Fifteen minutes of fame in which I make a speech to the twelfth grade.

10 Jul

Saturday, July 20, 2002
Andy Warhol said it, I didn’t. “Everyone should get fifteen minutes of fame.” You are invited, the man said, to talk about the Great War – and you have fifteen minutes. It’s an honor. My Army career was a separate lifetime, thirty eight months long. What would I say in a quarter hour? Probably this:

You are looking at a genuine historical artifact, one of the diminishing tribe of veterans of WWII. Like many of you, I was born in a small town that was my world. That was in nineteen twenty three, just a few years after my father took three bullets in his groin, my Uncle Frank was gassed and my uncle Johnnie was killed. They saved the world and ended war for all time. The next world war started up twenty years later. My father never talked about his war, but he showed me a handful of tarnished medals which he tearfully sold for a tank of beer. It was Depression time in many ways.
When the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor, I was eighteen and making fine furniture. A few days later, we learned that some of our old friends had died at Pearl. Pearl Harbor was in China, someone said. Then, an older kid was killed at Dieppe, the whole town cried. I was still years away from  understanding mortal conflict. Things were good in ’42 – until October or November when they nailed my number. Oh, oh!

But fortune smiled -1 was declared unfit to serve my country even though my blood sugar overload allowed me to play ice hockey, climb our mountains and bike twenty miles a day. So I did a tantrum; they relented and placed me in ‘limited service.’ I thought it shameful, but I was where I wanted to be and spent the worst week of that winter in a squad tent at Camp Upton, Long Island. Rumor had it that people froze to death by the hour and tents burned every night. The worst job was garbage detail, and the best job in town was K.P. or kitchen help in a giant feeding machine, mopping pots, eating everything in sight and running about in a sweaty tee-shirt as huddled masses froze outside. Heaven lasted a week – and except for the frozen dead, we entrained for South Carolina. Limited service, my foot. This was the Army, Mr. Jones.
Report to Sergeant Diefenbaker, they said and I did. I was assigned to the kitchen, a private bunk and a stack of girly magazines. I voiced my displeasure, strongly. Two days later, he called me into his office behind the pot racks. “You don’t belong here,” he said. ” I know that,” I said. ” So here’s what you do,” he said. That night, after lights out, I sneaked into a regular infantry company, my papers neatly trashed and I was an instant squad leader with a stripe. I’d had a dozen weekends of State Guard experience running around cornfields and apple orchards with an empty shotgun. Rifle Club every week, target shooting was more than fun. We learned.

We had three months of infantry training which shook out the misfits, probably a third of the starters. They were reassigned or sent home. I made corporal in a month. To make sure that Sergeant Danny and I were not shot for deception, I labored in every spare hour and soon made three stripes as an instructor. By early spring, we were trimmed up, weeded out and shipped to a miserable, roughhouse base. I hugged old Sergeant Danny, the best friend a man could have. He got me out of a cheery, busy, totally safe kitchen and into a desolate, black swamp in Mississippi. The British Commando commander hated Americans and tried to kill us. I got a harsh look from him during bayonet drill. It was a death warrant, I knew.

For more than a year I thrived. You don’t want the details. Simply put, it was my place to be and the Army thought so, too. They said I had a gift for teaching, leading and motivating, and shipped me to a specialty school, then OCS, where I flunked in the fourth quarter for lack of leadership presence. When I went back, my old Division -didn’t exist. My platoon was destroyed in Southern France. I have their laughing pictures in a book. I loved them and lost them. The camp was a ghost city.
The airborne wanted me, they said. I won’t pretend to know why. I had to get out of that place and into battle, as quickly as possible. The Major tried to change my mind with the offer of a permanent post. I had platoon stripes then and could have spent the war in comfort. I couldn’t live with that.

Thanks to that Brit Commando, parachute school wasn’t the killer I’d heard about. I shifted around from the 541st, to the 513th and the 517th Replacement depots at Ft. Bragg and finally shipped out to New Guinea. We were assigned to the 11th Airborne Division, 511th Regiment which was already being battered on Leyte in the Philippines. So waiting for the next convoy, we filled up trucks, dug holes in the ground, buried stuff and loaded tons of heavy ammunition on barges – to be dumped into the sea. Unstable ammo is twice as dangerous and the Merchant ship crews went on strike. I don’t blame them. The orange-haired fuzzies were fine, happy, hard working people with a life expectancy of thirty five years.

We joined our Companies during a typhoon on Leyte and they were a damaged, sorry bunch. They needed us and didn’t want us. We tried to understand. Until we were bloodied, we were extras. Overnight, we became indistinguishable, hurt, changed and combat smart. Hundreds of us who had trained for a year or more for our moment in combat died in those first days. Some never fired a shot or loved a woman. Newcomers and old timers perished together, or lost parts and pieces of bodies and minds doing what we chose to do. We were volunteers and believed we were special. We were. It was all in the “yes, we can” attitude.

My company took part in dozens of actions and made three combat jumps. One was perfect, the liberation of a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines. One was a mess, the air assault on Luzon, on the edge of a massive volcano, and the third one was a modest disaster. We lost a lot of people from raging ground winds and wet parachutes. Lessons were learned and the Gods of odds were with us. As we were cleaning up, patching up, preparing for Kyushu, Harry S. Truman brought it all to a spectacular halt with our nuclear bombs and we air shuttled to Okinawa instead. The invasion fleet was on the move. A half million American lives were saved, and probably ten million Japanese as well. We would have won – at horrible cost.

Our Company was one of the first to land on the sacred soil of Nippon. Our job was to quickly disable or demolish the Japanese aircraft, suicide bombers, bomb loaded speedboats, big naval cannons and such. We could not have imagined the strength of the Japanese military on Kyushu. A Russian navy plane tried to scare us away. Days later, we watched the surrender ceremonies on the Big Mo, the battleship Missouri from a Naval observation post in Yokohama and didn’t know what was happening. No one did. The setting seemed like something out of Madame Butterfly.

Should anyone suggest that the invasion and conquest of Japan would have been over in a few weeks, that the Japanese were tossing in the towel, that there was no fighting force left, they were completely isolated and dispirited, that they were negotiating for peace, that there was no need for the atomic bomb – have them watch the newsreels of the island fighting … again and again. Look particularly at the Navy pictures of the battle of Okinawa, the baakas and kamikazes. And they will see what awaited us on the shores, in the mountains and in the cities of Japan. City fighting is the worst of all wars because you’re maneuvering, heavy weapons and supply lines are squashed into narrow streets which become fortresses full of rubble.

The Japanese home defense plan was a work of genius -named Ketsu Go, called for the sacrifice of all Japanese of every age and the slow, horrible death of every American prisoner of war. “Maximum agony” they said. We would have had to destroy the entire Japanese people. General Lemay was already working at leveling Japan. The fall of Iwo Jima should have ended the war. It didn’t My own experiences cause me to believe that Japan would have to be leveled, Fujiyama and all. .Few people know that the Japanese War Department ordered the battle to go on. There would be no surrender. A thousand Officers assaulted the Government Buildings and the Palace. They had hoped to stop the Emperor from making his speech.

Our Division, Regiment, Battalion and Company were all cited for outstanding efforts. My company had three Presidential Citations, all of them won the hard way. There are people still, who don’t realize we had a war in the Pacific, or that there were airborne operations … and that thousands paid the ultimate price. A few are still paying, but their numbers are shrinking. Memories are failing, old wounds are healed and forgotten except for a painful now and then.

Did I tell you, we had a wonderful time in Japan. For our company it was heaven on earth. Except in the rice fields, they don’t have dirt in Japan. B Company was assigned a hostile territory around Ichinoseki and aside from the first few nervous days, we had little to do but give prayerful thanks, repair our bodies and wonder that we’d made it. The police chiefs wife served ocha to our sentinels, nightly. That’s tea. The chiefs son kept good watch. There was a lot of smiling, bowing and cooperation. Every school kid knew how to blow his explosive backpack with a pull string. Every household had a fire hardened bamboo spear to dispatch at least one American barbarian. In the face of that fact, I got a haircut and shave every morning for six cents with a pack of cigarettes tossed in now and then. The pretty girl barber used a straight razor and her boyfriend, a Japanese captain in the next chair was thinking hard thoughts. “Shiigata Ganai.” Tough case, can’t be helped.

Having pacified the farmers, comforted the sick and fed the hungry … we moved on to Hanamaki Onsen which was a mountain-resort built for the filthy wealthy of all nations, mainly White Russians. We patrolled here and there, played basketball, took long hot baths, did a great deal of sightseeing, as did the Japanese – and in early January of ’46 we were given a choice – reenlist or go home.

I left on a troopship that was lit up like a cruise liner. Big band music played all over the ship. We docked in San Diego, ate like pigs, tied up the phone lines and took trains to everywhere. It was all pretty simple, when you look back at it. The coming home part was different for each of us, mostly good and some not so good. Those stories, too, were part of the war and are seldom told. When a war ends, it does not end until it has lingered long enough.

May I ask myself two questions? Given a choice would you do it again? Answer: given a choice in that time and place … certainly. A merciless aggressor was trying to take over the world. That had to be stopped. What is your most vivid memory? Piles of bodies – the product of man’s inhumanity -ours and theirs and nobody’s – young, old, dead and rotting. There should have been dignity and respectfulness. There is none of that in the stacks of people encrusted in black. It is the ultimate obscenity.

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One Response to “Fifteen minutes of fame in which I make a speech to the twelfth grade.”

  1. Bill Warren January 16, 2013 at 8:38 pm #

    Thank you for your wonderfully written remebrance. I had my tenth birthday celebration two weeks to the day following Pearl Harbor, so I missed all of the action. In my ignorance, I was sorry at the time, but the interevening years have made me realize how fortunate I actually am.

    I had four older sisters, three of whom would have been eligible for service, and, but for their sex, our parents might have been forced to display one or more Gold Stars in a front window. There were several on display in homes throughout Geneva, N.Y., my home town.

    I found your blog through Mark Rutledge, with whom I trade e-mails from time to time. I will be reading other entries, which I am sure will be equally as informative as this first.

    Thank you again, Bill Warren

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