On his headstone at Arlington National Cemetery are listed Dad’s most important commendations: the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Like most veterans, my father did not like to talk about the war, and so the significance of one of these citations remained a secret until ten years after his death.

“Then there’s one thing you men will be able to say when this war is over and you get back home. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting by your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks, ‘What did you do in the great World War Two?’ You won’t have to cough and say, ‘Well, your granddaddy shoveled s— in Louisiana.'” —Gen. George S. Patton

Like most war veterans, my father did not like to talk about his combat experiences. But as a father, he gave in to his young son’s repeated urging to “tell me about the war, Daddy.” The only sign that he had been a soldier in World War II—a paratrooper in the 17th Airborne Division—was evidenced by a framed set of military badges and medals that hung in his room at our house. These included, most significantly, the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals. The former award was part of the only combat story he would ever tell me; the significance of the latter citation was not understood by me until more than ten years after his death.

Cpl. Joseph D. Klugewicz

I came into this world when my Dad, Joseph Daniel Klugewicz, was forty-two-years-old. Born in 1924 in Staten Island, New York, the son of a Polish immigrant father,  his wartime experiences were well behind him by the time I came into the world in 1967. At that time he was retired both from the army and from the New York City police force, which he left due to a near-fatal motorcycle accident caused by a civilian driver that left him with steel plates in his leg. Dad had moved the family—which at that time consisted of Mom and my sister—in 1962 to suburban Washington, D.C., to Bowie, Maryland, the first “Levittown” built outside the New York City area. The lure was a job as an accident investigator with Maryland-based Geico Insurance Company. Developer William Levitt offered houses that were affordable and well-built to the rising American middle class. My parents put $500 down on a $20,000, colonial-style house and took on a thirty-year mortgage. There the Klugewicz family settled down into an idyllic middle-class existence. Bowie was a town in which there were no extremes of wealth; no one was poor, and no one was rich. Everyone seemed to have everything they needed and much of what they wanted. Many fathers worked for the ever-growing federal government on the nearby banks of the Potomac, and most moms stayed at home, raising children, serving on the local PTA, volunteering at the election precincts, and perhaps joining the women’s sodality at the local parish.

By the time I was born, Dad had changed jobs and worked for the government of the District of Columbia as a welfare investigator. He went to work each day in a suit and tie, and I often greeted him upon his return—as always, he went through the chain-link gate of the fence encompassing our back yard—with a thrown football. My father, who was no athlete, cheerfully did his best, still in suit and tie, to throw several passes, always trying to get one perfectly the way I wanted it: over-my-shoulder, on the run, with my catching that winning touchdown pass and beating an imagined defender by a step. In this daily ritual Dad was practicing the only hobby he ever had as an adult: loving his children.

Dad was a modest man, strong but mild, and far from the caricature of the tough war veteran. He was not muscular (though he had moonlighted as a furniture mover during his police career), he never cursed, he rarely drank (perhaps one beer a week, usually after mowing the law in the spring and summer), and he absolutely never bragged about his wartime experience.

Yet there was that little boy asking him probably several times a month to “tell me about the war, Daddy.” By the time I was an adult, I knew the story well, though I heard Dad tell it in full and in detail only once in his life, in a private setting among friends. It is something out of a Spielberg movie.

When World War II broke out, Dad volunteered for the army as soon as he was old enough, serving first as a military police officer and then training in Fort Benning for the paratrooper corps. Dad became a corporal in the 17th Airborne Division. His first jump took place in March of 1945, during Operation Varsity, shortly after the Battle of the Bulge. Varsity was the largest single airborne operation in history, involving some 17,000 paratroopers, and it involved landing on top of two German divisions near the Rhine River. Serving as squad leader, Dad and some twenty other men jumped out of their transport aircraft into a sky filled with the lead of German bullets. Dad opened his parachute and landed roughly, in the midst of an open field, part of a German farm; the Nazis had fired at the American paratroopers in the air but Dad was unharmed.

Hitting the ground, Dad realized that his squad had landed far from the planned drop zone. He guardedly raised his head and yelled to his comrades, who were lying in the grass, seemingly cowering from the German gunfire. They needed to get out of the open and under some cover! But no one moved. Dad scurried over to a couple of the men—boys really, mostly close to his age—and found that they were dead. The shock hit him that all the others were dead too. Seeing a tree-line nearby, he ran for the cover of the woods. As he did so, he looked up and saw a German soldier perched in barn window, drawing aim with a rifle on this lone American survivor of the jump. Suddenly, Dad felt what he described as “a shovel hitting my chest,” and he was knocked to the ground. By the grace of God, the force of the bullet tearing into his chest threw him into a ditch, out of the line of fire of the man who had shot him.

American gunfire was in the distance. Perhaps for that reason, the German soldier did not come down from the barn window to make sure my father was finished off. Feigning death, Dad lay on that foreign field for some three hours, bleeding from his chest and his back; the bullet had gone right through him, missing his heart by less than an inch. A German column of tanks and troops came by, some hundred yards away, and Dad prayed that the tanks would not run him over. At last, scared and alone, he heard footsteps in the grass. Furtively lifting his head, he saw two American medics checking on the bodies of his buddies. The sniper in the barn apparently had moved on. Dad lifted his rifle vertically, to signal that he was alive and needed help. “Hey,” one medic called out to the other, “I got a live one over here!” The face of the medic—like the sudden apparition of an angel—appeared over Dad’s face. “Where you hit, buddy?”

The medic treated Dad and promised to come back to retrieve him. When he left, however, Dad thought to himself, “He’s never coming back. I’m going to die here.”

But return the medic did, and my father would be brought off the field, clinging to life. At a nearby field hospital a Catholic priest administered last rites to him (he would receive this sacrament again four years later while lying on the road in his police uniform with a mangled leg). After recovering in a hospital in France, Dad rejoined his unit and eventually found himself in August 1945 alongside hundreds of other American soldiers on a personnel carrier that was taking reinforcements to the war with Japan. Midway on the voyage across the Pacific, the announcement came that Japan had surrendered in the wake of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The carrier did a U-turn in the middle of the ocean: “I never saw such a happy group of men in all my life,” Dad recalled.

And thus his first and only jump as a paratrooper was the only combat my father ever saw in World War II. Or was it? I was perhaps a mere five years old when I once asked him, “Daddy, did you ever kill anyone in the war.” To this day I remember Dad’s reaction. He turned away from me, saying softly, “Son, I don’t want to talk about it.” I never asked him that question again, and I put the whole thing out of my mind for many years. After all, the story of the March 1945 jump did not allow for Dad having the opportunity to fire his weapon at anyone. It was all too quick: jumping, hitting the ground, running, taking a bullet through his chest.

On his headstone at Arlington National Cemetery are listed Dad’s most important commendations: the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Of course, I assumed, they were both awarded for the March 1945 jump. Then, more than ten years after Dad’s passing in 2003, I happened to re-read his obituary, which I of course had read several times before: “Bronze Star, 1944; Purple Heart, 1945.” Wait, what? 1944 for the Bronze Star? Next I searched online for the history of the 17th Airborne Division in World War II. The unit had served in hard combat as infantry in December 1944 in the Ardennes Forest. In fact, the 17th Airborne was selected for the March 1945 jump precisely because it had had this combat experience, unlike some of the “green” units that were also available. I next searched online for the requirements for a soldier’s receiving the Bronze Star. Established in 1944, the award is given to a soldier fighting in ground combat who distinguished himself “from his comrades by brave or praiseworthy achievement or service.”

And thus a stunning mystery about my father that existed in my mind for only minutes was quickly and paradoxically both explained and deepened. What had Dad done to receive this commendation, the fourth-highest military award bestowed by the United States? My mother did not know the answer to this question. Obviously, it was awarded for some action during the hard fighting in the Ardennes in 1944, the only other combat experienced by the 17th Airborne during my Dad’s military service. The question I had asked so many years before as a child came back to me: “Daddy, did you ever kill anyone in the war.” And Dad’s reply echoed, “Son, I don’t want to talk about it.”

Dad’s quiet heroism did not end with the war. He served honorably as a police officer in his post-war years and was a model husband and father until his death in 2003. But his heroism took more modest forms than those of the brave, twenty-year-old paratrooper. I recall at the age of five or six being driven home one evening by my uncle to our Bowie house, when I saw my Dad sitting in the back of a friend’s car, his face—illuminated by the vehicle’s interior light—ashen and fearful, his head leaning backward. Mom, who was by the driveway near the car, was obviously concerned as she and the friend discussed taking Dad to the hospital. Something was seriously wrong, I knew, even at my tender age. (I would find out later that Dad was experiencing heart palpitations and chest pain.) I began crying as I stood in the middle of the driveway. Dad saw me, and despite thinking he was having a heart attack, bounded out of the car and strode over to the garage, where he lifted the heavy two-car door as he always did, to let me into the house. He was trying to act like nothing was wrong, to show his little boy that Daddy was OK.

He was that kind of a hero.

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The featured image is a photograph of Cpl. Joseph D. Klugewicz, from the Klugewicz family’s private collection. The image within the essay is a detail from a photograph of a C-47 transport aircraft dropping hundreds of paratroopers as part of Operation Varsity and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.

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