Memories of warPublished 7:53am Tuesday, May 27, 2014 Updated 9:54am Tuesday, May 27, 2014
For one veteran, Memorial Day is a reminder of his time in the service and fellow soldiers
Memorial Day has always been important to Earle Bombardier, a chance to remember those who gave their lives in battle and reflect with his fellow veterans who survived.
“It’s hard to fit into society when you have all this junk in the back of your mind,” Bombardier said. “To this day, I still have trouble relating to people.”
Bombardier, who turned 92 on Friday, registered for the armed forces on Dec. 7, 1942, the one-year anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombings. He was a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne division.
He and his squad were part of the Normandy landings on June 6, 1944 but were dropped 20 miles off their target. They fought skirmishes for 13 days before 18 of them were killed by German soldiers. The surviving 12, including Bombardier, were taken as prisoners of war.
After a few weeks at a temporary camp in France, they were packed into small boxcars with no bathrooms, 60 men to a car. They traveled across France for months in those cars before Bombardier and 59 other men were brought to a permanent camp in Augsburg, Germany, where he spent the bulk of the next year.
“I always had faith in our army,” he said. “I felt we would be liberated somewhere along the line, but I didn’t realize it would take that long.”
During those months in Augsburg, Bombardier dug air raid shelters during the day and returned to the camp at night. Eventually, he secured work chopping down trees in a nearby forest, which he much preferred to the digging.
There he stayed, eating bread made of sawdust and molasses, until the war ended in 1945. He was thrilled to be free and return home, but it was not an easy transition.
He went home to Crookston and soon got a job with Otter Tail Power Co. He moved to Fergus Falls in 1958, continuing to work for Otter Tail Power until his retirement in 1984.
Attempts to establish a normal routine were difficult. His stomach had shrunk to the size of a teacup, according to his doctor, and it took him a handful of years to get his full appetite back.
Then there were the nightmares. They started soon after he got home and stayed with him for decades. The most vivid and recurring one saw him walking through a slaughterhouse where he saw the bodies of many of his friends and fellow servicemen. He would often wake up screaming.
Bombardier took up poetry in an effort to combat the nightmares, writing in the middle of the night after waking up.
“It was just my way of trying to cope and to have something to overcome that feeling,” he said.
The writing helped, but attending a veterans support group has been even more beneficial to Bombardier. He started going to his group, which meets twice a month at the Veterans Service Office in Fergus Falls, a few years ago.
He said the nightmares have subsided and he has found a peace in talking about his experience that he never had before. But Bombardier is still uncomfortable in public or in larger groups. His wife Phyllis is the only person he is truly close with, he said.
During this time of year, Bombardier and his fellow veterans in the support group talk about what Memorial Day means to them. As he has gotten older, the day has taken an even more special place in his heart.
But he does not see that same passion in the rest of society.
“They seem to forget about what happened, the younger generations especially,” Bombardier said. “They aren’t really versed in history.”
He and Phyllis will spend Monday morning at the Veterans Park program, an annual routine Bombardier has no intention of breaking despite declining health.
Although he is somewhat pessimistic about what the future holds, Bombardier will always look forward to Memorial Day as a chance to remember his fallen friends and just what the country stands for.