Through Dad's Eyes
His view of World War II lives in keepsakes
We all know, without the prompting of memorials and holidays, that the men and women who served in World War II will always be proudly remembered. The big picture of the war has been studied in countless books and essays. But World War II may be best understood through the eyes of the individual American in uniform.
My father, Nuncy Joseph Sabato (1916-1995), was one. The son of Italian immigrants, he was born a few years after their arrival in the United States. Dad was a charter member of the Greatest Generation that survived the Depression and saved a mad war-torn world, then came home and built a better nation for their fortunate children.
When my dad was nearing his death from pancreatic cancer, he wanted me to preserve just one item from his life. On his last Christmas Day, in 1994, he called me into his den and carefully leafed through a scrapbook he had lovingly compiled after he returned from service in the U.S. Army (actually, the Army-Navy Signal Corps) in the European theater.
Dad kept notes and mementos and took hundreds of photos of happy and tragic scenes from the day he was drafted in June 1941 to his trans-Atlantic voyage back to the U.S. in October 1945. Twenty-somethings are the same in any generation, so Dad also carefully logged his stateside and European girlfriends; how he kept these photos secure from my mother for 50 years I will never know. His brothers-in-arms were given equally honored treatment. These fraternal bonds of Army friendship lasted a lifetime.
A LIFE INSIDE THE PAGES
After almost two years of postings to seven stateside bases and training centers, Dad sailed for Great Britain on May 8, 1943. After landing in Glasgow, Scotland, he and his company made their way to a half-dozen locations, with the longest stint served in Reading, in the south of England. Dad was taken aback by the destruction and suffering. There was food rationing in the States, but nothing like that endured by the Brits. In the U.K., German bombs had rained down destruction, especially in central London. “They never complained,” he often told me about the Brits. “They were defiant and would climb over the rubble to go about their lives as though it was a minor inconvenience.” Dad and his fellow soldiers often shared what they had in Army rations with local citizens, especially the children, some of whom seemed malnourished. Dad said that never has a single small piece of candy or fruit so delighted children anywhere.
England became a giant fortified base of military operations, all geared to launching an invasion of German-held Europe. From the day he arrived, Dad heard speculation about that coming assault. While hearsay was discouraged (“loose lips sink ships”), everyone longed for a European landing,a necessary beginning to end a terrible war. D-Day came 13 months after his arrival. He recalled the wave after wave of planes on June 6, 1944, flying over- head to their targets in France. Dad would follow on June 21, leaving England by ship from Southampton and landing at Sainte-Mère-Église, Normandy, where so many brave paratroopers had perished on D-Day. The war scenes awed and saddened him. He told me of the beach in France and inland territory near the French coast where heavy fighting had left dead bodies everywhere — and body parts in bushes and trees. He was relieved to leave this circle of hell.
‘THE FRENCH CALLED US THEIR LIBERATORS’
My father much preferred Egly, France, where Dad noted, “Our company was the first to enter Egly on July 18, 1944. The French mobbed us calling us their liberators.” Some French residents gave Dad their own personal family photos with wonderful notes of affection scrawled on the backs, thanking him personally for returning the precious gift of freedom. Dad’s sense of humor also shows — at least I think it was humor — when he captioned a photo of a woman and her dog: “One of the few dogs left uneaten in France.” (Many accounts say food was so scarce throughout German-occupied Europe that dog meat became a delicacy for starving people.) Dad’s excitement was palpable when he toured the Eiffel Tower in Paris and took a side trip to Rheims, with its champagne cellars. There’s no photo of it, but I know my Dad — he tasted the fruits of those vineyards.
Belgium came next, as of Sept. 20, 1944. At the request of a French family, he first searched for a French prisoner of war, Pierre Vanmarsenille — with a hand-drawn map showing Pierre’s likely location in the Belgian village of Hilkerode. Dad found his way there. The good news, though, was that this POW and the others had already been liberated by American troops. It was then that Dad was transferred to another Signal company — and he said it was “a crushing blow … I had been with some of the guys since training in the States, and I was closer to them than my own brothers.” But the transfer might have saved Dad’s life. His prior company was among those closer to the front lines when Hitler played his last real card, a surprise attack with 250,000 troops in mid-December that drove a “bulge” into the Allied lines in Belgium. The Battle of the Bulge killed tens of thousands of Americans in one of the bloodiest engagements of the war. Hitler’s gambit failed, but at a terrible cost to the Allies.
Next for Dad was Germany, beginning April 2, 1945. A hand-painted sign in English at the border said it all: “Now entering Germany: Be on your guard! Don’t fraternize with Germans.” The photos taken here are of almost unbelievable destruction. Most places had been reduced to rubble, the price paid by Germans for following Adolf Hitler. Dad’s unit swept through sections of the countryside. All over the devastated nation, prisoners of war and the German people themselves were quickly liberated from Nazi rule. Dad gathered a few trophies of war — the giant Nazi flag that flew over Hitler’s headquarters in Fritzlar, Germany, and some Swastika-laden cutlery used by officers of the Third Reich. (I have them preserved behind glass — but not the highly prized Luger pistol Dad confiscated. On a long April march into the sun, he traded it for a pair of sunglasses. He later said it was one of the least wise transactions of his life.)
A WAR NOT OF PLACES, BUT PEOPLE
The personal side of war is the real story of Dad’s keepsakes. The men were there to fight, but they also had to learn to live with one another, day by day, in conditions harsh and uncertain. They achieved remarkable camaraderie, and Dad’s many dozens of letters to relatives stateside tell that tale well. Every man shared goodies that were sent from home. They read each other’s mail — well, some of the time, and indirectly got to know everyone’s relatives, friends and sweethearts. The future’s question marks seemed to add to, not subtract from, the fun they found or devised along the way. Each day, every hour, was savored.
Dad was several years older than most of the other soldiers, and he was a popular leader. He rose to the rank of Tech Sergeant, and he proudly left me all his stripes and his slim-and-trim uniform. There was one bump along the way. In January 1944 he and three buddies took a jeep into the town of Reading for, let’s say, a little late-night fun. This was without permission. His superiors were not pleased, and he was “busted” down to private; Dad was humbled and chagrined when one of the officers said to him, “I’m not surprised at the others, Sabato, but I’m very surprised at you.” He took the lesson to heart, and the consequences didn’t last long. Dad worked his way back into good graces, and of course D-Day was coming. He was restored to rank in a matter of weeks.
My father knew how to have a good time, even under demanding conditions. By good time, I mean Carol, Joan, Betty Jo, Ora, Virginia and about 20 others, whose inscribed photos make clear they had fallen for Dad. He was a handsome devil, and his Italian good looks were matched by suave charm. Alas, he loved the girls and left them. He confessed to using that old line, “I hear we’re headed to the front lines soon; this may be my last free night alive … ” It worked, I gather, almost every time. During my own years in England, I’ll admit to looking around to see if I recognized any half-brothers or -sisters.
Dad was only “at war” in Germany for four weeks, thanks to the good news of V-E Day in early May. The celebrations lasted much of May and early June. Somehow, he managed to secure a week’s pass to Nice with a brief sidetrip to Luxembourg — his only extended break during the war. He had assumed that occupation duties would keep him and his comrades in Germany for the duration — but there was also concern that many would eventually be transferred to the Pacific theater. Naturally, there was unrestrained rejoicing when President Truman’s use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the entire war to a close. Dad’s commanding officer, Major Roy Sullivan, sent this message to his men on Aug. 15, 1945: “The acceptance of unconditional surrender by Japan marks the end of armed warfare for our country. Members of this group … have diligently and loyally carried out their assignments and are to be commended.” The Stars and Stripes newspaper in my father’s collection, also dated Aug., 15, has a massive headline, “WAR ENDS: Truman Announces Total Surrender.”
My father told me the only regret expressed at his post was that President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not live to see peace. When news reached Dad and his fellow soldiers of FDR’s death while they were traveling through Germany in mid-April, almost every man had cried. FDR was the only president most young soldiers remembered; no one knew who Harry Truman was. But the decision to drop the bomb made Truman a popular president among those serving abroad. Surely, this memory later helped Truman win much-needed votes in his uphill re-election bid in 1948.
On Sept. 5, 1945, Dad received the news he had eagerly anticipated. A memo from headquarters listed him as among the soldiers who had accumulated enough “points” to earn quick repatriation back to the States. He left Germany on Sept. 20 and departed Hanley, England, on Sept. 28. Remarkably, he was shipped back to the U.S. aboard the same vessel that had delivered him to England in 1943, the Cunard Lines’ Aquitania. This was no luxury cruise. Dad slept on a crowded deck every night for the seven-day trip back to New York City. From New York, he was sent to Fort Meade, Md., where he was honorably discharged Oct. 14, 1945 — after four years and four months of military service. Dad was nearly 29 years old.
AFTER THE WAR
Almost exactly a year later Dad would marry my Mom, Margaret Frances Simmons, in Norfolk — a committed union that would last 47 years until his death. He met Mom at the Norfolk Naval Base, where he would work for the next three decades, mainly for NAVAIR. Every year of the postwar era, Dad would attend reunions of his war buddies, right up to the end of his life. I came along in 1952 and watched my father apply the lessons he had learned in wartime to building a strong community for his neighbors and a secure home for his family. He helped found his local civic league and build St. Pius X Catholic Church and School, so much so that the school named a wing after him (and now my late Mom, too).
Dad loved history and politics, and he enjoyed debating current issues with all comers. He never missed an election and is singularly responsible for my own interest in that subject. Newspapers, magazines, TV news and vigorous discussions about great events were staples at my house. Dad was a darned good political organizer as well; he drove family members to and from the polls on election days, and he wasn’t shy about suggesting the deserving recipients of their votes. Most of all, he was a devoted husband and father, a fine citizen and a true patriot.
Dad was as well liked out of the Army as he had been in it, due to his broad smile, extroverted friendliness, rock-solid dependability and eager willingness to pitch in for any good cause. Was that inherent in Dad, or was some of it a result of his experiences in the war? In any event, it is no wonder 1,000 mourners attended his funeral on April 1, 1995. We heard from many of his surviving Army buddies, and their grief was as great as ours. To this day, people come up and tell me wonderful anecdotes about my Dad. As Mom used to say, he was one in a million.
He would never have accepted the accolades, though. In his view, he was just an American doing his duty. And we have his magnificent photographs, notes, letters and keepsakes to prove he did his duty well and faithfully — and with his own special flair.
One of the nation’s foremost political analysts, Dr. Larry J. Sabato is University Professor of Politics and director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. (Follow his Crystal Ball team’s predictions at CenterForPolitics.org/CrystalBall.) He is also author of The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy.