Today is Memorial Day. It is a day to remember those that have fought for the freedom of our great country and to honor their sacrifice. Today is a mixed day for me. Today, I remember the only Grandfather I knew: Virgil Elsworth Eddy
Grandpa was a complicated man that could be my strongest ally or my greatest enemy. He was my protector, my tormentor, a story teller, and a hero. He made my life interesting to say the least. I regret only a few things in life and one of the biggest is not telling him thank you for his service to our country. We talked about briefly about WWII and his service when I was younger. He would tell me lots of stories over tea and coffee. Some real and some that were obvious lies. He loved to keep you guessing on which parts were true and which parts were utter crap.
I remember him convincing me as a teen that these tiny little cameras he had were actually Nazi spy cameras. He told me he had stolen them from detained soldiers and had given the film to the government. When I came home and told my Dad he just rolled his eyes. He had actually purchased the cameras in Ohio after the war.
Even though some of his stories were crazy fiction, his real experiences were anything but.
My Grandfather crossed state lines to join the army with a few of his brothers during WWII. He served in Algeris-Morocco, Sicily, Naples-Foggia, and achieved the rank of Sergeant in the 1st Signal Armored Battalion. What he saw and the things he experienced went beyond that of a common soldier. He did not take photos of his war accomplishments. Most of his photos documented the everyday life and horrors that the people living in Italy experienced during the war.
Before Shipping out.. a photo letter to my Grandmother.
Proud in his new Army uniform
He talked often of the friends he met and shared tents with before shipping out. He told me about the pranks they would pull on each other and the grueling training. Life then was easy compared to the time he would spend fighting.
Pretending to be one of the drill Sergeants
When they landed in Italy he said that everything changed. He did not like to talk about the fighting, the bombs, or his orders. The first story he tells is of his company holed up in a farmer’s field on a tall hill somewhere in Italy. They had been engaged in serious combat all day. They were exhausted and on edge. All night they could hear movement on the fields below them. Worried that the entire Germany military had surrounded them, they opened fire. As the sun rose the next morning they discovered that they had shot up a whole field of goats!
Written on the back: “Just me taken in Sicily Oct 1st, 1943”- Love and Kisses Virgil
He told many stories about the children in the bombed out war zones of Sicily and Palermo. He would save his chocolate and some of his rations to pass out the war orphans he would encounter every day. At this point in the story he would get up and make some coffee so I would not see him cry. He was deeply moved by their suffering and their situation. He would remember these children for the rest of his life.
Written on the back: War orphans in Sicily Palermo
“In the bombed section of a city in Sicily”
(My Grandfather is the one seated)
This was the child he thought about the most.
“A war orphan found during the fight here: 1943”
“He was found in a center of a heavy bombed city. War is war“
When he wasn’t fighting he was involved in several get rich schemes that he and his buddies would try to make life a bit more enjoyable. They bought a cigarette and junk cart from a man on the streets and tried to sell to the other soldiers and people. His words sum up their progress:
Timmy Lambert, Bob Lakota and Me: Trying to forget the horrors of war. (Somewhere in Sicily)
“We bought the wagon and tried to make some money. It didn’t work. ~Virg”
“Taken in the heart of a city here”
(Grandpa at the right next to the young man in the white shirt enjoying some of his chocolate)
A few of his photographs showed the destruction of the cities. It also showed the everyday life of citizens living in a war zone.
“German HG somewhere in Sicily after our flying forts worked it over”
“A meal in the making.. this family has no home and lives in the remains of a bombed building. Note the holes from bullets or shrapnel. Oct 3, 1943”
“Cooking dinner Sicilian style”
The thing I noticed most was his compassion for the people he met. He told me once that the orphans haunted him the most. When I look at these pictures I can see why. It wasn’t just about the fighting.. it was the people that endured before, during, and after he was there. He wanted to share a bit of their story with his.
He never wanted to be called a hero. He did not keep his medals, his uniform, or go to any parades. He tried to become an everyday citizen once it all was over. The only thing left were his memories and these pictures that I kept after his death.
“Just sleeping after a hard nights work…also dreaming of you. Yours forever – Virg”
A photo letter to my Grandmother
He will remain a hero to me always.
I wish I had written this sooner or at least sat down and said these words to you. I did not understand in my child’s mind what you endured and saw all those years ago. I did not want to cause you pain. So I say this now.. Thank you..
Thank you for fighting in a war to protect the world from a great evil. You sacrificed time, family, and sanity to keep our country free. You taught me that war is more than bombs and guns; it’s about the people that needed help to overcome a great evil. You shared your stories and tears with me.. trusting me with your memories and photos. I keep them safe and I share them so your stories will not be forgotten.
I hope that you are happy where you are now. That your dreams and hurts are gone. I miss you and our visits. I miss your laugh.. Thank you for protecting me and for protecting so many others.
Thank you… you are and always will be a hero..