This, for once, is not a link to my own writing, but rather a part of family history very much tied to Veteran’s Day.
My grandmother’s brother died on the European front of World War II.
On the rolling fields outside the tiny East German village of Lauenhain, a German sniper fired two shots across the Zschopau River, killing an American private.
It happened on April 16, 1945, four days after FDR died, a couple of weeks before Hitler would kill himself, the very day the Soviet Red Army jumped across the Oder River to start its push across the last 50 miles to Berlin.
It was at the point of the American Army’s easternmost penetration, where Patton’s 3rd Army was ordered to halt and wait for the Russians to link up and cut Germany in half.
For weeks, the German army, short on ammunition, equipment and soldiers, had been collapsing in an uncontrolled retreat. Only three weeks later, the exhausted remnants of that army would formally surrender.
It was the 304th Infantry regiment’s last day on the front line; the American private was Company B’s last casualty.
Year’s later, my mother’s cousin wrote this article for the Dallas Morning News. He pieced together the last days of my great-uncle, one none of my mother or her siblings ever knew except in passing stories from my grandmother.
But there was a part many in the family didn’t know. This being 1940s America, out-of-wedlock pregnancy was something spoken in hushed whispers. And before he had left for the war, Cleo had a son.
It was, I thought, the naturally awkward meeting one might expect when, after 44 years, someone wants to talk about your father and his death.
I met his wife and three children. We talked about his mother - she had five more children after the war. We talked about my mother and father, now dead, and his other aunts and uncles.
He told me he had tried unsuccessfully to learn about his father’s death from the Army. He also asked the Army if his father had earned any medals, and one day several months later, without explanation, a box arrived with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, Good Conduct medal, several campaign medals and the Combat Infantryman’s badge.
I told him what I had learned and gave him a pencil etching of his father’s grave marker. He showed me an album his mother kept, including the photos Cleo had been carrying when he was killed. On one, a tinted picture of an infant, his mother had written, “To daddy dear, from your son Steve,” For the first time, I knew that Cleo had learned of his son’s birth before he was killed.
In turn, I showed Steve photos I had pulled from family albums and others taken during my trip across Germany, including one of his father’s grave.
“It’s odd looking at this,” he said. “I know this individual was my father, but I didn’t know him. I wish I had been able to meet Dad. I’d like to know what he liked. But you can only know that by sitting and talking with them.”
Stephen would reconnect with our family, bringing with him a treasure trove of our genealogy. Here was a cousin, a blood relation, unknown for years. And here, in his fifties, he’s meeting countless cousins and aunts and uncles for the first time. Names put with faces, descendants added to his family tree, knowing for the first time his cousins and their children.
It’s a strange end to the tail - to finally know the family you never did, to chance upon someone entirely new, but readily familiar. Here is a strange end to a story that didn’t end with the German sniper - instead, it was the beginning to something else entirely.