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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise,November 8, 2007


Let us honor heroism without mongering war

Illustration, left by Forest Byrd.

Illustration, right: Art from war: Ed Cowley's watercolor of his Army boots and jacket.

We were handed a piece of history on Friday. It came in a musty and slightly battered box marked "Overseas Shipper," to be used only in sending merchandise to the armed forces abroad. Inside were 228 letters written by a soldier during World War II, and carefully catalogued by his mother, who worked as a stenographer.

Ed Cowley, the Altamont artist, had joined the Army when he was 18. After his mother died, his wife, Bette, found the letters he had written to his family - his mother, his father, a Buffalo fireman; and his sister, Peggy - addressed to their home on Woodside Avenue.

"I wrote mostly to let them know I was still alive," said Cowley, now 82. The letters don't contain a lot of gory battle details - although Cowley fought in the Battle of the Bulge, the war's bloodiest with 19,000 Americans killed. Those details are missing both because they would be censored, Cowley said, and because he didn't want his folks to worry about him.

When he was wounded, Cowley didn't get the Purple Heart. He declined the honor, he said, because he knew it meant a message would be sent home about his injury.

He mentions it in Letter Number 129, written from Germany on Feb. 8, 1945, in answer to a series of questions that his family must have posed: "6. My knee is fine. I had it bandaged up and that is all there was to it," wrote Cowley.

Answer Number 10 in that same letter says, "We now have anywhere from two to four battle stars - one for the battle of Germany in which we are presently engaged; another for the battle of Brittany with probables for the battles of Normandy and France." That letter concludes with a postscript: "Our latest rumor is that Stalin predicted peace by Feb. 15th!! Hope he knows what he's talking about!"

With Veterans Day approaching, and with our country now at war in Iraq, we read the letters, hoping to find some truth. We thought we'd see a contrast, perhaps, between the war Cowley fought in, largely acknowledged as a good war or at least a necessary war, and the war we're in now.

What we found, instead, was the journey of one honest and perceptive young man that may not be so different than the journeys being made by today's soldiers.

In his very first letter home, in October of 1943, from Camp Upton in New York, the 18-year-old is taking in Army life: "The army's quite a thing," writes Cowley. "I never saw so many lines in my life." He's also impressed with all the equipment he is issued, listing each item. And he's impressed with the equality: "We got a sermon from the chaplain"It's kinda funny down here," he writes. "Catholics, Jews, and Protestants are all one and the same. That's the way it should be everywhere."

Later, Cowley writes home about the strenuous Army exams; he's in a program geared to give a college education to the soldiers who qualify. He writes of the exams, "You know if you miss, you're out for good." (Although he passed all the tests, he and the others in the program were pressed into the infantry instead. Cowley does not complain about this in his letters home, although he wrote years later, "My vision of Bowdoin College went from dim to absolute dark. One channel to cross and we would be one more division ready to fight in the biggest war ever.")

In later letters from Fort Benning, Cowley writes of bivouacs, and the firing range, of getting over athlete's foot, of missing his family at Christmas: "I could just see the Christmas tree with all the lights and trimmings and Dad sitting on the couch with a bottle of Ballantines"."

The one-time art student, who once thought he'd be in a detail painting camouflage, sends sketches of camp life home to his family and writes from Fort Benning, "Did a nice watercolor which I might get around to sending home. Can't keep anything like that around here as I don't think the Captain appreciates real art"."

He shows his first bit of crankiness towards his family in Letter 55, written from Camp McCain in April of 1944. Now writing less as an individual than as one of a larger force, Cowley says: "Wish you wouldn't talk about a furlough in every letter as it bothers me. There's 20,000 other soldiers in the 94th who want to get home just as much as I do and strange as it seems, the army considers every one. Know you understand!"

Once overseas, Cowley writes on rag paper rather than engraved Army stationary. In the fall of 1944, he writes from France, "Well, once again I've got enough paper and ink to write so that I shall. Used your last letter, Oct.12 I believe, to start my little fire with this morning so I forget just exactly what you wrote""

His message, like his use of paper, is purely practical: "We have been awarded the 'Combat Infantry' badge which means $5 more a month I can send home."

In his later years, writing about the Combat of Infantry Badge for The Enterprise, Cowley quoted General Omar Bradley: "The rifleman fights without promise of either reward or relief. Behind every river there's another hill - and behind that hill, another river. After weeks or months in the line only a wound can offer him the comfort of safety, shelter, and a bed. Those who are left to fight, fight on, evading death but knowing that with each day of evasion they have exhausted one more chance for survival. Sooner or later, unless victory comes, this chase must end on the litter or in the grave."

Cowley continued his 1944 letter, referring to the Armistice Day that ended the first world war: "These Germans seem pretty determined to make the war last until they can get peace terms but for every day we fight the wrath of Russia and the Allies get just that much hotter so I live in hope they'll remember Nov. 11th, 1918 and make it two in a row."

He reflects on his family's Christmas traditions and concludes, "If people felt all year round the way they feel at Christmas, I don't think we could have wars, but if we didn't have wars people wouldn't appreciate peace so I guess it's just an eternal cycle or something like that...Think I'll play a little poker in a few minutes and win some more cigarettes".Will say so long for now and take care of yourselves and don't worry about me as St. Jude is on the ball and watches me pretty close."

His letters revel in the rare treat of eating an orange or imagine what it must be like to once again sleep in pajamas, after learning his father purchased some.

Cowley writes in December of 1944 how the toughest battles are yet to come and answers his father: "I wouldn't think of letting Dad take my place (even if he could) for any part of a minute. This is my place right over here until the war or both wars are over."

He also writes of how the American artillery just opened up with a few rounds and "the boys" are then in the habit of shouting, "Hitler, count your men."

Cowley then writes from German, on Valentine's Day in 1945, "Dear folks, Sorry I haven't written much lately but I've had a difficult time getting stationery, etc. This is German paper I'm writing on right now - loot you know! We can take anything we want within reason - To the victor belongs the mess or something like that." Cowley has underlined the word "mess."

He goes on, "I'd like to see every German house completely gutted. Funny thing I've noticed is that the Germans are or were very religious. Almost every room has a holy picture on the wall and books on religion are all over. Have seen comparatively few of Hitler! But they do have them along with the stinking swastika."

A month later, he writes in Letter 140, datelined, "In Germany, way in!": "I'm feeling fine, eating well and kicking the H--- out of the Krauts." Cowley used dashes rather than writing a profanity.

In another letter, still from Germany, he reacts to the opinion of a family friend who hasn't fought in the war: "Don't even listen to that Drew Pearson, he bases everything on what he reads in the papers and is as stupid as the rest of us. The boys over there are having it pretty tough and when some 4-F has the nerve to predict when the war with Japan will be over he should be eliminated. The only ones that have anything to do with it are the big American Industrialists and when they give the okay sign, the war will end. Perhaps it will be one year, maybe two - anyhow, it will last until their pockets are full!"

Finally, in the fall of 1945, Cowley is out of the heat of battle, his humanity in tact. He writes on a V-Mail from a Red Cross club in France: "Expect to get on a ship either today or tomorrow"Stopped over in Paris for about 12 hours and saw all the sights. Went on two tours, the 2nd tour brought me into the 'Louvre' the most famous art gallery in the world, so I stayed and wound up meeting a few art students and enjoying myself immensely. Saw the 'Mona Lisa' and the 'Venus de Milo,' and original paintings by Rembrandt, Cézanne, Degas, Van Gough, Gauguin, Matisse, and all the rest"The situation looks pretty good now as far as my coming home" will be eligible for discharge Nov. 1st."

We believe, after reading Cowley's letters, there is no such thing as a good war, not for the people who lived through it. Was it a necessary war" Yes. Last week, Cowley talked about some of the Nazi death camps, with Jews and Poles, his company liberated. "We didn't know anything about it," he said. "The people in the camps walking around were skeletal. The people inside were dying"You see bad things in war all the time. This was different."

The soldiers who are fighting in Iraq now may have signed up with one thing in mind but are seeing something different. Christopher Kitto of Altamont, who recently was awarded the Soldier's Medal for saving his comrades from drowning in a sunken Humvee, joined the Army after the terrorists struck on Sept. 11, 2001.

He was beginning his senior year at Guilderland High School when he called his mother on the morning of Sept. 11 and told her he wanted to join the military.

Three years ago, during his first 12-month tour in Iraq, Sgt. Kitto used his own body to shield an Iraqi boy from an incoming mortar, saving his life. The boy's family was so grateful they invited Sgt. Kitto to a goat dinner. Sgt. Kitto has trouble hearing in one ear as a result of shielding the boy, but he felt the work he was doing was important, his parents said.

Now, on his second tour, "He's disenchanted," his father said; he had hoped that there would be more improvement.

Unlike the world wars, where the enemies were entire nations, our country invaded Iraq with the notion we were liberating a people from an oppressive dictator. We have destabilized a region, causing much death and destruction.

While an individual soldier may be heroic, it is understandable he would feel frustration at the overall lack of success in the campaign.

We believe it is possible to value the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers even if we oppose the war. On this Veterans Day, let us honor all of our soldiers, from wars past and present, and let us remember that the origin of our Nov. 11 celebration was Armistice Day - the celebration of the end of a war that was to end all wars.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor


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