A Broken Door: The Barlow Knife and a WWII Paratrooper’s Moral Dilemma unto the Grave
Jay Hansford C. Vest
Hansford C. Vest (1919-1978), SSgt.
D Company, 502 Parachute Infantry Regiment
101st Airborne Division
US Army (1941-1945)
We awoke in the morning to discover the kitchen door broken from its casing and lying on the floor. It had taken near superhuman strength to bust away the door jam and to knock it completely free from its mooring in the walls. Terrified we learned Father, chasing German poltergeists in the night, had knocked it down in a rage of post-traumatic amnesia. He had found himself confronted with the demons of war while lodged in a life and death struggle with deadly enemies from long ago combat. Although the crashing noise served to arouse our sleep, the sight of the door was a terrifying reality for our little family.
The broken door, however, was not our first experience with Father’s post-traumatic stress disorder, as we children had often fled to Grandma’s house during the middle of the night when Father reenacted some terrifying war episode from his days in combat. These events were a continuing play of troubling visions and nightmares earned during Father’s World War II campaign while fighting the Germans from Normandy to Salzburg during his tour with the 101st Airborne Division.
They say war ennobles men but from what I could see, as a child looking at my father’s torn and embattled soul, I have severe reservations about the valor and glory of combat. The broken door was a continuing saga of troubling and brutal demons seeking release from my father’s moral consciousness. An American Indian boy steeped in the lore of a sacred way of life, he had been a thoughtful and considerate young man who cleared fields and planted crops to feed the Great Depression-era hunger in his community. Grandma said he never showed a temper prior to his return from the trials of kill-or-be-killed combat.
The gruesome tale, which my mother, herself a Women’s Army Corp veteran, siblings and I faced while living with her husband’s and our father’s post-traumatic stress is perhaps difficult for non combatants to understand. The broken door in the night, however, prequels the dark side of war while revealing the sinister and moral side of man. In this case a soberly conscious individual struggled with the notion of moral forgiveness through a lifetime of haunting war trauma.
Later, much later, I learned the broken door incident had followed the memory of a horrifying event that haunted my father to his deathbed. It began with my older brother, Mal, then a child of six or so years playing in our parent’s bedroom where he opened Father’s wartime footlocker. Like a Pandora’s box, the trunk was filled with demons and heroes – a shredded parachute that had nearly cost my father’s life in training for the Normandy invasion and countless medals of valor and honor earned in combat. Taking a deadly knife from the collage, Mal innocently unleashed an evil upon our world. As he played with the lethal weapon, Father entered the room to confront the beasts of his past in the Barlow knife that Mal had discovered in the trunk of war memorabilia. The knife was razor sharp, stained in blood with a malevolent appearance as Mal handed it over to Father who locked it away never to be seen again.
If the account of the broken door gives you anxiety, you may wish to put this essay down and turn your attention to less squeamish accounts revealing the ennobling effects of war. My memory of the events surrounding the Barlow knife is like a donut where the empty-hole resides concealing a dark mystery. Even at that I knew something awful, something terrifying lived in that mysterious empty space. Mal who had discovered it in his innocent child’s play was haunted, having no idea until the end when Father on his death bed revealed the terrifying secret.
It began following the traumas of Bastogne when the 101st Airborne, overmatched and underarm, held out against an incessant and frantically determined enemy. The lightly armed paratroopers faced a relentless barrage of panzer divisions charged with Hitler’s last great gambit designed to secure victory from the jaws of defeat. Der Fürher had instructed his ideal warriors to win at all costs, but in one of the greatest moments of American war time valor the Screaming Eagles held fast denying the Nazi war machine its prize and last chance for victory. The action won the 101st Airborne its second Presidential Unit Citation, with Normandy being the first and Father having been a part of both combat engagements, which honor is solely unique to this division in US armed forces annals.
After the Battle of the Bulge, the single largest combat event in all American wartime history, the valiant paratroopers were moved to what appeared to be a sleepy sector of the western front along the Rhine River in the Alsace-Lorrain region. Occupying a barn along the river, Father’s unit had been reduced by one-third with causalities – WIA and KIA – from the combat at Bastogne. In Father’s platoon, where he was then the ranking non-com, as a staff sergeant, there was a newly minted green lieutenant commissioned to lead the hoary veterans like Father who had survived Normandy, Market Garden (Holland), and Bastogne when the division was reduced by a third in each campaign. For some obscure reason, the lieutenant ordered Father to mount an abutment in the river to re-con the German positions. In the process, Father observed the distinctive skull and SS lightning bolt insignia on some of the opposing German officers across the river. Before he could report his findings, there came a great whirring sound through the skies above his observation post. In the rear miles from the front, the Waffen SS had moved the behemoth World War I cannon – Big Bertha as it was known – which had pounded Paris from a distance of seventy miles. Upon seeing Father on the river abutment, an SS officer had ordered the beast to unleash its fury upon the barn occupied by Father’s platoon. Knocking Father to the ground where the blood rushed from his ears, nose, and I dare say eyes, the mammoth shell fell directly upon its mark killing all within the sheltered domain. In the aftermath, there was Father and five other troopers, absent from the barn during the assault, which survived the war from Normandy to Salzburg. It was a survival rate of one in thirty.
Although Father was knocked unconscious from the Big Bertha shelling, he collected himself and reported to the company commander. As a response, a night reconnaissance was ordered. The chosen team included Father having identified the Waffen SS unit across the river among the patrol. Together with the Captain charged with D Company, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, Father chose his long standing comrade, Loveless, another American Indian trooper, to accompany them. In their stealthy crossing of the Rhine, they made no disturbance that the Germans could detect, and presently they came upon an officer’s camp guarded by two sentries. Taking their Barlow knives in hand, stealth was essential, as Father and Loveless overpowered and killed the two sentries. Outside the tent there was the terrifying emblem of the skull and SS lightning bolt insignia. Asleep within the shelter, eight Waffen SS officers slept with no apparent anxiety or concern of conscious. Learning of their enemies’ identity, the Captain ordered Father and Loveless to cut the Nazis throats while they slept. The Barlow knives were razor sharp as Father and Loveless applied them to the throats of the eight dealers in death. The deed had been done and taken root in the future as it supplied Father with a relentless guilt even unto death.
As he lay dying, while Mal sat with him in the hospital, the memory of the Barlow knife emerged in my brother’s consciousness, and he thought to ask about it. “Daddy,” he inquired, “do you remember that day when we found the kitchen door knocked off its hinges? It was just after you found me playing with the Barlow knife. Afterwards you locked it away, and I knew my handling it disturbed you. What was the story of that knife?”
“Son,” he responded, “I had to do a terrible deed with that knife, and I fear even now for my soul as I see the other side before my eyes.” Just days before his mortal passing, Father confessed the details, cutting the throats of the eight death dealing SS officers.
It was a tale he had prepared to take to his grave with him but for memory of the broken door and Mal’s childhood discovery of the Barlow knife. It seems to me war does not ennoble men, it haunts them and their loved ones with the terrifying images of skulls and morality all through their days even unto their graves.
About the Author:
Jay Hansford C. Vest, PhD. Professor of American Indian Studies - University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation and a direct descendent of the 17th century Pamunkey chief Opechancanough; in 1989, he was made an honorary Pikuni (Blackfeet) in ceremonial adoption. Dr. Vest is author of one hundred eighty publications, see here and here.