Monday, February 11, 2013


His chevrons carried a T under them, for
 After his talk with Captain Anderson, Whitie’s Army experience changed. Before long, he was given his first set of stripes—a band with two chevrons pinned to his sleeve—as an acting corporal. The captain was evidently smart enough to know that if you had a rebel among your troops there were two ways of dealing with him: You could punish him again and again for his rebellion but if he was also someone capable of taking the punishment and of doing the training anyway, and if you’d ever read the story of Spartacus—the making of the motion picture Cool Hand Luke was still a quarter-century off—then you knew you ran the risk of turning him into a hero and of inadvertently making his influence greater than your own; or, you could promote him, put him in charge of something and you’d be building a subordinate leader for the future, while taking away his reason for rebelling against authority by making him one himself. Logical schoolteacher that he was, the captain chose the second course.
Through his advanced training, Whitie was a squad leader, and when he was done with that, his corporal’s stripes were sewn on permanently, and he was added to the NCO cadre to help train the steady flow of new troops coming in from all over the United States. At first, he remained at Camp Butner, North Carolina, where he’d had his original training. His chevrons carried a “T” under them standing for “technical” or tech-corporal—what in today’s Army (and the Army of my own day) is known as a “specialist”—since he now had a specialty: battlefield demolition.
After his promotion, Whitie ended up being on almost constant military maneuvers for months on end, both imparting what he now knew and gaining ever greater military experience and training, both at Camp Butner and, later, at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, one of the largest US infantry training centers in World War II. Perhaps it was this kind of truly intensive training that would later pay off in keeping him alive during the years he would ultimately spend in some of the most dangerous venues of the European Theater during World War II, where literally millions of men were to struggle and die.
But for a while, it almost looked as if he wasn’t going to see that theater of war at all. The weeks melted into months and the months dragged on. Training cycles came and went. One contingent of men after another shipped out. But Whitie’s outfit and some others like his—men who, by the massive and fast-turnover training standards of World War II, and though barely more than boys, were already practically considered veterans—were kept in place to help short-handed career NCOs manage the enormous flow of raw troops.
These were the "temporary" barracks that Whitie and his buddies helped
build at Ft. Bragg in the forties. This picture is from 1969, the year before I
did my basic combat training there during the Vietnam era. 

They also helped in other ways, with infrastructure, for instance. Some of the bases, like Camp Butner, were brand new and still under construction even as hundreds of thousands of men were being trained. And others, like nearby Fort Bragg, North Carolina, weren’t equipped to handle such a huge influx of soldiers. When I myself formed part of one of the last cycles of some 200,000 men provided with basic combat training at Bragg—home of the Airborne and Special Forces—during the Vietnam War era between 1966 and 1970, my father told me that he had been part of a group temporarily attached to the Army Corp of Engineers and sent to build additional barracks there. He had volunteered, he said, to get a break from being in the field on maneuvers all the time.
“Probably not the same ones, though,” he mused, “since they were just sort of basic two-storey wooden things with no heating or anything, built as temporary quarters for the war.”
On maneuvers for months on end in Tennessee.

But when I said, “I don’t know, Dad, your description sounds familiar,” and provided him with a detailed description of my own, he shook his head, smiled to himself and muttered, “Well, I’ll be damned! Those are the same ones. We built those. And they were supposed to be temporary even back then!
Meanwhile, like so many other World War II sweethearts, Reba Mae was just waiting for her boyfriend to come back. Nobody knew how long that would take, but they figured when Hitler saw all those Yanks coming, he’d be on the run soon enough. It couldn’t last all that long, could it? Maybe Whitie would never even leave Tennessee. It’d be over shortly, they figured (and hoped).
But they figured wrong. US intervention in the war would last nearly half a decade. A total of 60 million people would die as a result of World War II. And stopping the Axis powers would prove costly in human lives, despite all the talk after the war of having “whipped their asses”. A quarter of the millions who died in the war would be Allied troops. More than half would be Allied civilians. Fatal casualties on the Axis side were thirteen percent of the total military losses and four percent of the civilians, but in a country the size of Germany, for instance, those seemingly “low” percentages of the whole represented the decimation of the country’s population. The Allied Soviet Union, however, lost nearly 14 percent of its population in the war. US military losses would total 416,837 over the course of the war, 318,275 of which were US Army personnel.
Whitie eventually got a short leave and spent it back in Ohio visiting his family and Reba Mae. Things were getting serious between them, but how could he ask her to marry him right now? If there was one thing they couldn’t be sure of, it was any sort of future. Talking about “when the war’s over” was about as definite as talking about “when pigs fly”. But she said he shouldn’t worry, that she’d wait for him.
Reba Mae on a visit to the Carolinas in the
summer of '42.
So it was back to North Carolina and to Tennessee for more training and maneuvers. While Whitie was at his base in North Carolina, Reba Mae and a friend called Lois drove down for a visit. Lois had a boyfriend in the service too, and she had a car. It was a big deal for Reba, who was now nineteen and had never been much of anywhere before. And doing anything with Lois was always guaranteed fun. She felt grown-up, independent, like she was taking charge of her life, the life she planned to share with Whitie after the war. But everything pivoted on that, the war. It was all-pervasive. Life on every continent was dependent on it and subject to it. No one’s future was totally his or hers. Everyone’s present and future depended on what the war had in store for them. The journey to the South, then, was one that Reba Mae would never forget. It might as well have been a cruise around the world rather than a drive down the Dixie Highway from Ohio to the Carolinas. It made Whitie happy to see her and gave him the confidence in her commitment to him to start talking about marriage. If only there were some way to know what was going to happen, to be able to foresee the end of the war, to peer into their future and know what their chances were!
Then the word came: Whitie’s outfit was shipping out for Europe and they would be there “for the duration.” Suddenly, marrying Reba Mae seemed like the most important thing on Earth. For his group that was now on the activation list, all leaves had been cancelled. He was desperate to talk to Reba Mae and tell her how he felt, how the future would have to take care of itself, how the only thing that mattered was that they should become husband and wife. So he managed to wrangle a four-day pass. It wasn’t much but it was all he could get and he had to beg for that. Suddenly, time was of the essence. In such dire times, life had to be lived for the moment, since the future was a spin of the roulette wheel, a roll of the dice. If he’d told his superiors that he was planning to use the pass to travel 450 miles to Ohio to get married, they probably never would have given it to him. A 900-mile roundtrip in four days was an AWOL waiting to happen, even if the guy hadn’t just been activated and wasn’t eloping. But it was December, just two weeks before Christmas, and they were feeling generous.
Whitie and Reba Mae, wedding day, Dec. 12, 1942.

So that was how Reba Mae and Whitie wed. The bride was nineteen, the groom twenty. She wore a pillbox hat and a pretty new dress with two artificial corsages of three flowers each, in heart-shaped arrangements on the bodice. He wore his Army-issue Class-A wool dress uniform and service cap. A marriage license, a willing parson, a night out at a basketball game to celebrate, part of a day somewhere in between to bask in their new matrimony, and Whitie was off to the South again, and then off overseas, to war.
It is from here on that the story of how Whitie spent the war is his and his alone—a unique and tacit story, probably run like a film in his mind, time and again throughout his life,  a story like those of hundreds of thousands of other individuals of his era, who did what they considered their duty and then returned home to “business as usual”, after having been witnesses to and participants in some of the greatest and most massive horrors humanity had ever known. Like many of them, he played down his role. He was never “in the first wave”. He’d “never done much”. There was “no patriotism in it”. He was “just trying to get back in one piece.” And there was one “specific truth” that our mother and father always seemed adamant about: Whitie, we were assured “never had to kill anybody.”
Like most of the American boys of my era, I was fanatically interested in World War II. Both my father and his older brother had been there, after all. Both had placed themselves in harm’s way, one to help save Europe from Fascism, the other to help halt the expansion of Japanese imperialism. My friends and I “played war”, were familiar with nearly every name and caliber of every weapon used on all sides of the conflict, watched every World War II movie ever made, followed the documentary footage of the war presented by famed TV anchors like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. I, like many of my friends, had a gnawing need to piece together the story my father refused to tell in full, from the shattered fragments that sometimes festered their way to the surface like pieces of long-buried shrapnel. So whenever Whitie did manage to eke out a phrase or two about his wartime experiences, I hung on his every word and committed those words to memory.
Quoth Whitie:
“When I first got over there, they had me working in the motor pool fixing busted trucks and jeeps. Just me and this Algerian Frenchman. We welded frames and bodywork back together. This Algerian Frenchman was a real blacksmith. Hooked up with the Seventh Army in Africa. He’s the one that made that Seventh Army ring for me and the other one for your mom. Pounded them out of two coins. He was a real artist. Tough...that guy was as tough as they come. Once, he handed me a pair of tongs with a red-hot wire and had me stick it into a hollow in a tooth that was hurting him to kill the nerve. Opened his mouth and pointed at the tooth, like this. It smoked when I put the wire in there. He just groaned, then grinned and thanked me and we went back to work.”
A combat-hardened demolition tech-sergeant in
the European theatre. He commanded a 9-man
technical squad.
“I started working in demolition a little later on. They made me a buck sergeant and assigned me nine men. I was the squad leader. I carried a sidearm, a forty-five automatic. That was standard issue for a tech sergeant with my kind of job. But those damn things kicked so bad it was hard as hell to hit anything over ten yards away. You might as well have thrown it at the enemy. So I also always kept an M-1 carbine handy, just in case.”
“Our job was to come in right behind the point troops after they’d gained ground from the Nazis and then blow up anything that the enemy might be able to use if they managed to turn the tables and win that ground back. Some places we even blew bridges so there was no easy coming back for anybody. You just had to fight and keep advancing. But mostly it was a matter of disabling ordnance, blowing up abandoned tanks, trucks, gun emplacements, ammo dumps and so on. God, I can still smell those tanks! You’d crank open the hatch to toss in a combustion grenade and the smell of those burned up Nazi bodies would roll out of there and gag you.”
“We were pretty much on our own in France. We’d get our assignment and a time to handle it in before we had to rendezvous with our company . Sometimes if an area had been well secured, we’d hustle to finish our job and then we’d hang out in some wine cellar getting drunk on good French wine and cognac for a few days. We had strict orders not to eat or drink anything left behind by the Nazis because it could have been poisoned. But we thought, what the hell, ya gotta die o’ somethin’! We only got sick once, but that was enough. We ate some ham that wasn’t cured right. They said it was trichinosis. I don’t know what it was, but we could stand at one end of a slit trench and hit the other end with our shit.”
General George S. "Blood and Guts" Patton.
Everybody said he was a hero. Whitie thought
he was "a blowhard".
About General George S. Patton: “Patton? Ha! The big blowhard! We followed that sonuvabitch through I don’t know how many places. Whenever you got there, the story was always the same. The MPs would tell you the area ‘was secured,’ that ‘Patton had been through there.’ Yeah, he’d been through there all right...Patton’s way. Ride through on a goddamn Sherman tank and call it ‘secure’. Then we’d spend days on end getting shot at by snipers that were still all over the place, until we know, get that mess cleaned up and get down to work. I’ve never had any use for that bastard, and I’ll tell that to anybody that asks!”
In answer to my persistent questions about if he had any close buddies who got killed, he usually ignored me, but once he told about one, maybe the one that most stuck in his mind: “I had this one buddy. We were with each other through a lot of the war. One night when he was on guard duty, toward the end of the war, he got killed by Nazi sympathizers. They just killed him for no good reason. Chopped him up with an axe.”
“When we had the Germans on the run, there were lots of prisoners...thousands of them. I did guard duty for a while toward the end in a POW camp we set up. I had a Lugar for a while that we took off of a German officer. Wanted to bring it home with me but it got confiscated. I sent some other stuff home: An SS officer’s uniform and a German helmet. Your Grandma planted petunias in the helmet, and your mom burned the uniform in the coal furnace, because she said it ‘smelled like death’. I remember it was really cold and the prisoners were in really basic huts. They had these troughs outside for them to wash up in. In the morning, the water in the troughs would be frozen over. I was always amazed at how those Germans would come out there every morning first thing, strip to the waist, break the ice and wash themselves up. No matter how cold it got, they washed up every day.”
The "Munich" motorcycle Whitie confiscated was almost certainly a BMW
R75 "Wehrmacht", made especially for the Army of the Third Reich. With
the sidecar, they weighed upwards of 980 pounds dry (without fuel or oil),
and made incredibly fast and versatile battlefield and patrol vehicles.
“I also confiscated this motorcycle once, after we’d crossed into Germany. We were amazed by their roads and machines. The flyboys used to land transports on the Autobahns. We thought we had roads till we got over there and saw theirs. Anyway, I had this Munich motorcycle [almost certainly a BMW R75 Werhrmacht model]. The thing weighed almost half a ton, and I was all over the place on it.

So this one time, there’s nobody around and I’m going flat out on the Autobahn and I come up over this overpass, but what I didn’t know was that on the other side of the hill, the road had been completely bombed out. So I hit that rubble and gravel going about sixty and flipped the damn bike. The bike, which, like I say, was heavy as hell, stopped and I kept on going and slid and rolled through that busted-up road-bed for fifty yards or so. I was in a field hospital for a while after that. And for a good two weeks after they patched me up and let me go, I was picking gravel out of my skin, whenever it festered to the surface.”
“I’ll never understand why anybody that was in service would want to go goddamn camping! We lived in tents for years on end. And when we weren’t in tents, they billeted us in salt mines or converted hog and chicken houses. I had my bellyful of that shit in the service. And all these overgrown Boy Scouts around here are always saying, ‘A bunch of us are going camping over at the lake this weekend. Why don’t you bring your family and come too?’ Why the hell would I want to do that? I never want to sleep without sheets and a bed again!”
“Some of the guys used to say the English were sissies, you know, because of the way they talked. But I’ve never known tougher people in my life. In London, I remember how the Germans would bomb the shit out of them, and calm as could be, they’d say, ‘Well, the Gerries are surely out tonight, aren’t they, mate.’ And as soon as the raid was over, they’d be out cleaning up the rubble, putting out fires, and looking for survivors. Anybody tells me the English are sissies, I’ll tell ‘em they’re full o’ shit.”
Whitie was in France for a long time. He said he’d learned a little French while he was there. “Say something in French, Daddy, say something in French,” we’d beg when we were little. “Oú dormez-vous?” he would say with an ornery grin. And from wherever she was in the house, Reba Mae would respond, “Norman Newland, I can hear you!” We later learned that it meant “Where do you sleep?”
“I remember how in the towns in France, people would all turn out in the street to greet us when we rolled through. The women would kiss us and hug us and throws us flowers. We had this major who, through the whole last part of the war, had this red silk ball cap he wore. The guy was a crook. He’d trade these French people, who were literally starving, chocolate and K-rations and cigarettes for their family silverware and linen or whatever and then he’d sell it to us. Made a killing, that guy.”
In response to my mentioning that an Army buddy of mine had won a bronze star: “Bronze stars are like assholes, Dan. Everybody’s got one. They even gave me a couple, so they can’t be worth much.”
The Queen Mary entering the New York Harbor carrying thousands
of US troops, on June 20, 1945.
 “I came back from the war on the Queen Mary. It was so big it was like a floating town. It was three football fields long, easy. It could carry, maybe, fifteen thousand troops or more the way they had it rigged for the war. But it wasn’t like we could enjoy the ride. The weather was so rough most of us heaved our guts up all the way back. We didn’t really give a shit though, ‘cause we were headed home!

(To be continued)


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