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Guns of My Father

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To this point in time, and I hope this never changes, the person with more gun experience than anyone I have ever known, was my father, Robert Lee Bonifer. In World War II, "Cowboy Bob," (as he was known back home in Ireland, Indiana, for his love of horses and cowboy movies) carried a Browning M1918 Automatic Rifle as a Corporal in Patton's 317th Regiment, 80th Infantry, Company A. The 317th gunned its way across Europe in 1944 and 1945 as they hunted the Nazis to their ultimate defeat. It was a bloody, bloody path, littered with every kind of atrocity human beings are capable of inflicting on one another.

The following descriptions of the awful path of the 317th are taken from: The Attack Will Go On: The 317TH Infantry Regiment in World War II, a Masters Thesis in Communication submitted to Louisiana State University by Dean James Dominique in 2003; a 2012 phone conversation with Mr. Jerome Blesch, who was the Radioman in Company A; and the few clues given during his lifetime (he passed away in 2005) by my father, who never otherwise spoke about his experiences in the War.

The events described here happened between November 1, 1944, when my father joined the 317th, and August, 1945, when the Armistice ending the War in Europe was signed:

"The biggest feeling was one of never knowing where you were," said Cowboy Bob once when I asked him to describe his war experience. "We would ride in a truck for a day. They'd drop us off somewhere, and we'd make camp. And in the morning, you could hear the tanks rolling. And then the shooting would start."

An enemy artillery barrage caught a company of the 317th digging in on the forward slope of Hill 237 and killed all the company officers, along with many others.

The tanks came through the fog that had sprung up like a suddenly recruited German ally. The infantry followed spraying fire like insane gardeners with deadly hoses.

The troops stayed in the town where the Germans had booby-trapped many of the buildings with time-delayed bombs. The first bomb detonated that afternoon and several more explosions occurred over the next four hours.

In the confusion, the lead [American] element broke out in a panic and streamed back down the hill, which only added to the chaos. Leaders in the area rounded up the panic-stricken soldiers and moved them to one side of the town to stop the alarm from spreading.

I vividly remember one soldier with wide eyes and froth around his lips. I grabbed him and shook him. He looked at me with blank, unseeing eyes and said something like, "Everybody's been killed but me; the Krauts are killing everybody."

"A full company had two hundred forty men," explained Mr. Blesch. "We had two hundred twenty. By the time we reached Germany, we had sixty."

"Withering artillery, mortar, machine gun and rifle fire greeted us from all direction... It was pure hell, fought in the worst weather conditions ever experienced in those parts."

"The first time I met your father," said Mr. Blesch, "he had just rejoined the company after getting treated in London for frostbite."

The [German] communications officer, who held the rod, lost an arm, an eye, and suffered body wounds. The enlisted man wielding the sledge hammer and another man standing beside him died instantly. The man with the hammer was blown in half. The upper half of his body disintegrated into a puff of red smoke while the lower half was blown about twenty feet off the road and came to rest on a bush. It lay there steaming in the cold February air. The twin brother of the man who had been blown in half had been on the other side of the house. When he came forward and learned what had happened to his brother, he went berserk.

Suddenly, shells of all calibers including tank rounds, artillery, and "screaming meemies" (thirty-inch rockets) rained down. Nearly every kind of weaponry used in the War got deployed in that battle [for bridge at Moselle].

"Most of the soldiers I saw getting shot were Americans shot by other Americans," said my father when I asked him how many people he'd seen get shot during the War.

It was in the area between Erfurt and Weimar that the Americans discovered the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp.

Because of the rapid advance of Patton's Third Army, many of the SS garrison retreated into the wood lines on the afternoon of the [sic] April 11. This gave the prisoners a chance to overpower the remaining guards and liberate themselves. The next day, Staff Sergeant Martin "Dick" Rennie, a squad leader in A Company, became the first soldier from the 317th to enter the camp. Patton later visited the camp. "I saw the most horrible sight I have ever seen," he commented in a letter.

"We saw what looked like a factory off to the left of a village. It wasn't on any of our maps and none of our Intelligence had reported anything being in that spot," reported Mr. Blesch, the Radioman. "Turns out it was Buchenwald. 6,000 people were still alive in that camp when we liberated it. Most of them were nothing more than living skeletons. There were wagons loaded with corpses. The Germans had eaten all the horses and were using slave labor to pull these wagons. Some of the prisoners could speak perfect English, and started telling us what this was and... we couldn't even begin to believe there could be such a thing."

These starving people were in every stage of dead, dying, and some were even beginning to decay. Most of those still alive could barely sit on the edge of their bunks. A few shuffled around on spindly legs whose muscles had seemingly wasted away to nothingness. Some of them were naked and totally disoriented. Others had defecated or urinated onto the filthy floor.

"We spent the night there [in Buchenwald]," said Mr. Blesch. "You cannot imagine the smell of all that death, all around you. You cannot imagine the size of the place. It covered eight hundred acres."

Days after they had liberated Buchenwald, the company's trucks rolled through a German town where an advance company of Patton's army had rounded up all the horses in the town and executed them in the town square. "When we rode past, the women were butchering the horses for meat, sawing off their hindquarters. The people were starving," explained Mr. Blesch.

"You have never seen starving people," my father sometimes said when I or one of my siblings didn't want to finish the food we'd put on our plate. And that would be that.

All told, 312 officers and 7,392 enlisted men from the 317th lost their lives during the War.

I make a litany this awfulness for one reason -- to share with you my father's attitude toward guns, after having spent the War at ground zero of the heavily armed world. He wanted nothing to do with them. Didn't own one. Didn't like it when one was around. Didn't allow hunting on our property. Walked away when there was a gun in the vicinity.

My father's attitude toward guns was that this is where they get you: Americans shooting other Americans; people imprisoned, enslaved, starving to death, murdered en masse.

And you don't know where you are.

Relative to my father's experience in the War, I am not even certain I deserve to have a position about gun control, except as filtered through his experiences and response to those experiences.

I know lots of hunters. Lots of gun owners. I've never felt ill-at-ease like my father around guns. In fact, when I visit my family's farm in Indiana, I like shooting skeet with shotguns and target shooting with rifles. But I have never experienced anything like what my father did. And so I defer to his point-of-view, his memory: Guns (the kind not used for hunting or sport, but for killing other human beings) get you nowhere.

The memory of my father leads me to believe that right wing gun-clingers, people who believe their basic liberties are threatened by gun control legislation, are tragically out of touch. When you have your finger on the trigger, the way my father saw it, you lose touch with everything else.

The gun-clingers have a death wish. For the country. For their fellow citizens. For anyone or anything in the cross-hairs of their fear and paranoia. When one's finger is so resolutely on the trigger, what other wish can one have, except for the death of one's target?