Friday, 11 November 2011

Steve Weiss & the US 36th


In the summer of 1944, Steve Weiss,aged just 18, was fighting his way into the South of France against intense German resistance. A part of the US 36th Infantry Division, these boys had been called up from Texas, trained in the outposts of Louisiana, before being dropped in North Africa to make their way by sea to the Bay of Salerno, Italy. By 1943,landing in the face of desperate opposition, they gradually advanced, pushing further north as winter approached.

By the following summer, boys had become men, growing up in a maelstrom, a storm of the most awful fighting. The liberation of France was now their goal, getting back home still a distant dream.
During a night attack near Valence Steve Weiss stumbled into an enemy position. 'Rather than the men behind me coming in on either side and flowing out to make a skirmish line which we'd learned in basic training back in the States, they ran away. I recognised at that moment that the American army was every man for himself.'

Incredibly, Weiss survived the night, but found himself behind enemy lines. Rather than withdrawing from the fight, he instead joined up with the French Resistance, battling alongside them for a number of months before he was able to rejoin his unit.

The fighting continued relentlessly. The boys of the 36th spent longer on the front line continuously than any other unit, 144 days in one particularly nightmarish stretch. Having seen friends die next to him and having endured the terror of his stint behind enemy lines, Weiss found the internal battle became the hardest. Twice in these late days of the war he deserted the front line, paralysed by what we would today call battle fatigue or high level post traumatic stress.

This boy who became a man far away from home, fighting for us and our freedoms, learned to cope and got on. His inner demons understandably continued long after he returned home in peace time, his heart remaining in turmoil. Part of the coping srategy for Weiss was to train as a Clinical Psychologist, no doubt in an attempt to understand his own mind, then to help others who had been through similar agonies of body and emotions.

With incredible brevity, this simple statement from Weiss says it all for us on Remembrance Day. In hearing it, we see ourselves in his shoes and wonder if our hearts would be so strong, so enduring in the face of naked fear as the young boy Weiss.'There is no easy way to prepare teens and young men for war when their desire to serve their country collides with their desire to stay alive.'

Dr Weiss - we salute you.

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