Soldiers don't die

"A man dies only when he is forgotten"

Monday, April 16, 2012

Portrait of a man I never knew

My grandfather
Melville James Batt, serial# 32037371, US Army
(picture taken 1941 in Fort Jackson, SC)
Grandpa Batt (or "Mel" as he liked to be called) was in the 8th Infantry Division, known as the “Pathfinders.” The symbol of the Eighth is the Figure 8 on the blue shield with the arrow through it. We still have that patch from his uniform. We also have his Bronze Star medal, his Allied Victory bars, his Combat Infantry badge and those little gold buttons on the collar. They have two crossed rifles, another symbol for infantry. Can’t… see it very well but the pin on the collar near his tie is the regimental badge. It’s for the 28th Infantry Regiment, the “Black Lions of Cantigny”

The single chevron on his sleeve without anything else in the picture, tells me when it was taken. He was still in boot camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, the year must be 1941. He’d be 22 years old in this picture. He was promoted all the way to Staff Sergeant before he even got shipped to Europe, which wouldn’t be until 1944.

The colors in this photo were corrected, the olive drab I had before was inaccurate. Military dress uniforms of the period were a chocolate brown. It would be warm weather, so he’s wearing his khaki shirt underneath. The black tie was a pre-war thing, as was the leather waist belt he wears. The cord at his shoulder is a special unit designation called the Fouragerre, awarded to the 28th Infantry by the French for their actions in World War I, which earned their nickname, the Lions of Cantigny. The cross-shaped pin on his pocket is an intermediate level badge for marksmanship. He must have been pretty good with a rifle.

My Dad has a book, sort of like a high school yearbook, with the 8th Infantry Division all listed alphabetically and with pictures of everyone. His name is in it, but no picture. He’s listed as a Bronze Star recipient, but gives no reason why.

He was not a very religious man and hated war, he was not proud of his service in the Army despite his impeccable career and honorable discharge. I think to him it was just another job. He did what was expected of him, saluted his officers, kissed the right butts and dodged the bullets so he could come back home. He was one of the veterans who never talked. One of the men I call "Silent Warriors." His mother threw out his uniform and he hid away his medals and uniform pins in a closet. When I was alive he never spoke about them.

Mel was not a very openly religious man. He kept quiet about his faith and hardly ever went to church. I don't think he was an athiest, but he never made us say prayers at the dinner table. He didn't bring my father up to be very close to God. He also seemed to have a quiet hatred for the Army and like many veterans, refused to talk about it. But all of his pictures from 1941-1945 show evidence quite to the contrary. He seemed to love the Army at first, but then something happened that made him want to forget.

I often wondered what this was. Maybe the horrific things he saw in the war convinced him that God had no control over men. Maybe it was the fact he was a mapmaker and an operations NCO at headquarters, and wasn't on the front lines. Perhaps he didn't feel his job was important or deserved any recognition. Maybe it was the fact he had to send men into enemy territory and attack targets that weren't much more than points on a map to him. Maybe he saw too many of his friends come home in a box. Or maybe the fact he was a German himself, and was drafted to go shoot his own people. Maybe I will never know the reason. Perhaps I shouldn't know. But to his son and his grandson, he was always a good man and a strong moral role model, and I see no reason not to honor him for serving his country in a time of great need.

He requested a non-religious burial without military honors, and no decorations be put on his headstone except a small flag. He was cremated and had no funeral service. Only his grandson and his two granddaughters attended his burial. My other Grandpa wanted a 21-gun salute, a funeral procession with marching music and Marines to fold a flag over his grave. He had nothing. It was one of the saddest days of my life.

I never once asked him what he did in the war as a kid. I doubt he would have told me anything even if I asked. The only thing I ever knew for sure about him as he carried a Browning Automatic Rifle. He pointed the big submachine gun out in a museum once, and said, "that was what I carried." He used to take us to museums and naval yards, so that we could learn about the War without him actually having to tell us anything. He preferred to show it. I can only do my best to reconstruct his life from the meager paper trail he left behind, the books I have read and the history of his Infantry division.

I can still go see him any time I want, though. He’s buried behind Independence Mall at the crossroads of Foulk and Murphy Road in Wilmington, Delaware, a bike ride away from my house. His wife grew up in Wilmington and wanted to be near her parents. Mel himself lived in North Tonawanda, New York all his life where his Alsacian-german immigrant ancestors settled.  I once heard a veteran say "The real heroes didn't come back. And the ones who did, don't ever talk."

He's a hero enough to me just for coming home.  And I'm fortunate to be his grandson.

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    Congratulation for this blog, he is really nice !

    I appear : I am French, fascinated by the story of the Second World War and I collect the objects of the 8th Infantry Division during this period.

    I invite you to join my page Facebook :

    Do not hesitate to send me an e-mail :