The ‘untold story’ of deserters in World War 2

The ‘untold story’ of deserters in World War 2


Around 150,000 American and British soldiers deserted in the Second World War and a new book, ‘Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War‘, claims to be the first book to ever tackle the subject.  It tells the stories of 3 Allied soldiers who deserted during WW2.  Only one of them, a New Yorker named Steve Weiss, is still alive at the age of 87.

In the winter of 1944, Weiss was a 19-year-old American GI who had already seen combat in Italy and the south of France.  He had joined the US Army to work in the Psychological Warfare Branch, but what the army needed was infantrymen.  He had therefore been assigned to the 36th US Infantry Division in a combat intelligence role, which effectively meant he was sent forward in battle to act as bait for the enemy.

During one particular night attack, he became separated from his unit and was stranded behind enemy lines.  He was eventually picked up by the French Resistance and spent several weeks fighting alongside them.  The Resistance helped him to escape into the Vosges Mountains to rejoin his unit.  He was war-weary, but his escape route led him straight back to the front line.

“I was suffering from combat fatigue,” he said.  “I was young, inexperienced, and having bad dreams and déja vu experiences.  My dearest friend had been killed while I was missing in action.  I was told this quickly and cruelly when I returned.  In fact, out of the men I had originally fought with, only two were left.  I received no consideration or rest.  I was asked to take over as squad leader of 11 men, which I turned down because I didn’t feel qualified.  Also I felt so distracted and strange.  I couldn’t depend on myself, let alone let other men depend on me.”

Weiss’ new comrades were amazed that he had returned to the frontline and told him he would be dead in a month.  “Unit cohesion was falling apart in front of my eyes.  And so was I.  The constant shelling, machine gunning, freezing weather and high altitudes added to this terrible state.  I could not get warm.  The stress cannot be compared to anything in civilian life.  There is no correlation whatsoever.”

Weiss and his unit found themselves at Docelles, about 50 miles from the German border.  During a night of intense bombardment, Weiss saw 30 men blown to smithereens in their tents by German artillery.  When he then led a patrol through the forest, a trembling 38 year-old recruit asked Weiss, a teenager in the midst of a nervous breakdown, what to do to stay alive.  As German artillery rained down and men fell all around him, Weiss wandered dazed into the forest.

“I just walked away,” he said.  “I was so disillusioned.  My feeling – and it remains as strong today as it was then – was that if they took me out and shot me, it would have been a relief.  Imagine a teenager with his whole life ahead of him thinking like that … I should have had everything to live for…”

Weiss was not alone – 4 others also deserted from his company that night.  In fact, the 36th US Infantry Division had the highest rate of desertions in the European theatre, casting serious doubts over the quality of its leadership.

Weiss eventually made his way back to his unit again, but was arrested, court martialled and sentenced to life imprisonment.  “They didn’t give a damn at the trial,” he said.  “The officer representing me wasn’t a lawyer, none of the men had seen combat, and one of them was continually doodling.  The questions I was asked were ludicrous.”

He felt indifferent to the verdict:  “I was so lost in myself that it made no difference.  The whole thing was a farce.  I just wanted them to kill me, get it over with. ”

Instead, Weiss was released when a prison psychologist confirmed that he had severe  post-traumatic stress and that his sentence was a terrible injustice.  After years of psychoanalysis, he retrained as a psychologist himself.  “I remember waking up one morning in southern California, married with three children, and having this overwhelming feeling that I wanted to kill someone.  It turns out that the person I wanted to kill was the boy in me.  The soldier.  I tried to ignore him for years because of all these memories.  I wanted to eliminate him but I could only do that by killing myself.  Or else I could get in touch with this kid, listen to him.”

Despite his advanced age, Weiss still leads battlefield tours.  Recently he returned to the south of France and to re-live his painful wartime memories.  He said:  “I stood on the beach and thought, ‘I could be the last survivor of all the men who landed here in 1944.’  That is an existentially lonely feeling.  I have one foot in the grave myself – my generation is disappearing.  But I’ve had a rich life and done everything that a man could want to do.  I was given a second chance.  And in fulfilling it, I feel I’ve honoured all those who didn’t make it.”

The book’s author, veteran war reporter Charles Glass, says that of the 150,000 British and American soldiers who deserted in WW2, 80% were frontline troops like Weiss.  He also reveals that a rotation system meant that 10% of troops did all the fighting and 90% “never heard a shot fired in anger.”

He said:  “The First World War was more controversial because 306 British soldiers were executed for desertion.  But only one soldier, an American called Eddie Slovik, was executed for it during the Second World War.  Today, in America, men are still wanted for deserting whereas in Britain Churchill granted an amnesty in 1953.  Second World War veterans have always been held up as symbols of courage, as a generation of men who never cracked compared to, say, the Vietnam generation.  This book shows that every generation has people who break down because the circumstances of war cause it.”

Source:  Chitra Ramaswamy in the Scotsman


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