There are no ordinary lives,” said Ken Burns of those who served in a global cataclysm so momentous that the filmmaker simply entitled his 2007 documentary “The War.”
Many who served in so many different ways during World War II are gone now.
Some took their stories with them.
But not this one.
Bob Carruth hoped to be a musician and play piano with the hottest bands of the Forties in Cleveland.
But come World War II, he was drafted and served as an artilleryman with Gen. George Patton’s Third Army Division, rolling across Europe.
And when he came home, it was the music of war that echoed in his cannon-concussed ears.
In his mind, “88” no longer signified the number of piano keys, but the fearsome 88mm German gun that could punch a shell through a tank like a bullet through a tin can.
“I don’t think I was very stable when I got home,” the 89-year-old Olmsted Township resident now recalls. “Miserable, I guess. Just no purpose, I guess. I started drinking pretty good, too.”
And writing lyrics to the music of war that filled his head.
“I came back from this trip [overseas] to a funhouse of dark mirrors wounded in spirit. Now a sound or a smell brings it all back.”
“We would have liked to have heard from the heroes, but their mouths are stuffed with dirt. Seems like dirt is always the winner.”
War had changed Carruth from the youth who dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and worked odd jobs while studying music and piano.
When he was drafted in 1943, he had no qualms about possibly going into combat. “I was gung-ho,” Carruth recalled. “I loved my country, and I thought this was the thing to do.”
Battlefield reality hit hard soon after his unit landed in France in August of 1944.
Carruth served with the 176th Field Artillery Battalion as one of a seven-man crew who fired a 4.5-inch gun to support infantry on the front lines. At times the gunners had to grab their carbines when their position was attacked.
The unit spent 249 continuous days in combat, traveling more than 2,000 miles, firing more than 55,000 shells. Carruth’s crew towed their gun with an open tracked-vehicle that carried the GIs plus their artillery shells, ammunition and gasoline. “We were a bomb,” Carruth joked.
“We went from one hot spot to the next, wherever the heavy action was,” he said. “Patton was in the middle of everything. The battalion was shooting in three different directions at the same time.”
When they weren’t attacking, they were being attacked — by counter-battery fire from German artillery, strafed by enemy planes or targeted for infantry assault.
Carruth later wrote about his early months of combat in a poem entitled, “Introduction,” remembering the sight of livestock and soldiers alike slaughtered in rolling farm fields.
“We are hunkered down here as it pays to keep a low profile. This is all as new to us as our beards . . . If you survive the summer, winter brings relief from the odor and flies. It does nothing for the carnage. This is our introduction to the world. Tell me about peace and love.”
Another poem was dedicated to the brutal cold they endured during the Battle of the Bulge, when none of his unit was equipped with winter coats or boots.
“Cold like being transported into the bitterness of space . . . cold that turns your face gray. Ears aching from frostbite, ice hanging from your nostrils.”
He recalled, “Most of the time what you thought about was just surviving, getting through the next hour, trying to get warm and get something to eat. Trying to stay alive.”
Carruth said he got numb to just about everything, including the sight of a captured German officer being shot point-blank in the stomach by a GI who’d just lost his brother in combat.
“I turned and walked away,” Carruth said.
Shocking? No more than seeing soldiers loot the pockets of the dead, German and American alike, cutting off fingers for the rings, Carruth said. He didn’t join them. “I wasn’t raised to be like that,” he said.
He pulled out a scrap of paper that he has saved for years. Written on it was: “War erases the boundary between good and evil. It makes the unique human sacred gift — life — worthless.”
Carruth noted, “I didn’t write this, but it’s true.”
As the war wound down, so did Carruth. “It got to the point where I didn’t care whether I lived or died,” he said.
He stumbled for words to describe that point of sheer combat exhaustion. “You can’t go that long. Just, you know, day after day, month after month.”
He came home with his ears still ringing. “It was a dance to keep it [the cannon] going, so you’re not protecting your ears, you’re firing the thing,” said Carruth, who also noted they were never issued ear protection.
His spirit was equally blasted. He wrote: “Body counts are so important in our so-called society. Killed, wounded and missing. We are so superior to other animals in our craft. I am so ashamed.”
Carruth credits his wife, Fides (Latin for “faith’), whom he met and married 62 years ago, with pulling him out of his post-war depression. “I’d have been gone long ago if it wasn’t for her,” he said. “She’s a very strong woman. I was lucky.”
He also fulfilled his original goal of playing piano in nightclubs around Cleveland. When the music business faded, he went to work for Republic Steel, initially in plant security — “Carrying a gun, again,” as he recalled with a grin — then in environmental controls.
He and his wife raised four children, including a son who served as a Navy medic aboard ship during the war in Vietnam. That didn’t bother Carruth.
“Not really. He got a clean bed, good food,” he said, mindful of those nights he spent in foxholes across Europe.
Looking back on his war, Carruth said, “I believe it was necessary. We did our job, what we were sent to do.”
Nowadays, he’ll occasionally play a keyboard when his hands don’t ache.
But even through a slight, lingering deafness, he still hears the music of war.
As he once wrote: “In the memory not to forget. Images, madness.”