Turning war’s worst into verse

Dale Carver... 12/08/99
To deal with his memories of World War II, Dale Carver wrote poetry about what he saw and felt, a form of self-therapy he turned into a book, “Before the Veterans Die.” (Photo by Travis Spradling, used by permission of The Advocate, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)

By George Morris

For years, Dale Carver got depressed around Christmas. It wasn’t the typical holiday blues. It was much worse than that.

In 1944, Carver was a soldier with the U.S. Army’s 106th Infantry Division in Belgium’s Ardennes Forest when German troops began their last major offensive of World War II in Europe, the Battle of the Bulge.

There, he saw what war is: the grisly death of friends and innocents, cruelty, stupidity, cowardice, strong men breaking under the strain. As much as he wished otherwise, these sights and sounds and smells would not leave him even after the battles ended. Not even when the rest of his world was celebrating.

“I never had nightmares. I never woke up screaming,” Carver said. “I used to get depressed at Christmastime.”

His method of coping was neither to lie on a psychiatrist’s couch nor bury these images in his subconscious. Instead, Carver wrote poetry.

Carver let the horror of war spill out into verse. He had long loved poetry, memorizing it for the sheer joy of basking in aptly turned phrases. Now, it served a different purpose.

“I think it was therapy,” Carver said. “I think I would have gone crazy if I hadn’t. I’m not kidding.

“I think Wordsworth even said that poetry comes from the emotional tension from memory. Or mine does.”

In 1985, Carver had his poems published in a volume named “Before the Veterans Die.” Some are whimsical, others angry. All of them, he said, are honest — some brutally so.

A corpse in the road, a column of tanks
in clanking, grinding fury,
maroon mud and dog-tags — nothing to bury. 

A second lieutenant who arrived in Europe only two months earlier, Carver thought  his war would be uneventful. Since the D-Day landing on June 6, 1944, Allied forces had pushed German forces steadily backward, and the U.S. Army was about to cross into Germany.

The 106th was a replacement division brought in to relieve war-weary troops and was assigned to the Ardennes, a hilly, densely wooded area with a limited road network. It seemed the unlikeliest place for a German strike — thus, the perfect place for green soldiers.

“The Second Division people said, ‘Send home for your Scrabble sets, men. It’s going to be a long, dull winter,’” Carver said. “Then, all hell broke loose.”

Germany had built up a powerful force undetected. On Dec. 16, with a winter storm grounding Allied aircraft, the attack began. Germany threw 24 divisions at an area defended by just four.

“We had unbelievably bad intelligence. They should have known that was coming,” Carver said. “They had I don’t know how many indications of buildup there. You can’t mass 600,000 men 20 miles away without some noise.

“From Eisenhower on down they were all too complacent. ‘The war is over. It’ll be over by Christmas. … The Germans can’t do it. The Germans are whipped.’ The Germans didn’t know they were whipped.”

Adolf Hitler’s goal was to drive all the way to the port of Antwerp, splitting American and British forces. Such a setback, he reasoned, might be enough to get a peace agreement in the west so he could concentrate on the Soviet Union in the east.

Carver was in the 424th Infantry Regiment, which fought and retreated to join other Allied forces. In just three days, however, the 422nd and 423rd regiments were encircled and captured.

Two men with birds on their shoulders,
emblems of rank and might,
surrendered seven thousand soldiers,
Americans, still able to fight. 

“A lot of people now say, ‘You shouldn’t write that. Those people did right by surrendering,’” Carver said. “Like hell they did! We just had piss poor leadership. That’s all there is to it. My division commander cracked up. My battalion commander was an old fool.”

Carver saw men drop by the roadsides, deciding they couldn’t go on. The wise officers kicked, pushed, shouted and forced them forward, possibly saving their lives. On Dec. 17, Germans executed 81 Americans captured at Malmedy.

Although Allied troops committed no atrocities the equal of Malmedy, Carver knew of prisoners who were shot while “escaping” and wrote a poem about it. It tells of a sergeant who, to save himself the trouble of a four-mile walk to regimental headquarters, shoots the prisoner when they get out of sight.

“Oh, we killed prisoners. There’s no question about that,” Carver said. “Did that actually happen as I described it? I’m not sure. But it happened. Oh, yeah.”

Carver himself became too sick to fight, felled by bronchitis. He stopped by a road and awoke in a field hospital near Christmas. As soon as he was able, he hitchhiked his way back to rejoin his unit.

Why hurry back into harm’s way? Perhaps only soldiers can truly understand the bond they establish with each other. Carver said fighting men don’t fight for flag or country as much as they fight for each other.

There are now no dreams of glory,
no cause for which to strive.
And of the two alternatives,
most choose to stay alive. 

Yet dying still is much in vogue.
In fields mine-sown and muddy,
causeless men of a weary age
unthinking, die for a buddy. 

After American troops relieved besieged Bastogne on Dec. 26, it took another month to recapture the territory the Allies had lost. That ground was won in yards. The terrain and the weather conspired to make it one of the most miserable military campaigns of the war. Men froze to death, and frozen feet rendered others unable to fight.

“Oh, God, it was cold,” Carver said. “I went six weeks without changing my underwear. I changed socks only. No place to clean up.”

His primary role was clearing mines, mostly along roads so supply trucks and ambulances could use them. It wasn’t a job for everyone, but Carver said he was suited for it.

“I never fired my rifle,” he said. “I never killed a German directly. I was shelled all the time, some small arms fire, but I was in a safe position. I was in a battalion headquarters company. I was not a rifle platoon leader. I did not lead a patrol or anything like that. I was a good soldier, but I was in a safer job than most. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have lived through it.”

Still, reminders of death were everywhere. Dead soldiers, frozen stiff, passed by in the back of trucks. Soldiers saw death all the time. Naturally, they wondered if that was their fate.

When Carver received a leave and visited Paris, it was like a trip to another world.

“Those people back there didn’t know a war was going on,” Carver said.

There were, however, shortages of food and other necessities, which made soldiers popular among the citizenry. Cigarettes and chocolate bars were like gold, as Carver discovered when he found himself dancing with a beautiful woman in a nightclub. The time they spent together, he said, was because of what he provided.

Solace of sorts they offered
to us, uncertain of life.
We took the joys they proffered
in the interludes from strife

We thirsted for something greater,
something they could not give.
Some of us found it later,
but some of us did not live. 

Carver remained in Europe until after Germany’s surrender. He spent time guarding prisoners of war before returning to his native Kansas. He came to Louisiana State University in 1954, where he was on the engineering faculty until retiring in 1982.

Having written the poems, Carver showed them to friends, many of whom insisted he publish them. He did so through a small, local publishing house, Damon Press, and has reprinted volumes twice more.

The title, “Before the Veterans Die,” has become even more appropriate as the World War II generation passes from the scene. When they’re gone, Carver said, fewer and fewer will remember what happened. Today, the names of World War I battlefields like the Marne, the Somme and Chateau-Thierry draw blank stares when mentioned. Carver said the Battle of the Bulge will one day bring the same reaction.

“People will forget,” he said.

Carver cannot. But writing such verse helped him.

With clinical eye and mind alert
he watched the ebb and flow,
saw in live bodies beyond all hurt
dead eyes; saw blood on snow. 

He walked with death ever near
beneath an indifferent sky,
knew the sickening taste of fear,
watched the valiant die, 

watched the cowardly live on,
knew anguish at broken trees,
saw the mine-slain forest fawn
and proud men on their knees. 

He recorded minutely in memory
all that came to pass,
then, ill of soul, wrote poetry
as a sick cat eats grass. 

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