Friday, November 11, 2005

Veterans Day: Stories from the past

I've always been fascinated by military history, at all levels. The tactics, the gear, the philosophy, the strange intersections with science. (Did you know cloud seeding was developed when someone -- probably a grunt -- wondered why the army ALWAYS seemed to end up fighting in mud?)

The stories are what stick in the bone, though. Stories told to me by those who fought. My father is a veteran of WWII, tailgunner on a B-17 flying out of England. I know all about the crew. The nervous navigator who once forgot to shut the tokyo tank valves, the waist gunner who needed to be watched in combat, the ball turret gunner who was only in the Army because he'd been caught stealing horses off an Indian reservation and the judge had given him the choice of the Army or jail. The time they were preparing to bail out over the Atlantic because all but one engine had iced up, until the pilot managed to get one more engine going. The time flak ripped through the tail at what would have been chest height for my father, except his helmet had slipped off and he'd bent down to get it at that exact moment. Flying back-to-back missions, so tired he thought he was hallucinating bright flashes of light -- only they were really tracers, from some idiot who thought firing *through* the bomber formation to get at a German fighter was a good idea. (Dad's pilot broke radio silence to inform this moron that if he did it again he'd shoot him himself. It stopped.)

Two of my great-uncles fought in WWI. They were second-generation German-Americans, and still spoke German at home. The younger lied about his age to join up. The war affected him more, and he never talked about it. Uncle Henry, on the other hand, saw the elephant and had many stories to tell. He shipped out of New York, and waited for transport on the island with the Statue of Liberty. Bored, he and his buddies set up an impromptu baseball field (Lady Liberty was second base) but they had a problem with line drives ending up in the drink.

Once in Europe, somebody found out that he could speak and *telegraph* in German and he got yanked from the Infantry to Signals just in time to miss out on Belleau Woods. Uncle Henry still sounded miffed about being taken away when he told me this. A good buddy of his didn't make it out of that battle. A big man who liked the ladies, his last words were "Tell the girls on Broadway Big Jim died game."

Uncle Henry ended up at the end escorting a courier to the Weimar government. The Lieutenant (aka "The Looey") had just received a "dear John" letter from his girl back home, and consequently did not pay as much attention to survival as my great-uncle would have preferred -- especially since their personal weapons (Bowie knife and pistol) were taken away so they couldn't possibly start any "incidents". See? PC stupidity has a long history.

So there they are, naked in the armament department, when a German soldier gets on the train they are sitting in, sees them, and heads right for them. Uncle Henry is mentally reviewing his will, when the soldier speaks. Please. There is a child in this village who must have milk. Do you have any? Can you get some?

They get to Berlin and hand over their communiques. While they wait for the reply, Uncle Henry bribes the hotel chambermaid with chocolate to let him up on the roof to take forbidden pictures of Berlin. Then the Looey decides he really wants a beer. Not hard to find, even in war-wracked Germany, and they stumble on the Ratskeller (under the Rathaus, naturlich) , one of the most famous places to get a beer. It was also upholstered wall-to-wall with German soldiers, who took one look at their uniforms and started to hiss.

Uncle Henry tried to draw the Looey's attention to this, and suggested an immediate tactical retreat. "Nah, it's OK!" said the Looey, with typical officer insight. Then he said, in very bad German, "Not British. American!"

Instant change in atmosphere. Now the cries were along the lines of "why are you standing in the door? Come on in, the party is just starting!" (Evidently the British and American uniforms were similar enough to be mistaken -- and even though we'd been fighting them too, it wasn't personal.) It was, according to my great-uncle, quite the party. Especially enjoyable since he had been quite sure he was going to die earlier, and that kind of disappointment is the best kind.

There are more like that. Stories that should be told. So Uncle Henry and the daft Looey and Big Jim and the horse-thief ball turret gunner will live in memory. Lux Aeternam, militis.


Blogger John of Argghhh! said...

Good stuff. Dad's stories aren't nearly as tellable... and Daddy Jack was so pissed off by everything he'd only talk technical artillery stuff, never tell TINS-type stories.

1:37 PM, November 11, 2005  
Blogger Barb said...

My own father rarely told war stories, and then only towards the end of his years. His favorite was of a big kid in his unit they all called Lil Abner. One night Lil Abner had to get up and go relieve himself, walking all over Dad and the other soldiers on the floor of the French house. Outside was a pool, which had become a cesspool .. somehow Lil Abner managed to fall in!
What's worse, he came back to the room --- and dripped and slimed over all of the rest of the guys!
He kept muttering to himself "I didn't touch bottom"!!!


10:01 PM, November 11, 2005  

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