The Eleventh Man

20 Mar

One day in August, we lost our ‘eleventh man.’ He went home a celebrity, walked with a cane, probably strutted in a parade or two, with his picture in the paper – that was years after we first heard of him at Camp (Swampy) Van Dam in Louisiana, 1943. The numbers varied with the teller, but we heard, “men, for every one of you on the front lines, there are twenty – fifteen – ten behind you all the way.” Laugh, laugh, laugh. “We don’t want them behind us – how about in front of us?” “Who said that?” “Patrick Henry.” Yuck, Yuck!

During ‘indoctrination’ we got the scoop. “We were not alone. We were an honored part of a great crusade, the Infantry, Queen of Battles.” A large number of us had signed up to fly fighter airplanes and pose with sexy girls. Maybe our applications got mislaid.

The speaker was a genuine Hollywood actor, polished and pressed, a road show performer who gave the identical speech in a different camp every week. “Someday, when you men are out there, somewhere, (spreading his arms) facing your enemy, (looking skyward and smiling) you may think you are all alone. Let me promise that you will never be alone. For every one of you on that cutting edge of combat, there are (pick a number) ten others solidly behind you.” We all looked around. There were some seedy looking vagrants we wouldn’t trust behind us, no matter what.

Somebody asked how one becomes an “eleventh man” so that he might have ten men in front of him, which would be fine for an infantry drudge. “Well, son” the  big man said, avuncularly, “when we say ten men behind you, we are speaking metaphorically.” I didn’t hear that word again till college. “We mean, there are many levels of support there, dedicated to your comfort, safety and combat effectiveness. It starts with your local commanders, your artillery and armor, your communications. Then your quartermasters, supply base and transport column – then you have your battalion, regiment and division staffs, your field hospitals, supply depots … and on and on, right up to your army commanders and the President of the United States of America, himself.” I believe we were all doing the arithmetic. He targeted an oversized arrow on a big chart that nobody understood. A smudge at the point looked like me.

“And … the back echelon crooks who steal your food and stuff and read your mail,” someone yelled. The speaker flinched. There was an authentic veteran in the crowd.  Damn! “Somebody take that man’s name.”

The hot sun played on my head, and I heard thousands of people shouting, “Go get ’em, spear-carrier, we are all right here behind you.” I was, despite the sergeant’s assurance, naked and alone, as Japanese soldiers took aim. I screamed, “No, not me … there are ten ranks back there. Much more deserving of your patriotic wrath.”

Sitting there imagining, with my behind broiling on the hardpan, I decided that if I ever got within spitting distance of an enemy and lived to tell about it, I would search out that eleventh man and offer to trade places no matter the price, no matt how mean his job. I’d bait him with K-ration cheese, dry socks, blue ointment and yellow soap. Just about anything I could call my own.

Somewhere in May 45, I rode a truck to the ammo depot just East of Manila back where we’d been in January. We stopped in Manila which had all the class of Atlantic City in July. Heaven would wait while our truckers did some horse trading, but not long. While waiting for their return, sprawled on the sidewalk, there, I met an eleventh man, (not l1thAB) and his retinue, strutting like geese down the grubby street. Carnival time. Everywhere hung with signs offering good food, cold beer, six kinds of sex, New Orleans jazz, dancing with pretty virgins and souvenirs. Little stalls offered American trade goods like combat boots and blankets. The joints were jumping. There he was.

He wore two bars, trooper boots, a cigar, custom cut dress uniform, no weapon and a smile one yard wide. Two pretty Mestizo ladies clung to him. As he passed me and I saluted, he spat in the gutter and glowered. He slowed, stopped, turned and demanded our IDs. “You people are out of uniform,” he squeaked through his cigar. He was right. I tried to brush away three months of filth, and was reminded to stand at attention when an eleventh man spoke to me.

Just out of the hills, we looked like Oliver Twist; yellow from the malaria pills; skinny from bowel problems, uniforms ripped and faded and skin coated with sweat salt, rash and bites from every kind of vermin. He chewed me out for disrespect and took my name, rank, unit, complexion and serial number. I gave him Sergeant Bob Turner’s name and faked the rest. That concluded the negotiations.

I saw him again at the big ammo dump, the one that blew up. Not the same eleventh man, of course. Scowl and scorn on his face, clipboard in hand, gold wristwatch to insure against missing dinner. Counting the hundred and twenty pound packages of 155mm ammo. we hefted aboard the truck. “Alright, you men, step lively there. There’s a war, you know. Who’s in charge, anyway?” Nobody.

It was months later on Okinawa. Right after the bomb dropped. The war was over and nobody knew it. I met another one, unmistakably an eleventh echelon man, one of those who was behind me all the way.

We were camping out, a kind word for it and here’s this fast talking, smart guy out of Guys and Dolls, with a protuberant young and blonde movie starlet, to pose up at the forefront of mortal combat, among the troops. There were three photographers. She squatted in somebody’s shelter, let her boobs hang out and smiled the most dirty-minded smile I have ever seen. Then she posed with that slick eleventh man, with his hand on her rump and a tin canteen cup in her sweet little hands – and with the pure deliciousness of real, real, real coffee in the air – she pretended to drink, choked and disgustedly tossed it into the mud, cup and all.

“You drink this catpiss?” she shrieked. “Let’s get the__outa here. This place stinks, what do you do, _ on the ground like pigs.” Yes, we did, with no apologies. Two of our barbarians carried her back to the jeep, above the mud and reality. They returned with mouths agape and breathing fast, having had their only real feel of a feral female in a year. The eleventh man drove away, slip-slopping shore-ward toward the Seabee base in a hail of mud clods.

A couple of days later, Sergeant Sully mentioned that the guy came back while we were out on food finding patrol. He needed souvenirs for the twit from Hollywood. Our guys said there was great stuff in the Okinawa burial vaults. What they didn’t say, probably forgot, was that almost all of those vaults were booby trapped.

The one that got our man was a little popper, but I’d guess it stung him enough to get him some ribbons and a trip home. I hope he married the movie star and she poisoned his coffee after giving him a double dose of you-know-what.

Thinking hard about that eleventh man business, the only guys behind or in front of me or alongside were Charlie Clement, Wilson, Samson, Smith, Ginhart, Bendikovik, Donaldson, Flanagan, Fandal, Friedman and Wilkerson, the marvelous dregs of our grand platoon. Except for the medics and hospital people, all dirty, ragged angels, there wasn’t anybody else back there that I remember.

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