FIRST PERSON | ROGER BOAS
I’ve been a resident of Pacific Heights for almost a century. I grew up in the 1920s, living with my folks in an apartment on Pacific Avenue. Then I bought my own place on Washington Street in 1959, raised four kids there with my wife Nancy — and we’ve lived in that home ever since.
There were really only two major interruptions to my neighborhood residency: going to Stanford, and going to war. While college attendance had expanded my horizons and given me new perspectives, going to war changed everything.
“The war has changed me in ways that will take the better part of my life to understand, let alone make peace with. Don’t ask me how. If you have to ask, you’ve never been to war.”
Those are the opening lines of my just-published book, Battle Rattle: A Last Memoir of World War II.
Being in WWII was the major event of my life. The experience still haunts me to this day — even 70 years after the fact. This is why I spent countless hours in my study on Washington Street sitting in front of a computer to write my memoir.
My first encounter with an actual Nazi was not in Europe but right here in my own back yard, when Baron Manfred von Killinger arrived in San Francisco in 1936 as the new consul general from Germany and took residency at the consulate on Jackson Street, just one block from where I lived. A virulent anti-Semite, he would later be placed in charge of the Nazi program in Romania exterminating Jews and Gypsies. I avoided him and his residence at all costs. Then von Killinger arranged for a brand new warship, the Admiral Graf Spee, to arrive in San Francisco to show off the prowess of the German navy. Curious, but with some trepidation, I went on board to see it. All the rooms had polished swastikas on their walls and photographs of Adolf Hitler. I found it oppressive and fled without looking back.
Though I’d been raised as a Christian Scientist, my ancestry was Jewish. I experienced anti-Semitism on my very first job delivering the Saturday Evening Post on my bike in the Cow Hollow neighborhood, where the Catholic boys on Filbert Street jeered at me and called me “the rabbi.”
After this incident, my father signed me up for boxing lessons at the Olympic Club with Spider Roach, a former lightweight champion. Later, at Stanford, I was chagrined to discover that Jews were not allowed to join fraternities. Luckily there were plenty of other options on campus. My love of horses led me to join the ROTC, where I learned about horse-drawn field artillery, determined to serve in the armed forces and do my part to defeat the Nazis.
But from my first day in combat, when I pulled the trigger on two unsuspecting German soldiers in the hedgerows above Utah Beach, I suffered lifetime shock at what I had done. As a forward observer in Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army, I would endure 11 months of nonstop action. The fear was relentless; that’s what ate away at me. It made me hateful and full of rage at the enemy, feelings that got considerably worse as we marched toward Germany and I saw things no man should have to see. I was among the first Americans to liberate a concentration camp — a horror I will never be able to erase from my mind.
It’s been given different names in the various wars we have fought. We called it “shell shock” in World War I; more recently, it got initials: PTSD, for post-traumatic stress disorder. In World War II, we called it “battle rattle.” It’s what happens to many young soldiers when faced with the horrors of war, particularly when we try to settle back into civilian life. We cannot focus or make decisions.
My parents didn’t quite know what to make of me as I got off the boat in 1945 after sailing back from Europe. When setting off to serve three and a half years earlier, I had been an exuberant young man, gung ho — and determined to bring down Hitler. Now, returning from battle, I was an emotional shadow of my former self. Part of me was still on the battlefield, but I had learned something: 11 months in combat made me a lifelong pacifist who would avoid war at all costs. Governments do not need to shoot at one another; they need to learn how to negotiate with one another. The wars we conducted in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq have cost us many lives and wasted precious funds that could have been used for things we need badly such as better K-12 education and vast infrastructure repair.
In my mind I was battling anxiety, depression and also another, unexpected emotion: guilt. Part of it was survivor’s guilt; one fifth of my division did not make it home. But I also harbored guilt about the German soldiers I shot when I considered the fact that they were men just like me, simply following orders.
I’ve outlived nearly all the men I served with, and have been blessed with a 57-year marriage and a rewarding life with both ups and downs that included business, television and city government. One of the main things the war taught me was the need to make sound decisions, even under pressure, and the potentially dire consequences of making poor decisions. An example of a particularly stupid decision was ordering the field artillery forward observers to go into the attack on Troyes, France, in open, unshielded jeeps instead of well-armored light tanks. In tanks, they could have performed their jobs just as well and been protected from enemy small arms and machine gun fire. Thinking things through and trying to make sound decisions became my mantra in civilian life.
I often wondered why I got to live out this long, gratifying life, while so many of my fellow servicemen had their lives truncated prematurely. I still miss them, even after all these years.
I made a series of trips back to Europe over the years to quell my nagging memories of the war, and also to research my book. I walked the battlefields, visited the graves of my fallen comrades. But I was never able, to my dismay, to locate the spot where they had buried one fellow forward observer whose death had really troubled me. I had always remembered him with sadness because he asked for my advice shortly before he was killed and I had little to offer him. In retrospect, I realize I should have told him not to cross that field in an unarmed open jeep; he could have crossed in a light tank.
Years later — quite recently, in fact — I learned his body had been repatriated and buried in the Golden Gate National Cemetery, only 15 miles from my home. So it is here that I have finally made my peace with it all.
Roger Boas returned to San Francisco and entered his family’s automobile business. He was a producer and moderator on public television, a member of the Board of Supervisors and later the city’s chief administrator. Battle Rattle is his first book.