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?”
“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 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.
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