Thoughts on the Perimeter

13 Jan

On the PERIMETER …. Meditations at Nightfall.

When I was a kid the movies showed immortal heroes – the little group of dusty, sunburned, wise-cracking guys on outpost in the desert, far from home and anywhere. Ghosts in white sheets and turbans floated around them in the night air. There were Beau Geste, the Bengal Lancers, King of the Khyber Rifles, sentinels in the rocks of the Khyber Pass or the Plains of Jahr. There were in later years — the lonely pickets of the Blue and Grey in the Wilderness, and the listening posts on the Marne, the desperate soldiers of the Foreign Legion waiting for their inglorious end at Dien Ben Phu — the trip wire people in ‘Nam and me and Joe and Willie counting time on the perimeter in WWII. Great movie stuff. Hard reality is something else, isn’t it? Gunga Din knew. So did Clive of India, Lawrence of Arabia, those poor benighted souls. And Humphrey Bogart, too.

Of all that I recall, nights on the fringe were the most miserable part of the day. Especially the second shift on watch. It took determination or painful exhaustion to curl up, tum off your brains, hug your rifle and sleep before your tum on watch. And you knew the guy before you had played with the watch setting. He wouldn’t. He didn’t but your tum came too soon, often with a knee jerk. A dog barked down in the ravine. A bird called, a bird but maybe not. It seemed strangely different.

How many guys muttered this prayer: “Lord, if you’ll just give me this night and the sun in the morning, I’ll give you the rest of my days.” It takes a lot of anxiety to silently voice a promise like that. “This night only. Not last night or tomorrow night, but this one miserable unending night.” Then with the sunlight, the promise faded, til next time.

Yes, everybody from top to bottom was someplace on the perimeter, or maybe a little bit inside, or maybe in the safe middle of it. You might have wondered in the black silence if there was anybody else there. There was. But there was also a place that was the worst place to be for sound reasons — a place that under no circumstances would you have chosen, given a choice, which you didn’t have. Surely, tonight’s plot would not be one of those “best laid plans of mice and sergeants.” Me. “What am I, special?” Him. “You can see better from out there.” Him. “You won’t get any trouble tonight.” Him. “There won’t be any surprises.” That was the night the Japanese sent hogs up the trail, to get us shooting at shadows; giving away our positions. We were smarter than that. Not always.

There was some satisfaction granted if you spent two or three nights in one hole. You had time to stretch the thing out, and dig a little deeper, maybe line it with palm fronds. A bamboo floor would help keep your feet dry. It didn’t take much effort to tum your wormy mud-hole into something like your little bedroom at home. Sorry. I jest.

Why me and why here? You would have asked that if you dared, or if you weren’t afraid you might be stuck somewhere worse or with somebody you’d rather not be with if the enemy picked your neighborhood to investigate. Russell never asked me what better location I would prefer. He never asked anybody anything.

I can’t believe our platoon sergeant or our officers knew any more about setting up a perimeter than we lower ranks did. Not enough really deep thought about my personal welfare, comfort and emotional security. “Relax, you’ll be fine.” What? “I’ll relax at sun-up.” But that wasn’t smart either. I once got up with the sun, looked down the road and saw a sword about ten yards away. I never learned how it got there but somebody brought it and it was pointing at me. We did not usually sing “Oh, what a beautiful morning.” Sometimes we made coffee in our helmet. Mixed with chocolate, it was a nice waker-upper.

I’ve given a lot of thought to perimeters over the business years. A precise circumference being one thing, nice and neat and predictable. A perimeter on the edge of a rock pile or a swamp is by nature and geography not a perfect thing. It is like the Corporate Confabulations Department. That was my terrain. I defended it with my life; no snipers or crawlers allowed. My furniture was arranged for defense. Visitors had to sit facing the midday sun. Also, their chairs were an inch lower than mine. My receptionist would call me for no reason, if I secretly tapped the “0” key twice. That would drive the time-wasters out.

The business perimeter links were weak and strong; the people, likewise. Feelings were different, good and bad and we all had anxieties, from bowel troubles, to skin rash, to the last letter from the fickle woman we loved. That was in combat, not in my plush carpeted 38th floor office in Manhattan overlooking the East River. What were our anxieties on the perimeter, the ones that intruded on sound sleep? The ones that came at precisely the wrong steamy moment, when she was about to whisper “Why in hell not?” Living through the night was a good one. Keeping yourself control was another. Too many of our people could not handle the night sweats, and went berserk, shooting at the moon and stars and each other with terrible results.

Not messing your last set of underwear was important. You could not crawl out of the hole without getting shot at. Better to stand right up and yell …”’Hey, Larry, it’s me, Moe. Don’t shoot.” Knowing that if you didn’t keep your part of the chain intact, the whole thing might break down. We sometimes had Filipinos fill in the relatively safe parts of the perimeter. Often, they slept, cooked a moose, or simply went home. “I have not been with my wife for many days.” In our Civil War sentries who slept on watch were usually shot. In WWI, the outpost sentries from both sides talked to each other. My father’s opposite on outpost came from my grandfather’s home town in Prussia. They promised to get together after the war. Never did. My father walked into a couple of bullets and lived.

In design school, by the grace of the G.L Bill, I learned about viewpoints and perspectives. For example: On perimeter, the view downward from the top of a hill was very different from looking up the hill. High ground is better than low ground. Simple, except that the other guy has a better viewpoint than you. He’s been sitting in the shade as you approached blindly, gauging the distance, checking his sights, hating the ass-kissing sergeant who put him there.

Every great military leader, from Alexander to Patton to Sgt. Bums knew the law: “See things the way the other guy sees them and remember that if you see him, he might easily see you.” That’s the rule of foxholes and perimeters. That takes something more than on-the-job training when you have a platoon isolated below a ridgeline with hostiles above and below. Middle ground is seldom promising. That’s true in life. I’ve always considered myself a great compromiser, like Ron Reagan, Jimmy Carter or my Irish grandmother. She would say “Half a loaf is better than none.” We never had half a loaf in the thirties.

Sgt. Russell would say, “you set up there, and you two dig in there and you go down that path and dig in. You two cover that road.” He’d say it all in one breath like he had a plan. And that was the last we’d see of him until sunup. He had a lot of faith or his instincts were very sharp. Or he knew we would do it our own way, anyway. Or he just didn’t have any options, which more often than not was the case. When I asked him why me, out here in the middle of nowhere, virtually alone, he would say, “Because you’ve got sharp ears — and besides, you are more scared of the dark than anybody else.” Some people should never have been on the perimeter. They were too fidgety. I never moved an eyeball.

About hearing? Well, that’s what you do on the perimeter. In complete silence, with nobody breathing loud, nobody shifting around, nobody moving their bowels, nobody doing anything, and everyone, them and us, listening, knowing that “they are out there” and listening too. Remember how the night birds laughed?

On nights like that you can hear everything that’s not there. Your breathing is raspy and your heart is beating too loudly; your crotch is sweaty and your feet itch and the ants are feeding on you, but moving would make a sound. We learned early in the game that at night, seeing is worthless. There’s no light to see by, except during thunder-storms, when the lightning conjures up crawling shapes or a whole army moving across your front. Was that real? Are those bushes moving? Are there trees that weren’t there ten minutes ago? “I’d like to put a shot out there. That’d shake things up.” The captain would throw me to the sharks.

There were better nights on the perimeter where you knew you were in a good spot, like overlooking a deep draw, with a machine gun to your right and some old dependable guys on your left. And trip wires in front of you. Sort of homespun and comfortable; horney-like with dry grass in the bottom and two grenades for comfort. You might have a few passing words with the guy in the next pit about your latest recipe for dried oatmeal and powdered milk, or about girls you left behind, or the ones who left you behind, or the best treatment for jungle rot or crotch itch, until sundown shadows moving, foreboding, a strange hot smell in the air and good sense shut you down. Good night.

The night is dry and you’ve had time to dig a little deeper. There’s still a rim of light on the edge of that far-away mountain. Time for thinking while listening. Time for waiting long hours for the sun to creep up. And knowing, too that they are waiting for that same sun and thinking the same things you are. They’ve crept a little closer. A dog barked, there’s a distant cough and a rifle shot. You can smell Japanese cigarettes in the dead air. Maybe you want to yell at them, “Go home, you damned fools. Your war is done.” They don’t know that. Most, moving east to the mountains, would never know that. They are believers. Bushido.

The Emperor, Peace be With Him … is God to Die For!

General Eichelberger came up to our position in his jeep, flags and all. I stood right next to him as he talked to the Captain. He asked if we could hang in one more night, and the Captain said we could if the Guerillas would cover our back side. We had been badly hurt approaching Santa Tomas. We didn’t believe that ‘one more night’ crap. But, next morning a flight of A-20s came roaring in at tree level and blasted everything in front of us. Then an armored column of the First Cavalry pushed straight through. With thanks, we hiked back for food and rest. We slept inside the safe area that night and got up and going at daylight. The guerillas covering our back at St. Tomas had gone home. We could have been steam rolled.

If you ain’t scared

13 Jan

“If you ain’t scared you don’t understand the situation.”
Sergeant Russell, first platoon ’45

He wasn’t a guy you’d talk with about being scared or terrified. His indifference to bullets and shrapnel was the stuff of movies. Russell was, in fact, emotionally cold, impervious or oblivious or he’d like you to think that. Nor did he draw fine lines between gut feelings and meanings. His orders were clear because his vocabulary was basic Army, like himself: the prototype infantry sergeant with everything squared, from his chin to his boots … no empathy, no sympathy, fully focused, dead pan and profane. When one word would do, that’s what you got.

When he asked (as if he cared) if I was scared out there, isolated on that awful night I stepped back. For him, that was conversation. “No,” I said, “I saw the cold facts. I was forgotten or abandoned by people I trusted. I was discouraged and disappointed but not scared.”

I did not say all that. How scared should I be? If I screamed no one could have heard me. I was squatting in a mud hole, watching Armageddon on the move, on a big screen with surround sound, through the sheets of rain between lightning flashes. Stephen Spielberg could have done no better.

I don’t know if I watched a company or an army passing by — only that they were many and spoke Japanese. The flashes painted an unearthly, stroboscopic scene in which I could be sacrificed but not scared. “What will be will be and this too shall pass.” That’s not religious or fatalistic. It’s the facts, fates and fortunes of life. “If you can’t fix it, don’t fix it. Get over the little things … like waking up tomorrow.” Had I loosed our machine gun, they would have scattered into the woods, then destroyed our sleeping company and me. Unlike Horatio or Leonidas, I chose prudence over providence or valor. The wind carried a familiar click, maybe a rifle bolt. Japanese.

There are degrees of scared. Normally, I’m bothered by nothing more extreme than a runaway shopping cart. When we kids (daring and double daring were fashionable) climbed a couple of hundred feet to the top of the Kingston river bridge, I was stiff with terror and climbed with my eyes closed. The wind could tear us away … and the iron door to safety in the high tower could have slammed behind us. A fall would make me newsworthy, loved by all and deceased.

I was scared when Murphy the Maniac demanded I appear after school for a fist fight to settle things. What things? If ever there was a contest … I was on the wrong side but I was there, brave and ready to be mangled. Murphy didn’t show and I never knew why. For kids without TVs or laptops, fishing and confronting mean odds were the best sports in town.

That winter, in a sudden sleet storm I got stuck while working in the high branches of an apple tree. What I felt was submission, a warm faith that no matter what, I would be alright. Soon I was not cold and heavenly lights appeared. A model T truck. The foreman climbed my ladder, untangled my bag, carried me down, gave me hell and a cup of hot coffee.

On my first solo excursion with the family car , night driving on icy Catskill roads, I was petrified and responsible. Tucked into every space of the big, wood wheeled, canvas topped touring car were gushy giggling girls. 1’d offered to drive them to an all-girl, all night party miles out of town. It was my first and only such trip; not God, but terror was my co-pilot. They paid me well but high school girls were never again so virtuous as I’d suspected.

On a minor note, I feared my cousin, Dolores. She was twelve and could run faster than any kid on the block. She could also hit harder and throw farther. Mostly, she could intimidate with her toothy Dracula smile. “Don’t you mess with me boy or I’ll tear your ears off.” She became the kindest of ladies and the defender of the clan.

Sergeant Russell understood me. That’s why I got nasty patrols and the most vulnerable gun pits on the perimeter. “You get these jobs because you are more scared than anybody else; and scared makes you sharp. You see in the dark and hear in the silence. You do not yield to your fears or lose the fine edge of judgment.” Once I figured it out, the difference between anxiety and paralysis, was in fear management: how you saw causes, variables, odds and options and what faculties you could use to cope with that brew. Your focus on reality, faith in yourself, acceptance of what is … and the will to put fear in its place were the keys to right choices. Fear and stress are manageable, I learned. Fright is not. People sell courses in how not to be afraid. That’s crazy.

I did some things that people said were ‘pretty brave.’ And ‘you must have been scared.’ Maybe, as Russell said, I didn’t know the whole situation. Conditions that could incite cold fear were usually crystal clear. Alternatives were few or foggy. How to respond and react were not written on the wall. One night, some unknown numbers of the enemy were poking around our perimeter, maybe knowing that one of us with frail kidneys would fire off the wild shot. A split second of weakness would expose our position and start a free-for-all of gun bursts and grenade throwing, usually over in minutes followed by screams in both languages. We out-sweated them that night. But, later, we lost people when one of our own, emptied his clip into the blackness, sweeping blood and bones into our perimeter, the parts to be reassembled at dawn, into a rubber poncho. .

The experience of such moments taught me to be calm, resolute, hold my breath and my bladder, and not give in to an irrational urge, instead, giving the formless time to take shape. Some will say, rightly, that there was no time for that, but time, like place, space and velocity is relative.* An event compacts into an instant if that’s all you have. But it must be a conscious instant where experience, intuition, instinct and reason can compute and work. The what ifs diminish. When hard facts stand out sharply the chances of right or wrong may be at least equal. We beat the odds, usually. *Check Al Einstein.

In fifty years of business, I was never seriously afraid aside from a few bumpy airplane rides and subway assaults; no reason. But, I got a reputation for patience, tolerance, openness and balanced deliberation. Mostly it was a practiced false front. It allowed me time to find the nut of things, especially the downstream effect. Good officers in the field have that animal* gift, too. Instinct and intuition save lives more often than cold blooded reasoning.

It’s not science. A part of our brain reacts to threat without help; it’s called *fight-or-flight, a human-animal drive to survive and prevail. There’s another part of that compound, not available in animals, called “Hey, now wait a dad-blamed minute.” Awareness puts fear and stress into a frame; you can isolate it, clarify it and measure it. Unbridled fear, biases, anger and rage make intelligent people do hasty dumb things.

I fear the drunks and crazies on our highways and our mean streets. They cannot be less than dominant males, like Alpha apes. Their thoughtless acts are those of the brainless predator: reflexive, one way, one speed with no turns. They feed on gentle souls like me, so I avoid them. Our conscious judgments, with qualms in the equation, are probably more logical, more right, more often … than they are wrong. They play equal parts in our survival. Archetypal fearless leaders are dangerous. Custer, anyone? Pickett? Julius C?

Who said “some people are born to greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them.” Greatness often demands getting beyond fear and finding a proxy for it. Action and a good sweat come to mind. Third hand advice from afar doesn’t help a leader, officer or manager. Andy Warhol had it almost right. We are granted fifteen minutes of fame which might come from managing fear, being admittedly afraid, then with open eyes, facing the fear, telling Sergeant Russell “I think it stinks, but I won’t be afraid of it.”

A cowboy philosopher (Rogers) said he spent much of his life dreading what never happened. Mark Twain felt the same way. ‘What if….’ is seldom worth the worry. If that Japanese patrol had turned left that night, rather than straight ahead —but they didn’t. I ask why Murphy didn’t show up and beat the tar out of me. Maybe he got a touch of righteousness. Maybe I wasn’t worth his trouble. More likely he forgot.

My manly son-in-law wanted to test my fear tolerance. We slammed down “Space Mountain” the rocketing roller coaster at Disneyland. What I felt had nothing to do with fear. It had to do with lunacy. To be baited into riding a thing like that after a succession of bypasses (eight in all) was madness. When it was done, I said to him, “That wasn’t smart, was it?”    “Were you scared?”    “I think so.”    “Me, too.”    “Why did we do that?”   “Testing, testing.”   “Proving something?”   He was forty, I was eighty.

The ‘purposes’ of our old~time Infantry training comes up. This is a different age and we shouldn’t forget that. Front line soldiers with lap top computers, cell phones, the daily news and satellite recon vehicles? None of that requires muscular backs but rather a level of technical competence and judgment we of the 40s could not have imagined. We built our physical and emotional selves, our strength, endurance and attitude. “Strong legs, strong backs, strong guts, weak minds.”

We climbed high mountains and crossed wild rivers. Contraptions, barriers and bull nosed trainers bullied and bruised us. We scaled cliff sides on ropes, heaved ourselves over stone walls, crossed white water hand over hand, lugged our packs twenty five miles at night in drenching rain, then staggered one more anguished mile for a cup of cold coffee. We bungeed from the towers while others gave in and were discarded. One more try could have changed their lives.

Whether our instructors knew it or not, they were teaching us fear control, to handle stress, strain, trauma and dread. From moving on when your feet hurt to confronting an abyss while crossing on a wet pine log. Or the sure sense that something rotten lay around the next comer or behind an ancient stone wall. Training methods have turned since our time. Confidence, acute judgment, reaction and self-preservation through fear control is now on top of the infantry agenda.

Doing the predictable, dangerous and difficult things in training proved that we could overcome fear, especially the irrational triggers of fear. But, would we do that when all bets were on the table and the odds unknown and time was gone? Strength, confidence, dedication and resolve were never enough although we thought so. They who owned us said so. On occasion in combat, we looked away as the mighty fell back and hunkered down in safety while the least able ran to the front yelling in fury and fury settles fear sometimes. There are no rules against the brave being afraid. We did not articulate our fears; it wasn’t courageous. Sixty years after, it’s alright.

Of all the times I faced anxiety, fear or dread, only a dozen are Army related. Many, in retrospect are absurd like the midnight drunks who targeted my little coffee shop at three ayem. The remainder would pertain to not giving my best, fear of bad choices, fear of the unknown, fear of being disapproved and fear of things that never happened. The renowned Dr. Maslow said babies have only two fears that matter: falling and abandonment. Sudden movements, flashes and noises alert animals and tough armed soldiers. My psychologist granddaughter said those are the natural fear triggers of all humankind. I should have been afraid when my parachute didn’t open, but I wasn’t, or when the hill exploded under me, or the mine blew up or our troop carrier rolled over. Or when a careening car came at me last week on the wrong side of Rte #41. So, be not afraid to negotiate with fear. Just be quick about it and don’t lose any hair over it. The first twinge of your gut is likely your best indicator. I fear that was a poor choice of metaphor.

Drop in for tea at Los Banos

13 Jan

Dropping in for a nice cup of tea
during the rescue operations
at Los Banos Internment Camp. 1945

This story was told to me as if it came from a verifiable source. May I elaborate? First: the operation went well, the timing was flawless. 2300 people were saved from certain death and the injuries on our side were minor. Good planning, good leadership and good luck prevailed against the likelihood of calamity. Chaplain Walker gave us the Universal last rites of the Church. It was not encouraging. Second: I will not apologize for my uncivil behavior toward a small group of Britishers who declined my efforts to save their bloomin(?) raggedy asses.

Third: I’d had enough and chose to not take any more of it which led to some inappropriate bellowing. Mine, not the Brits who are known for their agonizing forbearance.

To illustrate … we’d lifted off before sunup after no sleep at all, I’d hit the ground hard after having noted three whistling bullet holes in my parachute. Then came a sprint across the lower field. We hit the barracks on the run minutes before the amphibians arrived. It was like being dropped on the edge of a small city, which it was. The noise of firing came from all directions. Then, to get the people moving toward the circling amphibians, we scoured the buildings. A Japanese officer tried to shoot me. The rest, you’ve heard before. I charged out the back door. He was gone. Many Japanese guards, including the Camp Commander escaped to the hills and through the drainage tunnels despite a ring of guerrillas around the compound.

I was hailed by a serene group of elderly gentlemen, dressed nattily in the remains of what may have been Colonial Civil Services uniforms. They appeared as if on the movie set at River Kwai. They bore themselves like Her Majesty’s Best or Most something or other. They were not to be bothered by a bunch of hip shooting, air-jumping American Colonials and would have preferred the First Fusiliers or a Royal Brit Commando unit … something more traditional and history worthy. Brits are high on tradition, you know. They were squatting by a stone fire pit, boiling water over a twiggy fire for alfalfa tea and chatting up the day’s events. They stead fastly refused to accept what was happening. Brits do things steadfastly. It was all nice as a country lane in the Cotswolds except that gunfire whistled around us. “Bamboo burning,” I was told. Bamboo does not whistle past one’s head, that I know. In the opening scenes, each of us may have chucked a full bandolier at the bandits. One or a dozen of our people had set the far barracks on fire and the Brits did not take notice. They are not noted for noticing anything. The Scotsman might as well have been tuning his pipes.

“Since you’re here anyway, and created quite a disturbance, you may as well join us for a nice cup of tea; we have plenty in the pot.” The tallest, skinniest one offered me a flat rock to sit on. What I was trying to do … was to get them off their bony behinds, regardless of and with great regard for tea and get them headed toward the amphibians which would race them to safety thirty miles away while we waited for the arrival of the Japanese Army. “It was like a Western roundup,” someone observed, “with people chasing people in all directions and the Army blokes trying to corral them and head them home.” We had a short time (less than we realized) before the Japanese discovered the fakery we had done so well But that did not come across to them. The idea that they’d just had their last nice cup of tea, before being shot or hung by their jailors did not occur nor did the further fact that if we failed, by nightfall we would all be buried in those large holes that were dug during recent days. So, I yelled at these stately, tottery old folks, who had just endured years of brutality, humiliation and starvation and needed no nastiness from me. They sipped their tea and with deliberate slowness, assembled their properties as I ran down the main street to roust those pitiable guys in the bachelors’ quarters. Some were crawling about. My tea party would move on when it felt like it. Our company people were herding and hustling the confused, laughing, crying mass to the tractors. Those able to do so walked down to the shore. Surprise was on our side, but time was not. So we joked, prodded and jostled them along, the young and old, weak and strong. When the tide seemed to be moving well toward the clanking machines, I circled back behind the Bachelor’s Barracks. The Brits saw me and nodded, though still miffed, as they lurched on their way. They steadied each other arm in arm, the frail leading the breakable and the last man carried the blackened tin pail, the tea pot, to be ready for another time. I was told later that night, “We British, you must understand, when we have nothing left, we have our traditions.” Yes, long may they wave.

Side notes: when the last of the internees had safely crossed Laguna De Bay, on their way to New Bilibid for processing, a dozen of us were still in Los Banos guarding the piles of luggage. A tractor would come for us. There was no tractor. It was scary quiet and it occurred that we had been abandoned or forgotten. We sprinted to the shore and found one tractor hauling another while a third was firing into the shoreline. I don’t recall how we got on board. An hour later, we, the chosen few, stared at an empty beach. Where had everyone gone? Our support was back at Bilibid celebrating, flirting with the skinny girls and eating like heroes.

At the beach, the company piled into a lone DUKW, a big amphibian. We drove fast and tried to pass a caribou cart. The whole thing dove off the road and flipped, another miracle. Ringler was furious. What else? A couple of trucks hauled us to Bilibid where we entered the courtyard unnoticed. Someone called out that the rescuers had returned. The bony crowd cheered. The soldiers seemed aggravated. We threw our gear onto the ground and tried to sleep. The people we had saved wouldn’t allow that. We talked until nightfall.

About Tea:
The British have an umbilical cord which has never been cut and through which tea flows constantly. It is curious to watch them in time of sudden horror, tragedy or disaster. The pulse stops apparently and nothing can be done and no move made, until a “nice cup of tea” is quickly made. There is no question that it brings solace and does steady the mind. What a pity all countries are not so tea conscious. World peace conferences would run more smoothly if a “nice cup of tea” or indeed, a samovar were available at the proper time. Marlene Dietrich

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Sgt Charlie Sass

20 Nov

11th Airborne, 511pir, Company B

“Into the rising sun”

14 Nov

“Into the rising sun”

Interview in “Into the rising sun”, chapter 9: Courtesy of author Patrick O’Donnell

511TH Parachute Infantry Regiment,
11th Airborne Division

While the 503rd RCT wore out the Japanese on Corregidor, other operations were being planned, Charles Sass recalls the spectacular raid on Los Baños, about twenty-five miles south of Manila, which led to the liberation of over two thousand missionaries and civilians.

As we approached the drop zone, I could see daylight beautifully from the edge of the big mountain which was just to the east. And it was pitch black below. That’s kind of an odd thing, but maybe you’ve seen it? It’s just at dusk when everything at the bottom is dark and everything above is bright. It took on a certain unreality. I knew one thing; I wasn’t too sure I wanted to go down there. I almost wanted to keep heading for the daylight.

I remember the stand-up, hook-up very much according to drill. And we did the jump very well. The pilots of course got us there beauti­fully. The drop zone was terribly small, and only one guy got hurt as far as I know. He hit a railroad track and knocked himself out. We were told to be careful of a ring of rifle pits that were dug specifically for antiairborne or anti-something—I don’t know. And there it was, son of a gun, and I’m going to land right in the middle. Nobody was in it, but I re­member reaching in my pocket for a grenade to destroy this thing. I re­member hitting the ground with my hands in my pockets. That’s unheard of! [laughing]

I landed, and six or eight guys said, “Follow me.” It was that sort of thing. One platoon had the north end of Los Baños and one went through the middle, and we went, a dozen of us, through a ravine. It seems like it took a while, but I was told it was only a few minutes to hit the south end. I was up front, and what I knew was that a Jap tank was coming. I called for a bazooka, and so did the officer in charge [John Ringler]. [The bazooka men] came running up and said, “Those are our people!” We took off right into the south end of the camp. Each of us took one of the barracks.

My most vivid memory is bursting through a barracks door and seeing these people. I swear it choked me up, and I see them to this day. They were a miserable bunch, stunned by what I don’t know but I as­sume by my coming through the door. [As I entered], this Japanese sol­dier went out the other door; he took a shot at me. Thankfully he missed,

but it was frightening to me to have these people almost crawling off their bunks into the corridor, which is one reason I couldn’t shoot back at this guy. Forgive the term, worms, but that’s what struck me. They’re looking, and there was a dullness in their faces. It was momentary. I saw some of them pick up that we were their liberators. That was a very vivid picture—one of very few in fact.

One guy, as I recall, looked like Elie Wiesel, like that very famous picture of him —when he was a kid from Dachau looking up from his bed unbelieving. That’s what it is like. A very blank stare, searching, very penetrating, eyes wide open. I think it was deeper than that… a very deep hurt. Something perhaps they can’t explain. They’re expecting something… death by the Japanese was almost certain. And here’s a fracture in their expectations. It was like a slow-motion movie; everything happened very slow.

They started to move out. I was only in there about a half a minute. I was chasing this guy, and I hit the door head-on with my shoulder, and it went off the hinges. In that brief period, he was gone. I found out later the place was honey-combed with sewage pipes, and there were a lot of the Japanese hiding there. And good for him. I’m glad he escaped from me. His death is not on my conscience.

Prison is such an unreality. I worked in one for about a month. It’s a totally different world. When we got them [missionaries and civilians] back to New Bilibid, they started opening up. The only person who was not subdued was a four or five year old. One little kid kept me up until dawn telling me about Christmas, which consisted of a can of Campbell soup, which they split among the members of the family. There was rap­ture. I assured her she was going to have all of the Campbell soup she would ever want.

There was also a Filipino girl who must have been nineteen or twenty, I guess, and for some time a lot of the villagers sat with her in the middle of a circle absolutely silent. At one point after some long time, everybody got up and moved in and embraced her and I guess took her home. I was told it was a welcoming back after her having been, maybe by necessity’, a sinner in the camp. The explanation to me was that she was intimate withy one of the guards. There was a great joy when he [her father] said, “This is enough of this. Let’s take our daughter home.”

Interview in “Into the rising sun”, chapter 9: Courtesy of author Patrick O’Donnell

511TH parachute infantry regiment,
11th airborne division

Charles Sass recalls his most vivid memories of the fighting in southern Luzon and the fall of the Japanese mountain fortress at Malepunyo that marked the collapse of large-scale Japanese resistance there.

My most vivid image of the war is something you wouldn’t expect. It is having gone a half a mile down a railroad track into Japanese territory presuming there were people with me and there weren’t. Turning back and seeing that landscape and that railroad is a subject for [Salvador Dali]. I was absolutely above —in outer space, you might say. I just stood there and scratched my head. I can’t imagine anything else I would have done.

Most of those little events were just that. Very few people actually fired a rifle or threw a grenade, and it was purely circumstance that I did those things.

Your relationship with the men you’re around is closer than anything you can imagine. It’s been described as love, but that’s too strong of a word for me. But these men are all part of you—even the guys you don’t like, and there are plenty of those. You depend on each other. There was no need for commands since we knew what to do and how to cover each other.

When we went up one of the mountains, we were, I swear, holding hands. We caught the Japanese inside the mountain with their pants down, and we cut them down; it was as simple as that. The mountain had been blasted, and I know they didn’t expect us to follow the bombs as close, but we did. We cut them down in their entryways. Eventually, a flamethrower came up and detonated ammunition in the mountain, and this set off explosions inside the mountain. They kept going for days. Every time a big one would go off, the mountain would shake, and that was kind of scary.

One guy came to the cave entrance and set off a satchel charge and took out at least a dozen of our people. They were all wounded.

Then we got a radio call from one of the companies that said essentially, “We are in big trouble and been ambushed.” So we took about half a dozen guys, which was all we could spare at the time, and went down the mountain. We connected with them and carried their people to the top. Some of them didn’t make it.

I was carrying one of the men. He questioned me before we went on. He said, “Did we beat them?” I spent about one hundred yards telling him, “Ya, you beat them.” He was gone when we got to the top. He was hit in the legs and elsewhere.

John Donaldson, my best friend, when we came back from this other mission, dug out a foxhole for me and lined it with his own poncho and he said, “Hey, buddy, it’s going to be all right.” He knew my feelings at the moment, which were pretty rotten.

One of our squads had been ambushed on the hill below us maybe a week before. There’s an image. They went up the wrong hill and went into a Japanese strong point. They were trapped and had no way of get­ting out. We could see them vividly from the top of the hill.

I happened to be alongside the radio, and this sergeant called in and told us what he was going to do. I remember his words, “So and so is wounded; so and so is dead.” He gave the whole report very cold and very calm. He said, “I’m going to kill the wounded and then myself.” He was pretty cold about it. I don’t know how many days it took to get up the spine of the mountain, but the burial party found remains of the squad and the sergeant’s body.

I never opened up completely—perhaps more since I’ve talked to you. Big things you can swallow. It’s the little things you have a hard time with, you start choking up. A good friend of mine borrowed my canteen and after part of a burst cut through the canteen, his closing words before he died was, “Make sure Sass gets his canteen back.” I can’t ever forget that.

Interview in “Into the rising sun”, ch 12: Courtesy of author Patrick O’Donnell

511TH   parachute   infantry  regiment,
11th airborne  division

America was victorious, but many homecomings were bitter, as Charles Sass recalls.

My homecoming was a disaster. My family split when I was six, but I still lived now and then with my father in a small town in upstate New York. I came home, and there was a sign on the door that said: “The rent is paid for a month. Good luck.” That was homecoming.

I took the next train south, [sigh] But before I left my best friend, who was my uncle, stayed alive to see me. He had terrible cancer, and he stayed alive long enough to visit with me for a few days, and then he died. He was my good buddy, and that was so great that I had a chance to see him before he passed away.

I went on the bum in New York City, which is a great city to be a bum. I was up there all of about a month. I would sleep in doorways and bus stations. I didn’t have to do that, I had money, but I figured it was a good escape. There were a lot of us, and I wasn’t alone. We found places to flop. There were six or eight veterans I hung around with in the middle of New York City. But we managed to find a little apartment that somebody vacated, and living there on the floors no one talked about the war. We were guys on the streets.

Eventually, I went on the GI Bill and entered college, majoring in a couple of things that had to do with communications. Illustration and design, even a little bit of architecture, and I put that all together and I came up with one devil of a career and have a great family.

“Remembering and forgetting”

12 Nov

Courtesy Dr Bradd Shore, Emory University

Click to Enlarge

Click to Enlarge

Good Times Remembered

10 Nov

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
(and ne er brought
to mind)

or friendship e’er grow cauld?
Should we nae tighter draw the knot?
Aye, as we’re
growing auld?

How comes it then, my worthy friend,
Wha used
to
be sae kin’
we dinna for ilk ither spier
as we did lang syne.

 Bobby Burns could nae hae said it better… As we grow older and fewer and slacken the closeness we knew … “should we not draw the knot a little tighter?” Our kindest remembrances are not of the hard part, but of the laughs and the craziness, the visits home, exploring new places, finding wonderful people who wanted only to show their gratitude …. and did.

Within the time we spent as warriors-in-training, in dirty work, in waiting and anxiety or in the inhumanity of combat, we enjoyed lots of hours in good company … without the dirt, the pack and the gun. These stories are gathered from your own writings, e-mails, reunion chatter and hear-says. Maybe those brief good times don’t seem like much now, but think on it; you’ll remember how those hours gave us some peace of mind, faith in the right of what we were doing … and hope for better times.

If the names and faces are mixed up it doesn’t matter. Sharing ‘the auld acquaintance’ … that’s what counts. Send us your ‘good times’ stories and we’ll set a place at the table. (Names omitted to protect the guilty and the innocents.)

 “We went to church in a town near the camp, maybe Fayetteville. Usually, some family would pick us out as Yankee boys and invite us to breakfast at their home, so they could convert us … and then we’d stay for the day soaking up Southern hospitality. I believe they did the breakfast routine every week. They may have thought we were starving and sinning out at camp. Of course, their food was better. I hope they knew how we appreciated the pancakes and ham steaks and scrambled eggs with grits … and, and…One Sunday we spent the afternoon target shooting with 22s. They were sure we’d like that. On another Sunday we were invited to a wedding of nice people we didn’t know.  One trusting couple loaned us their car and their two lovely daughters for sightseeing. We expected that the girls had their orders even though they enjoyed embarrassing us. It was one of the nicest days I can remember, like family. Big Daddy said, ‘y’all come back and see us, ‘heah?” Thanks B.D.

“The Captain volunteered us off to a dance at LSU, no way out. The gym hall was decorated with flowers and all the windows were open so the breeze came through.  It’s hard to describe. Most small town guys had never seen anything like it except in the movies. When the sun went down, there were lights all over, even in the trees. All the girls looked like Scarlet O’Hara with hoop skirts. Naturally, my partner was the Phys. Ed. director and looked it. She demonstrated some judo holds, no holds barred and it turned comical. I still laugh when I remember that. We were walking around the campus when the dance music started. It sounded just like Glenn Miller’s band. Guess what. It was Glenn Miller, a Captain or Major then. He came to our table and talked with us. I was forgotten. She sat there in a trance.”

“The day we got our wings was unbelievable.” No way I could make it through jump school. Everybody was bigger, tougher and faster. As our numbers shrank, I was still there. Nobody worked harder. A trainer said that most who made it without injury were “fire plugs or telephone poles, not movie stars.” We toughened up and learned our stuff. Fewer people got hurt or bumped – we built something formidable. ‘Graduation Day’ seems odd for guys corning out of a fire pit like that. But we had become superior people. Airborne Infantry, the best of the best and the Commandant said that. Even those menacing trainers shook hands and said they were proud. They said they knew all along who’d make it. They watched for commitment and resolve, not brawn and bravado. The ‘wrong’ people left early. The hard times were yet to come, but it was a fine day. Maybe there were a lot of us who knew we couldn’t do it … there we stood, up there with the best.

“It was a miserable place for a picnic. The first platoon occupied a precarious razor back ridge, but I remember it as a genuinely good time. The temperature was well over a hundred … no water; no shade but some vines. Our blankets were covered with fly specks and mold. The L-4s dropped boxes of pork chops right on target. We got some fires going and cooked the pork chops in our helmets, being careful to pour off the fat. We got to horsing around, laughing like loonies, and gobbling the pork chops like we didn’t have a worry in the world. The next high ridge stared down on us. A P-38 came over and dropped 500 pounders on each side of the ridge. A couple of days later we paid the price. Paratyphoid. That part wasn’t good.”

“A full three day pass to New Orleans. That was a good time. Six of us got a hotel room; we stocked it with beer and Southern Comfort. Instead of getting smashed as planned, we had a polite dinner at the Court of the Two Sisters and then saw the Preservation Hall Band followed by a strip bar for beer. We had breakfast on Sunday in an open air garden by the river and took a paddle wheeler ride, then to church in that big Monastery. We hired a horse and buggy to ride through the French Quarter and out to some old mansions … we went around twice. There was a dance at the YMCA and we stayed till they closed the doors. On Monday we rode the street car to the city limits and visited Old Hickory’s battlefield … like tourists do today. About noon, we got the bus back to camp with time still to go. Dull? Why do I recall that weekend when I forget everything else? Maybe my psychiatrist granddaughter can explain that. It’s amazing how you can recall the good times.”

“On a clear day you can almost see forever. Our mountain was six or eight thousand feet high and the remains of our company squatted on top. Maybe it was a hundred miles to the end of the plains where daybreak began. Incessant rains, earthquakes and eruptions over millions of years shaped the chasms and ravines, carving the peaks and rims into sharp edges. Volcanic soil enriched the valley we’d crossed. For four days and nights shuddering explosions had rumbled and echoed through the enemy’s fortress deep in the mountain and kept us sleepless. Now, this morning, it was quiet and we could safely look to the distance, listen and feel that the war devils were at rest. Just days before, every peak and ridge was blossomed with drifting red smoke. They signaled that the high ground was ours. The hard journey to this place was ended and we looked North towards Tokyo. Most of us had our three strikes behind us. We would go there, but for now this work was done. It was a very good day.

“Going home on leave was the number one good time. I suppose so, but my friends weren’t there, we’d lost a few good ones and the town had shrunk. The family and I didn’t see things the same way. My one-time girlfriend (a modest high school romance) suggested we do the same things we did before I went away. It was a little like old times, but the stamp of finality was clear. She was the senior queen with plenty of boy friends. We went hill climbing, bicycling, picnicking and swimming. We sat around in long, thoughtful silences and at night, toured the old hangouts. There were too many strange faces from the war factories. Even though the past was gone, and we’d never be the way we were, I’m glad we went. While many can go back, most of us can’t. Absence does not make the heart grow fonder. We both had a last chance to be kids before we had to go away. Those few days were nice to remember, a kind of picture album. We had a good time and parted friends.”

“Doris and I got married when we were eighteen and I was in the Navy. Everybody knew it wouldn’t last; maybe it won’t, but that was sixty years ago. Most of our time has been a good time, but there was a special time when we were living in a windblown half-barracks near the base, with half a bed, a gas hotplate and a kerosene heater that threatened us day and night. We shared an ice box, our bread and wine, and the bathroom. We celebrated our marriage on weekends and took a long honeymoon about fifty years later. She could have gone ‘home’ and lived with our families. Instead, she lived with me and the Navy. We laugh about it now and we laughed about it then even when we were freezing. I was in training at the Great Lakes Station. I guess, according to the song, ‘we had our love to keep us warm.’ We sure didn’t have anything else.”

“Dinner at Tiffany’s … it wasn’t.”  Many young Filipinos attached themselves to us in return for whatever turned up: food for the family, cigarettes, boots, trade goods and anything they could lift. In Nanni’s case, he wanted revenge for the killing of his family at Calamba. Mischief maker Emilio was an operator and entertainer. Rosco wanted a ticket to America. Rodrigo was older, serious and clever. He invited us, and eventually everyone to dinner at the family’s house. We brought what we could and they made us feel special.  An uncle played a small banjo. It was an enjoyable evening and clearly well rehearsed. The spicy chicken, rice soup, wine and hot bread were delicious. I don’t like to think it was a scheme, but after the war came regular letters begging for money … for memory’s sake, for old friends, for the good times … we had so much and they were so poor. “But send money, no packages or bank checks. Don’t send anything to the church, they are selfish crooks.” I suspect he did well in the Public Relations business.

“The fierce little nun with the big stick. She said I’d go to hell if I didn’t change my sinful ways. That’s serious stuff for an eight year old who hadn’t yet discovered ‘ways.’ I hope she was satisfied a dozen years later as my lady friend and I ‘played house’ for six months. It wasn’t true love and not exactly passion and our ‘blue heaven’ was part of a tumbledown barracks carved into one-room ‘apartments.’ Four Army couples lived there on weekends – with all the trimmings of wedlock except minister or music. We were unmarried newlyweds, fantasizing. When the idea of forever-together wore thin neither of us suffered any remorse. We’d shared a flaming interlude that quickly turned drafty. Movies are made of less. Overseas, I wrote short uninspired letters but the inevitable lucky guy came between us. Odd, isn’t it, that a guy who wore a hair shirt and constantly droned mea maxima culpa should believe that our bright-eyed affair was consecrated and virtuous. She’d be eighty now.”

“It was Thanksgiving Day in New Guinea and a good time was had by all. We were thankful for being off the ship. The weather was good and the war was up North. There was no duty schedule, no housekeeping. After breakfast we went swimming. Some Aussie nurses in the next camp swam nude – naked, and we weren’t allowed to notice. The day had a good start. About mid-afternoon was chow bells and some volunteers were appointed to work as servers at the tables. Cooks, like gods, make miracles. Turkey and cold beer, mashed potatoes and gravy and everything you couldn’t expect. We pigged out. The leftovers were taken to the camp perimeter so the starving Japanese  could help themselves. They were finished fighting and just wanted something to eat. They gave us no trouble. By midnight, everybody had food poisoning. We probably poisoned a hundred starving Japanese soldiers.”

“It was my first day home.” Everybody was there, waiting on the front porch. There wasn’t much to say and we stood together in the cold. They knew I was coming on the bus. Nobody wanted that minute to end. There are no pictures, but it was something Rockwell could paint. I hadn’t seen my wife for more than a year though we’d mailed photos when we could. That was hard to realize … my wife, as if I were seeing her for the first time. She wore the hat with the Spring flowers, the one she wore on our honeymoon. Why couldn’t I just run up the steps? It took me a long time to get there. They were patient and understood, but they looked uncomfortable, never having seen me bruised and yellow. You know, Atabrine. Then, the squirming bundle in her arms let out a squall  and I knew everything was alright. It was the best of days. Never thought I’d be making a speech at his fifty fifth birthday party.

“Losing a fortune in an all day crap game might not be a good time. We were on the troop ship going home. We all had a few dollars and lots of time. Cards, dice and bull chucking were the big pastimes. There were twenty five or so people there, hoping and cheering. Close to mid-day, this one guy who had no idea of what he was doing kept hitting the numbers and letting it ride. The guy with the hot hands was me. The dollars piled up and side bets covered the floor and I was sweating a stonn. Three thousand bucks sat there. The dice bounced, galloped and danced … and came up aces. Nobody made a move or a sound. It was done, finished and I thought about jumping over the side. But I was alive, free, healthy, wealthy and heading home. The world was alright … and only fifty of those dollars were mine to begin with. Lady Kismet stole the rest and taught me a lesson. Now and then I buy a lottery ticket.”

“Sax and trumpet on Connolly’s back porch.” We were untroubled guys promising to be forever old friends, making sweet music and drinking Cokes. What brought us together on that wann Fall night in ’42? We just showed up. Me and Smitty, Bill, Hubie, Dave, Danny and Frank were just weeks away from going in. Mrs. Connolly made toasted sandwiches and Mr. Connolly sat inside. He was half blind from WWI but was always one of us. We played records like always. The girls didn’t come over like they usually did because maybe they knew this was a man-thing. We talked about what we should do for the weeks ahead … bowling, skating, walking around Front Street, maybe playing a little grab-ass. This night wouldn’t happen again. We felt different already; leaving home, losing the dull, small town constancy; losing a time and place and each other. I’d like to say we got together again but we didn’t. It was no longer “us on somebody’s back porch.” That night and its mindless ritual was especially right for us and nobody said goodbye.”

“They dropped the big one … we sat there, stunned.” There was a fuss in and around the rec-tent; people standing in bunches talking in low tones. We were a witness to history and didn’t know it. The little radio was getting garbled news. Nobody knew so we made some guesses. Hirohito executed, or Tojo. Or Harry Truman. Maybe the invasion had started without us, couldn’t be. Then the radio cleared up and we heard that the U.S. had dropped a tremendous bomb on Tokyo that flattened everything for twenty miles around. Then we heard that a blast hole in the ground was a mile deep and growing. The pieces kept coming in. Our guys on the perimeter hadn’t heard a thing. There was no cheering or jumping up and down. Knowing the Japanese, there was more to come. But there was hope now. It began to look like a good day. One of our squads had gone out at first light to look into reports of Jap infiltrators. I saw them coming back. It was a sorry sight. The war was ended and we lost three more people.

“I remember being on garbage detail one of the best of good times at CampUpton, Long Island, Christmas ’42. It was the coldest week in history and sleet made the tents sag. Some of them collapsed. The iron cherry stoves burned down some shelters every night. Some guys who knew the ropes volunteered for garbage duty and I joined them. For a couple of hours each day we froze and rode around the camp unloading garbage cans … but then, ah, then: we slept in the back end of the mess hall. It was warm, dry, smelled good and we ate what and when we wanted to, except when we were cruising for garbage. I can still see those long tired lines of freezing guys pitying us. Compared to them, we had made it to Hollywood… that career lasted five days, then we moved to South Carolina with our new barracks bags.”

“Nobody knew the score, but we won. Arrogance and belligerence were large in our training. It wasn’t right for hometown boys but that’s the infantry way. The cadre encouraged conflict – and sometimes it got out of control and turned savage. The physical drills were rough and tough but nobody got hurt. Contests between companies or battalions were matters of bloody honor. Win or else. Second Battalion challenged First Batt. to a football game complete with rules, referees and helmets. We had two days to forge a team and figure out a few plays. Coach DeVinney (our weapons instructor) needed people who had played in high school, sandlot … or who knew a football from an eight ball. I got picked to play center and linebacker because I was the smallest guy there. It was one long fistfight. The refs stopped the contest in the fourth quarter and gave us the victory and the ball. The other team’s conduct did them in. We went to the PX and the Major paid for the beers. He was one proud old guy. Us, too. It was our only official game.”

“Good times? How about four girls and a guy? … In Washington DC in ’43 the ratio was eleven to one. It was the place to be and despite the fables not everybody was lust-driven. We rented an apartment from a group of office girls who always went home on weekends … it cost a few dollars and the promise of good conduct. It was my favorite hangout. I got there one night, not knowing that the girls were staying for the weekend the others had been told by phone. Not me. As the door opened I turned red and apologized but … they kindly insisted I join their shameless debauchery. I tried to be cavalier and turned into a sweaty wreck, never before having seen four grownup girls prancing in their shorties and nighties. Like predators, with an unseasoned gentleman nailed to a tree, those women were merciless. As the wine flowed they got rowdier and stopped noticing me. Then they kicked me out for the last bus to Baltimore … I heard their giggling and shrieking. No, I don’t believe it either, but I can see it clearly. Oh, my goodness.”

“A good time … conjures up a lot of ideas. For some of us, being young in a new world and needing to prove something fast, the good time was the forty eight hour solution … craziness. All the beer you could swill, all the money you could spend, as many fights as you could survive, as many ladies as … oh, boy did we have a time. The way B.G. describes it – his greatest good time started with a half dozen beers and no food. The MPs brought him back sick, stinking, screaming, cross-eyed drunk and filthy. He threw up in the drunk wagon, in the barracks, in his bunk and everywhere. He says it was the time of his life. Yes, his wallet was stolen, his nose was bloodied and his uniform couldn’t be saved. His buddies hosed him down in the shower and beat him with wet towels. The CO took away his rank. Of his three years in the service – that’s what he remembers. When he tells the story he goes into uncontrollable laughing fits. What a great memory.”

“Our squad went to Kamakura, where the Golden Bhudda is. We took a jam packed train from Ichinoseki and carried no rifles. Our squad leader had a .45. The Japanese were dressed up and polite, a kind of Sunday in the Park. There was no sign of war and the gardens were still in bloom. We strolled around the shrine and found an ice cream cart. Then we noticed a large area like a tropical park enclosed within high iron fences. Our Sergeant shook the gates and an old man bellowed and demanded we go away. Nobody allowed. He was pretty nasty about it, so Gindhart reached through the gates and poked the forty five at him. The gates were instantly unchained and the caretaker fell on his hands and knees sobbing. It was the Emperor’s private sanctuary and we went all through it. We didn’t take off our boots and even used the toilets. No holes in the floor for us. Toward evening, we sat in the Emperor’s chairs and got a spectacular sundown view of Fuji. Just tourists having a great time. We’d paid in full for our tickets and had traveled a hard road. I wish we could have a reunion there.”

“Men are from Mars,” says Konrad Lorenz in his book ‘On Aggression.’ He tries to explain why males do aggressive, irrational things … while the females sit by and cluck. Well, some do. What has the aggressive-survival gene to do with a monumental day? Listen! We were assigned to spike a training field with dynamite. We’d taken a course in explosive devastation and had a field layout which we lost. But we knew how to do it and laid out a plot to simulate a mortar barrage. New troops would learn to “spread out while crossing an open field.” It took four nervous hours to dig it in, insert the blasters and wire the stuff through switches to a six V. battery. About noon we got word that the drill was called off. We should take it all apart and return the explosives to the supply depot. That would be absolute suicidal. So instead, we rigged an abandoned plantation house with everything we had and blew it sky high. It was a lunatic stunt and near fatal, but we had the blast of our lives. Nobody saw, nobody asked, nobody told. The supply officer knew.”

“It was the best of times, getting chewed out. The commander beat the hell out of me out loud and I took it with a half-smile. I’d brought my B-24 home with its bomb bay doors missing. They dropped off over the Channel. But I brought it home, that’s the point. Our engineer had urinated into the bomb bay – and as we delivered on our target the mechanisms froze solid. There’s no way we could land with the doors down, so the engineer and I worked for an hour to free up the bays and jettison them. It was a mean, dangerous job, a bumpy ride home but we made it. The commander was a nasty guy to begin with … and after beating on me in front of the crew, he realized that he was acting the fool. He huffed and puffed and walked away. It was a great victory for the little people.”

“I’m in the Army … what a fantastical feeling.” This guy has to be out of his head. Everybody was in or going in … and I was out. The first time they sent me horne: ‘finish school.’ The next time, they found some serious blood trouble – ‘go horne.’ The third time they called me for an exam, same thing and I was devastated. Beaten. I yelled and pleaded, told them I had played football and I ran cross country. Everybody else was signed on. The examiner gave me some pills and a hotel chit. The next morning, I stood with a billion other naked guys with my clothes in a bag and my heart in my mouth. A nine foot tall Colonel looked at my papers and asked if I knew the Malone family in my town. Of course. They lived across the street. He smiled and said, “You really want to get in?” I was speechless. He stamped some papers and said ‘good luck, Joseph.’ I jumped around until a corporal put a tag on me and wrote up my travel papers. It was a day never to forget.” Six months later, I had a platoon. Soon afer, I was a paratrooper.

Psychologists say we have few needs in life: food, water, shelter, security and reproduction of the species, like the family cat. Next we need bonding to a person, family, tribe, language or culture. We need to be a respected part of a social unit that answers our needs for recognition and identity. We deserve those simple rights. Street gangs and religious organizations offer the similar propositions. The collective spirit and loyalties certify us. We get self-worth. We may need only to accept it.

Years back I met a fellow I didn’t like. Don’t laugh. That was in nineteen forty five. He clearly disliked me, too, maybe more so. We won’t ever understand why because at a recent reunion we tripped over a link from way back and spent an hour catching up, like dreary grey heads. Maybe he saved my life or shared his water. Maybe it was the other way around. We had once walked side-by-side into battle carrying loads that would cripple an ordinary mule. We belonged, as equals.

This other guy was a snooty, over-educated sort who thought much of himself. We shared the same anxiety, rain, the pain of loss and we dutifully covered each other on patrol. Years after the war, passing through his home town, I called his phone. He did not remember me, I must be confused, and his few cold words said there was no connection –so be gone. Could be, he forgot. That cut me down and anyway, I don’t believe him. Maybe I opened a page best left closed.