“I felt scared when we first started, but I was okay after a hundred yards.”
That statement really hit me. I read it over and over again to try to comprehend the anxiety and dread my grandfather felt as he crept along that Italian highway. After several reads, I felt his fearful anticipation of an enemy ambush or a hidden land mine. His words hypnotized me, putting me in some sort of state in which I saw the war through my grandfather’s eyes. For a moment, it was me who was creeping along that highway. I scanned the tree lines and looked over my shoulders for Germans. I heard gravel crunch under my boots and my own nervous breaths.
Thud. I blinked and saw that his notebook had slipped out of my hands onto the floor. My heart quivered at the thought of my grandfather in fear for his life. It was then that I realized there must be more to his story.
My American Odyssey is based on a short story that my grandfather, Donald Byers, wrote about his stateside basic training several years after his discharge from the United States Army. Those handwritten and typed accounts constitute the early chapters, while the latter portion of the book is derived from notes he scribbled into pocket-sized pads while in combat. Letters that he wrote to family and friends filled in pieces of missing time and also reveal his personable side. I did my best to preserve my grandfather’s original words, only editing as needed.
I named one of the chapters after a line in a letter home my grandfather wrote “in mud, rain, and cold with no sleep”. I couldn’t imagine enduring a lifestyle like that … I won’t even camp. He went weeks without showering or changing clothes and sometimes had to literally eat whatever was nearby like rabbits and stray chickens. He also mentioned drinking rain water because his canteen was dry. Think about how nowadays we get upset when we can’t get cell phone reception.
The subtitle to the book is an “Ordinary Man Called upon by His Country to do an Extraordinary Thing”. Don Byers was like many men and women who had regular jobs and lived pretty uneventful lives until they entered the war. It astounds me to think how they had so little time to learn so much in order to do their duty and survive. My grandfather was a Boy Scout in his youth, but that experience didn’t prepare him for war. Like most soldiers, this was the first time in his life that he shot a gun and witnessed death. He wrote about marching past dead soldiers and even sleeping in a two-room house with deceased Americans in the other room.
In the book, my grandfather included personal experiences and emotions that other authors didn’t include in their memoirs.
As the war progressed, his attitude changed from being a humorous, good-hearted patriot to a depressed, angry G.I. It’s evident in a letter home in which he wrote, “None of us over here want any part of flag-waving or pretty speeches from anyone. Just give us the equipment. We’ll take it from there.”
Researching was another battle
Much research was necessary in order to learn more about the influences and experiences which shaped Don’s perceptions of the people and places that he encountered. Most of the work entailed inquiries to government agencies, trips to his hometown, and conversations with surviving friends and family. I did face impossible obstacles like the fire at the National Archives which occurred in 1973 destroying thousands of military records, as well as the likelihood that material was lost in a flood that swept through my hometown in 1972. Then there’s the fact that by the time I began working on the book that many of my grandfather’s comrades, friends and family had passed away.
While researching and writing this book, I learned about my grandfather and came to love him, even though I had never met him. He died unexpectedly from polio in 1958. He had suffered back injuries while in the service which mirrored some of the symptoms of polio – so he was mistakenly misdiagnosed as having the grip; which is now an outdated medical term to describe a flu-like illness.
I do bear a slight resemblance to him, but through his writings I discovered we shared some of the same perspectives and personality traits. My mission was to help him finish his story, both for his sake and for mine. Sometimes, I question why I studied and worked in the communications field – now I know why: I had to learn those skills in order to finish telling my grandfather’s story.
In the beginning, this book was simply to be a memento for my family, but after finishing it I wanted it inspire readers to sit down with a veteran in their own family. And when it comes to WWII veterans, the time to sit down and reminisce is now. I really encourage you to do so, because I never had the chance.
My American Odyssey not only details a soldier’s sobering accounts of war, it also tells of the personal battles that he endured while attempting to live the American Dream, a dream that he fought so hard to defend. The tragedy is the fact that he survived the war then died a decade or so later; unable to live out the life he envisioned while fighting in Italy and unable to finish his story.
I invite you to browse 337thinfantry.com to learn more.
Jim Byers, of Wyoming, Pennsylvania, earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Bloomsburg University and an associate’s degree in social science from Luzerne County Community College. His professional career includes time spent as a newspaper reporter and a graphic artist as well as in public relations. Currently, Jim works for the County of Luzerne and his articles are frequently printed in regional publications in northeastern Pennsylvania.