Saturday, April 9, 2016

Echoes

(Source)
When I was in my late teens, early twenties, they were in their mid-forties to early fifties. Not elderly by any stretch of the imagination, but getting on in years. The time of their youth was thirty years in the past. Now they looked forward to grandchildren, eventual retirement, maybe the chance to finally take a long vacation in sunnier climes.

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.

(Source)

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 Bendiner
Though 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.

36 comments:

  1. During my time in the Philly shipyard I found out that one of the electricians had been a radio guy on B-24s in Europe. I regret not knowing him well enough to talk with him.

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    1. I thought of those guys when I looked up the author of this book to see that he had passed away in 2001.

      Fifteen years ago. A magnificent generation is passing from our midst. What comes next?

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    2. There are not many from that time left Sarge. Even our Vietnam Vets are passing far too quickly. The legacy that the WWII vets left us is being squandered, and I am not at all certain that we can recover it. The man in the post, Don, sounds like my Dad in his memories of the war. He also was in the Ardennes adventure and it colored his entire experience because of it. I'd forgotten how sometimes Dad would tear up after talking about it and just wave me away. Wonderful post.

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    3. Thanks Ron.

      Our generation knew those men, they were all around us. Who will future generations look up to? Celebrities? Politicians?

      Saddens me it does.

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  2. These are the men who come to mind when I hear The Star Spangled Banner played. And they are the ones I salute.

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  3. "The Greatest Generation" were the guys standing around the charcoal grill talking. Offering advice on the burgers and dogs, beers in their hands, chatting with that easy camaraderie that comes from the shared experiences of war. They were my neighbors dads, my dads friends, Sam, Ed, Vince. The guy who cut my dads hair and was the first paratrooper I ever knew until I became one my self. My Uncle Don, seven first wave assaults in the Pacific with the Corps, whose pocket knife I carry to this day. He worked as a handyman at the Capitol Record building in Hollywood. He really was handy, and chased by his demons with a lifetime of falling off then climbing back up on the wagon.

    While in Tampa I belonged to the SF Association chapter there and one of our members, Bill, had been in WWII. He had served in the Air Corps and told us a bit about it. Tough life being 18 years old, rinsing your buddies blood out of the plane upon your return to base.

    I'm glad you wrote this post. For an entire generation, these were the guys whose kids we played with. Who helped us with things that our father may not have been able to do. Who we asked if Tommy was home and could come out to play. Who played catch with us at picnics to the park or the beach. They survived the war to happily go on to lead quiet, normal lives that were their reward for having survived the cauldron of violence and blood that was WWII. They did not want to be famous. They weren't looking for their 15 minutes. They only wanted to reap the fruit of their labors, peace time, to have a family and life. I think the end of Saving Private Ryan captures that very well. They're mostly gone now and the world is not a better place for their passing, but is for their lives and their efforts. Including the ones that we didn't meet and they couldn't forget for the rest of their lives afterward.

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  4. The book's on its way. (Amazon has several options for it) Looking forward to reading it.

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    1. I'm glad to hear it's still obtainable. Let me know what you think.

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  5. Like many grew up among WWII vets. Father, uncles, etc. A wrestling coach as a Korea Marine. Maybe why I feel a disconnect from many of my fellow citizens who never have put service to others above self (even in their social clubs).

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    1. That sets us apart from those who never served.

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  6. There was an old guy at the Texas A&M Experiment farm when I was there one summer. I unpacked my lunch, and opened a can of fruit cocktail. He saw it, got the most disgusted look on his face I can remember seeing, and left. One of the other old timers told me to ask him about it. (I shudda known it was a setup) Dub told me the next day, "We were cut off, didn't have anything to eat but spam for a week, then fruit cocktail for a week. I cant even stand to smell that stuff!!!" I left out the blue smoke that poured out with that statement.

    My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Pierce, told us about her brother who lost his toes to frostbite after being in a foxhole through Bastogne.

    My best friend's dad in high school had a small spot in his living room with nazi daggers, armbands, helments and pictures. He was with Patton's army for the last 6 months of the war, and the next 2 years of occupation. He never said much about it.

    Those guys and my uncle Steve parade by when I hear the Star Spangled Banner. I'm glad I'm not the only one that sees faces when that is played.

    Excellent trip down memory lane! May we live lives worthy of their sacrifice.

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    1. Different strokes and different folks . . . fruit cocktail was a prized possession in Vietnam. One who had the good fortune to acquire a can of it with his C-ration meal could trade it for damn near anything. (Then, there was the fatalistic saying, "Life's uncertain. Eat desert first." Some would open and polish off the fruit cocktail first thing.)

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    2. Snuffy, my Uncle Charlie, an infantryman in the ETO, hated Spam.

      As to fruit cocktail, we were issued C-Rats during typhoons on Okinawa. My two favorites were the fruit cocktail and the peanut butter and crackers. But I don't think I could eat fruit cocktail for an entire week either!

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  7. When I was growing up, the WWII veterans were everywhere it seems. They were just quietly getting on with their lives. Never knew one to brag. They'd, maybe, answer a direct question but otherwise they didn't speak of the war except to say that they'd been there. In my family there were my grandfather (Coast Guard), my two uncles (navy and army), step-father (USMC). One fellow caught me completely by surprise . . . my girlfriend's father, Ed Stegg. I knew Ed as a member of the Runnemede (NJ) Fire Company String Band. He played Tenor Sax. He was short and wiry and had three loves . . . his family, his horn, and his '57 Cadillac convertible. Ed ran his own business, HVAC, and worked hard. In short, he was a great role model. I knew him as a good natured, fun loving horn player who always kept a weather-eye on his daughter.
    This one evening, waiting for Cherie to come down from her room, I was perusing the books in the Stegg's rec room. On a shelf, high up, I found a framed black & white photo of Ed. He was standing on a dune, wearing an army field uniform w/helmet and carrying a Thompson .45 sub-machine gun. I asked his wife about the photo . . . she told me that Ed had landed in Normandy on D-Day with the First Division and had won a Silver Star for taking over his squad when the squad leader was killed. Ed, then, managed to lead the squad and capture a machine-gun bunker that had kept everyone on the beach from reaching the high ground. She said the Ed didn't talk much about it but that she knew he was proud of his service that day. I paid a lot more attention to anything Ed might say after learning of this.

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    1. By way of a PS: While living in Berlin, my next door neighbor was a former Panzer driver during the war. His name was Heinz. He was captured by the Russians at the Battle of Kursk and spent the next seven years as a POW. He would never talk much about his experiences except to say that, although the food was horrible, it wasn't much worse than what the Russians were eating themselves.

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    2. I think one of the reasons those guys didn't make much of a big deal out of their service is that practically everyone they knew served in one wat or another.

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    3. Your Panzer driver reminds me of a story...

      While stationed in Germany, my grandmother asked me to get some photos of the Hürtgenwald as it looks nowadays. Her brother, my Great Uncle John had been wounded there while serving with the 4th ID. She thought he might find it interesting to see it.

      We went down there on a Saturday (a beautiful, sunny day) and got the photos for Uncle John. He did get a kick out of those, commented that it wasn't sunny at all when he had been there!

      That Monday one of my German colleagues asked me what I had done over the weekend. After I told him the story he just looked at me for a moment, then said, "May Father was captured at the battle of the Hürtgenwald. It's probably why he survived the war."

      Small world.

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  8. I'm 64 now, and growing up all my friends' dad's and others had been through WWII in the service. My dad was Navy, a radioman / aerial gunner in SBD's and Catalinas out of Kaneohe, Hawaii. Ed Koontz - B-17 gunner; Carl Knadler - P-38 pilot; Dick Lee - navy; Mr. Fujiama and Mr. Murata - 'Go for Broke' 442nd RCT and bore the scars of it; Milt Lee - P-51 pilot who said it was the high point of his life; Dr. Ray Contino - Navy dentist aboard the USS Chicago; Don Holmes - Navy destroyerman; Steiner McEachern - Navy XO on a destroyer that did the north Atlantic runs then went to the South Pacific to face kamikazis. So many more and it was not talked about a lot, but a little. They are almost all gone now.

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  9. I have known a number of men who served.
    The only ones who seemed to volunteer information were the one who didn't see combat.
    Those who saw combat didn't want to talk much.
    But, depending upon how the question was asked, you could get a direct answer.

    My stepdad hated spam with a vengeance, but he never tired of beans, which he observed, were served almost as often.

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    1. He also loved regaling us with tales of how big the mosquitoes were at Leyte.

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    2. It did depend on how you asked the question. I figured that out early on.

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    3. Odd now that you mention it, I didn't see any mosquitoes on Luzon.

      Not that I can recall anyway!

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    4. A lot of the Spam was not real Spam, but knock offs. Real SPAM is not that bad, if it's cooked right.

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    5. I love Spam, especially pan fried in egg with a side of rice and kimchi. Hoo boy yummy!

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  10. Your story of the "tin can sailor" reminded me of a vet I knew briefly, the father of a friend. He suffered from a bad case of survivor's remorse. He told the tale of being in the middle ship of a three ship convoy, when torpedoes sank the ships in front of and behind him. Thirty years later he was still asking himself "Why wasn't it me?".

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  11. A friends father was a lead navigator in a B-17 wing. I was chatting with him about 10 years ago, and he said that when he looks back at the age and maturity level of the crews, he was sort of surprised the USAAF let them anywhere near the planes.

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    1. Hahaha! Excellent point Scott.

      Of course, more mature guys probably would have said, "No WAY we're going to do that!"

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    2. What do you think Wing Commanders thought of us 24-26 yr-old drunken (on "rare" occasion :) ) F-4 jocks fresh out of Vietnam who were sitting nuke alert in the UK on top of 10kt weapons?

      AMAZING that they had any trust in us at all, looking back on it now, lol

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    3. Hahaha! I'm sure those Wing Kings knew what they were doing.

      (Alcohol, nukes, fast jets, what could possibly go wrong?)

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  12. Great post, and a great string of comments. Thanks!

    You might also enjoy Serenade to the Big Bird. Barfipedia actually has a decent Bert Stiles page. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bert_Stiles

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    1. Thanks Shaun!

      I will have to track that book down.

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Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)