Private Lindahl, Citizen Soldier: A narrative from June 1943 to August 1946 by Elder M. Lindahl.
The volume of literature has so mushroomed about World War II, the Holocaust, and post-Holocaust revelations of what happened that no one person can possibly absorb it all. It has been reported that there are no less than 120,000 titles about Adolf Hitler alone. The sheer magnitude of the events from 1933 to 1945, "twelve years that shook the world," staggers the imagination.
That is why it is important to personalize the reporting. It is why we need Anne Frank's Diary. It is why we need Elie Wiesel's Night. It is why we need Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. We have to reckon with real people in real situations in real life.
Private Lindahl, Citizen Soldier by Elder M. Lindahl opens a window for us into the realities of life in the military service, particularly seen through the perceptive eyes of an eighteen-year-old enlistee. Based on the 250 letters he had written home, the narrative is indebted to a devoted mother who systematically preserved them for posterity. In this appreciative review, I will be referring to the author as "Elder" inasmuch as it has been my good fortune to have known him for well over a half-century, ever since he arrived on the North Park College (now University) campus in the fall of 1946. Only a few short months previously he had received his honorable discharge from the U S Army after 23 months of service as a T/Sgt. Elder is forthright on the challenge of telling his story:
There is a problem in telling the story of my past experiences. Back then I was the young soldier, and now I am the old veteran. The young soldier was inexperienced, naive, and regional in his view of the world and life. He was full of enthusiasm, guided by his parental values, participating in life situations as they did. On the other hand, the old veteran is experienced, wiser, and has a larger sense of reality, a weltanschauung, on which to draw conclusions, and make considered decisions.
I try to represent as faithfully as possible what happened to me back then. It's a question of then and now. The time in which I am writing is now; the days about which I write are long gone, and the memory of them is fading. (ii)
Elder has written his account mainly for his children and grandchildren, and is not intending any wide circulation. In my own judgment, however, it does merit reading by a wider audience, and I dare to hope that such a development might be realized as time goes by. It does serve to personalize World War II and thereby depicts the experiences of hundreds of young men and women as they left the security of home, family, church, and neighborhood and "marched off to war."
The narrative proceeds chronologically, starting in summer and fall, 1944. Elder was directed to report for pre-induction physical examination at the City Hall in Iron River, Michigan at 6:00 a.m.! (exclamation point, the reviewer's) on June 6, 1944. That was one of the most momentous days in the World War II timeline —the historic and costly invasion of Normandy on the French Coast by American, British, and Canadian Allied forces.
We follow Elder through his basic training experience at Camp Fannin, Texas, his travel aboard the Queen Mary to England, in the company of 15,000 soldiers, then on to France and ultimately to Germany. The sobering and grim realities of war come alive in Elder's comments from March 21, 1945:
I was ordered by the Captain to take my 2 1/2 ton truck, with some assistants, to the shore of the Rhine River at Mainz and load up with the dead bodies of some GIs who had perished in a counter attack to a 135th Engineer river crossing.... My grim assignment was to go to a certain harbor address, pile any dead bodies we could find along the shore into the back of my truck and take them to "Grave's Registration." I had never in my young life heard that phrase. The whole idea of doing such a job was absolutely foreign and staggering to me.... I had seen something I couldn't fully grasp. (55-56)
The horrors and the evils of the Holocaust were confronted head on at a German Concentration Camp at Mauthausen, Camp Gusen. In 1944 some 60,000 victims had been gassed, burned, or died of starvation. Travels through shattered cities like Munich and Nuremberg, vividly portrayed the awful human cost of open warfare.
Throughout the months of 1944 and 1945, Elder's faith remained resolute and firm, constantly nurtured by chapel services, chaplains, and Christian comrades. Especially fascinating are his frequent references to his cousin, Norbert Johnson, both in correspondence and occasional meetings.
After a distinguished career as a professor of philosophy at North Park College in Chicago, Elder is retired now and lives together with his wife, Muriel, in Minneapolis. He is reflective about his experiences as "Private Lindahl, Citizen Soldier." In his own words:
Memorial Day in May and Veterans Day in November, not just ordinary days on my calendar, are very special and meaningful times of reflection. Gratitude and emotion overwhelm me when I think of those who are serving, those who have served, and especially of those who lost their lives in the service of their country. Though I was caught in the draft, as were so many other young people, my time in the service of our great country has become a permanent part of my identity. (182-3)
Coming to this last line in the volume, I find myself grateful to Elder for rereading the letters he wrote to his family more than fifty years ago, then sharing his experiences on the printed page. He has done a yeoman's job in looking back across the terrain of the 20th century. He does indeed deepen and enrich his identity for all who have the privilege of sharing a journey through these pages. I hope that many will do so.
Pendleton Creek Publications, Golden Valley, 2001. 183 pp. $14.00. Paperback.