Lonesome Tree in Sandhills

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Armageddon in Retrospect" by Kurt Vonnegut - WWII Hero

I wager few people know Kurt Vonnegut as a World War II hero who was captured in what is known as the Battle of the Bulge.  He was Private First Class of the 106th Infantry Division, then age 21.

He was well known as a science fiction writer with a wicked sense of humor and author of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), but few outside the literary world knew about his Army experience in World War II. He passed away 2 years ago at the age of 84 due to brain injuries from a fall. Last summer a collection of his letters and unpublished writings on war and peace was published as "Armageddon in Retrospect" by his son, Mark.

Like many war survivors, Kurt Vonnegut suffered from those painful memories for 64 years, but he used his humor and knack for the absurd to survive. However, he also wrote: "The reason for my being sick at heart then and now has to do with an incident that received cursory treatment in the American newspapers. In February 1945, Dresden, Germany, was destroyed, and with it over 100,000 human beings. I was there. Not many know how tough America got."

On December 19, 1944, 6 months after his mother committed suicide while he was home on leave, PFC Kurt Vonnegut along with the remnants of his division were captured when 7 German Panzer Divisions cut them to ribbons in what is now known as The Battle of the Bulge through Luxemborg and Belgium near Bastogne. The German Offensive through the Ardennes Forest during a blizzard was a feat considered highly unlikely by Allied Commanders.  The 106th Infantry Division was posted there while the rest of the Allied armies were pulled out to positions at the flanks.  PFC Vonnegut wrote, in his first letter home after the war, "Seven Fanatical Panzer Divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges' First Army. The other American Divisions on our flanks managed to pull out: We were obliged to stay and fight. Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight..."

The captured men in Vonnegut's division who survived the 60 mile march in freezing conditions were loaded in cattle cars and taken by unmarked train, bombed and strafed by the Brits, to a POW camp south of Berlin where they were stripped and deloused. On January 10, 1945, PFC Vonnegut and 150 other privates were shipped to Dresden to work.

The men, imprisoned underground in Slaughterhouse #5, survived saturated firebombing of Dresden in February, then were forced to dig out tens of thousands of bodies - mostly women, children, old and disabled men in hospitals - from beneath all the rubble. Author Vonnegut described the aftermath as "utter destruction" and "carnage unfathomable" - a central theme in 7 of his books., but PFC Vonnegut did not go into those details in a letter to his parents in late May of 1945 (reprinted with permission by Newsweek July 7/14, 2008).

Details of Vonnegut's eyewitness account that inspired Slaughterhouse-Five, left unpublished by him, were discovered after his death by his son and published collectively as Armageddon in Retrospect (reprinted in part by The Sunday Times of London on June 1, 2008). His writings in Armageddon include a typically funny story about 3 Army privates fantasizing about the perfect first meal upon returning home from war as well as a not-so-funny story about whether our children can be shielded from temptations of violence.

Kurt Vonnegut had majored in chemistry at Cornell University and when he enlisted, the Army sent him to Carnegie's Institute of Technology and U. of Tennessee to study mechanical engineering.  His studies were cut short when the decision was made to invade Europe on a massive scale with 600,000 men.  After the war, he enrolled as an anthropology major at the U. of Chicago where Cat's Cradle was finally accepted as a thesis.  He was invited to teach at the U. of Iowa Writers' Workshop where he began the painful process of recalling memories of World War II that culminated in Slaughterhouse.

Kurt Vonnegut would not likely think of himself as a hero, nor do any of the men who were at the front going through hell on earth in a world-wide war of such magnitude.  Nevertheless... please join me and millions online around the world in remembering and honoring these men as TRUE HEROES!  Turn off and tune into a huge deafening MEMORIAL OF SILENCE on July 20th.  And if you happen to know one, taken them to lunch this week... or send a card... just to say "Thank You!" for your service to our country.

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