It’s foggy in Arlon, Belgium this morning. That’s fitting.
I came to the border of Belgium and Luxembourg for reasons I do not fully understand and cannot properly express. In part, I hoped to trace the steps of an uncle whose name I bear and whose unspoken charge I seem compelled to have followed, as best I could, my entire life. In part, I hoped to learn more of a world of which I am embarrassed to admit I know so little. In part, I hoped I might learn more about myself.
I suppose Yeats had it right in some ways , though his view from the cheap seats as a fifty something year old Irish noncombatant during the First World War perhaps made it easy for him to say:
“Why should we honour those who die upon the field of battle? A man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.”
I don’t agree with his preface, and reject the implication that equal measures of courage are required for each, but reckless does seem an apt adjective for either endeavor.
As far as history is concerned, the simple truth is that times change. Look at these pictures near Omaha beach from identical points of view separated by 70 years in time:
What better way to capture how time changes our perspective and intervening events cloud our ability to understand the past. It’s as if we were children given a pencil and tracing paper, struggling to capture accurately the picture beneath, unable to lift the paper to confirm we’re getting it right, and trusting that at best . . . at best . . .we can draw only the outline of what really happened. The details we can never see.
Here is what I know . . . or think I know.
On February 22, 1943 at the age of 18 Robert Lear enlisted in the Army.
He, together with many young men from Sangamon County in Illinois were assigned to the 553 AAA AW BN battalion, part of what was to become the Ninth Army. AAA stands for Anti Aircraft Artillery. AW stands for automatic weapons. BN stands for mobile. Their job was to protect ground troops from German aircraft and offer ground support when needed.
On July 1, 1944, three weeks after D Say, Battery B of the 553rd sailed for England from New York on the Queen Mary .
After several weeks in Scotland and England they crossed the channel and came ashore at Utah Beach on August 29, 1944
His unit was likely involved in the Seige of Brest on the west coast of France.
In early October 1944 Battery B passed through Paris and took up position in Arlon, Belgium in preparation for an assault through Luxembourg against the German Ziegfried Line. Initially, the Ninth Army was deployed to the south, but orders were given for the Ninth and First Armies to switch positions and in late October they rapidly repositioned.
Uncle Robert was killed on October 22, 1944 during this rapid repositioning of army corp in Luxembourg, just over the border from Belgium. . It was the day before what was to be his 20th birthday A buddy of his fell from the back of a transport truck into the path of the truck that followed. Robert jumped after him, pushed him aside to safety, but was killed when hit by the truck that followed.
He was awarded posthumously the Soldier’s Medal, a distinction for an act of heroism not involving actual conflict with the enemy. I have that Medal, his dog tags and the telegram from the War Department to my grandparents advising him of his death.
The fog is lifting. I’m off on yet another bike ride. The border to Luxembourg is 6 kilometers away.