Armed with a stack of WWII photos and stories, author Jeffrey Badger set out on a 10-year hunt to retrieve a past in Finding Granddad’s War.
Have you ever been so haunted by an old photograph that you did something about it—like mail a few hundred letters, interview dozens of old WWII veterans who had no idea who you were, or make pilgrimages to three different countries looking for clues into the life of a man you’d barely met?
Jeff Badger has.
The old photograph in question was a picture of Jeff’s own grandfather, a WWII veteran who died when Jeff was only two months old. Jeff tracked down a unit history of his granddad’s WWII Army unit, the 978th Engineer Maintenance Company. And with a few clues in hand, he began searching for anyone who could tell him something about World War II as his grandfather had experienced it.
Jeff Badger tracked down and talked to 36 veterans before they passed away and took their memories with them—memories that would combine to reveal a picture of his grandfather that he would never find in history books or Army records. Many of these men became Jeff’s friends.
“The more I learned,” says Jeff, “the more I wanted to know. After the first few responses, a couple of letters, and an email, I was hooked.”
“They told me about the war. But they also told me about day-to-day life in a warzone: drinking runs, brothels, barroom brawls, a bank robbery in Germany,” Jeff says. “Some memories were painful. Several of the soldiers broke down. But they almost always wanted to go on. Most of the veterans told me afterwards that they had never told these stories to anyone.”
Jeff realized his mission was time sensitive. “One veteran sent me hundreds of photos he took in Europe and the Pacific. He told me I could keep them. He said, ‘When I die, they’ll just get thrown out.’ That was unsettling to hear. Were there other bunches of photos that were going to get thrown out when these veterans died? If so, I had to find these guys soon.”
Flattered by his interest, Jeff’s new “war buddies” confided in him, sharing experiences they had never spoken of before and sending Jeff hundreds of photographs taken in Europe and the Pacific. Sometimes talking was cathartic, sometimes not. But almost always, the men continued to tell their stories—whether they were discussing hungry children outside the chow hall in Holland or the death of a best friend.
One GI said about the war, “Over the years I’ve tried to freeze it out of my memory. But you never freeze it out completely because you still dream at night. Every year, two or three times a year, I dream about the war all night. My wife says, ‘You didn’t sleep.” And I say, “No, I dreamt war all night.’ You can’t get away from it.” – – Thomas Orton
George Patrias, one of the veterans Jeff tracked down. Another veteran described Patrias as “A hellraiser. But a likable hellraiser.”
Knowing Your Ancestors
Jeff then traveled to Spekholzerheide in the Netherlands to track down civilians from the GIs’ photos. Their stories about their friendships with the GIs are also fascinating.
As his grandfather’s buddies became his own, Jeff came to know the soldier, the hell-raiser, the friend, and the war they went through in a way few of us ever will.