I think I figured it out, what happened that produced the amazing scar, toted around for his all too short life by my uncle, Captain Howard Fain. He was part of Tom Brokaw’s, “The Greatest Generation.” While his West Hartford, Ct. home had a gun cabinet and in it various items from the German war machine, I never remember him talking about any of them or how he came to have them, except matter-of-factly answering a direct question with a direct answer about one piece or another if I screwed up enough courage to ask.
I also remember stories of his first few years back after the war where certain noises, particularly the squealing of subway wheels against the rails next to our Brooklyn apartment would cause him to yell, “INCOMING!” and dive under the table.
The one thing he never spoke about, the one “trophy” he kept hidden, was a scar, courtesy of a German machine gun. Captain Fain, the War Department told the family, was leading his men on a charge up a hill, when he was wounded in battle. The bullets hit him in the shoulder, spun him around, and tattooed his twisting body diagonally across his chest and ending in his buttock. It was a bunch of bullets and they produced an ugly scar. No one either asked for or got the details of the action that resulted in that scar.
We know “Uncle How” was leadership material. He was tall, handsome, and athletic. Even after his return, as a businessman, he is mentioned in a book that recounts the 1953 flood in Hartford, Ct. He organized a motorboat flotilla and rescued people from homes and businesses.
I have a letter, more so a note, written by hand on a piece of paper about 2 x 6 to my mom, his sister. Things were tough he wrote. They were training for something, hard. The training was under awful conditions. He had hurt his neck saving one of his soldiers who nearly drowned one way or another. I think the note was short and circumspect because of time and the reality of censorship by the war department of most all correspondence.
It wasn’t until a year or two ago that I was able to put it together, at least to my satisfaction. First I traced his regiment and found he did battle during the Battle of the Bulge. Then in reading up on some history and seeing some footage on TV, I learned that the war in France had exhausted and depleted American ranks. A second wave, raw recruits, were shipped over to try to stabilize the situation. Captain Fain was given charge of such a platoon and told to take a critical hill the Germans held. Their firepower and strategic advantage from that vantage point had to be stopped. Thousands of American lives, tens of thousands of Allied lives were at stake.
Let me interrupt myself. Last night we watched a re-run of Brokaw’s moving documentary. One of his interviewee’s was asked the question why so many men enthusiastically signed up and went off to war. He said, “These men were not men, these were boys. In many cases they had no jobs, they had no direction, like most adolescents, they were looking for any way to get out of the house and away from their parents. What could be more appealing than a mission to save the world from evil?”
I don’t know if this was my Uncle’s motivation. His dad was a Colonel in WW 1 so maybe it was a sense of familial duty. That’s a question now never to be answered. Maybe he was drafted and went kicking and screaming. Not likely. Broad of shoulder and over 6’2″ tall, he was not a “get dragged and go kicking and screaming” type of guy. We do know he went.
We also know that he was a slightly older kid than those he commanded. One can surmise that feeling their fear, being pressed–hard–by his own commander that he decided to lead from in front, not behind. He didn’t yell, “Go! or Charge!” or whatever. He got up out of his foxhole and probably said something like, “Follow me!” followed by a series of expletives. We know he didn’t get too far up the hill, that they took 40 some odds bullets out of him once they got him off the battle field, and that it was months before he had recovered enough to be returned home.
Brokaw said that we were losing WW 11 vets at the rate of 1,000 a day. Captain Howard Fain only lived about 20 years past the war. Long enough to have had an indelible impact on his own children, the oldest of which was 9 when he died, and his two nephews, my brother and me, who worshiped him.
He died of lung cancer at 44 courtesy of the generosity of American cigarette companies who made sure every soldier had at least as many smokes as they did bullets. A tragic waste of life that, but none the less part of the story of a free America.
Let’s keep it that way.
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Look for “More Mirth, Wind, and Ire” coming this Fall.