At that time, I worked in a factory, one year of a lackadaisical attempt of college behind me, a war winding down which veterans of an earlier war had told me, "Stay out of this one, no point in going to fight in a cause no one believes in anymore."
A number of the men I worked with were World War II vets. They didn't really look all that heroic. No Hectors, no Achilles among them, just everyday guys who at one time in their lives stepped up and tried to make a difference. I can still see them in my mind's eye, in a factory which has now been shuttered and empty for many a year.
There was Larry, a small bandy-legged man who looked like he could eat nails for breakfast. He was a maintenance man, did odd repair jobs around the plant. There wasn't much that he couldn't fix, there wasn't a dirty joke on the planet he hadn't heard. His hair was gray, not like an old man's gray but the gray of the sea in winter. Tough, rugged looking.
Some thirty years before I met him, Larry had carried an M1903 Springfield on a tropic island in the Solomon Islands. Carried it until a Japanese bullet shattered the stock. They weren't the best supplied unit on the island, no one could claim that. So Larry's sergeant told him to grab whatever he could, until then, "keep your damned head down and try not to get killed."
Larry acquired a Japanese rifle, an Arisaka Type 99 which he carried for the rest of his time on Guadalcanal. He still spoke affectionately of "his" Arisaka thirty years later.
Another guy I worked with was Dick MacDonald, he was a tall rangy guy who had a natural rolling gait when he walked. "Mac" as we called him, had been in the Navy during the war, out in the Pacific. He was a tin can sailor* and still proud of his ship all those years afterwards.
But that was his first ship, which had been hit by a Japanese torpedo. After getting away from his home at sea, he was rescued by a second ship. As that ship got underway after picking up survivors, she too was hit by a torpedo and quickly went under.
Mac said that when he climbed aboard yet another ship, one of the sailors there told him and his buddies, "I swear to God if I see a torpedo track, you guys are going over the side!"
They didn't and Mac survived to tell me that story.
Two fellows I worked with in the electrical wiring shop** fought their war in Europe. One, Don I think his name was, was in his mid-forties, almost a youngster compared to the other guys in the shop.
He'd been a young Army private, an infantryman, in the fall of 1944. He was a replacement, he came overseas with a bunch of strangers, made a few friends at the "repple depple"*** then got shipped off to a unit in a place called the Ardennes. He remembers that December as cold and wet. Being from New England he managed to get by, until, as he put it, "The entire g_ddamned German army came screaming out of the fog and scared the sh!t out of everybody."
He fought back, made new friends, lost those friends and, again as he put it, "became a killer."
He had no fond memories of the war, had no cool stories to tell. All he remembered was the mud, the blood, the dead bodies of his buddies, and an overarching desire to survive. To somehow make it home.
He did. Many of the guys he went overseas with did not. When he mentioned that, you could see him start to tear up. He shook it off, muttered an obscenity and went back to work.
Ed Solomon was a bald, portly guy with a great sense of dignity. Very serious about his work, you couldn't kid around with him at work. He felt that when he was at work, he was there to do a job, fooling around was for the weekends. One day, one of the guys mentioned that Ed had been "in the Army, the Air Corps I think." So at lunch I asked him about that.
"Yeah, I was in the Air Corps, B-17 gunner. Froze my ass off over Germany."
Then I asked him about his time in the Air Corps. He didn't really want to talk about it at all, he did say one thing though, which has stayed with me over the years...
"I was on the second Schweinfurt raid, October of '43. The flak**** was so thick, you could have climbed out of the plane and walked on it. I have never been so scared in my entire life. When we got back to England, the whole crew got down on their knees and kissed the tarmac, we were that happy to be alive."
And that's all Ed ever said about his time with the 8th Air Force, the Mighty Eighth.
A book I picked up recently reminded me of all those guys I used to work with. The book is The Fall of Fortresses by Elmer Bendiner, who had been a navigator on a B-17 during the war. I picked up the book at work on the free book shelf outside the library. With a cover like this, how could I not pick it up?
So far, the book is outstanding. While I haven't gotten that deep into it yet, I am already impressed by Mr. Bendiner's writing style, it kind of reminds me of another flyer I knew, no slouch as a writer himself.
I was serious about the war only in my outermost cerebral shell. I could expound the political necessity for it. I thought I knew the meaning of Hitler in political and socioeconomic terms. I thought I knew what he meant in blood and torment, in the anguish of people I acknowledged to be vaguely my kin and in the anguish of others whose principles I shared. I had given the war my intellectual approval -- vital to my participation, I like to think -- but in my young provincial way I could not then imagine the quality of desperation that is beyond politics and which for millions was the actual meaning of Hitler and the war. The Fall of Fortresses, page 60, by Elmer BendinerThough the book is long out of print, if you can find a copy, grab it. It is superb.
Echoes of a time when the civilized world stood up to barbarism and tyranny.
* Tin can sailor, term describing the men who manned the Navy's destroyers, known as "tin cans" for their lacj of armor, among other things.
** We wired the electrical control panels for the machines my company manufactured. Grinding machines they were, I was a machinist on one of those for a while. I was a terrible machinist, but I was a damned good electrical wire-man!
*** Replacement depot, where new soldiers were placed until they could be assigned to a permanent unit.
**** flak = a German acronym standing for Flugabwehrkanone or Fliegerabwehrkanone, anti-aircraft cannon. In English usage it referred to the fire of those cannon, not the cannon themselves.