If you’re lucky enough to have a grandfather around to tell you stories, you’d better be smart enough to listen. Both of my grandfathers served in WWII, and while one enjoyed talking about it more than the other, there’s no doubt my life is richer for them sharing their experiences.
Now, thanks to the magic of the internet (and Reddit) we can all benefit from these 15 secondhand grandfathers, too.
#15. Make sure you never have to go.
“WWII. He shipped out from South Africa to fight Rommel in North Africa. Was captured and transferred to a POW camp run by Italians. He said the conditions and the treatment were absolutely abhorrent. Escaped with his best mate from SA and a French guy. It was winter, they had to trek across the mountains in decimated boots and hardly any warm clothes – zero food. The French chap fell down the mountain. They tried to get him but they were too weak. He didn’t make it. They were apparently in sight of Allied lines when they were picked up by a German patrol. Must have been devastating. However he was with the Germans for only a few weeks before he was liberated. Interestingly he said the treatment in the German POW camp was significantly better than the Italian one. He didn’t go into too many details about anything but he used to say ‘war is hell – make sure you never have to go’ whenever the subject came up. He was one of the happiest, kindest and most well adjusted men I have ever known. Miss you Herb.”
#14. An agreement.
“Grandpa served in Vietnam during the height of the war. He’s from Saigon (South Vietnamese) and worked with the US Pentagon so he had some weight to his name. His duty was to ID soldiers and send home letters to the families that their son has been KIA. My dad told me that one Tet (huge Vietnamese holiday) that there’s was a mutual agreement between North and South to not fight so people can go home and be with their families. My grandpa and grandma took my two-month-old dad to a family member’s home on the night of Tet and when the three of them returned home, many of their neighbors were standing outside of their house for some reason. Turns out that the North found out my grandpa was working with the US and came to their home to kill them, but they messed up and killed the family that was living next to them. My dad told me this story a few years ago and also said something like “They wouldn’t have needed to waste a bullet on me, all they had to do was pinch my nose shut.”
#13. You’re now a Colonel.
“My grandfather had graduated from college.
The Chinese army was like “O shit lol we’re made up of farmers and factory workers. We need to find some nerds to run the military.”
My grandfather began teaching at a university or high school (Dont remember) and a Chinese military official whose son was going to the school came up to him and offered to double the teachers salary (They didn’t) if he joined the military. My grandfather didn’t have any military background or training but the official said “Doesn’t matter. You’re now a Colonel and you’re in charge of our Logistics.”
He eventually rose up to the equivalent of a US 2-Star General, iirc. Didn’t fight at all. Instead he traveled the world, to the US, USSR, England, Germany, Vietnam etc. selling or purchasing weapons, vehicles, food supplies, clothing, all that stuff.”
#12. The women in the family.
“He was ineligible/exempt from the draft during WW2 because he had horrific eye sight and he was going to school for a mining engineering degree. He was infinitely more useful at home than abroad anyway. However, my grandmother (his future wife) got bored of waiting for him to finish his degree in his faraway university, so she joined the Women’s Army Corps and was sent to India. She was eventually promoted to the rank of Captain. Then it was my grandfather’s turn to wait for his woman to return home from war. When she got back, they went to Las Vegas and got married.
They are buried in a military cemetery and their gravestone is one of maybe three that say “her husband” underneath the man’s name. That means there aren’t very many couples where the wife served but the husband did not.
My mother herself eventually joined the Army during the Vietnam War as a nurse, and by the time she got out, she was also a Captain. We have both of their Captain’s bars sitting side by side in a case on the mantle.”
#11. A quarter of an inch from a Purple Heart.
“My Pahpah used to always say he was “a quarter of an inch from a purple heart”. He saw a lot of action in the war and even aided in the liberation of a concentration camp. Well, during one of the battles he got shot in the buttocks, said it burned like hell but only really skimmed the surface of his butt cheek.
After the battle, he went to the medic and it was actually the medic who laughed and said he was a quarter of an inch from a purple heart. Apparently, that little joke stuck with him for over 70 years and now I pass it on to people when I can since it made him laugh so much.”
#10. A wild ending.
“He didn’t talk about much with us or my father, so I don’t have locations, etc, but we do know that he was in the pacific in WW2. He was an aircraft mechanic with the Navy.
One day, the Japanese attacked, and ignited their ammo dump. My grandfather jumped on a bulldozer and pushed the flaming, igniting mess off a small cliff/rise. He was injured in the process and received the Purple Heart.
When he returned home, he sat his bags down on the ground next to him in San Francisco to get his bearings and someone took nearly everything he had.
Fifty years later, my grandmother received letter informing her that her husband had passed away. She was amazed, especially considering he was watching TV in the armchair right in front of her.
Apparently the guy who stole his stuff stole his identity for years and was receiving benefits in his name.”
#9. He always drank tea.
“My nonno joined the Italian army at the age of 18. It was the first time he had experienced 3 meals a day. He ended up getting shot twice and put in PoW camp in Algeria. He was then liberated by the British, who gave him tea for the first time in his life. He lived to 94 and always drank tea.”
#8. On the Western front.
“My great grandfather was a boy in WW1. He met a New Zealand soldier in Albany, Western Australia where he lived. It was the last drop off point before the ANZACs left Aussie soil.
The soldier agreed to be his pen pal and started writing letters back to my great grandfather as well as sending a collection of badges from both sides.
Then the letters stopped. He knew what had happened, but didn’t find out definitive proof until the mid 1920s when he was older and the records became available, he had died on the Western Front. I think off the top of my head it was the Somme.
I have the badges sitting in my drawer next to me. My only real family heirloom, but I’ll always respect and appreciate the soldier whose name my great grandfather had forgotten by the time I came around.”
#7. He became deaf.
“He was a kid in WWII (in Asia, pacific theatre and the baddies were the Japanese). He walked past a Japanese soldier and didn’t stop to bow. The soldier called him over, gave him a slap on his left cheek so hard he became deaf in his left ear.”
#6. The swap
“My grandpa landed on Utah Beach on D-Day +7. They came under heavy artillery fire, and while in a shelled out building hiding out, his CO asked “you weren’t scared were you?” “No, sir!” He replied. “Well, I saw your kidneys act 7 times, you sure about that?”
His boots were only on the ground for a few days when his platoon was captured by Germans. He was imprisoned in Stalag IVD for several months. He was fortunately treated very well, all things considered. I remember one of the stories he always told was about another prisoner, I don’t recall his nationality, hated potatoes, and my grandpa hated carrots. So they would swap. One day, my grandpa would have cold potatoes, and the other guy would have hot carrots, the next day my grandpa would have hot potatoes and the other guy would have cold carrots. They were liberated from Leipzig, Germany later on.
I actually have a transcribed audio recording of his stories from the war that was recorded before he passed away, in case anyone is interested in more stories! RIP grandpa, I love and miss you.
Edit 1: Stalag IVD, not IVB
Edit 2: I’ve had some interest in the original audio. I’ll have to get these from my mother and digitize them before I can upload! It’ll probably be the weekend before I can do this! Stay tuned and I’ll do my best to deliver for you guys! These are stored on old microcassetes, so they need to be digitized anyway! There are quite a few more stories and pictures in the original, I can’t do them justice. When I get home I’ll snap some pictures to sate you guys!”
#5. How it ended.
“He was a guard during the Nuremberg War Crime Trials after WWII. He stood guard over all of the top Nazis, including Hermann Goering.
My Grandpa said that Goering had been wearing a fancy ring on one of his hands, and that he said that he was going to give it to one of the guards before he died (I don’t think he ever did.) But before Goering committed suicide, and the other Nazis were executed, he had all of them sign a dollar bill. He kept that dollar bill inside an old book for years.
Unfortunately, my grandparents divorced back in the early 70s (and it was far from amicable) and my Granny sold a bunch of my Grandpa’s stuff in a garage sale… that book was unknowingly included.
Someone somewhere has that dollar bill.”
#4. I hope I never forget it.
“My grandpa (the one I knew, anyway) was born in ’39 in a small town on the coast of Norway, the 5th of 10 kids. Norway was occupied by the Nazis in 1940, but not much of that was noticed way out on the coast.
But some time in 1943, the Nazis came to town looking for resistance fighters. They went house to house, and eventually came to my grandpa’s. He clearly remembered a small squad of 6-10 guys coming in and going through the whole house while his family huddled in the living room, scared shitless.
During the course of the search, my grandpa’s infant brother began screaming. My great-grandmother tried in vain to calm the child. She was convinced that the Nazis would just kill them for the inconvenience of a screaming child.
A Nazi soldier came into the living room and walked straight to the crib. He looked down at my great-uncle, and began crying. Everyone was shocked. He reached into his pack and pulled out a wrinkled photo of another infant who looked very similar to my great-uncle. The commanding officer explained that this soldier had a son at home he had never seen, but his wife had sent this photo to him.
The soldier then sat down with all the kids and shared his chocolate ration with them. It was the first time my grandpa ever tasted chocolate (and probably the last for a long time). He never forgot that, even through Alzheimer’s dementia.
He always told me that story to illustrate that soldiers on any side are just people dealing with their own trauma and difficulty. I hope I never forget it.
EDIT: I wanted to add another story from the time that didn’t involve my family so much, just to show the flip-side of the coin.
The town my family comes from is very small. It has been a farming and fishing community for pretty much as long as anyone can remember. Everyone says hi to everyone, and is usually very pleasant. So it came as a surprise to me one summer when I saw an old man I’d never met before walking down the road. I asked my grandma who he was, and she told me his name and that no one really spoke to him. I was curious why.
Turns out he was a teenager during WWII. When the Nazis were coming through looking for people (around the time the above event with my grandpa happened), they came to this family’s house. They collected all his family in one room, and demanded to know where the resistance members were in the community. The whole family swore up and down they didn’t know of any. So the soldiers pulled their oldest son aside, and demanded he tell them, or they would shoot his family. He told them to go next door.
So they did, and killed several members of the neighbor family. One of the few survivors was the oldest son in that household, and he never forgave his neighbor for pointing the Nazis in their direction.
I’m pretty sure the whole family moved after that, but they kept ownership of the property, so this old guy would show up every summer and stay for a few weeks with almost no one in town talking to him.”
#3. The only time he was scared
“Grandpa was a tank commander during WWII.
One night he was sitting in his tank guarding a crossroads when he heard the distinct sound of German soldiers coming down the road. I guess their boots had metal on the soles that made them click on pavement.
His gunner wanted to open up on them but Grandpa knew there was an orphanage down range from the Germans. So Grandpa hopped out of the the tank with his .45 to get them to surrender.
He snuck up on the Germans and ordered them to surrender. It was late in the war so these guys just threw their hands up immediately. Grandpa marched them back to his tank and handed them over to a nearby infantry unit who took them to the rear.
When he got back to his tank he went to clear his .45 and realized he never chambered a round. My Grandpa was at the Battle of the Bulge and was one of the first tanks into Aachen. He liberated a concentration camp and had four tanks shot out from under him. He said realizing that his gun wasn’t loaded when facing down those Germans was the only time during the war he was really scared.”
#2. Some of that metal.
“My grandfather served in the Pacific theatre in WWII. The only story I remember well is that he and a buddy were manning a machine gun on a hill and they saw a handful of Japanese soldiers crossing a field. They opened fire and shot all but one. According to Grandpa, they had to reload and the soldier took off running. When they did, they shot at him and only managed to make a circle around his feet. This happened once more (I think) and Grandpa and his pal decided that if they missed that many times, the Japanese soldier must not have been fated to die that day. They stopped shooting, and the Japanese soldier bowed to them (general direction of the hill) before he went into the jungle.
I really admire my grandpa and miss him a lot. His doctor told him to quit smoking or it would kill him (mid-70s) and he stopped that very day. I hope I inherited some of that metal. I really miss him, the old bear.”
#1. Often in public.
“I loved listening to Papa’s stories from WWII, but my favorite is how he earned a Purple Heart. He was an engineer and built bridges. They were under attack in France and a bomb landed near by. Shrapnel caught in him right in the ass. My mother hated when he told me this story because he always shared the scar on his buttocks with it, often in public, mostly on golf courses.
Love you, Papa.
EDIT: Another one – he made wine his whole life (Italian-American) and would tell stories about making “prison wine” in the field. He was never in prison, but you get the idea from the ingredients: grapes or raisins, water, bread. Let is sit in a cup until it ferments; drink.”