I always knew my grandfather fought in France in World War II, but the details were fuzzy. As a kid I’d ask dumb questions like, “did you ever shoot anyone,” and he’d reply with, “I shot at them, they shot at me, who knows where the bullets went,” before shooing me off. In High School I was given an “Interview a World War II veteran” assignment for an American History class, so I asked him some more formalized questions, but he couldn’t quite remember the names of places he had been to, or when exactly things had happened. At the time I wondered how it would be possible to forget something like fighting in World War II, but he was there as twenty year-old in 1944, this was maybe in 1998, he was trying to recall fifty-four year-old memories of things he probably didn’t want to remember.
I asked again, every few years, about what he remembered. At some point we got him a computer, and installed Google Earth, and he would mouse around France trying to figure out where he was. He would do some searches for the places he had been, but his misspellings of mispronounced locations in France didn’t return much. At some point he remembered (or saw on a map) that he had been in Metz, and we figured out that the fort he fought at was called Driant, not Durant or Verant, as he usually pronounced it. In 2009 I sat down and asked him a few more questions and actually recorded it.
My grandfather passed away two years ago, but I listen to the recording every so often, and search around for any more details. Coincidentally, someone added a Wikipedia page about the battle in 2009, not long after I had talked to him: Battle of Fort Driant. The initial entry refers to it as a “minor skirmish” in the larger Metz conflict. This year I finally got around to transcribing some of our conversation so it was saved somewhere other than my iCloud Voice Notes. A lot of it is sort of - as he remembers it, not in a clear chronological order. Or it was pieces of conversations that I knew I had with him in the past the he was interjecting. But there’s one part of the story that was always clear in his mind:
“...the fort was big. When we left the fort, two o’clock in the afternoon, they come down with a British (unsure of the word used here) they called it. See we only had a piece of the fort, we only had a little piece. And they put that in the tunnel, and they blew it. And the blew into the hole, because it was plugged. So they blew it out. So they sit there with machine guns firing at us, and they sit there with a machine gun firing at them, down the tunnel. You know, back and forth? And you know the back of the damn machine guns sit like there, and they had ten satchel charges here (1), they weighed 18 pounds a piece. TNT. And a bullet, or a uh, they don’t know whether it was a bullet, or... the door was right here, whether they put a hand grenade in. They blew up. And you know I was gonna go into the door, cause we were all retreating then, because they tell us, “everybody on that side of the fort get the Hell out”, because they were afraid the Germans was gonna break through. So we were all crawling through, and when that blast - the five guys in front of me they had faces like hamburger. The two guys in front, medic said they wouldn’t live, but the two guys in front, the lash above the eye was even gone, and the other guys they had their lashes but the meat was like the powder of the satchel charges, they were in the flame in other words. And the five machine gunners that were sitting there by the hole they were gone. I got blown across the room there, helmet fell off. Stunk! I mean the smoke, couldn’t even breathe. I got my handkercheif out, put it over my nose, then I could breathe, because it saved the big punches from coming in. Then we got out of there. When we got over to the next part, there was a tunnel that went into another opening. And that’s where we, we were so tired then we were just sitting and snoring so loud you’d wake yourself up. Because the last two or three days we didn’t get much sleep. And after that, they took us out.
We went up with a hundred and forty-nine, went over with a hundred and forty-nine, and we came back with forty-nine.“
1 - I believe he was pointing across the room while saying this, indicating the machine gun wasn’t far away from the charges.
At some point in the recording you can hear my Grandmother chime in with, "I'm glad you didn't have to go to war Joey". Me too, Grandma.