A Brief History of A Long War
By Chester Aaron
Yesterday afternoon, after the longest break in our phone conversations in more than fifty years, I called Chetan in Fargo, North Dakota. The lines are often down on the reservation, but this time, after only two rings, the phone was picked up and Chetan’s daughter informed me that her father had died the previous evening.
Two hours after the call, late evening here in California, I stood on the deck of my house, sheltered by the giant redwood that Chetan had once admired, and I watched the sun, looking as if it had decided to descend no lower, settle on the horizon.
I do not own a weapon, but I imagined myself raising a rifle to my shoulder and firing a shot into the sky for Chetan.
Were my wife alive, she would have scorned the rifle image and offered a prayer in Hebrew.
During our forty years together, Netty had heard many stories about Chetan, but had met him only once. That was the time, about ten or twelve years ago, when, unannounced, he flew out to San Francisco, rented a car, and drove north to visit us at our tiny farm. Now my tiny farm.
The three of us had dinner on the deck that evening. Netty had made tzimmis (her mother’s recipe) and I’d made potato latkes (my mother’s recipe.)
“Tribal food,” Chetan said.
After two helpings of Netty’s cheesecake (her own recipe), Chetan, standing at the railing of the deck, studied the birds cruising the sky. His long arm, a finger pointing, went up twice. “Sharp-shinned hawk,” he said, his soft voice reverent.
The following morning we had our breakfast on the deck in the shade of the redwood. How many times—four? five?—did Chetan go to the western side of the deck, anticipating the birds? Finally, as if they had been warned of his impending departure, they glided in over the hills. They swooped and climbed and circled over the fields, closer to the house than they had ever dared before or since.
Chetan smiled and murmured something I did not understand. I waited for his translation. “A Lakota, thank you,” he said.
Netty and I walked Chetan to his car. He embraced each of us, offering, as part of the embrace, another barely audible chant. “A prayer,” he said, “for your hearts and souls to be at peace forever.”
Since that visit Chetan and I have talked on the phone every two or three months. We have never talked about the past. We only talk about the present and the future. His kids, our kids. His world in North Dakota, my world in California. Neither of us has ever said the word Dachau.
Chetan and I enlisted on the same day, (May 12th), in 1944: he in Fargo, North Dakota, I in Butler, Pennsylvania.
Eight days later, we met at the bus station in Columbus, Georgia. I was standing behind him in a line of fifty-six men waiting to board the bus for Fort Benning. We started talking while standing in line. (In our last conversation on the phone, three months ago, he had said, “We have never stopped talking, Izzy. If you weren’t circumcised I’d call you my brother.”)
When we got onto that bus in Columbus, Georgia, Chetantook one of the last two empty seats. I sat beside him. He had taken the aisle seat to leave the window seat for me. About twenty men stood in the aisle.
From the minute the bus left the station, we—Chetan and I—were sharing confessions about our childhoods, our families, ourselves. Never in my twenty-one years of life had I felt such trust in any other human outside my immediate family.
Because Chetan’s voice was a soft monotone, I often had to lean close to him to be sure I heard every word.
Chetan: “You said your name’s Izzy?”
Me: “Short for Isadore.”
Chetan: “That’s a Jew name. Right? Like Abraham and Jacob.”
Me: “Right. So that means I’m a Jew.”
Chetan: “I’ll be damned.”
Me: “Not by me.”
Chetan laughed and said, as if in gratitude for a very precious gift, “I like you, Izzy.”
I laughed even louder. “I like you, too, Chetan. Where’s the name Chetan come from?”
“You’re an Indian?”
“I am a Lakota Sioux.”
“What’s Chetan mean?”
“Hawk. My father’s name, my grandfather’s name, my great . . . and so on.”
Minutes after our arrival at Benning, Sgt. Anthony Tesconi assigned the fifty-six men to two different barracks. Chetan and I went to the top floor of Barracks A.. To the same row of bunks. To the same two-bunk tier.
Chetan was assigned the top bunk, I the bottom.
We were still talking when we strolled together to the supply room to collect uniforms and bedding. We returned to the barracks, still talking, and filled each of the trunks on the floor (one Chetan’s, one mine) with many of the items just collected. We stood together in the chow-line, talking, and we sat next to each other at the same table in the dining hall, talking. After chow, we sat on the steps of the barracks, exchanging stories about brothers and sisters and parents and friends. About our childhoods. About our adolescence. Neither of us, apparently, wanted to waste time and emotion talking about the approaching adventure called Basic Training.
“You were deferred?” Chetan asked.
“No. Three of my brothers were in the army, and my mother and father needed me at home. But I just couldn’t stay out any longer. I want to fight those Nazi bastards and . . . I enlisted. We’re all sending money home.”
After a brief pause in conversation, both of us, at the same time, said the same four words: “I need a shower.”
Chetan followed me down to the first floor, to the large shower stall that was already accommodating ten to fifteen men. As we maneuvered ourselves through the soaking mass of naked bodies. Chetan and I talked only to each other.
Dried and dressed, we sat on my bunk upstairs and talked until all fifty-six of the inhabitants of Barracks A were ordered outside to stand in four rows of fourteen each. Not one of us made a sound as the bugler blew “Taps.”
Back in our barracks, Chetan and I sat on my bunk and picked up where we’d left off. We continued talking until Sergeant Tesconi shouted from downstairs, “Lights out!” and climbed the stairs to shout again, “Lights out!”
We settled in our separate bunks in the darkness, and managed to be silent for two or three minutes. Then Chetan leaned over the side of his bunk and whispered, “You awake, Izzy?”
“Just wanted you to know. You’re the first Jew I ever met.”
I said, “I hope I’m not the last. And you know what, Chetan?”
“I hope you’re not the last Christian I ever meet.”
“I’m not Christian,” Chetan said. “I’m Lakota Sioux. Big difference, Izzy. Ask Jesus.
Then ask Chief Stinking Bear. My great-grandfather.”
Basic Training started the next morning, after breakfast. It continued for thirteen weeks. Infantry training. Our Platoon Sergeant: Anthony Tesconi. Our Platoon Leader: Lieutenant B. T. Hall.
Day after day, for ninety-one days, morning to evening, we crawled on our bellies under machine-gun fire inches above our heads. We raced forward to stab bayonets into burlap bags that spouted “blood.” We did calisthenic jump-ups (at the command of Sgt. Tesconi: “Jump up and who told you come down?”). We marched and marched, hiked and hiked, and we disassembled and reassembled side-arms and rifles and BARs (Browning Automatic Rifles) and bazookas and machine guns (.30 caliber, water-cooled). We learned to believe that the buddies on our right and our left were more reliable in a crisis than either our mother or father could ever have hoped to be.
On weekends, if neither Chetan nor I drew KP or Guard Duty, we took the bus from Fort Benning to Columbus where, in one of the three or four bars recommended by other GIs, we found the least expensive and most accessible woman (black, brown, white, young, not young) and shared her, occasionally both of us at the same time. We laughed afterwards, tried to joke about who excited or pleased whom, but mostly we laughed like two people assigned the job of collaborating on the creation of a bizarre joke.
After the thirteen weeks of Basic Training ended we, Chetan and I, were sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for advanced training in Armored Warfare. We languished in Kentucky for months. Bored, resentful, even dangerously defiant at times, we endured by drinking, whoring, and reading, and by honing skills already so sharply honed they were almost dangerous to both us and our comrades.
We endured because we saved each other. Because we had arrived at the point where boredom was as much a threat as the approaching combat could ever be.
Finally, in March of 1945, we were shipped to Camp Miles Standish, a POE (Port-of-Embarkation) in Massachusetts. On the third day at Standish we were transferred to the same troopship, and over the next several days we spent hours and hours together at the ship’s rails, sharing joys and sorrows we had already shared, and new joys and sorrows we would share again, before we landed at La Havre on March 18th, 1945.
Before leaving Fort Knox, Chetan and I had been assigned the same MOS number (MOS meaning Military Occupational Specialty.) Our number was 605. 605 meant Heavy Machine Gun Operator. At Camp Lucky Strike at Le Havre we both ended up as Number One Gunners in the Machine Gun platoon of the Heavy Weapons Company of the 70th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 20th Armored Division, Seventh Army. Commanding Officer: General Hodges.
Chetan was Number One Gunner in Squad One; I was Number One Gunner in Squad Two. There were four squads to one platoon. Our two squads rode in the same half-track. Number One Gunner meant that in action I would carry the heavy tripod (fifty-three pounds of iron) on my shoulders, its front legs pointing down across my chest. When ordered to set up and fire, I would flip the tripod so that it would turn over once, precisely, and land with splayed legs which, on impact with the ground, would lock in position.
My Number Two gunner would immediately appear with the gun (its barrel secured inside a metal tank filled with water) and settle it on the fixed tripod. That metal tank, filled with cold water, was designed to keep the metal barrel from overheating and failing to fire.
After I locked the gun in place, the next three members of the squad would, as needed, rush forward with belts of ammo (each belt holding 250 rounds), which my Number Two gunner could feed into the weapon, so I could shoot and kill as many of the enemy as possible, as fast as possible. Rate of fire of the .30 caliber Water-Cooled Heavy Machine Gun: 400–600 rounds per minute. Effective range: 1100 yards.
Sgt. Tesconi: “Pvt. Cohen?”
“Over there, when you’re in combat, it’s so cold the water in the tank can freeze. You let every man in your squad piss inside that jacket so the water don’t freeze, so you can keep killing Krauts.”
“I will sure as hell remember that, Sgt. Tesconi.”
The first day (early April, on the outskirts of Munich) we joined troops in action. I killed nine German soldiers and wounded four; Chetan killed six and wounded six.
During the cleanup that followed, and our platoon’s review of our performance, Chetan and I pretended to be nonchalant. Minutes later, as we cleaned our weapons in preparation for the next battle, Chetan said, “Every dead body I looked at is my age. Two, three years younger or two, three years older. That dead Kraut layin’ there? He could be me or you.”
I managed to pretend I was not writhing inside my own skin, inside my own soul. “Their mothers and fathers,” I said, my words sounding detached, “are the same age as my mother and father.”
“You thinking you’re paying them back?”
“Paying them back for what?”
“For what they’re doing to Jews? For what they’ve been doing to Jews. You feeling anything like that?”
I managed to pretend I was being honest. “Tomorrow or the next day, their parents will be told their sons are dead. They’ll never meet me. They’ll never know my name. Maybe they ought to. Maybe if I had a chance to stand in front of them and tell them . . . I don’t know.”
“I know,” Chetan said. He reached out, grabbed my arm, squeezed it. “You do know. You’ll never forget, you’ll always want to pay them back. Like I do. I could have joined the First Cavalry Division. There was a recruiter on the reservation. But that word, cavalry, I wanted to hit that recruiter over the head with my grandfather’s tomahawk.” He squeezed my arm tighter. “In Algonquian the word’s otomahuk. Means knock down.” He released my arm and said, “We both get out of this war alive, I’ll send you an otomahuk.”
“I won’t need it then,” I said.
We continued fighting.
Day and night.
Sometimes in long-drawn-out maneuvers, sometimes in brief skirmishes. But the word was out that the end of the war might be in sight. It could be a matter of weeks, maybe even days.
Not one of us believed it. Or wanted to believe it. We were caught up in an activity that no longer needed planning. It just needed energy. Shooting, riding, protecting ourselves and one another: it was as natural now as breathing.
Much of each day we were in our half-tracks on the Autobahn. Chetan and his squad, and me and my squad, in our half-track. Three or four vehicles (tanks, trucks, half-tracks) behind us, in front of us. Traveling north or northwest, advancing less than a mile each day.
Occasionally, called out of our half-track to support the infantry moving across the ground, Chetan and I would be ordered to set up our weapons so that the lines of fire from our two guns criss-crossed.
During one especially heavy attack, coordinated with other platoons and companies, Chetan’s squad and mine gave cover to a demolition team of four men advancing on two concrete bunkers set in a hillside. One of the men on the team. who was carrying a flame-thrower, was flat on the ground, unable to rise and move forward because fire from German soldiers inside the bunkers was pouring across the field close above his body. A rifleman from Chetan’s squad, intending to help the man, crawled on his belly toward the bunkers. Chetan, twenty or thirty feet to my right, shouted for me to go for the opening in the bunker on the right, while he’d take the bunker on the left.
We were on target within seconds, sending lead through the open slits. Our Number Two and Three Gunners kept supplying us with more ammo belts. Chetan’s squad was now short the one man who had gone on his daring rescue mission. It took three or four minutes for that man to make his way to one of the bunkers, but once there, he leaned against the concrete and tossed a grenade through the opening. After the grenade exploded inside the bunker, he made his way to the other bunker and tossed a second grenade. That grenade exploded, but a soldier inside the bunker found the strength and guts to fire on the man with the flame-thrower, who had leaped up and was running forward. The flame-thrower’s tank fell from his back and he dropped to the ground. Chetan leaped up from his gun and, screaming, hunched over, ran forward. I moved my line of fire back and forth, from the open slit of one bunker to the open slit of the other, sometimes inches above Chetan’s body.
Then, suddenly, in the slit on the left: a white flag.
Seconds later, in the slit on the right: a white flag.
Both flags kept waving.
Hours later, when the bunkers were destroyed and the German dead and wounded had been processed, Captain B.T. Hall came over and saluted both of us.
“I am going to recommend the two of you for a goddamn medal,” he said. “Which medal you get depends on Headquarters, but by God, you two guys gave me hope today. You’re heroes in my book.”
That night, our bedrolls next to each other, Chetan and I were trying to stay awake, but failing.
“How about that?” Chetan said, as he squirmed down deeper inside his bedroll.
“About what? The medal?”
“Yeah. Imagine. Only in America. A tall, muscular, handsome Sioux warrior and a big-nosed immigrant Jew saving each other’s asses. No one’s ever going to write a novel about this or make a movie. This couldn’t happen in America, people would say.”
“That kind of novel wouldn’t sell,” I said, trying to keep my teeth from chattering. We reached our hands outside of our bedrolls and fell asleep, fingers clenched together.
Six hours later, just after dawn, we were on the Autobahn again, heading north. Chetan and I were sitting in the back of our half-track with the ten men of our two squads. Behind us the smoke and flames of the city of Munich looked like a huge tumbling red ball. In front of us a brown-yellow cloud appeared.
As our convoy moved closer to the cloud, the brown tones overpowered the yellow ones and there was an odor so strong, so thick and noxious, that I stood up, leaned over the edge of the vehicle, and vomited all over the mines and gasoline containers locked in their metal racks. My second gunner, Bobby Donofrio, held on to my shoulder so I did not fall out.
“Hey,” he said, pointing to a sign on the right side of the Autobahn. “Dat-chow.”
I breathed deeply twice, swallowed, and corrected Donofrio’s pronunciation. “Dachau.”
I had read enough columns in Stars and Stripes, and listened to enough radio news reports. to know why the air contained the stench of meat roasting on a grill.
The railroad tracks ran alongside the Autobahn, and maybe a hundred yards farther up the tracks crossed it and climbed a slope to a high wall of iron rods. The wide iron gate was open. GIs were running in through the open gate, firing their rifles and handguns. Several men were using their bayonets. Our convoy stopped and every man, including Chetan and me, jumped out of the vehicles and ran up the slope and through the open gate.
I stopped running when I reached the tracks. Waiting there, deserted by the Germans who had intended to escape, was a train: a line of boxcars and flat cars. On every flat car: mounds of bodies, pieces of bodies, severed arms and legs and heads. Stuffed inside every boxcar, floor to ceiling: mounds of bodies, pieces of bodies, severed arms and legs and heads.
On both sides of the tracks, fallen from the mounds on top of the flat cars and from the mounds of bodies inside the boxcars: bodies, parts of bodies, severed arms and legs and heads. Men and women and children. Occasional pieces of striped and ragged cloth clung to occasional arms and legs and heads.
Chetan and I followed other GIs deeper into the screaming, exploding chaos where German soldiers lay on the ground, a few trying and failing to rise, a few screaming, a few moaning, those not yet dead in silent shock, knowing death was coming.
Pouring out of the chaos beyond: men, women and children who could have been human but were probably ghosts.
Skin and bone.
Just skin. Just bone.
Some naked, some in tattered striped pajamas.
Chetan lifted a small collection of cloth-covered bones that proved to be a heavy-lidded child. A girl. Nine, perhaps ten years old.
“Essen,” she whispered. “Essen.”
“She’s starving,” I said.
I remembered the spare can of C-rations in my back-pack. I found it. I opened it, picked chunks of food from the can, placed them in the child’s mouth. She chewed and swallowed, then coughed and choked and died in Chetan’s arms.
Chetan screamed and held her out to me. I took her, and he grabbed a bayonet lying on the ground and ran from German body to German body, stabbing. Stabbing and screaming.
That night our vehicles settled in a field a few miles to the west of Dachau. I ate very little of the canned rations we received. I spread out my bedroll at the side of our half-track and Chetan spread his next to mine. Because the night was growing colder, we both squirmed deeper into our bedrolls. I dozed but did not, could not, sleep. Chetan, the two or three times I checked his face, was looking at me. It was one of the two or three times since that day we met at Columbus, Georgia, that we simply could not talk. I don’t think I had ever felt so lonely, so frail. I did, finally, fall asleep.
I woke up when Chetan crawled into my bedroll and our bodies, naked, closed on each other. Chetan took me into his arms. I not only submitted, but I held Chetan as tightly, as lovingly, as he held me. Two or three hours later he left my bedroll and we never, over the next fifty-five years, ever talked about our night in each other’s arms.
Nor did I ever mention my love for Chetan that night, and Chetan’s love for me, to Netty. Why should I? It was a singular night for Chetan and for me. I am sure it helped both of us to love our wives even more than we would have loved them had we, Chetan and I, not found salvation that night in each other’s arms.
This evening, when I stood on the deck and heard, again, the voice of Chetan’s daughter informing me that her father was dead, I knew that Chetan was still very much alive. He would die only when I died.
A few minutes ago I called my son in Oakland. I invited him and Sarah and their kids to visit me this weekend. They will be here on Saturday. They will stay all day. Perhaps I can convince them to stay overnight. We will pick the fruit and the vegetables, and Sarah and I will make the supper Saturday evening, and we will sit on the deck in the shade of the redwood, and when the birds arrive I will see and hear and love Chetan again.
See you soon, Chetan!