Dan Wescott – On Another Battlefield
The sun burned hot in the isolated countryside of Belgium. So hot…. and the horizon lay vast and unbroken. On either side of the car, we only saw open farm lands, and tidy hay blocks stacked in pyramids or speckled in uniform over the fields. Tall, green grass rippled in the wind. The sky topped it all with its fantastic sapphire dome. While my husband drove, I fiddled with the GPS, which babbled some robotic nonsense back at me. It couldn’t help me, because it didn’t really know what I wanted.
I was looking for something yes, but it wouldn’t be on the GPS. Although, I knew it was somewhere among these hay fields and grasslands. I had traced movements through old atlases and battle maps, I had scoured the many volumes on my home library for clues. It took some elbow grease, but the research forged a pathway. What I wanted should be quite close. If I had done my job right anyway…And it’s not like I would have a second chance. It’s not every day we fly across the world and drive all over continental Europe.
“Wait, here we are,” my husband pointed at a small road sign – “Flamierge.”
The car tires crunched over loose rocks on the cracked, country road. We pulled onto the main street of the small town of Flamierge – if you could even call it that. The main street only had three or four buildings, and none of them looked open for business. I spotted a house or two nearby. We didn’t see any people or other cars. A small church with a crumbling cemetery sat on the corner, the only sign this town had ever had any inhabitants.
I thought I would feel something when I entered this place. Maybe he would greet me somehow – a flutter of the heart, a flicker inside my mind, but it was blank. I felt nothing. How could I really be sure this was it?
“Look,” my husband suddenly exclaimed. “There’s something over there!”
I craned my neck around and sure enough, I noticed two flags sticking out behind some trees. One had some distinctly American stars and stripes.
My husband whipped the car around and we pulled over. A Belgian flag flanked the American one, and both flapped in the breeze. A humble, stone monument crouched in the shadow of the banners. It was about three feet tall, with a statement carved on the front of it. And I would never mistake the emblem on the top of that – an eagle’s talon.
The 17th Airborne.
“Oh my God…” I stammered out of the car and walked slowly over to the monument. I put my hand on its cold, rough surface. I read the simple inscription beneath the 17th Airborne’s emblem. “In proud remembrance of the men of the 17th Airborne Division who fought in this area during the Battle of the Bulge in January of 1945. They fought that we might be free.”
That we might be free…. I ran my hand along the monument, and a tear slid out of the corner of my eye. “Hello, Dan Wescott. I found you.”
The following story is a bit more personal than ones I’ve shared before. Because sometimes, history isn’t just some big, vast concept that we pull from dusty volumes. Sometimes, it is a bit closer to our hearts. It involves people we know and care about. History, sometimes, is personal.
So, I’d like to share the history of a special friend. One of those real, true friends that come from all ages, generations, and walks of life. Exactly a year ago, I had to say goodbye to this friend. Although I know we will meet again someday, goodbyes are never easy. And in honor of the one year anniversary since he answered the final roll call, I wanted to introduce you to him, and the part he played in history.
In 2011, I had just begun research for a novel about World War II. I especially wanted to find some first-hand accounts. The local library boasted plenty of memoirs and histories, but that wasn’t quite what I wanted. I longed to hear it from their own mouths and watch their eyes while they spoke. I wanted to learn their mannerisms and get inside their hearts and heads. And I could only achieve that by sitting down with one.
The quest to speak to a World War II veteran proved difficult. Men and Women of the Greatest Generation had really started slipping away, even back then. However, I happened to mention the project to my pastor at church one Sunday. “Talk to Dan Wescott,” she said. “He’s the older gentleman who sits in the back.”
The very next Sunday, I approached Dan after service. I introduced myself, explained my project, and asked him if he’d like to share some of his experiences. We set up a meeting for the following Tuesday. My first interview with a World War II veteran, and I didn’t know what to say. I worried I would sound like a complete idiot to this aged warrior who probably had no time or patience for the likes of me.
Once we started talking, it didn’t take long to realize the interview wouldn’t require much from me. The best I could do was just let him talk. I tossed in a question here and there if he lost his train of thought, but for the most part, I just sat back and enjoyed the show. And he started it pretty bluntly:
“War is crap, young lady. It’s just crap.”
Dan Wescott went on to tell me how he grew up in North Dakota, and he got drafted at the age of twenty-one in 1942. He had a rough time in training, and the food scared him the most. “They only gave us rice. We all thought it meant we were headed to the Pacific. That was a different kind of war.” As it turned out, the Army just had a rationing shortage at the time, and they could only feed the recruits rice until their stores picked back up. There would be no Pacific for Dan. He and the 17th Airborne would go to Europe instead.
The Battle of the Bulge initiated Dan into combat. He got the news of the surprise attack on a Friday. By that Sunday, he found himself on the bullet-riddled frontline. “There was no time to prepare. We didn’t even get proper winter attire. Nothing but our army jackets.”
A coat was a bad thing to be without. Because the bitter cold of the Battle of the Bulge became just as dangerous as the fighting itself. Temperatures dipped to historic lows that winter. It was so cold the GIs couldn’t even dig fox holes. They had to use ones the Germans left behind, or just lay out in the snow, with their green jackets a perfect target against the white snow. “There was just no escape from that cold,” Dan said. “Just shoot me, I would think to myself. Just shoot me, and get me out of this damn cold.”
Dan served as radio messenger and reconnaissance on the frontline, which often put him under fire from an unseen enemy. “The guns were all around. We couldn’t see them in the trees. But if you could hear the bullet, it was a miss. The one you didn’t hear, that’s the one that would get you.”
After fighting in the Ardennes, Dan crossed the Rhine into Germany with the rest of his unit. He showed me photos from old and yellowed newspapers. Some showed men from his own company. He and his boys rousted out German soldiers in hiding, and he took a lot of them prisoner. “It wasn’t personal to me,” he said about how he handled POWs. “If a German’s got a gun, and it’s me or him, that’s one thing. But I wouldn’t make it personal.”
Not long after his arrival in Germany, Dan finally got to get out of the cold. He didn’t get shot, but his feet froze and swelled so badly he couldn’t get them out of his boots. He spent the rest of the European war in the hospital, praying they wouldn’t have to remove his blackened trench feet. “I was glad. I was lucky. Because it was either that or get shot.”
V-E Day came that Spring, just as Dan left the hospital and returned to the line. “We got drunk,” he said when I asked how he celebrated. “Every single damn one of us.” They had hoarded French wine just for the occasion, secretly storing it away in rooms. When they heard the British would soon come and take over their sector, the GIs took care of the wine by drinking it all. “Like hell we were going to let that good French wine go to the Brits. We all got drunker than skunks.”
The happiness of V-E Day came at a price though. I asked Dan about the survival rate in his unit. He thought it over for a long moment before he said… “maybe thirty percent.”
“If you walked out of there alive, unhurt, it was just luck. Just horseshit luck. There is nothing you can do against an unseen enemy. You can watch your buddy’s back, but it’s you, him, the guy next to you… horseshit luck.”
The interview was a powerful experience for me, and in the end, I got more than research for a book. I got a friend. The first real one I made in Los Angeles. Dan and I met up for lunch once a week after that. I also picked him up for church every Sunday. We sat next to each other in the back pew. He entertained me during service by cracking sarcastic jokes and grumbling at everything when he felt cranky. Every time I dropped him off, he wrapped me in a bear hug and said, “God bless you, sweetie.”
Five or six years passed. I saw many friends come and go, I went through some break-ups, and I suffered typical trials of the “starving artist” life in Los Angeles. Through all the changes, old Dan stayed constant. When I began dating my now-husband, Dan had to sign off. “No marrying without my approval,” he said with his stern finger in my face. Thankfully, he loved my husband, and he became Dan’s friend too.
One morning, I went to pick up Dan for church but I arrived to an empty apartment. I heard his beloved cat yowling at the door, but he didn’t appear no matter how hard I knocked. A neighbor told me that Dan had fallen down the night before. He was okay, but he wouldn’t be able to live on his own anymore. His family was moving him to assisted living in Santa Clarita.
My husband and I went to visit him there often. We also adopted his cat, and we sometimes brought him along so he could say hi to his poppy. And we still brought Dan to church every Sunday. He had reached his 90s by then, and he became wobbly and frail on his feet. Still, he refused to use his wheel chair.
“Dan,” I said to my dear old friend one day. “You have to use your wheel chair at church from now on.”
“No. I don’t like it. I can walk by myself.”
“I know. You’re strong and stubborn. But we can’t have you fall down when you are in our care. It would kill me. You understand?”
“We’ll put a bicycle bell on it for you.”
All went well for a while, and then in January of last year, I got a call. Dan had fallen down again. The next day, I got another call. They had decided to take him off life support.
It happened that quickly.
My husband and I drove to the hospital in silence. It would be the last time we would see our friend on this part of the timeline, and that weighed heavy on both of us. When I reached his room in Intensive Care, I didn’t find the same Dan. There was no signature sarcasm, no anxious inquiries about his kitty, no “God bless you sweetie” with that bear hug. It was tough to take. But I took his hand and said goodbye anyway. I at least knew he wasn’t afraid. Because he had told me so during that interview all those years ago.
“I’m not afraid to die,” he had said in that bold, confident voice. “I’m ready. I’ve been ready since that snowy winter in 1944.”
…And so, my husband and I crawled across Belgium to find where our dear friend fought in that snowy winter he always talked about. I now stood right in the very spot. Dan may have just been one cog in a very big wheel, but he and his unit were everything to this small town. In the peak of summer almost seventy-five years later, Flamierge felt still. A butterfly flitted nearby. A few birds chirped. The fields, the sky, and the trees provided our only company. Although, maybe we weren’t as alone as we thought.
I knew Dan stood there somewhere, and it was so much more than a whimsical thought. It was fact. Dan was here. He just stood in a different time period than I did, and that can be an awfully thin veil sometimes. Even though his part of the timeline was probably much less pleasant, it still felt like a much better way to say farewell than in that dingy hospital room.
“Hang in there, old boy,” I whispered. “It’s a terrible fight where you are, but it all gets better. And later down the road, there’s a friend waiting for you. So, until we meet again on another battlefield….”
RIP DAN WESCOTT.
Interview Notes – Dan Wescott, 17th Airborne
Years of Friendship
The Historical Atlas of WWII – A. Swanston & M. Swanston
A Time for Trumpets – C.B. MacDonald