MY JOURNEY BACK TO THE BATTLEFIELDS OF EUROPE where my father fought started with a phone call one afternoon last June. "This is Russell Murphy," the caller said. "I served with your dad in the war."

I remembered, faintly, that "Murph" had been one of my father's World War II buddies. He invited me to go to France to dedicate a memorial to the men of their unit, the 29th Infantry Division, which had been part of the D-Day invasion force at Omaha Beach. When I said I couldn't go, he suggested I come to a reunion of their rifle company, Company I, 115th Infantry Regiment.

My father had gone to one of those reunions once, a few years before he died in 1979. After mentioning Murphy's call to my wife that night, I found myself thinking back to my childhood, to a metal ammo box in the attic of our house in Louisville.

The box was filled with my dad's mementos from the war, old snapshots of his comrades, his Combat Infantryman's Badge, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals, dog tags, letters and military orders, a German Luger pistol and a dagger with the words Alles fur Deutschland etched into the blade. Elsewhere in the attic were a Nazi sword and an Eisenhower jacket with Dad's first-sergeant stripes.

As powerful as those souvenirs were to my imagination, they had never been brought to life by stories from my father. He wouldn't talk about the war. Like many youngsters, my three brothers and I liked to play war games, and we had pestered my father on occasion to tell us the stories behind his medals. The most he ever offered was to tell me when I was in high school to go see a German movie called "Die Bru cke," or "The Bridge." It was a graphic and realistic portrayal of fighting and dying near the end of the war. I don't remember whether he actually said "That's the way it was," but the message was clear.

He was silent on the subject even when I got orders to go to Vietnam as an Army lieutenant in 1969. His only advice, as he saw me off at the airport, was: "Keep your butt down."

I was surprised to find Murphy's call pulling at me. I wanted to learn more about what my father had done in World War II and why he was so reluctant to talk about it.

I started with my mother. She told me that she wrote my father every day and sent him baby pictures of me constantly. She was terrified when she got his Purple Heart medal -- before she even knew he had been wounded.

She also told me that my great-grandfathers had fought in the Union Army in the Civil War and that her father had enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War I. My uncles had served in World War II.

Although the Babcocks are hardly a warrior family, I was struck by the continuum of war in our history. I thought my search might give me some context for understanding how war had affected my family, from Chickamauga to Normandy to Vietnam.

I also found myself caught up in my own feelings about war, feelings I had not confronted since returning from Vietnam 18 years ago.

What I discovered about my father and myself is remarkable only because there are so many other stories like it. They are stories that should be learned, especially by a nation that has such a short memory, a nation whose youth learn of wars from comic books and movies.

AND SO ON A HOT SATURDAY morning in July, I hitched a ride with Al Ungerleider to a reunion of Company I of the 115th in Salisbury, Md. Ungerleider had been a lieutenant in my father's outfit in 1944 and, as I eerily discovered, had served as a colonel in Vietnam -- at the same time and place as I.

The American Legion hall near Salisbury was filling up when we arrived. The 29th Division included companies from all over Maryland and Virginia, from Annapolis to Roanoke, as well as two outfits from the District. Company I was headquartered in Salisbury.

We collected name tags at the door, then made our way to the cash bar and a table of snacks. On the other side of the room, a table was filled with scrapbooks of old photos. There was memorabilia for sale and a history of the unit.

I introduced myself around the room, eager for an anecdote -- maybe a story of Ray Babcock pulling a comrade to safety under enemy fire. It was soon obvious that many of those in the gathering of 70 didn't even remember my dad.

But a few did. Ray Bowser, of Ford City, Pa., and Walter Hedlund, of Lowell, Mass., said "Babs," the company commander's radioman, had been one of the few members of the company to go through the war without being seriously wounded. Later he became the company's communications sergeant, then its first sergeant, the top enlisted man.

Ray Babcock was from Pennsylvania. He grew up in Erie, on the lake, the son of a man who helped build locomotive engines at the General Electric plant. He and his brother Chuck used to go hunting with their father as youngsters. My uncle recalls that Ray was a crack shot.

My dad was the first in his family to go to college, working for a year in an ice cream plant to earn money before entering Grove City College. He met my mother, Jane McNary of Pittsburgh, there, and they were married in the college chapel. They had just returned from their honeymoon in Cleveland when they heard about Pearl Harbor.

Like millions of other young men, my dad tried to enlist. But he was rejected for officer training because of bad eyes and a steel plate in his foot from a boyhood accident. My mother recalls searching for carrot juice because some doctor had said it might improve Ray's eyesight.

By late 1943, the Army was willing to overlook Ray's minor frailties, and he became a rifleman at the age of 25. I was born in March 1944, in Pittsburgh, and my father was allowed a hurried visit to the hospital to see me before shipping out to England. My grandfather assured my mom, she remembers, that they would never ship Ray into combat because he hadn't had enough training.

My mother recalls that Dad left England for France on D-Day plus three, June 9 of that year. Once he had landed, it took more than a week for him to get from the beachhead to the 115th's Company I. He arrived with the company's first replacements on the evening of Saturday, June 17. The microfilmed company roster for the next day lists the names of the new arrivals -- Babcock, Bakken, Baxter, Beafore, Beasley, two Browns (twins) and a Burdon.

They were thrown together by the alphabet, like so many interchangeable parts. Three of the eight -- Bakken, Burdon and one of the Browns -- are listed among the regiment's killed in action.

My father survived, I've decided, partly because he had gone to college. Soon after he arrived, an officer asked the new men if any of them had a college education. My father raised his hand and thus became a radioman. That assignment didn't save him from being exposed to sniper fire and the artillery and mortar fire that caused the bulk of the casualties. But it did mean he wasn't in a rifle platoon and therefore the first or second man over the next hill.

He stayed with Company I until the end, through the hedgerow fighting around St. Lo~, the Brest campaign that cost 10,000 Allied casualties for a port that couldn't be used and on into Germany and the battles at the Roer River. He kept getting promoted because men all around him were being killed and wounded, but he rejected a battlefield commission because the lieutenants, who led their men into the face of fire, seemed to have an unusually short lifespan. (The day he joined Company I, five second lieutenants in the regiment were killed.)

The more I read, and the more I talked to the men of Company I, the more shocked I became by the casualty figures.

For example, the memorial Murphy and Ungerleider and others helped dedicate near Omaha Beach on Sept. 17 this year listed nearly 20,000 battle casualties in a single division in the 11 months from D-Day until the end of the war. About two-thirds of those casualties were in the first 11 weeks.

A U.S. infantry regiment in World War II had about 3,250 men. After less than three weeks of fighting, the 115th had lost 35 percent of its strength -- 1,138 casualties. More than 90 percent of the dead, wounded and missing were from the rifle companies. The 193-man Company I was down to 18 men a month after D-Day.

The enormity of the front-line casualties hit home when I went to the National Archives in Suitland and looked through the nine boxes of material on the regiment. The list of casualties, name by name, day by day, went on for 143 pages.

The horror of any war, of course, can't be reduced to numbers. Each name on those yellowed pages was some family's loss, just like the names etched in granite on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Many of the men in the 29th Division had been in training in England together for two years before they saw their first combat -- in the invasion. The 116th, a sister regiment to the 115th, was the division's D-Day assault unit at Omaha Beach, and the men of Company A, many of them from Bedford, Va., paid dearly. The little town lost 19 that day.

The 115th landed later that morning and had it much easier. Bowser, the company clerk who kept the casualty records, still recalls the name of the Company I man first killed in action, a Salisbury native named Norman Morris who fell right on the beach. His nickname was "Sunshine," Bowser recalled, and he smiled a lot.

Once off the beaches, the battles through the hedgerows began. My father joined the unit then, and Ungerleider remembered how surprised they all were to find rows of thick earthen berm, four or five feet high, that bordered the fields of Normandy -- perfect cover for German defenders. Elbert Petersian, a sergeant from Fresno, Calif., was even more surprised the day he crawled up a hedgerow to come face to face with a German soldier. The German tried to fire, but his rifle jammed. Petersian's didn't.

Despite such face-to-face encounters, the men were more fearful of the impersonal, sudden burst of artillery and mortars. The men still speak in awe of the German 75s and 88s, high-velocity, mobile artillery pieces that fired with such low trajectory there was little warning.

Petersian was hit by shrapnel near St. Lo~ on July 15, 1944, and was out of action until the fall, when he returned and won the Silver Star. Hedlund received the first of four Purple Hearts when he was hit July 17. Hartwell Brown, one of the twins who arrived as replacements for Company I the same day as my father, was killed July 17 when he climbed into a foxhole and was immediately hit by an artillery shell. Colin McLaurin was hit on July 29 and had to be evacuated for good.

McLaurin, a Clemson graduate from South Carolina, sent me a copy of his "Normandy Diary," a 368-page memoir of combat that he wrote in 1945-46 while recuperating from his wounds. It is a moving account, from his description of the battle-induced thirst to kill he called "the spirit of the bayonet" to the stoicism he felt as first those around him and then he himself fell. He described being hit by what seemed to be "a stroke of lightning," and how his first feeling was relief that he would no longer have to bear the responsibility of command. He ended his journal recalling his surgery, under local anesthetic, with the doctor poking around near his spine and announcing, "There is a little damage here." A nurse told him he had a ticket home.

The high casualty rates were understandable because the Americans were attacking across open terrain. At times, Dwight Gentry, a lieutenant in Company I, said, "It was almost like Gettysburg again." In July, the 115th had 1,769 casualties -- more than half the men in the regiment.

Men who couldn't take the constant shelling and contact with the enemy and broke down fell into another category of casualty known as "combat exhaustion." Often these men would be sent to the rear for a few days in the hope that they would recover.

My mother recalls my father once said that when the fighting and shelling was especially vicious in the Normandy hedgerows, he considered stomping on his glasses so he would be sent to the rear for a few days to get new ones. But he didn't.

Company Clerk Bowser still remembers vividly a Company I machine gunner who was ordered back to the front after a few days off. He told Bowser he wasn't ready yet, but an officer refused a request for extra time. He was killed a few days later.

After the fall of St. Lo~, the men of Company I went off with the regiment and other Allied forces to capture a German division at the port of Brest. Casualties were heavy there, too. Ungerleider won the Bronze Star for valor in Brest. Gentry and Hedlund each won a Silver Star.

As might be expected in such heavy fighting, many Company I veterans have stories of surviving close calls by luck or, as some put it, by God's will. Ungerleider, for instance, is mentioned in the regimental history for surviving a shell burst next to him that killed one companion and blew the leg off another. He was unscathed. "It made me think I was destined to do something else in this world." My father, who had been raised a Methodist and questioned my mother's Presbyterian belief in predestination, told her he became a believer the day a sniper shot the zipper off his jacket and killed the man next to him.

Murphy recalled being in a field near the Roer in late 1944 with my father when about 10 German shells landed nearby. The two were spared because seven of the shells didn't explode. Murphy said he found out later that a woman in his church back home in southern Maryland had said just about that time that she was going to "say a prayer for Russell."

At about the same time, my father was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. All I could find out about the incident came from the faded citation. It said that Staff Sergeant Raymond E. Babcock, 33683916, 115th Inf., was being cited for "heroic achievement in military operations against the enemy in Germany." At the time, the unit was in tough fighting near the town of Ju lich. The citation said that during a swift advance by his unit on Dec. 11, 1944, Sgt. Babcock "exposed himself to a period of four and one half hours of intense enemy fire while establishing communication between the leading elements and the command post."

A week later, the Germans made their final desperate counterattack in the Battle of the Bulge. The 115th stretched its thin lines north of the bulge, and my father was wounded, his wrist grazed by a bullet.

By the spring of 1945 the Germans knew the end was near and weren't putting up such a fanatical resistance, some of the veterans said. The 115th had 37 casualties in April, including 11 killed in action. At about this time my father wrote home that he was worried about being one of the last men killed in the war. For 10 months he had been a fugitive from the law of averages.

When the war in Europe ended, May 7, 1945, Bowser recalled he could count only 26 of the original 200 men or so of Company I, including cooks and drivers.

RAY BABCOCK CAME HOME IN THE fall of 1945. He went to work in the payroll department at the General Electric plant in Erie. One of my dad's friends in Erie then was Ken Ahrens, who had to go back to Germany for war-crime trials because he was one of the few survivors of the Malmady massacre -- he had been shot twice in the back and left for dead when the Germans killed nearly 100 American prisoners in a field in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.

Like a lot of the other combat veterans I talked to from Company I, my dad never joined any veterans groups. My Uncle Chuck, who served 3 1/2 years in the Pacific, said he asked his brother about the war in Europe, but he had nothing to say. My uncle also told me something else: Ray Babcock, the crack rifle shot who loved to hunt as a kid, never picked up a gun again after the war.

I HADN'T RUSHED TO ENLIST TO GO to Vietnam, but when I was facing the draft in 1967, I never considered trying to get out of it. I know part of the reason was that my father had gone to war, and I felt, corny as it may seem, that I had an obligation to him as well as to my country.

The government doesn't keep statistics on how many Vietnam veterans are the sons of World War II veterans, but there must be quite a few. For example, Dwight Gentry Jr. was an MP captain near Da Nang in 1970 and carried with him the $1 bill that his dad had carried all through World War II. He spoke with great pride about his father's service, saying it was a factor in his going to war. "I could do no less," he said. Then, referring to his father's wounds and decorations, he added, "Of course, I did a lot less."

When I arrived in Vietnam, I was 25 years old and had been trained as a tank commander and a press officer. Luckily, there weren't too many tanks in Vietnam. I was assigned as a writer and then an editor for an Army magazine, and I looked on the war as an adventure -- at first.

The contrast in the way of life between combat units and the support troops in Vietnam was striking. I imagine the differences would have staggered a veteran of Company I. In the rear, where I was stationed, there were air-conditioned officers' and enlisted men's clubs with 15-cent beer. I learned that a two-star general commanding an infantry division required that he be supplied with two fresh cans of tennis balls each morning -- one for practice, one for his daily match.

Thanks to helicopters and the American Army's rich logistic chain, even the infantry grunts in Vietnam got much more relief from combat than the men of Company I. After patrols or firefights they could be airlifted to an artillery fire support base for hot food, showers, cold beer and rock 'n' roll.

I am fortunate that I never saw the sort of carnage depicted in movies like "Platoon" and "Hamburger Hill." But because I was a sort of war correspondent for the Army, I went out in the field with several combat units. I remember many images: the moonscape that B52 strikes turned parts of the countryside into, the guttural braak sounds of helicopter miniguns in a strafing run, the rumble of defensive artillery while an infantry company dug in for the night, the bodies of dead North Vietnamese troops stacked like cordwood the morning after an attack.

I flew on a bombing mission with F100 jet fighter pilots. I wondered how they felt after watching strike-camera films of napalm and anti-personnel bombs they often dropped on targets, and whether they thought about what it was like on the receiving end, and whether that was why so many of them drank so much.

I remember being on patrol with an infantry company of the 82nd Airborne in a Viet Cong village in the Ho Bo woods north of Saigon. Like the riflemen of Company I on another continent in another war, these men had taken constant casualties. They were falling from sniper attacks and booby traps.

The village we entered was filled with bunkers and caches of rice, and because of the frustration level of the men, I think it had the potential to turn into another My Lai massacre, or the assault on the villagers in "Platoon." But the captain and his men were disciplined. None of the old men or women or children there were hurt, though the company commander did call in flame throwers and burned the village to the ground.

I especially remember the Indiana National Guard LRP company that has become my connection to my father's war friend, Al Ungerleider. I decided to write about it because it was one of the few Guard outfits called up during the war. Many of the men had passed the harsh physical tests to become trained as Airborne Rangers. LRP stood for "long range patrol," a tactic they used to ambush the enemy on his home turf. It was one of the most dangerous jobs in the war because when the six-man teams got in a fight, it was at close range and they were alone.

Ungerleider had used the Indiana LRPs shortly before I went out with them. He had been in charge of security for the important Bien Hoa air base and had borrowed the unit that summer of 1969 to try to ambush the Viet Cong who were rocketing the base. After the LRPs killed a decorated enemy rocket man, Bien Hoa didn't undergo a rocket attack for 51 days.

It's because of the LRPs that Smokey Robinson songs will always remind me Vietnam. Someone played his tapes all night long the night before I went out on a mission with them. I was so nervous I couldn't sleep.

I admit even now that I was attracted by the rush of adrenalin that goes with being in danger and the special camaraderie that war creates. But soon the sense of adventure wore off and I became repelled by the death, the misery and the destruction of a nation.

My other lasting memory from Vietnam was the greeting from my family when I returned. I still have a picture of my two younger brothers in front of a hand-painted sign they hung up on the garage: "Welcome Home to Mom and Cherry Pie."

IT HAD BEEN YEARS SINCE I HAD thought of any of this. It had taken me a long time before I could visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When I went, I stayed off to the side, pretending to be there like a reporter, a disinterested observer. I didn't get too close, because the mirrored granite tablets filled with so many names would have overwhelmed me.

Some World War II veterans seem to think Vietnam vets are crybabies. Former Company I commander McLaurin, who was wounded so long ago, said he thinks Vietnam soldiers "seem more emotional than other veterans . . . They seem to think they suffered more for their country."

He, more than most, can say that. He has lived in a wheelchair for the last 44 years, ever since being wounded that July day after St. Lo~. I asked him why he never wrote at the end of his memoir how badly he had been wounded. "It didn't occur to me," he said. "I didn't think it was part of the story; it was after the end." Gentry, who still visits his paralyzed comrade occasionally, said he has never heard him express any bitterness.

"They {Vietnam veterans} seem to feel they haven't been recognized for their sacrifice," McLaurin said. "And I'm inclined to agree they haven't, though I think the country is beginning to now, and that's good."

The wars were different, of course. In World War II the entire country was involved. Seventy percent of the eligible men served overseas, and we won. Vietnam was the first nationally televised war, and it divided the nation. Only 8 percent of the eligible men went to Vietnam, and we lost. For the individual rifleman in combat, however, wars are much the same, as Ungerleider said, and he served in three of them.

UNGERLEIDER AND MURPHY WENT to France in September for the 29th Division memorial dedication in the town of Vierville-sur-Mer, not far from Omaha Beach. It was the first time either had been back to the battlefield and the cemetery that overlooks the beach. They were joined there by one other Company I veteran, Marshall Chern.

The trip, they said, was emotional. Ungerleider said he was especially moved when he visited the hospital on the outskirts of St. Lo~. Though their town had been devastated by artillery and bombing, the French citizens there had not forgotten the Americans. The insignia of the 29th Division was still on the walls of several of the hospital rooms, he said.

On the morning of the dedication, Ungerleider, Murphy and Chern met with two sisters from Bedford, Va., and together they visited the cemetery where several thousand Americans who fell in Normandy still rest. Among the 19 men from that little town who died on D-Day were the women's two brothers.

"It was very, well, it -- I don't know the word to use," said Murphy. "But when you stand there and look at all those crosses and think of all those young fellows who didn't come back . . ."

I knew. I had gone back to the Vietnam memorial early on a recent Sunday morning. I looked up the name of a guy I knew in college. I remember him vividly, though we weren't close friends, because his smiling face was in a Life magazine story that included pictures of one week's war dead from Vietnam. I walked up to to the wall, close this time, and touched his name on the granite.

And I thought of all the veterans, those who died and those like my father and his comrades who remembered. And I cried.

It was only recently that I learned my father must have been carrying similar hidden memories. It was the fall of 1979, and he was in the hospital, on drugs, with the cancer that would kill him a few weeks later. My brother Gary was visiting when Dad started talking suddenly about the hedgerow fighting. He described how his lieutenant had wet his pants from the combination of excitement, concern for his men and terror because there was always another hedgerow ahead.

Gary couldn't remember what had triggered the recollection. But my mother had an idea. Gary was heading off for a month to his job on a river boat, and he carried his clothes in our father's Army duffel bag. The sight of the bag must have unlocked the memories he had kept so long from us and from himself.

My mother's sister told me she thinks the war changed my father a lot, that he hid his feelings when he returned. My mother said he never told her any of the horrors he had lived through, never asked for comfort, never cried. Many of the veterans I met said they hadn't talked much about their experiences in the war. Perhaps they felt they couldn't. They had come home as heroes and victors, and if they really started talking about the war, they might have been reduced to tears. As one veteran said, "People just wouldn't have understood."

When I started this search for my father's past, I was a subscriber to what has been called the "Vietnam without tears" movement. I still think most Vietnam veterans came back and got on with their lives without wallowing in guilt or self-pity or blaming misfortunes on their war experiences.

But I also realize now that while I had talked about the war occasionally with close friends, I had not confronted it emotionally before my recent trip to the wall. I think it was good for me; I think it would have been good for my father. I suspect the memories triggered by my brother's visit to his hospital bed were only a small part of the pain he carried through his life like some hidden piece of shrapnel.

When Veterans Day comes again this week, I'll put out the flag in front of my house, as many Americans do on national holidays. But because of what I've learned over the past few months, I'll pause a little longer than usual. I'll think about the politicians who have the power to send men to war, and I'll wonder, especially this year when they're wrapping themselves in the flag, how much they think of the individual lives they affect when they create veterans.

I'll think, too, of the words on the 29th Division memorial:

"Our fallen lie among you. They gave the last full measure of their devotion. Sleep, comrades, forever young. We salute you. Remember us." ::