For many soldiers, the war didn’t end when World War II was declared over. There was still the imagery of what they had seen and what they had done to stay alive.
They had had to survive in a foreign land while their families had had to wait and pray for their return.
A date in a history book might define a time for a country’s surrender or victory, but the battles continued for some like Earl Gonzales.
The war changed Gonzales, like most young men his age. He left to fight at just 17, and when he returned, he found himself struggling to come to grips with what he had seen.
Gonzales served in the Army, assigned to the 935th Field Artillery Battalion. He spent the war pummeling the Nazis with artillery shells. That’s what he was about to do in May 1945 when the war ended suddenly. His unit had a full volley of shells ready to fire when they were interrupted by a frantic officer.
“Hold your fire! The war is over!” the officer shouted.
The unit erupted in joy. Several days later, he took a joy ride on a discarded German motorcycle.
“It was beautiful,” Gonzales said. “It had camouflage and a sidecar. I used to have a Harley, so I knew how to ride. I said to my buddy, Charlie, ‘Get in that sidecar, and let’s take a ride.’ “
The pair zoomed off on a German highway traveling up to 190 km per hour, Gonzales said. That was, until they rounded a turn to see what appeared to be an endless column of soldiers marching in their direction. The soldiers were Germans, and they were armed to the teeth.
“You couldn’t see the end of it, there were so many of them,” he said. “It scared the hell out of me. I turned that motorcycle and shot back to our company to tell the captain.”
What Gonzales didn’t know was the column of soldiers was coming to surrender. He spent the remainder of his time in Europe guarding prisoners, including a German officer who demanded Gonzales carry his suitcase like a valet.
“I kicked his suitcase and told him if he didn’t get off that truck, I was going to blow his head off,” Gonzales said.
The end of the war was perhaps the most difficult time in his life. He returned to his native Southern California, living with his parents for a time but never far away from what he saw.
“I was nervous and mean as a rattlesnake,” he said. “I didn’t trust anybody. I didn’t want to be around anybody. I carried a pistol that I took off a dead German private everywhere I went.”
Gonzales had become so paranoid he couldn’t stand to have people walking behind him on the street. When he went to a restaurant, he couldn’t sit with his back to the door. He assaulted a man who simply asked him for a cigarette and a light.
“I said, ‘You want me to give you a cigarette and you want me to light it for you? Do you want me to kick you in the chest to get your lungs going, too?’ ” Gonzales said. “Then, I just whipped up on the guy.”
He also became a drunk, consuming up to a fifth of whiskey a day. If not for the well timed words of his father, his life might have taken a different course.
“I got up one morning and reached under the bed and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey,” Gonzales said. “Just about then, my dad peeked into my room and saw me getting ready to take a swig from that bottle.”
His father’s words were simple and cut him deep.
“He said: ‘Son, you see what you’re doing there. That’s the first steps to becoming an alcoholic.’ He walked out and shut the door. I went over to the sink and poured that bottle out and didn’t take another drink.”
Gonzales, now 89, eventually settled down and opened several businesses in Southern California. He married and had two children.
When Gonzales’ wife, Christine, was diagnosed with breast cancer, the family moved to Oklahoma to be closer to her family. She died at 39, and Earl never remarried.
He ran an upholstery business in Oklahoma City and still lives in the same home he moved into with his wife more than 40 years ago.
“I don’t think anyone ever got over what they saw over there,” he said. “But, I eventually settled down and made a life for myself.”
I realize that we are all wounded in some way by the happenings of war. I really don’t think human beings were ever meant to participate in the horrors of war… what we experience… what we see, smell, and feel… what we do and have done to us… well, it just has a way of getting into out psyche and I am not sure it ever gets out. It may get better. We may learn how to cope… but it is always there… the wounds of war continue to bleed.
On this Memorial Day weekend, I salute all my brothers and sisters who served… those who are still fighting the battles from over there – every day over here. I pay special honor to those buddies who gave their all in the battles of war. Your courage and sacrifice will always be remembered.