Old heroes, new heroes

Posted: Apr 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Every few decades, we Americans rediscover ourselves. It goes with the territory -- our sense of being a people on the move, focused less on what we have done than on what lies ahead. Then comes an event like the Iraqi war, and recollections are jarred, even as new vistas spread themselves before us. We become once more a people of possibility, on account of possibilities signally fulfilled.

I give you an example. I was watching on TV the other night the return of the POWs from Iraq: the star-spangled welcome, the bands, the jubilation.

I thought of my friend Harry Thompson. Actually, I never think of POWs anymore without thinking of Harry Thompson, and what he taught me, with no didactic motive whatever, about the American capacity for dogged endurance. I myself would call it heroic endurance. Harry would demur. He was just trying to stay alive during the waning days of World War II. His Nazi captors seemed bent on denying him the chance.

Harry, a chief warrant officer from Dallas, had been swept up in the Battle of the Bulge: which battle, of course, the Germans lost. This meant that, as they retreated eastward toward ultimate ruin, they had minimal tolerance, let alone the capacity, for civilizational niceties. This was not the comical captivity of "Hogan's Heroes." This was a wrestling match for survival.

I had read no account of this dim historical corner prior to Harry's turning up at my office one day in 2001 -- 87 years old and with manuscript in hand. He knew the Greatest Generation had been receiving new attention; he wondered whether anyone would want to publish his own brief memoir. All I managed in the end was to encourage him to pursue publication of a story in urgent need of telling. With the rather misleading (howsoever marketable) title of Patton's Ill-Fated Raid, Harry's memoir made it into print last fall (Historical Resources Press, Corinth/Denton 76210).

Captured Dec. 17, 1944, during the coldest winter Europe had known in 50 years, force-marched through the snow, starved, foraged on by lice -- such was Harry Thompson's lot, and that of his fellow POWs, month after month.

Then, there was the American bombing that occurred while the prisoners halted one night -- "friendly fire," we call it today. "I'll never forget the horrible screaming noise the bombs made coming down ... The noise was deafening ... I wanted to get up and run like hell, but the shrapnel I could hear overhead would probably kill me before I got 10 feet. I could hear men all around me screaming their prayers ... The earth rolled and heaved like an earthquake. This is hell, I thought -- it couldn't get any worse." But he lived -- unlike many.

On May 2 came liberation, courtesy of the 86th Infantry. "One of our men broke down completely when the trucks arrived ... the men looked like they were in a daze and had to be led around like babies ... Some POWs in the convoy were full of anger. ... many ... had taken rifles and ammunition and they were firing into the air or shooting any animal they saw ... The transportation officer stopped many times to try to get them to stop shooting but to no avail."

At last, home; family; civilian life. And gratitude. "I have so very much for which to be thankful, and I am very proud to have had the honor and privilege of serving my country."

A popular song of the post-Pearl Harbor period was titled "We Did It Before (And We Can Do It Again"). Do what? Win a war. Win it, why? To get a dirty job done -- so I imagine ex-CWO Harry Thompson saying. Similarly, the just-returned POWs and the troops in Baghdad and Mosul.

Americans are very good at doing what has to be done -- chins firmed, pride spilling over "for the honor and privilege of serving."

National possibilities, it would seem from about any angle, are far from exhausted.