In 1944, Robert Fowler helped liberate the town of St. Lo, France, from the German occupation. The Nebraska National Guardsman bore the scars of that experience for the rest of his life.
He compiled a memoir of his time in France in 2006 before he died. That memoir became the basis of “Finding St. Lo: A Memoir of War and Family,” published in 2019 by his grandson, Ted Neill of Seattle, Washington.
“I remember feeling a sense of safety in his presence,” Neill said of his grandfather. “He had his own rhythm. He was a slow talker. His generation was not quite in the same hurry, and you fell into that rhythm with him.”
Fowler lived in Nebraska, and Neill’s mother grew up in Omaha. The summer of his senior year of high school, Neill drove across the state with Fowler to visit Fowler’s longtime friend and fellow veteran Leo Sampson in Sidney.
Neill recently visited the Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward and will speak in Seward on July 4.
As Neill worked on this book, he said he tried to keep a light touch, preserving Fowler’s way of speaking. Fowler had written his memories by hand, and his wife Coco later typed them, Neill said.
“I had heard war stories, but nothing like what he wrote down,” Neill said. “I was little. I heard the sanitized version.”
St. Lo was a brutal battle for the Americans, who lost 11,000 soldiers, “one for every yard,” Neill said. In Fowler’s unit, part of the 134th U.S. Army Regiment, only six of the 42 soldiers survived.
“He would never brag. He was matter-of-fact,” Neill said.
Fowler’s memoir included reactions when the 88s started firing mortars and descriptions of friends being blown apart. Those experiences led to nightmares, post-traumatic stress and alcoholism.
“We didn’t do a great job then caring for veterans,” Neill said “We still don’t.”
Even today, 22 veterans die by suicide every day, he said.
Fowler was 16 when he enlisted and 20 when he fought. Neill said he returned to France for the 50th anniversary of the battle. A picture of him laying a wreath was published in the newspaper, and Neill said he could see the haunted look in Fowler’s eyes. That picture is included in the book.
“I fully understand the expression on his face,” Neill said. “He felt responsible. I know survivor’s guilt haunted him.”
As Neill’s mother grew up, her father drank heavily. Eventually, he entered a 12-step program that helped him control the alcoholism and allowed him to reinvent himself, Neill said.
“I only knew him as a sober man,” Neill said, adding that he knew Fowler had battled alcoholism before.
“Finding St. Lo” helped him reconcile the grandfather he knew as a child with the grandfather who lapsed back into alcohol in the months before he died in 2006.
He described his mother’s approach to her father as a duplex – on one side were the fond memories and on the other were the pain and hurt.
“When he slipped, his daughters were able to take it in stride,” Neill said.
It was harder for him because he hadn’t seen Fowler’s dark side.
“He was a war hero and a wounded man,” Neill said. “It was a topic we didn’t like to broach. There was a lot of hurt and disappointment.”
He described this book as “an exercise to reconcile and heal,” and that made the stakes even higher.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever written, and I had the smallest contribution,” he said.
Neill took Fowler’s memoir and interspersed it with his own essays, memories of his time with his grandfather and the fallout from Fowler’s service. He said he didn’t want to do the book at first, but his mother asked him to.
“I had to revisit things painful to me,” he said. “But I couldn’t say no to Mom.”
As Neill researched his grandfather’s experiences, he came across another diary by Gordon Cross, a medic in the 134th. Cross was 38 when he joined the Army in contrast to Fowler’s age 16. Both were at St. Lo, and Cross’s family allowed Neill to use his diary entries to supplement Fowler’s memories.
“His account was very different,” Neill said. “It was beautifully written, almost like reading poetry.”
Cross wrote his notes between battles and operations and stuffed them into the lining of his helmet. He also took pictures of the places he went, and many are included.
Neill self-published the book through Tenebray Publishing. The name came from his family’s motto, tenebrae splendiant, which means let the darkness shine. Changing the spelling to ray added a ray of light, he said.
“That theme is in a lot of my work,” he said.
He said self-publishing was a challenge for him because he had to think of himself as a business owner, not just an author.
The book is available through amazon.com in both print and electronic versions.
Neill will talk about “Finding St. Lo” on Wednesday, July 3, and Thursday, July 4, at 10 a.m. at the Nebraska National Guard Museum in Seward.