Darrell Petty needed a distraction at the end of the story, the one with his pistol inches from the man’s face, when he was so consumed by hate that he felt his trigger finger pulling back.
He shifted through the pictures, news clippings, books and letters fanned in front of him on his kitchen table. Then his front door opened.
“Oh, there’s my girl,” Petty said.
“This is Sandra.”
Sandra Petty, 43, has Down syndrome and lives with her parents. Her shift at Big Horn Enterprises had just ended and, seeing her dad at the table with a crew of people, she walked over, face beaming.
“Hi, you guys. Did you speak to my dad?” she asked.
Yes, we did.
“Well, he’s my hero.”
Petty didn’t want to talk about heroes and all of that. Though he earned three Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts, he really wanted to talk about the 90th Infantry Division, the “Tough ’Ombres.”
“I was just doing what everyone else did. You advanced when you could, shot when you had to.”
He stormed Utah Beach on D-Day plus 2, and for the next 11 months, the 90th was engaged in combat in some form. Campaigns included Northern France, Rhineland, Central Europe, Battle of the Bulge and Ardennes-Alsace. The 90th helped close the Falaise Gap preventing a German retreat from Normandy, it helped besiege Metz and crossed the Moselle River at flood stage, surprising the Germans who thought it was impossible. It captured Fort De Koenigsmacker and liberated Flossenburg Concentration Camp and others.
He faced all the elements of war his fellow soldiers did: the cold and exhaustion, the loss of brothers beside them, the charging forward no matter what lay ahead.
“There are different kinds of fear. There’s the kind that literally makes you useless, I mean you can’t do anything. But then there’s another kind that is in there, but you can go ahead and do what you have to do,” he said.
“It always felt to me like something cold, twisting my insides up, and it was there until things were over. Then I might get shaky and queasy a little or something ... You get involved enough and you forget it. You just go ahead and do what you have to do.”
He earned his first Bronze Star during a rare break. A medic from Company F needed help getting to three wounded soldiers. He’d never learned to drive, and his driver had disappeared. Petty volunteered.
He drove them along a narrow trail and helped load the men. The Germans fired on the medic Jeep as they drove back, despite the emblem.
You’re going to hurt these guys, the medic said as Petty pushed the pedal to the floor.
If we get hit by a shell, we’re going to be hurt a lot more. All of us, Petty replied.
He got his second Bronze Star on Machine Gun Hill — Hill 451 — between the Moselle and Rhine rivers in March 1945.
The Germans had F Company pinned below. G advanced, and when they broke from under the canopy of trees, it looked like an ant hill, swarming with five companies of German SS. The Americans fired their rifles from the hip as they marched or ran.
After the battle, a friend asked what happened to his pants. The left leg below the knee was riddled with seven machine gun bullet holes, though none of the bullets pierced his leg. Six years later he got a letter from a war buddy, a letter he still has. The buddy wrote he’d told his new wife all about Petty and their adventures.
“I even told her about the seven holes in your pant leg,” the letter reads. Bits of shrapnel in the leg still set off the metal-detecting wand at airports.
The third Bronze Star came just before the end of the war, near the Geraman- Czechoslovakia border, when Petty was in headquarters company. Then, American B17s were still bombing, flying in high and coming back low. The company watched one B17 smoking and sinking, trying to make it across the American line.
The infantry wondered when the chutes would appear and, finally, they did. Wind currents pulled two of the American airmen back toward the Germans.
And the Germans started shooting.
Petty and four other soldiers jumped in a Jeep. The first airman had landed between the Americans and Germans, and he lay as flat as he could in a small impression. Petty swung the Jeep’s 50-caliber gun toward the tracers and fired, silencing the German guns, as a soldier pulled the airman in. They did the same with the second airman.
After the war, Petty was an MP. He did some guard duty at the Nuremberg Trials, and a friend in Newcastle saw footage of him there on the movie theater’s news reel. The friend drove to his parents’ house, and they drove 40 miles over dirt roads for the movie the next night.
Most of Petty’s duty was guarding war criminals at Dachau, the infamous concentration camp.
The 90th had liberated some camps, or had arrived just after. He’d seen the walking bones covered by stretched skin. He’d seen bags of teeth with gold crowns and boxes of watches and rings taken from the prisoners.
“You could smell that burned flesh coming out of your clothes for two or three days after leaving a place like that,” he said. “You couldn’t believe people could do that to one another.”
There was something satisfying, then, about seeing the German war criminals as prisoners in their own facilities. It felt better to see them standing in line for a bowl of thin soup, still more food than they served when they were in charge. They’d fight over a discarded cigarette butt.
One day, Petty stood guard over the lunch line. A green American MP, one who’d never before seen combat, allowed his .30 M1 carbine rifle to rest on the ground at his feet. Petty had told him before to control his rifle. The guys they guarded faced the hangman’s noose and had nothing to lose.
“And Old Dr. Schilling made a dive for him out of that soup line,” Petty said.
Claus Schilling had conducted human malaria experiments on prisoners at Dachau, injecting them with synthetic drugs. The experiments killed 300 to 400 prisoners and disabled many more. When Schilling dove for the MP’s feet, he was awaiting his own trial.
Petty pulled his .45 — a round in the chamber — dropped the safety and cocked it.
“He came up, and I was about that far from his face with the .45, and I was already putting pressure on [the trigger]. He turned about two shades lighter in color.”
Schilling jumped up. He yelled in German, but Petty understood: Don’t shoot, don’t shoot. Cigarette! He held up the butt — a nice, long one, a good prize. It had been lying next to the butt of the green MP’s rifle when Schilling went for the smoke.
“But I had trouble not shooting him,” Petty said, his hands shaking so many years later.
He kicked the MP in the butt. You almost made me kill a man, Petty told him. Even though I wanted to, it wouldn’t have been right. Let’s let them hang him.
Petty had never felt that kind of hatred before and never wants to feel it again.
People always hear about the Jewish people interned in the German camps, Petty said. What you don’t hear are about the gypsies, the homosexuals, the disabled.
“It was any undesirable,” Petty said, pointing to his daughter in the living room.
“She would have been in a camp. That little girl.”
Sandra, the girl playing with her cat. The girl whose hero is her dad.