Foxholes…

1 Mar

My dictionary gives three lines to the subject of foxholes. It says that they are a shallow trench in the ground, providing cover from enemy fire. Well! That is shoddy treatment for something millions of us…on all sides, called home-sweet-sacred-home, especially when the stuff was hitting the fan, in a manner of speaking. Be it ever so humble, there was no place like that hole in the ground. A man’s home is his castle, no matter how short the lease. Except for those of us in the know/ there may be confusion between foxholes, bunkers, pillboxes and other such constructions. Let me clarify that. For example, a squad tent, on a wooden floor with mosquito nets, a radio, a light bulb and dry cots with blankets…is not a foxhole. It is the Ritz Carlton. Such are not found within miles of the foe. I stayed overnight in one, and truth be told, I missed my friendly little hole in the ground.

No one who faced one of those squat and deadly concrete boxes in Manila would mistake it for a foxhole. Also the Japanese bunkers we occupied overlooking the sugar mill were, architecturally, top of the line. Railroad ties, sheet metal, two or three feet of soil on top…and invisible until you fell over one. A dozen knee mortar rounds hit within yards of us/ and no damage done…except for loss of sleep. We did feel kind of trapped in there… a foxhole gives you a quick exit.

My grandson once asked me what it was like to sleep in a slit trench. I told him that although I had once stepped into a slit trench, I had never camped out in one. His friend, Manny, has an uncle who speaks with the authority of one who entered WWII ten years after it was finished, spent most of his time on a Navy transport, and had visited the high points of the Pacific conflict. Brisbane, Sydney, Hawaii, New Orleans, Tahiti and San Diego. He really knows his slit trenches.

Seldom do I reminisce on foxholes, though in my career, I had built many and varied, some as useless as dirt can be; others, true architectural wonders. My first foxhole was dug in a peanut field in Mississippi. We were requested to dig holes in the ground. Size..three feet wide, six feet long and too many feet deep. In a half day or so, we had a dozen of them. Then we were ordered to climb down into them. Few people ever climbed up into a foxhole.

The sergeant in charge of hole digging suggested we squat down as deeply as possible…because a million ton armored tank would roll up, down and across our lines of foxholes. The purpose, of course, to grind us down emotionally. The rumble of one of those iron behemoths is enough to run your blood cold, and your bowels as well. Mine held. The earth shook; I stared; transfixed. The officer yelled at me; the shadow rolled over and poured dirt, rock, fumes and terror down on my head…and rolled on. The officer screamed, “Throw your —-grenade at the air intake.” I did not have a #@#@ grenade or any other kind and I had to throw something, so I slammed the back of the tank with my well thrown helmet. The tank stopped and a guy yelled at me from the turret. “You stupid ————-” he advised. I had stopped a tank.

The sergeant in charge of FD&D, foxhole design and development gave us critical advice. One, dig deep enough, but not so deep that you can’t get out of it. I used that lesson in business for forty years. “When you’ve dug yourself too deep into a hole, stop digging.” Two, don’t dig it so shallow that when you are in it, you are above ground. Many will recall that having dug a shallow ditch and having then been laid on with enemy mortars…the hole grew exponentially and fast.

I remember that having dug as deep into roots and rock as any human could, the first shots would send me back flailing with pick, trenching tool, hands, heels, teeth or soup spoon. Too often our best efforts in the best locations would go down the tubes with the Captain’s suggestion that we pack up and move up. And it was unfair to have to do that more than once a day. The big concrete bunkers of the Maginot line were more my style. Permanent. Even to this day. Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved my use of reinforced concrete and earthy stucco. I’m not one to wax nostalgic over a yard or so of displaced earth, with a hole in it, but I do recall, among the hundreds of scrapings and scratchings, there were masterworks. For example, the one Will F. and I shared overlooking the road to Santo Tomas. The location was a realtor’s dream with views a mile up the road, and several hundred yards south, accented by the old Spanish walls and arches. The comforts included room for two, a shower now and then in the dead of night, a slot for the automatic rifle and landscaping topped by a tall coconut palm.

Will was asleep, a coconut fell on him…he pulled his knife and I had to shake him awake or crack his skull before he did some damage… to me. We hated to leave that place, having just installed wall to wall palm fronds and a bamboo tube for indoor plumbing.

The outpost foxhole (or gun emplacement) by the church school was an architectural gem. It was “X” shaped and had comfortable seating for four people, a step for the machine gun, a table stolen from the school and a roof of two ponchos laced on a bamboo frame. There were three entrances and you could slide in comfortably, except when there were already four people there.

On our first night at that outpost, a real stormy one, one of the guys muttering about diarrhea, moved back to the schoolhouse fortress. Then another one left to fill his canteen and another just slithered away. Suddenly, I had an empty nest; one guy, one gun, one sodden hole in the ground. All alone that night I watched the Japanese army moving across the field, lit up by diabolic lightning. The First Sergeant said I was seeing things. By dawn, the hole had filled with rainwater and I had a temperature of 103 F. plus. I gave myself a medal as I dragged the gun, me and the ammo cans back to the schoolhouse where the other three guys were having coffee and fresh bought local bread. They had forgotten about me.

A foxhole should have the essentials: a view, suitable depth, firm walls, toilet facilities and protection from sun, wind and rain. The hole that Lt. Clement and I built at McKinley, the fort, not the mountain, took hours to construct. Our front walls were Colorado boulders which we dug between. I learned, like the guys in Italy that rocks can be wrong. A 20mm hit a few inches from my face and gave me an instant Cary Grant chiseled look (on the right side.) It’s still anesthetized after sixty some years. Whenever I shave, I thank that big rock for being there. One of our officers with a sense of humor led us across the same whitewater ravine several times on the way to Nichols Airfield. For practice, I think. Then across a water filled rice field and a water filled bog of knee deep muck. Just short of solid ground we were told to dig in. Good thing, too. Artillery, and other stuff started to come in. Now, to dig a true foxhole into something the consistency of oatmeal is illogical, so we did. There was much lack of logic going around.

Most of the incoming stuff got swallowed in the muck. Most, but not all. The officer, whom I never saw again, was plowing up the mud with his trenching tool, when something blew up behind us and a piece of it hit his shovel, glanced off and smacked him in the behind. I think it was the first Purple Heart issued for “shrapnel to shovel to buttocks.” So much for foxholes ala mud-pie.

The hole I dug up by the railroad tracks was too shallow. The heavy action had died down and a. bunch of the boys were whooping it up heating our beans and cheese, when the other side sent over one of those garbage cans that sounded like a train coming. Well, the nearest hole was mine and we all went for it. Three guys in a hole one foot deep. That night we all dug deeper but in the morning we were pulled out. Out of the line, not out of the hole. Ce’est le guerre. Dig we must.

We were dug in around an artillery battery, not deep…not worth it for one night which could be three or four nights or a couple of hours. When our artillery opened up on some nearby hills, the other side poured it right back causing a lot of anxiety. I added three feet of depth in about ten minutes. Predictably, there was no more incoming stuff. In the morning, we sent out a patrol and found that our boys had plowed out the enemy’s railway guns. We did not respect our artillery enough. R.S. and I found what looked like the corner of a house foundation; real easy digging, and dug into what turned out to be the foundation of a long abandoned outhouse. A few feet down, we found a wooden case of mixed booze, Johnny Walker, Black Label, Dewar’s. the best stuff…but then came the move out order and we were Manila bound. We covered it up and planned to return. Still there, I guess.

My dad was in WWI..in the trenches for a time and he described the luxuriousness of his dugout in the side of the communications center. Tin cans and artillery shells filled with dirt, made strong walls. They rigged doorways out of canvas and each dugout had a candle and wooden box for card playing. My dad, the genius, made a smokeless stove from an oil barrel. The only one of its kind in the world. Then German artillery chased them back a mile or so…and in return, the Germans were chased back. Fair trade, except when my dad got back to that same dugout, the enemy had taken his stove. He never forgave them for that. Our local V.F.W. building was named the “dugout.” That was depression time and beer was a nickel

A year or so ago, lost in the outlands of Ft. Bragg, my wife and I stopped by a group of airborne types, who were watching a backhoe operate. The young officer saluted my grey hair and airborne bearing. He explained that they were digging foxholes for an upcoming demonstration for some high brass. The boys and girls were eating box lunches, listening to rock music and horsing around while the foxhole digger clawed away. He dug three in fifteen minutes and another guy unrolled yards of camouflage netting, with fall colored leaves.

The lieutenant, a nice kid, saw my eyebrows go up and said, “You probably don’t remember it this way, do you? (Old timer?)” Nope. Though I do remember rumors of a portable foxhole, one that you could carry with you…and a fur lined foxhole, but those were all sent to Europe where the airborne guys were fighting winter and the last German push, to hold Bastogne. They deserved any kind of foxhole they could carve out of the frozen turf.

The only foxhole I recall that had any luxury to it, was on top of that last big mountain we took. I didn’t dig it, Johnny D. did that. The day had been bad…a not very pleasant rescue and recovery mission. Exhaustion would be a kind word.

Disappointment, too. We were gone for a few hours, and when we got back to our ridge, and choked down our feelings and stared at nothing for a time…Johnny came over, squatted down and said, “While you were gone, I dug in for you. Right over there.” He pointed to a neatly dug foxhole, deep enough, lined with dry dirt and palm fronds and with his own poncho spread out on the floor of it. “Take it easy for a while. I’ll get you some coffee. You did all you could. It’s going to be alright.” I couldn’t stop the tears. The soldier on my back talked to us as he died. Johnny, I don’t remember much about you, how you talked, walked, looked…but I remember that dry hole in the ground and I never thanked you..

Schell was point man for six months and had set the record. He was sharp eyed, had incredible hearing and could smell the enemy’s presence. Their cigarette smoke and fish sauce were unmistakable. Sunshine laced through the branches and a warmer, more confident feeling came over the six men. They spread out. Daylight had that effect. Sight contact was better if you got hit. It wasn’t like in the dark night when the medics couldn’t get to you or your own guys got trigger happy.

The two-man Japanese outpost was a spider hole, and through the fringe of grass they watched the patrol come on. They passed, ten yards away. They could have shot two or three but their position was more important than a couple of dead Americans. Besides, the old man was not ready to die for his Emperor. The war was lost, he knew that and surrender was not likely, but maybe one more day, and maybe ….

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