That phrase really hit me. I read it over and over again to try to comprehend the anxiety and dread my grandfather felt as he crept along that Italian highway. After several reads, I felt his fearful anticipation of an ambush or a hidden landmine. That phrase hypnotized me, putting me in some sort of state in which I saw the war through my grandfather’s eyes. For a moment, it was me who was creeping along that highway. I scanned the treelines and looked over my shoulders for Germans. I heard gravel crunch under my boots and my own nervous breathes.
Thud. I blinked and saw that his notebook had slipped out of my hands onto the floor. My heart quivered from the thought of my grandfather in fear for his life. What if he had come under fire? What if he had been killed?
It was then that I realized that there was more to his story – and I have been searching ever since.
Historians and veterans have written thousands of books about World War II. But My American Odyssey differs from most books because the story is told from the point of view of an average soldier. The author included personal experiences and details about the war that can’t be found in some books. Readers will notice that, as the war progressed, his attitude fluctuated: between a humorous, good-hearted patriot to a depressed, angry G.I..
My American Odyssey is based on a short story Donald Byers wrote about his state-side basic training several years after his discharge from the United States Army. Those handwritten and typed accounts make up the early chapters while the latter portion of the book is derived from notes he scribbled into pocket-sized pads while in combat. Letters that he wrote to family and friends filled in pieces of missing time and reveal the personable side of the writer.
A lot of research was necessary in order to learn more about the influences and experiences that shaped his perceptions of the people and places that he encountered. Most of the work entailed inquiries to government agencies, trips to his hometown, and conversations with surviving friends and family. Afterward, it was clear to me that Don Byers was just an ordinary man who was called upon by his country to do an extraordinary thing.
Although Don’s later life didn’t involve military warfare, he did fight personal battles that tested his fortitude. Back injuries he suffered during combat made daily life uncomfortable and sometimes unmanageable. Medical records stated that fatigue and body aches made it difficult for him do an honest day’s work. He endured the pain instead of accepting defeat and worked as much as his body would allow – something he learned while in the Army.
His most dire period came months after the birth of his first child, a daughter named Ann. She was diagnosed with spina bifida and later died following an operation to treat the debilitating disease. Don witnessed death before in Italy, but this was not something that he could march away from.
By 1958, Don had made the goals that he set for himself while a soldier a reality. He was married and was given another chance at parenthood with the birth of a second daughter, Janet. He was working and very involved with his church’s choirs and Boy Scout troop despite the back aches.
But nothing could have prepared him for the loss he was about to incur. Unbeknownst to him, his body was invaded by the polio virus which attacked his nervous system, killing him at age 44. He died before he could finish telling his story.
This book not only details a soldier’s sobering accounts of a war, it also tells of the personal battles that he endured while attempting to live the American Dream. A dream that lured his grandparents from England to the United States. A dream that he fought so hard to defend.
While researching and writing this book, I was able to learn things about my grandfather and love him even though I had never met him. My mission was to help him finish his story, for his sake and for mine. I wanted this book to be a memento for my family and maybe inspire some readers to sit down with a veteran in their family to learn more about them. And when it comes to WWII veterans, the time to sit down and reminisce is now.