When my dad died in 1991, the Veterans Administration buried him with honor, dignity and respect. He was a World War II veteran and fought as an infantryman in General George S. Patton's Third Army. During his three-year stay in Germany, he participated in many sweeping campaigns -- the most famous being the Battle of the Bulge. Sometime during that long battle, he took a German flag that hung on a pole in front of a building. He also took an armband from a corpse that lay upon some rubble. These were among his keepsakes he brought home after the war. When I was young, I asked him about these items. He looked at me and said, "Someday when you are older, I may tell you why I kept these and what they mean to me."
After the war, my dad had a lot of war memorabilia he stashed away in a scrapbook that I now possess. Post cards and letters he sent to my mom reveal the loneliness he felt and the uncertainty of returning home safely. Maps, medals and ribbons denote his battle accomplishments. But the two things that interested me the most were the red, white and black German flag and the armband.
My dad didn't talk much about his war days when I was growing up, but before I left home he was able to tell me the significance of why he kept the flag and armband. They were reminders for him to pray that this nation would never have to face another world war. He wished no one would have to witness the cruelty of man's inhumanity to man. He hoped that no one would have to experience the decision to "kill or be killed."
The "kill or be killed" mentality was never more important for my dad than toward the end of the Battle of the Bulge. At one point, my dad's platoon was instructed to blow up a town so they could advance further in the campaign. As he and some of his comrades entered the town, they received some small arms fire that came from a three-story building. He remembers lobbing two grenades through an open window, hoping to kill whoever was shooting at them. As soon as the firing stopped, he and his buddies entered the building and went upstairs. There, among the rubble, lay four German girls about the ages of 12 or 14. My dad was stunned. Up until that time he had become immune to the death he saw almost daily. He couldn't understand why then he was experiencing a wave of sadness. He later assumed that since the war was winding down, he could no longer hold back the flood of emotional stress -- and he cried at what he saw.
Before they left the room, my dad reached down and took an armband off one of the girls' arms. After leaving the building, he grabbed the flag that hung on a pole just outside the door. He closely guarded these two reminders of what took place and swore to himself he would tell no one their significance. But that promise was broken when he saw me, his remaining son, join the military and was soon to leave home for good.
At my dad's graveside service, I thought about how he sacrificed everything for his God, country and family. The American flag that draped his casket symbolized his patriotic duty of which I am most grateful. Before they lowered him into the ground, a couple of retired soldiers removed the flag, folded it and presented it to my stepmother, which she graciously accepted. My stepmother kept that flag until her death a few years later when my siblings voted I should be the keeper of the flag and all of my dad's memorabilia.
I now have two flags from two historical events. One flag to remind me to pray that no one, ever again, should have to experience the tragedies of a world war . . . and one to remind me of those who fought and died bravely so that I could live free. To my father I give -- a final salute.