My grandfather was a World War II veteran. This bit of information was something that everyone in our family knew, but no one talked much about. When my grandfather lived with my family during the last four months in his life, we spoke about many things. Of his time growing up during the Depression. Of his antics with his ten brothers and sisters, but never about World War II.

 

Grandma once told me that my grandfather had served in Australia and New Guinea. He’d been injured and sent home. Shot in the leg, I believe.

 

One afternoon when I was in junior high, Grandpa and I sat cracking walnuts, and he mentioned returning home across the South Pacific on a hospital ship for troops.

 

“Was the longest month of my life,” Grandpa said. “Many guys didn’t make it.”

 

It was hard to imagine him young and strong, fighting in distant lands. What did he experience? Did he lose any friends? What had it been like for a young, Kansas boy to be so far from home? I noticed tears in his eyes and didn’t prod. Now I wish I had. After my grandpa passed away I realized I’d lost his stories too.

 

My interest in World War II grew when I visited Austria in 2000, joining two author-friends on a research trip. One of them had an appointment to meet a historian at a concentration camp the Americans had liberated. Martha, the historian, invited our trio into her home, serving up tea, rolls, and cheese, plus a large helping of stories from World War II.

 

“The American GIs are still hailed as heroes by the survivors I interview,” Martha said, leaning in close. “Especially the first group of twenty-three men who arrived at Gusen and Mauthausen camps. They freed 25,000 survivors at each place, you know.”

 

“Twenty-three men freeing so many?” I raised an eyebrow and glanced to my two friends. “I’d love to hear more.”

 

“They were Americans from the 11th Armored Division,” Martha continued. “A small unit was on reconnaissance, checking the roads and bridges and scouting German strongholds.

 

“The Americans had no idea the camp existed until a Red Cross worker led them to the barbed wire fortresses. The worker urged the GIs to take control of the premises before there was any more loss of life. Those twenty-three brave men opened the gates and took control from Nazis eager to surrender.”

 

Martha told many more stories to our small group, but it was the true tale of the American GIs that wouldn’t leave my thoughts.

True Life Tales

 

Upon arriving home, I decided to write a novel inspired by the actual events. I started by weaving fictional characters with true elements. As I studied the events of 1945, I wondered if any of the liberators were still alive and willing to tell their stories. Hopeful, I contacted the 11th Armored Association, and I was not disappointed. Within a few days, I had the names, phone numbers, and addresses of eleven of the original men. In addition, I was invited to attend the 58th reunion of their division. I eagerly accepted.