One of the most memorable scenes in movie history is the classic courtroom scene in “A Few Good Men” between Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson. Cruise, playing Naval Lawyer Dan Kaffee, is grilling key witness, Colonel Nathan Jessup, played by Nicholson. At issue is a potential cover up of a case involving the hazing and eventual death of a soldier under Colonel Jessup’s command. Believing the colonel had some culpability in the heinous act, Lt. Kaffe shouts out to him, “I want the truth!” Nicholson, as Jessup, goes into a monologue, schooling Kaffe on the differences between what is perceived reality and actual reality and begins his oration with the exclamation of that classic line, “You can’t handle the truth!”
We all have had situations that have challenged our beliefs about a particular thing, and have flirted with that fine line between perceived reality and actual reality. We have our “neat and tidy,” somewhat sanitized version of our perspective that can sometimes be rocked by the revelation of just how disturbing the actual truth might be. Sometimes knowing the truth can be daunting and unnerving because it does challenge our comfortable paradigms.
In the case of finding out what exactly happened to my dad in December, 1965, it would have been much easier to have left well enough alone. In our lives there will always be that pile of unanswered questions that will remain unanswered, and my questions would just as well have rested in that stack. I was driven, however, to know the truth, or at least, make a good attempt to find it. In the pursuit to find the truth, my quest had led me to this priceless dossier containing my father’s armed services records.
Headlining the large stack of forms and paperwork were letters and affidavits that outlined the events of my father’s disappearance and subsequent death. Would they contain the answers I needed? Would I be able to handle the truth? With great trepidation, I began to sift through them and attempted to piece together the timeline of those tragic events.
I learned that my father was relatively new on the base in Dachau, having been transferred there in the latter part of November 1965. Prior to the transfer, he had been approved for a Christmas leave to the United States that was scheduled to begin on December 20 and continue through January 19. The week before his scheduled departure, my dad obtained permission from his commanding officer to visit the American Express office to pick up his plane ticket for the flight home, and to purchase $100 of traveler’s checks for the furlough.
Friday December 17 would be the last day that anyone recalled seeing my father. The day began with a trip to the post office to mail a couple of packages home. The receipts for the packages, which were Christmas gifts for my brother and me, were found in his locker after his disappearance. Before he could be granted official leave, he had to return to his commanding officer to show him his plane ticket and receive the final approval for his trip home. The officer would later say that he found my dad to be very upbeat that day and that he was looking forward to his time away.
Later that day, he would approach Sgt. Charles Clements, the sergeant for the maintenance platoon to which my father had been assigned. Sgt. Clements was working on his car, when he said my dad came up to him and asked to borrow some money. He said he gave my dad $25, which was all the money he had. When my dad opened his wallet to put the money, Sgt. Clements observed that my dad had much more money in his wallet than the $25 he had loaned him. That would be the last time he remembered seeing my father alive.
On the evening of December 17, the Dachau Army base held their Quartermaster Christmas Party in the Enlisted Men’s Club. PFC Charles D_____ (I will explain the reason for disguising his name in a later post) came to the party around 7 pm and saw my father sitting at the bar. A couple of hours later, Pvt. D_____ said my dad joined him at his table, and that it appeared that my dad had been drinking heavily that evening and was very intoxicated. After separating again, D______, intending to walk my dad back to the barracks, searched the Enlisted Men’s Club for my father, but said that he would not see him again.
My dad missed bed check that evening and when the sun rose on Saturday he was still missing from the base. Some of the guys in the barracks thought he might have skipped town so he could get an early start on his scheduled furlough. At that point my father was considered AWOL – absent without leave – and an extensive search was initiated to find out where he had gone. Calls were made to the airlines and to the states to see if he somehow he was en route to North Carolina, but neither turned up anything. MP’s searched the Dachau area, thinking that in his intoxicated state, he might have, in their words, “shacked up some place,” but this search would prove futile as well. They said it was as if he had vanished into thin air.
Around 1 p.m. on the afternoon of January 25, 1966, Ms. Lotte Kraus, who lived in the Wuermmuehle section of Dachau, saw what looked like a body floating in a stream that flowed through her property. She quickly notified the Chief of Police in Dachau, who determined that the body, dressed in fatigues, was that of a United States Army Soldier, and contacted the MP’s at the Dachau base. Sgt. Charles Clements, the same man who loaned my dad $25 the day he disappeared, responded to the call and positively identified the remains as that of my father. After leaving the Enlisted Men’s Club on the evening of December 17, and having been missing for almost 40 days, my father had finally been found.
My dad’s body was transferred to the Army hospital in Augsburg, Germany and an autopsy was performed. One day after my father’s remains were retrieved from the Wuerm River in Dachau, the medical examiner concluded that the cause of death was simple drowning and that there was no evidence of foul play or self-inflicted wounds.
On the surface, it appeared that I had found the answers for which I had been looking. However, my discovery of “the truth” would only open up another world of questions and emotions that would take me almost 20 years to fully process.