Dying Soldier at the Side of the Road
by Robert Neumiller
Paul Neumiller had seen as much combat as anyone in his hometown. He participated in battles in scorching North African deserts, and in Italy drove tanks up rough beaches, over icy mountains, and through countless ravaged villages. He observed rivers running red with blood, witnessed fields littered with corpses. After all he had done and seen, however, he was later able to state proudly that he hadn’t personally killed a man. “Oh, I know our tank killed plenty of people,” he would say, “but I never pulled the trigger.” He drove the tank, got it into position for others to pull the triggers.
Pete Laber was on many of the same Italian battlefields as Paul. Assigned to Graves Registration, burial detail, it was Pete’s job to pick up the bodies left behind by those who had pulled the triggers. He hadn’t seen combat, only its results--the mangled bodies of soldiers and civilians, the low moans of the wounded, the shattered remains of ancient and once-thriving communities. Like Paul, Pete had killed no one.
Paul and Pete both grew up on farms near Sykeston, a North Dakota community that had never had a population of more than 300. Both were drafted into the Army--Paul in November of 1941 at the age of 21, Pete in December of 1942 at the age of 37. Sykeston is too small a town for anyone not to know everyone else. But the differences in age between these two men meant that they were not friends before the war, or even after. Despite this, they would come to have similar perspectives on war and death. And despite not being friends, these perspectives, shaped by their unique war experiences, would link their souls for eternity.
* * *
On the night of October 12 and 13, 1943, Company “A” of the 751st Tank Battalion, Paul’s company, was in support of the 7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in their crossing of the Volturno river in Italy. It would be some of the fiercest fighting since the landing at Salerno a month earlier. The Germans had been pushed steadily northward since then, fighting mainly a delaying action as they prepared to make a stand at their heavily defended positions along the Volturno. The rest of the 751st was ordered to provide support from the south side of the river for those making the crossing a few miles northeast of Capua, at Triflisco Gap, a place where the Volturno valley narrowed from its usual wide expanse of farm land and was paralleled by low hills. Here the Volturno was 200 feet wide, 6 to 8 feet deep, and running swiftly from the fall rains. German sappers had blown all usable bridges, so infantrymen made the crossing in boats, pulling themselves across the river with ropes strung out by engineers the day before. The tanks donned their waterproofing to make the crossing. Special compounds sealed all hatches and vents, while air intake and exhaust stacks mounted on the back allowed the tank to wade through water deeper than the turret.
And so they crossed, while German machine guns, mortar, and artillery picked men off and sent them down the rushing Volturno toward the Tyrrhenian sea. Those who made it were pinned down on the opposite shore for a while before their sergeants “persuaded” them to move forward. Many remained on the shore where they fell from machine gun fire, or from the mines that had been planted on the riverbank.
Once the infantry had gained a foothold on the opposite side the tanks of Company “A” followed. Paul was nervous and terrified as he made the descent into the river, not knowing if the waterproofing would hold and if his tank would founder midstream, where, if he made it out, he would most likely be carried downstream with the rest of the dead. Paul couldn't swim. His problems were further compounded by the limited field of vision available through the periscope he used to maneuver the tank.
Paul was relieved when he felt his tank rising at the other side of the Volturno, and once safely ashore, set his mind to avoiding new obstacles--land mines, and the dead and dying hanging like laundry on the blackberry bushes and vines. Blood streamed from the bodies that lay half submerged in water; tiny rivulets of red covered backwater pools. German machine gun fire was heavy; tracers whizzed past Paul’s tank as mortar and artillery rounds seemed to burst everywhere. Beyond the view of Paul’s periscope, yet only feet from him, soldiers died agonizing deaths.
By evening of the following day, most of the 3rd Division and the 751st Tank Battalion had made the river crossing. The Germans were on the run, fighting mainly rearguard actions on their way to their next defensive line . The bodies of Americans and Germans alike now lay scattered about the narrow flood plain on the north side of the river, greeting, like morbid harbingers of their fate, those soldiers bringing up the rear. With the Volturno secure, it now was up to the burial detail to move in and clean up.
The basic unit of a Graves Registration company was the platoon, each responsible for the identification, removal, and temporary burial of one division’s dead. A Graves Registration platoon consisted of three sections of two squads each, the “collection” squad and the “evacuation” squad. It was the collection squad whose gruesome task it was to gather the bodies and body parts strewn about the battlefield, place them in white cotton mattress covers, and stack them conveniently for their removal to temporary cemeteries by the evacuation squad. To maintain troop morale, both squads took as much care as possible to keep the bodies out of view of combat soldiers. They weren’t always successful. And their own morale suffered from the entire process.
But it likely was as much the combing through the possessions of the dead as the grisly chore of body collection that wore at the spirits of men like Pete Laber assigned to burial detail. Graves Registration personnel were forced at once to be bureaucratic yet sensitive. Practical yet respectful. They removed everything from the dead soldier except his clothes and one dog tag. All issued gear--weapons, mess kits, helmets--were collected and warehoused, later to be cleaned, repaired, and reissued. Personal effects were gathered, inventoried, and packaged. While sifting through government property, burial details found the letters, the photos, the tiny mementos of former lives that gave the dead men identities beyond the war. These they cataloged for return to the families the soldiers would never see again, and these the burial detail stored mentally, to be carried with them like lead bars, eventually weighing them down and reminding them of a time they wished desperately to forget.
* * *
In the years immediately following the war's end, Paul Neumiller spent much of his time in the bars of Sykeston, North Dakota, his hometown, catching up with other local men who had served. One of those men was Pete Laber. Pete had grown up like many of his friends who had served, a farmer's son whose family had struggled through the depression, a man who had gone off to participate in a war without questioning its importance. And like them, when the war was over Pete returned to Sykeston a changed man. Like many of his friends who had recently returned from the war, Pete drank the nights away. But while his friends drank to celebrate their survival and to forget the horrors of war that were ever-present during sobriety, Pete's drinking forced out the emotions that sobriety kept hidden. In sobriety Pete’s emotions must have tore at him from within, seeking release. It was only through drink, apparently, that he found release, albeit temporarily, from the agony of those months spent filling bags with dead men, release from the faces and names indelibly etched on his psyche. As he drank, the weight of these memories gushed out through his tears. And his friends ridiculed him because of it.
During those nights of drinking Paul would attempt to erase all recollection of that day on the Volturno river in 1943, and how, after the Germans had been pushed back, his tank was heading back toward the front line after having removed their waterproofing and filling the Sherman with gasoline. Paul stopped his tank that day after the commander, his head poking up through the turret, spotted a wounded American soldier lying at the side of the road. The tankers got out and hovered over the man, offering him water, while the radio operator called for a medic. The soldier had a chest wound. His dog tags lay in the mud next to his neck, still attached to the chain. No one looked to see his name. He would die. Better, perhaps, not to know his name. They already carried the names of enough dead men.
In those post-war years Pete drank as much as his friends and would invariably end the night hunched over on a bar stool, crying. Paul and the rest found sport in laughing at him and teasing him because of it, perhaps as a means of battling their own demons, never considering that, for some, harvesting the remains of the dead was a fate worse than risking one’s own life. Over the years, as the memory of the war’s terrors began to dull, most of the men settled down, their visits to town tapering off. But not for Pete. He continued drinking, the terror as sharp as ever. During the day, summer and winter, year after year, he sat on the benches in front of Sykeston's businesses, and at night stumbled from bar to bar, panhandling for drinks, until finally passing out wherever he dropped—in the gutter of Sykeston’s Main Street, or the alleys leading from it. The nights spent crying in public eventually came to an end, to be replaced slowly by a dazed consciousness, an equilibrium of emotion attained by remaining drunk.
Paul would eventually come to regret his mockery of Pete, knowing all along, as Pete did, that one needn't witness the dying for death to ultimately, and forever, have an effect. After the soldier died that day near the Volturno river, Paul and the crew climbed back into their tank and radioed the medics to not waste their time; Graves Registration would tend to the man now. Paul yanked at the Sherman's clutches and the tank lurched forward again toward the front. He hadn’t learned the man's name, but they advanced a mere hundred feet from where the man lay waiting for burial detail before Paul realized the soldier's face would haunt him the rest of his days. And that’s where the story remained, in his mind, until he was near the end of his life. Over the years Paul often shared the stories of his war exploits with his children, but usually only those stories about his and his comrades’ off-duty antics, stories mainly involving alcohol and practical jokes. The few tales he told of his battle experiences were short and devoid of details. And it was only in his last years that his children heard of the dying man at the side of the road, a story he told with an uncharacteristic sadness in his voice.
But why this man when so many bodies had come and gone. Yes, he had wept the evening he learned of Tom‘s death, but Tom was his best friend and that was their first battle back in Africa. Paul’s battalion would lose many more men, some of them his friends. Why didn’t their deaths trouble him in the same way as that of the man at the side of the road?
After one battle, while heading back to headquarters for tank maintenance, Paul maneuvered his Sherman through the carnage, aware of the corpse-stuffed mattress covers that lay in piles like sacks of potatoes, their hideous contents hidden from those lucky enough to survive. And in September, at the Salerno landing, he was forced to wind his tank back and forth up the beach to avoid the bodies of wounded and dead alike. So why now would the death of one soldier preoccupy him forever? Perhaps because tankers are partially shielded from reality. They view the war through tiny slits in the tank's armor, often firing their main gun at an enemy barely visible in the distance. Outside their protective cans, usually out of their sight, their own infantry slog through the mud, dying wherever enemy artillery and machine gun fire find them, next to their buddies, who watch and wonder when their time will come. But when a German .88 or anti-tank round finds their tank, the crew members either die immediately in a hail of ricocheting metal, or, if only wounded, by the intense fire that follows. Often the entire crew dies together, no one left to mourn over fallen comrades. Survive as a crew, perish as a crew. Death was just that to them. It was the aftermath--the result--not a process that they were forced often to witness.
So it isn't surprising, perhaps, that one anonymous man's death while others are constantly dying could have a profound effect at the time, or that that effect would continue for Paul for another 63 years. For him, the dying man at the side of the road would come to represent all those deaths, seen and unseen, that had occurred around him. And what of the men out there whose job it was to fill the mattress covers, to identify the bodies, and to sift through and catalog the letters and photographs from wives, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers? It becomes even less surprising, then, that these men, men like Pete, men who were forced to retrieve that body at the side of the road, and the bodies of thousands of others while meticulously logging personal information and collecting cherished possessions, would return home with not just the faces, but also the names haunting them for the rest of their lives.
* * *
During a polar January night 25 years after the war‘s end, Pete Laber collapsed drunk in a snow bank near the front door of the small shack he called home. He was found by passersby and taken the thirteen miles to Carrington’s hospital where a surgeon amputated three frostbitten fingers on his right hand and two on his left. And still he could be seen, sitting on those sidewalk benches, clutching a bottle of Mogen David or a can of Schlitz between the fingers that remained. Finally, in 1977, he died, ending 34 years of torment.
Perhaps Paul never considered the parallels between his and Pete’s experiences with death, but he must have sensed the similarity, carrying the guilt of his long ago treatment of Pete with him until the end of his own days. “We should have left him alone,” he sometimes said, “should have understood what he had gone through.” Pete had witnessed no combat, had watched few men die, had killed no one. But he had viewed more of war’s consequences than Sykeston’s other veterans, had seen more death than any of them.