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Honoring my dad, an American vet

Gary Caruso | Thursday, November 10, 2011

Gaze into the eyes of any 22-year-old senior on a college campus today, and you see my father’s eyes 68 years ago just before his combat deployment overseas in World War II. Those eyes betrayed a fun-loving soul, later scorched by the war demons for more than 500 consecutive days at such crucial battles as the Anzio Beachhead and Monte Cassino in Italy. Luckily for history’s sake, my dad’s fellow infantrymen, James B. Moss, chronicled their Fifth Army experiences in a diary currently Internet accessible through the Virginia Military Institute Archives.

Early in 1943 my dad wrote his address and name, “Danny A. Caruso,” on page 3 of the Moss Diary under “My Buddies.” During their initial, carefree days in the 15th Field Artillery Observation Battalion, my dad was “Danny.” After embarking upon duty under General George S. Patton and being promoted to sergeant in the Two Corps, he eventually became “Daniel.” Danny was forever buried with other “buddies” who failed to return home while Daniel moved on by suppressing his misanthropic demons after the war.

My earliest memory of my father and war is a mix of playing with his medals and asking questions. When about 4 years old, I noticed a dime-sized scar on my dad’s ankle. “What’s this?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he softly answered.

As is typical of a curious child, I discovered another scar on his other leg, and then more scars on both the inside as well as on the outside of each ankle. I persisted, “How’d you get these?”

“In the war from my boots.”

“Do they hurt?” I continued.

In a low-key, somewhat hollow whisper he answered, “They’re nothing.”

Three decades later I understood exactly what “nothing” meant when I accompanied him to the American cemetery in Anzio, Italy. He meticulously researched the location of his best friend who had fallen next to him more than 40 years prior on the beachhead. As he methodically approached a white cross, the sky began to drizzle as though to cry for him. Pausing, he placed his hand on the cross, bit his lip, turned his head away and sobbed, “Here’s my buddy.”

While I don’t know exactly how my dad and his comrade forged their bond, over the years he told more stories as time dissipated the trauma and graphic horrors of their 26-month everyday existence. I learned that soldiers try to make the best of an unfair hell through irony, mischief and humor. My father’s unit commandeered an armored truck that netted about three feet of Lire in the bottom of each barrack’s bag — that is, until one drunken soldier bragged that he could buy and sell everyone. When officers investigated and confiscated the money, sergeants like my father emptied each bag on the owner’s cot. My father emptied his on another cot — “just to be safe.”

Nothing bonds men more than humor. A recruit named Jones, who became constipated from the “chow,” earned his nickname in boot camp that forever stuck even years later at reunions: “Poopy Jones.” But humor could not lessen the daily grind, prevent death nor overcome stress and physical exhaustion. Nor did humor ever free my dad from the three constant smells of the war: rotting flesh, burning rubber and kerosene.

Each day he was subjected to aerial bombings, artillery shelling and sniper attacks. A night after the war had ended in Europe, another friend decided to finally sleep peacefully away from camp under a tree. My dad found him the next morning, killed by a Nazi sniper’s bullet.

Near the end of my dad’s life, he freely volunteered witnessing chaos, murder, hate, rape and racism against fellow humans. He often told of counterbalancing ironies. Once, entering a village during the dead of winter, my dad marched past a family — parents, children and grandparents — sitting frozen like statues around their dinner table on the second floor. An artillery shell blew away their wall, and the explosion sucked the breath from their bodies. When my dad later commandeered a house for his headquarters, he threatened a woman at gunpoint who had banished her father to sleep in a cold barn. As long as Daniel occupied headquarters, the old man slept next to the fireplace.

My “Greatest Generation” father occasionally still touches my life with reminders of his mental and physical sacrifices. Last week in the Holocaust Museum, a solitary 89-year-old WWII vet wondered near me. His hat blazed “Anzio” in large capital letters. Neither of us had ever visited the museum before, yet I stood with a soldier who fought with my dad.

Written memoirs and movie portrayals cannot adequately describe the sacrifices of my dad and his buddies. Neither can I.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ‘73, serves in the Department of Homeland Security and was a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at GaryJCaruso@alumni.nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.