Friday, March 21, 2008


As I’ve recounted elsewhere, before being drafted into the infantry in 1944, I had obtained a scholarship—four-year tuition paid—to study chemical engineering at a leading engineering university. So after my tour of duty, I anticipated returning there to complete my degree.

It was not to be, and this is the story of why. My first introduction to the devastation of war came on my first night in Etretat, France. While asleep along with a thousand other replacement officers—all on cots in a large gymnasium—I was awakened by a French prostitute who jumped atop me crying, “Fuck me for chocolate!” I was frightened to death. As an eighteen-year-old virgin, I had promised to remain so for my then sweetheart back home. What appalled me most, however, was the degradation I heard in the voices of the hundreds of desperate women. It was not the sex; it was the desperation that frightened me.

The next morning we were loaded onto a train of boxcars to be delivered to a town in Germany. The old wooden freight cars had absolutely no amenities. Somehow the confused engineer got it into his head that we were destined to a similar-sounding town in France. As a consequence we spent many weeks in those freight cars traversing France and part of Germany. But what was illuminating to us as we viewed the landscape from the open door of the boxcar was how completely ruinous were the towns and countryside through which we passed. Then, at every stop, there were the ragged, emaciated children gathering at the open door, begging for food.

My first assignment was to head a transportation company that administered motor pools for troops in the Mannheim-Heidelberg area. Mannheim was especially shattered by the allied bombings, and its people were gaunt and cold, with little or no fuel during winter. I can remember the incongruity of attending a concert of the music of Bach and Mozart in the dead of winter. There was no heat in the hall. The musicians wore gloves, and the audience huddled together in overcoats and scarves. It was, however, my introduction to the transcendence that classical music can bring, whatever the context.

My next assignment was to supervise two prisons of captured German soldiers. One was in a town on the Ammersee, and one was located in Ettal, near Oberammergau in the Bavarian Alps. I commuted between the two prisons. There was little destruction of the lovely Bavarian countryside. But the horror of war did not leave that beautiful area untouched. Two examples illustrate.

The first was the result of the decision by Occupation Headquarters to use Polish displaced persons to guard the German prisoners. For these Polish officers and ex-soldiers had become slaves of the Nazis after their capture and forced to labor in factories and concentration camps. We dressed them in blue-dyed GI clothes and sent them out to guard the prisoners on work details. The result was mayhem on occasion, for the hatred of the Poles for the Germans was extreme. Often the work detail would return minus two or three prisoners. The story the Poles told were that these prisoners had to be shot for they tried to flee. It happened too often for me to completely believe these tales, especially as I observed the glee and laughter of those who did the shooting.

The second example of devastation in beautiful Bavaria occurred one morning as I entered my office to begin work for the day. I was greeted by the acrid smell of gunsmoke and the sight of two halves of a man’s brain that had made bloody streaks as they skidded across the floor of the outer office. Slumped across the rifle rack that contained some two dozen rifles locked in it was the body of one of the prisoners. He had apparently found a shell that fit the rifles while on a work detail, had placed it in a chamber, put his head over the barrel, and pulled the trigger. It was my first experience with violent death resulting from despair. And a vivid one, at that.

I believe it was that very moment that I decided I could not possibly devote my life to the study of any form of engineering.

I knew I had to add whatever abilities I had to the alleviation of the pain and suffering that I was observing at the tender age of eighteen. There just had to be something that could counter the despair and hopelessness that I saw everywhere.

So when I returned to college after the war, I forsook the scholarship; and with the help of the GI Bill that paid for tuition, I enrolled for a degree in Psychology. This too, however, proved to be a dead end, though that is another story.

Sherman is said to have made the statement “War is Hell.” What my experience has taught me is that Hell and its devastation can be seen in such a way as to provide a potent motivation toward a career of healing.

Put another way: love is far more powerful than the devastation of hatred.

* “The miracle looks on devastation and reminds the mind that what it sees is false.” (ACIM)

Copyright 2007 Frank West

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