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Americans: Men of the West

by Andrew Petiprin

As a young officer in the new American Fifth Army, my maternal grandfather, Captain Robert E. “Bob” Hedrick – or “Poppy,” as we called him – was warming up in North Africa for most of 1943. By early 1944, Poppy was standing on Italian soil as part of the first American force to invade mainland Europe. And for the next few months, he saw some of the fiercest combat of World War II, as American and British troops fought to break out of the Anzio beachhead and up towards Rome. On June 4, the Fifth Army liberated the Eternal City as the Allied leaders 1,500 kilometers north of them were making final preparations to storm the beaches of Normandy.

Poppy’s unit moved up the Italian peninsula throughout the summer of 1944, pushing through Italian and German troops to cross the Arno on September 2. Two months later, Poppy’s 898th Anti-Aircraft Artillery battalion was attached to the 100th Infantry Division and headed for France. During the Battle of the Bulge, the 100th spent Christmas in the commune of Bitche in the Moselle Department, fighting alongside units from the Seventh Army. The 100th would be nicknamed “Sons of Bitche” for their fierce defense against repeated German counterattacks. Finally, Poppy and his comrades prevailed, and in late March of 1945, they crossed the Rhine. The end of the war was in sight, and combat duties for the 100th terminated with the liberation and patrol of Stuttgart, which they conducted from a base in nearby Göppingen. Part of their detail included administration of the Stuttgart West Displaced Persons Camp, where Poppy saw thousands of concentration camp survivors and understood the horror of the Holocaust before the rest of the world would know about it.

American soldiers from the 100th Infantry Division in Bitche, France, where my grandfather was.

Poppy died in 1997 when I was just seventeen years old; and although I was intensely curious about his war experiences, I had no idea what questions to ask him. It only occurred to me sometime in my twenties that when Poppy talked casually about how he could not shuffle cards because a German cut his thumb with a bayonet, the German likely never lived to sit around with his own grandchildren because of what mine had had to do. No doubt, Poppy was haunted by his experiences; but he did not regret them. His family, his nation, and the nations of Europe, were rightly grateful for his service.

Like most of my generation, my young life was full not only of grandparents but of great-uncles, family friends, fellow church members, and perfect strangers all around me who had lived through the Great Depression and served proudly in World War II. It was normal to the point of being totally unappreciated in the 80’s and 90’s to be around old war heroes. And while Tom Brokaw’s “greatest” generation may be overblown – may – we who live in the West realize we are unlikely to see anything like them again.

When Poppy returned home from war, he did what most of his fellows did – he married his sweetheart and started a family; but he also tried his hand at something most other veterans did not. Poppy used the G.I. Bill to pursue the advanced musical training he had hoped for as a teenager, and he enrolled at a conservatory to become a professional opera singer. In the end, unable to see a lucrative future in the arts, he abandoned his studies, took a job with a large defense contracting company, devoted himself to his family, and led choirs at church instead.

Even though my grandfather never made it to the Met, his short-lived dream of becoming an opera singer is illustrative of why he left Buffalo, New York for a foreign war in the first place. He was a patriot, no doubt. He was up for an adventure, like many young men. But he also believed there was a category of loyalty somewhere between the small world of one’s hometown and a largescale, abstract concern for humanity as a whole. He likely did not think it was his responsibility as an American to fight for every beleaguered person or nation on earth, but Europe was different. This reality, the West, involved him intimately. In this way, my grandfather’s story is part of the realization of Churchill’s prophecy after Dunkirk. It was the moment when “the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”

Robert E. Hedrick was a civilized man, who became even more of one because of World War II. He grew up the son of Christian Scientists, and rebellion against his parents consisted of his secretly becoming an Episcopalian at the church where he was a paid choir member. Moreover, he was a German-American who saw in the Old World what his ancestors had helped build, and which he feared an Austrian-German maniac would soon destroy. After fighting for Uncle Sam, Poppy wanted nothing more than to come home and sing Mozart, Verdi, and indeed, Wagner.

For all the noise about post-War Europe being inundated with Coca-Cola and Elvis, we often overlook how America suddenly became reinvigorated with European culture as our boys came home. Just consider the middle-brow American entertainment of the early television age. George Ballanchine’s ballet choreography was on the Ed Sullivan Show, and a generation of housewives opted to follow Julia Child into the art of French cooking. Americans in the 1940’s and 50’s knew that their sons’ sacrifice against the Krauts was actually about preserving a cultural heritage shared with the people they went to defeat and liberate. If America cemented its imperial power with its men and materiel in World War II, it was not initially interpreted either in Western Europe or in the United States as an alien invasion. It was a big family affair.

Here my other grandfather – the self-made patriarch of the Petiprin family – enters the scene.

Floyd R. “Pete” Petiprin was born in Caro, Michigan in 1910 – half a generation after Poppy. When my “Gramps” was just eight years old, he lost his mother to the Spanish flu and his father disappeared. He bounced around to various family members and became particularly attached to a local Presbyterian minister, under whose influence Gramps began to explore the Huguenot origin story of his French-Swiss name – a tale that turned out to be only partly true. Another branch of the family was named Marsac, an Americanized form of Marceau, who founded Detroit with Antoine de La Mothe-Cadillac. They were naturally as French and Catholic as one can get. Some of Gramps’ other relations were very recent papist arrivals from Québec.

Gramps eventually ended up at Michigan State University, and sometime thereafter he impregnated a woman, married her, and then abandoned her after their infant child died. (My wife’s research has brought this tale to light. As far as I know, neither my grandmother nor anyone else on my father’s side of the family ever knew of it). With his first family sadly set aside, Gramps left the university to join the Navy in 1933, and he was an officer by the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, where he was stationed. He would go on to participate in thirteen major engagements in the Pacific, finally being present on a destroyer in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945 when the Japanese surrendered.

Just before Pearl Harbor, Gramps got married (again) – this time to a German-speaking Pennsylvania-born Navy nurse named Emily Hoffman. He started a new family, and, like Poppy, took advantage of the G.I. Bill to complete his education, ultimately receiving an MBA from the University of Michigan. Gramps stayed in the military as a career officer, and in the late 1950’s he was sent to Paris as the American naval attaché to NATO. My aunt, born in 1944, and my father, born in 1948, spent some of their most formative years in the commune of Marly-le-Roi, a manful hike away from the gates of the Palace of Versailles. They absorbed the French language quickly, and they retained near-native fluency throughout their lives. Gramps bought a 1920 Pleyel grand piano upon which my dad learned to play Chopin. It remains in the family today under my middle sister’s care.

The Petiprin family travelled Europe in the early 1960’s in the enormous Chevrolet station wagon the Department of Defense had shipped across the Atlantic for them. The car eventually made its way back to the States, accompanied by a Peugeot with a three-speed manual on the column. (Thus, they looked weird in both worlds.) The family spent one Christmas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and New Year’s Day in Vienna at the Musikverein. Dad was sent to sailing school in Holland, and there he developed the peculiar (for an American) preference for eating his pommes frites with mayonnaise. He started smoking cigarettes when he was twelve, played the pinball machines at cafés after school and threw his centimes into juke boxes full of American records. It was the Paris of Godard’s Breathless – not quite a golden age, but there was palpable joy in the air that came from casting off the shadow of the Nazi time and collaborating instead with a more benevolent empire, embodied by my American family with their French name.

All the while, Gramps was representing American interests in the new defense alliance that kept the Soviet wolves from the gates, ensuring a long cold war instead of a short, hot one. He went to Turkey and learned about Atatürk, whom he admired, naively believing in a dream of peace and cooperation characterized by rationalism and private religion. He also met some of the world’s most important scientists, whose work was, no doubt, poured into the cauldron of military industrial witchcraft. But these encounters satisfied Gramps’ desire from boyhood to talk about chemistry and physics and medicine – pursuits he was never able to get serious about himself. Who knows what other mundane bureaucratic work and spy games he was involved in beyond all that?

In his service at NATO, my grandfather demonstrated his love of his own country, but he came to feel at home as an ancestral and philosophical European too. Again, like Poppy, he grew more and more into the identity of a man of the West. But more than Poppy, it's fair to say Gramps embodied something beyond post-war optimism. When Gramps died in 2014 at age 103, he made no bones about the fact that American-style liberal democracy was the end-point of human striving. The man simply never dropped his salute. No doubt, today’s national conservatives and post-Liberals would dismiss him as a globalist stooge, despite his stalwart “buy American” mentality. I find myself wondering, however, if he had lived ten more years, would he have finally admitted that American-led internationalism was not quite the unequivocal success he had believed it to be? Nonetheless, in Gramps’ mind, Europe and America shared a common past and had no real choice but to pursue a common destiny. On this key point, I am in complete agreement.

In the mid 1960’s, Gramps’ NATO cohort had worn out its welcome with Charles De Gaulle, whose plate was full with Algeria and later with les Soixante-Huitards. When le president de la république handed over his quagmire in Indochina to America and asked NATO to take a hike from Paris, Gramps cleared out his office at the Palais Dauphine and was ordered back to Washington, D.C.

Suddenly under the Stars and Stripes, my father was a big lad who played defensive end on the football team at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School; but he was never of the American teenage milieu. He loathed the hippies and cultivated an aloofness that he had acquired from watching the sophistiqués of his European childhood. He would sit in bars alone after he turned eighteen rather than go to his classmates’ keggers. At the university, Dad studied Geography until his doctoral dissertation on Norwegian oil extraction (or some such thing) was turned down in the early 1980’s. By dad’s account, he didn’t much care for the widespread Soviet sympathizers among his colleagues in the social sciences anyway, so he decided not to revise and resubmit his thesis. Instead, he went into the family business – the military – just before it was too late. At age thirty-four, he barely made it through the obstacle course at Officer Candidate School and was rewarded with a commission in Naval intelligence. Eric K. Petiprin was the oldest Ensign in anyone’s peacetime memory.

Perhaps even more than Poppy or Gramps had done, Dad found his true calling serving his country by being outside of it, and particularly by being in Europe. He was, for good reason, completely swept up in the renewed projection of American might ushered in by Ronald Reagan. He rejoiced when the Berlin Wall fell. He was proud to serve on the Sixth Fleet staff in Gaeta, Italy, and from there he went to Bosnia ten times during the Balkan wars of the 1990’s, seeing combat with NATO troops. Late in his life, Dad even began to have nightmares about witnessing a French soldier who was shot and killed in his presence. He had missed the big wars, but he ended up with the same psychological battle scar as the generations of veterans who had come before him, and would come after him. To say that Dad “never came home” meant the standard shell shock blended with a more unusual sense of belonging on cobblestone streets instead of asphalt.

Dad had no time for questions about the legitimacy or the wisdom of NATO intervening in a post-Cold War ethnic conflict on European soil. He was proud of Sixth Fleet’s motto: “Power for Peace.” And in this way, today’s neo-isolationists would sadly have no more use for Dad than for Gramps. In the year before he died in 2023, Dad was resolved in his opinion about Russian barbarism and the legitimacy of NATO expansion for the sake of our exceptional West. Likewise, Dad was hawkish to the end about the American military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq; but on these matters, his enthusiasm belied a more controversial perspective than the typical Neoconservative rhetoric of democracy-building. It was time for a new crusade, Dad once told me shortly after 9/11. And while knocking off Saddam Hussein has not obviously proved to advance the Kingdom of Heaven, even in Dad’s misdirected zeal, he was sticking up for the West just like his father and father-in-law had done. He was a Romantic whose practical military service was a tacit approval of the ideal of Christendom’s renewal.

For my ancestors, as for me, to be an American has meant being part of greater Europe. As we look back now on more than a century since the start of the World War continuum and more than three decades since the end of the Cold War, the fate of all these greater European nations still hangs together in a way I have not yet explicitly named: with the indelible mark of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is for this baptismal identity that today’s men of the West must rise and contend. And indeed, the men of the New World may now look to the Old for help. Praising some of the great twentieth-century European leaders, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said in a talk called “The Grace of Reconciliation,” on the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day in 2004:

“Let us recall the names of Adenauer, Schumann, De Gasperi, De Gaulle. These were objective, intelligent men who had a healthy political realism. But their realism was rooted in the firm ground of the Christian ethos.”

Although I was born fifty-two years later and an ocean away from Ratzinger, we share the same spiritual heritage, and the same hope. For my part, let us recall the names of Hedrick and Petiprin, and countless other Americans whose sacrifices for a better world were rooted in the Christian ethos nourished for long centuries amid the peoples of Europe. In this way alone can we make both America and the nations of the Old World great again.


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