generation. But the scar on his shoulder—I had not known the event that had caused it.

“The engineer was in terrible agony and laid groaning and praying in a blood-chilling voice. We could not go to his aid as the Jerry’s kept showering the area with lead. A little later, however, we crept over to him, but it was too late. A bullet had hit his spine and he was dead.”

My father saw a friend die. I cannot imagine my father enduring such a tragic loss. Did a soldier’s training prepare them to go on when they had lost a friend? 

“… We made our way back to the safety of the wall, as shells were hitting directly out from us in the water about 20 yards away. We were pinned between two lines of fire, one from the Jerry’s and one from US troops.”

This sounds like a scene from an old war movie…

“Pain seared my body. I don’t know why but one of my first impulses was to spit to see if my lung was hit, which I guess it was not, as I did not spit blood. I could see the bullet holes in my jacket right at the point where the sleeve and shoulder seam is, but could not find where the bullet left, although my chest at the heart area was very sore and full of blood as well as swollen. My whole shirt was blood-soaked and I feared I might bleed to death although the blood did not now seem to be running from the wound. We lay very still along the wall, the hob-nailed boots of the Jerries sounded just above the wall and we could hear them loading their machine guns and talking in low voices. My arm was stiff and throbbing now like an engine.”

This wasn’t an old John Wayne war movie. This battle was real, and my dad was the main character. How frightening it must have been for him, bleeding and in pain, waiting, not knowing what would happen next. The design of his future was out of his hands.

Sally Grove pictured with her father and mother in 1972.

Courtesy Photo of Chester L. Grove, Jr. in Uniform

How I Came to Know My Father ~ Part 1

by Sally T. Grove

Using Her Father Chester L. Grove, Jr.’s Diary and Reflecting on What He Had Written

I was 20 years old, fresh out of college, and in my first year of teaching, a difficult first year. Why did college prepare me so little for my own classroom?

Finally, a break, a time to breathe. I went home for Thanksgiving. At home, I talked with Dad about my living situation and my finances, both in dire straits. A basement apartment, a bathroom that leaked water into the kitchen, and a landlord who lived richly and didn’t care about the problems of his tenants, even as they lived in his own basement. What should I do? Car payments! Dad had warned me not to buy a new car. Not one to listen, I bought a new Honda and was now living the consequences. I loved my shiny red Honda, but the car payments on an $8,000 per year teaching salary were a killer.

On Thanksgiving Day 1977, my father invited me to move back home to relieve the pressure. I could save some money and have some support from my family as I got my feet wet teaching. I cried that Thanksgiving and gave Dad a big hug and kiss, telling him how grateful I was and much I loved him.

A day later, while sifting through a trunk in my family’s unfinished basement, I found a small stenographer’s notebook, its brown cover worn, well-traveled, edges frayed. I opened the notebook slowly, deliberately. Its contents were gradually revealed, like the plot of a mystery novel. As the practiced and perfect handwriting came into focus, I knew this writing to be my father’s.

 “On April 15, 1943, I took my examination for the U.S. Army. It was on this day that I ate my first sandwich consisting of baloney.”

Was that my father? I had never seen him eat a baloney sandwich. In fact, I know his menu by heart: vegetables consisting of peas, corn, baked beans, and any kind of potato; meats, always dry and over-cooked—these were his meals and ours—and Friday night was tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. These are the foods that Dad liked, and these are the foods that we ate and loved. We ate like our father, all six of us, much to my Mom’s chagrin.

“The morning of April 22, my last day home, I went up Carroll Creek and caught seven beautiful trout, my last as a civilian.”

When our family visited “Poppy in Frederick” when I was small, I used to stare at the stuffed fish that adorned his dark, dusty, shadowed walls. The fish hung as a testament to his youth and his sense of adventure. My grandfather was a fisherman, and he taught my dad to fish. I have a great picture of my father (shown left), standing with a fist full of fish fanned out for the photographer’s film. Was this a picture of Dad on the day my grandfather caught the big one?

“Our train ride took us through Western Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama… We arrived at our new station, Fort McClellan, a very tired bunch of rookies… I got along very well eating most everything we got for meals, although not liking it very much…”

His first big adventure via train—how exciting! With six kids, our family’s adventures now consisted of camping in Western Maryland or a week in Ocean City. We rode bikes each morning on the boardwalk and had pancakes at Happy Jack’s Pancake House. At least in Ocean City, Dad ate what he wanted.

“I took the Air Cadet exam the 12th week of basic. The passing grade for the cadet exam is 83 and I made 100%, the 3rd highest grade… On February 16th, 1944, I made my first flight at the school and by March 11th, I had completed 10 hours of flying. I really loved flying…”

Twenty-one years old and learning to fly. I didn’t know Dad had flown planes! Why didn’t he tell us? I remember when we were little, Dad took us to “Penny-A-Pound” Day at the local airport. For a penny a pound, we could go on an airplane ride. I remember being frightened and not wanting to go. Dad convinced me it would be okay. Once in the air, I couldn’t get enough of flying. The houses and streets looked like a miniature Christmas village below. No wonder Dad loved flying.

“… arrived at Santa Anna Army Air Base on the 23rd, after a very exciting trip across the U.S., my first. After taking the test for three straight days, I was a classified pilot but then the tragedy came. An order came from Washington, calling back all cadets who were former ground force students and so my dreams of flying were crushed on April 1, 1944 by a single piece of paper.”

I guess that’s why my father didn’t tell us…his dream was shattered. What other dreams did Dad have for his life? Most of what I know of my father revolves around the time he spent with his family. Were we part of his life dream?

Courtesy Photo of Chester L. Grove, Jr. in Uniform

Courtesy Photo