Dan Wescott – On Another Battlefield

            It was a hot day in the isolated countryside of Belgium.  So hot…. The horizon was vast and unbroken.  On either side of the car, there were just open farm lands, and tidy hay blocks that were 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.  It babbled some robotic nonsense back at me.  It couldn’t help me.  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 that 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.  There were three or four buildings and none of them looked open for business.  There was a house or two nearby.  There were no people or other cars.  There was just a small church on the corner with a crumbling cemetery.  It was the only sign that this town was even inhabited. 

            I thought I would feel something when I entered this town.  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, there were two flags sticking out behind some trees.  One was distinctly American. 

            My husband whipped the car around and we pulled over.  The American flag was flanked by Belgian one, and they snapped in the breeze.  In the shadow of the banners, there was a humble, stone monument.  It was about three feet tall, and there was something carved on the front of it.  The emblem at the top was unmistakable – 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 said to the air.  “I found you.”

            The following post is a bit more personal than ones I’ve shared before.  Because sometimes, history isn’t just some big, vast concept that we pull out of dusty volumes.  Sometimes, it is a bit closer to our hearts.  It involves people that 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 him.  Although I know we will meet again someday, goodbyes are never easy.  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 begun research for a novel about World War II (which I am now querying – hooray!).  I was anxious to get my hands on some first-hand accounts.  There were plenty of memoirs at the library, but it wasn’t quite what I wanted.  I wanted to watch their eyes while they spoke.  I wanted to learn their mannerisms.  I wanted to get inside their hearts and heads.  The only way to do that was to sit down with one.   

            It was a hard quest.  Men and Women of the Greatest Generation were hard to come by, 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, and asked him if he’d like to share some of his experiences.  We set up a meeting for the following Tuesday.  It was 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 me long to figure out that this interview didn’t require much from me.  The best thing to do was just let him talk.  Sure, I could toss in a question if he lost his way, but most of the time, I just sat back and enjoyed the show.  And here was how it started:

           “War is crap, young lady.  It’s just crap.”

            Dan Wescott went on to tell me that he grew up in North Dakota, and he was drafted at the age of twenty-one in 1942.  His training was rough, and the food scared him.  “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 rice was just the only thing on hand during a particular rationing shortage.  There would be no Pacific for Dan.  For him, and the 17th Airborne, it was off to Europe. 

            Dan’s first fight was in the Battle of the Bulge.  He got the news of the attack on a Friday.  By that Sunday, he was at the 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 was just as dangerous as the fighting itself.  Temperatures dipped to historic lows that winter.  It was so cold they 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 as 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.”   

            His job on the frontline was radio messenger and reconnaissance.  He often found himself 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 the 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 of the pictures showed men from his own unit.  His job was to roust 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 was sent to the hospital.  The cold had not let up, and he almost paid the price with his feet.  They were so frozen that he couldn’t get them out of his boots.  He would spend the rest of the European war in the hospital.  “I was glad.  I was lucky.  Because it was either that or get shot.” 

            V-E Day came that Spring, just as Dan was released from the hospital.  “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 were coming to take over their sector, they 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 what the survival rate was in his unit.  He had to think 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.”      

            It was an incredibly powerful interview, 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 was 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 plenty of break-ups, and I suffered the many trials of the “starving artist” life in Los Angeles.  Through all the changes, old Dan was the 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 that was it.  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.  He would be moved to assisted living in Santa Clarita. 

           My husband and I went to visit him often.  We adopted his cat, and we sometimes brought him along on visits so he could say hi to his poppy.  We also still brought Dan to church every Sunday.  He was well into his 90s by then.  He was getting wobbly and frail on his feet, but 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?”

            He considered.  

            “We’ll put a bicycle bell on it for you.”

            “Fine.” 

            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 were taking him off life support. 

            It was that fast. 

            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 got to the hospital, it wasn’t 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.  “I’m ready.  I’ve been ready since that snowy winter in 1944.”   

            …And so, my husband and I crawled across Belgium in search of where our dear friend fought in that snowy winter.  I now stood right in the very spot where his unit was.  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 was still.  A butterfly flitted nearby.  A few birds chirped.  The fields, the sky, and the trees were our only company.  Although, maybe we weren’t as alone as we thought. 

            I knew Dan was here.  To me, it was so much more than a whimsical thought.  It was fact.  Dan was here.  He was just here in a different time and space than I was.  It felt like a much better way to say farewell than in that dingy hospital room. 

            “Hang in there, old boy,” I whispered.  “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.

SOURCES

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

Wikipedia

83 Comments on “Dan Wescott – On Another Battlefield

  1. MB, this post is magnificent — eloquent, poignant, humane, and riveting. I love the way it combines history, travel, intergenerational friendship, and much more. I’m going to put a link to your piece in my current blog post.

    • That is very flattering Dave, thank you very much for your kind words and for sharing the story. It honors me and my friend, I still miss him very, very much.

      • Thank you for reading! I’m happy to see so many people getting moved by Dan’s story!

    • Yes, he was a lovely friend! 🙂 And is still very much missed. We still have his kitty and that always makes us happy.

  2. What a remarkable story! For him to survive when the survival rate in his unit was only 30%!

    I laughed when you told him you’d put a bicycle bell on his wheelchair.

    It’s fascinating to study the photos of this area, the site of such a famous battle. But it was very moving, too, and I’m sorry to hear about the loss of such a dear friend.

    P.S. Good luck with querying your novel!

    • I’m glad you came by and enjoyed Dan’s story. He was quite a character. We still miss him very much. And thanks for the well wishes for querying, I will need it!

  3. This is the most beautiful tribute anyone could ever ask for. You have such an amazing gift for writing. I felt like I was there with you and Dan. Thanks for making me cry and for sharing your special relationship with us.

    • 🙂 Thank you for taking the time to read it! Dan would be happy to know his story moved you! Love you

    • I know, right?! We had no idea they would actually have a monument there. That was a very moving and wonderful surprise.

  4. What gifts – your friendship with Dan and the opportunity to honor him where he once stood for all of us. A remarkable story – very powerful. Thank you for sharing.

  5. M, this was a very moving story. I know Dan was a special and precious friend to you. I also know even though I never met him, that you meant the world to him. Somewhere he is watching over you and smiling. You have honored this old warrior with your beautiful writing. Thank you for sharing this with all of us!

      • I hope you know how talented and beautiful you are. I am so proud of you!

  6. what a great piece, its always a sad moment when someone we know and love passes. The memories live on, thank you for sharing this story. RIP Dan…. A fellow parachutist.

    • I am so glad you read it! You know I actually thought it would be right up your ally when I was exploring your blog yesterday. Were you a parachutist? That is incredible. Dan was glider airborne.

      • Yes I was a parachutist, 1983 joined as a joiner.. 15.5 years old.. wish I was still in.. miss it so much.. yes totally connected with your blog.. what a great Dan seemed to be and how honoured he must have felt to be friends with and your hubby.. I guess you maybe know this, you helped him through his last years and brought some joy to his life.. I tip my hat to you both…

      • That is very kind of you to say 🙂 Dan was a very special friend to us and is very much missed!

    • Thank you very much for reading it. Dan is smiling somewhere out there! 🙂

  7. It is an outstanding tribute for your friend and all the other troops who fought beside him. I’ll be passing this on to others who can appreciate it.

    • Dan greatly appreciates that, GP 🙂 It’s an honor that you would do that for him!

  8. What a moving story! Those personal ones are the absolute best. Thank you for sharing your friendship with us. ❤️

    • Thank you for reading about it! I’m happy to share just a little bit of his story 🙂

  9. M.B., Wow. Thank you for sharing your experiences with Dan. Brilliant writing about an exceptional human being. May I reblog/ post on all platforms?

  10. That’s a wonderful piece, MB, on so many levels. And a fine piece of writing. Dan sounds like quite a character, too; I could even forgive him for not sharing the booze with our chaps (probably just as well, really).

    • Lol! 🙂 He rarely shared good booze with me either, so it’s nothing personal haha. Thanks so much for giving it a read, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    • It’s a very powerful story – you’ve worked hard to get it out there! Thank you for sharing it with all of us!

  11. He sounds like an honest and down to earth man who like so many, did what he had to do. A fabulous tribute to him, I’m sure there will be a big hole left by his departure.

    • Yes he was always very honest! I’m glad you enjoyed his story, sharing it has helped fill in the hole a little 🙂

  12. I am choking up, M.B., both because of your beautiful tribute to Dan, and because of the beautiful friendship you forged with him. Thank you for keeping his story alive.

    • He was a wonderful friend. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone a whole year already, but I do feel he’s still around in some ways 🙂

      • How beautiful that you still feel his presence, M.B. I have no doubt you meant the world to him, too. xx

      • We still have his kitty 🙂 So that’s a good way to feel his presence! We call him “Cat Cat” and he is the cutest, cuddliest little thing.

      • I think Cat Cat won the lottery when you adopted him. 🙂 It must have been a HUGE comfort to Dan too, to know his beloved pet was in such good hands (quite literally, ha ha!). This heartwarming story just has so many lovely angles, M.B. …

      • Thank you so much – I’m very honored you think so!

  13. Beautiful story, thanks for sharing. As you said the war, that we read in books and watch in movies, seems so distant from us, until we know somebody that was inside it. Glad you found what you were looking for. Have a great weekend!

  14. I have the image of him sitting alone in the back pew until you came into his life. This was a poignant story of mutual bonding in friendship. I can’t wait for your book!

    • Thank you <3 We did have fun once we started sitting together. Word got around about our sarcasm and it earned us the nickname "section smart aleck." LOL 🙂

  15. This is a beautiful tribute to your friend, MB. Thank you for sharing his life’s story, and the beautiful friendship that developed between you. I hope your memories of shared times bring you much comfort.

    • Thank you. I’m so glad you enjoyed his story – he was a wonderful friend indeed.

  16. oh, M.B. this was an emotional one. it took me a couple napkins and a few minutes to be able to start this comment.
    if you hear the bullet, it’s a miss…. that is so true in so many ways.
    I’m glad you got to meet someone like him and become friends. it’s a memory to treasure forever.

    • <3 Thank you for sharing your thoughts and kind words. It's still not the same around here without old Dan. He is sorely missed.

  17. What a wonderful way to pay tribute to your friend. Thank you for sharing his story.

    It must have been a great experience to explore the battlefields of Europe and is something I’d love to do myself one day as I had a relation that fought in France and alas didn’t make it home like so many others. I’ve been trying to research what happened to him but as he was in the SAS it’s not been easy to get information.

    A great website – I’ll be following with interest.

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