Military is a great magazine. It is loaded, however, with gung-ho stories of action in the war; battles, sea victories, heroes, armament, casualties and so on. All written for men who saw action, were decorated and are now part of the GI “memory” brigade.
But what about guys who never saw enemy action, but were in uniform, doing their duty, going where the brass wanted to put them? I was one of those guys. So the only claim I have to being part of our victory was that I was in the Army, in the Pacific theater, for three long, tedious years. I wasn’t shot at and didn’t shoot anybody. But I thought you guys who saw action might like to read what one GI did in the war to make his bones. It might be a respite from the military articles.
On Nov. 17, 1942. I enlisted in the Army. Because (1) if I was drafted I would have no say as to which branch of service I’d wind up in, and (2) if I enlisted I was given a choice of where I would be sent. Imagine that. I chose the Pacific because I had always liked the islands.
From Camp Grant in Illinois I was sent to Anniston, Ala., for basic training, which wasn’t too bad, but it was November and Alabama had frost on the pumpkin, which made guard duty at night uncomfortable because the snot kept running out of my nose and into my mouth. Blaaa.
I was made squad leader the second day. No surprise, since I already knew the manual of arms and all the marching steps. At 16 I had been a sergeant in a quasi-military outfit called the Northwest Infantry. This boy’s organization was the brainchild of “Colonel” Haynes, a former German officer who put us boys in full uniform, armed us with defunct Enfield rifles, and took us on long marches every Saturday afternoon. So I already knew all the military moves. Matter of fact, when basic was over, our captain asked me if I wanted to go to Fort Benning and become a second lieutenant. At that time, rumor was that the Japs were getting pleasure in killing young officers. Knowing this, I told the captain, “Thanks, Sir, but no thanks. I’m allergic to Japanese lead.”
After basic, Doree, now my wife of 66 years, came to San Francisco to see me off to the war in the South Pacific. We were engaged but decided not to marry until I got home … if I got home.
In those days troops were sent overseas by ship, and it was no Happy Holiday cruise. We were unloaded on New Caledonia, a small French island near New Zealand where wounded GIs were sent for rest and rehab. In civilian life I was a musician, so on New Caledonia they made me a drummer in a military band.
Weird: in World War I my dad had been in a military band, but a mustard gas explosion had left holes in his back. Funny how that came to mind as I was beating on my drum.
After many months in New Caledonia, we were sent to the Philippines. This was still considered a combat zone. Some Japs were still up-island but no threat to the Manila area. For this I got my only battle star. You see, guys? It don’t take much. During my many months of Philippine duty I got a stubborn case of dengue fever. But I never got malaria. Luck of the Irish, I guess.
At one point I went down with a horrific case of hepatitis which put me in the Army hospital. There was only one treatment for hepatitis at that time … I had to eat a box of hard candy every day. Apparently the sugar counteracted the liver ailment and helped cure me. Luckily, I like hard candy, but it still was no walk in the park. The skin over my entire body got red and itched so bad it was driving me bonkers. So a nurse had to swab my entire body every day with calamine lotion. The thing that got me through was the stash of beer in my bedside cabinet which my buddies regularly smuggled in. Now I know what “Never let your buddy down” means.
When I got out of the hospital I was surprised to find out that my outfit was in Japan. Now what the hell was I supposed to do? In my post-hospital stupor I donned my uniform, packed my duffle bag and hitched a ride in a cargo plane heading for Tokyo. I was still weak, I had on light khakis, it was November, the plane wasn’t heated and I didn’t have a clue where my outfit was in Japan.
In Tokyo, I asked a Red Cross lady where the 230th Ground Forces band was stationed. She said that my outfit was in the Kobe/Osaka area, about a 3½ hour train ride from Tokyo. With what seemed like half the population of Japan rushing to catch the train, getting aboard was no picnic … plus, I didn’t have any GIs around to keep me company.
Every seat on the train was filled, so I stood in the gangway between the cars, freezing my butt off and wondering why I didn’t see at least one other white face on the train. About an hour later, I felt a tap on my shoulder which jarred me. I turned, expecting to see a gun or a knife. Instead it was a little Japanese older guy with an orange, which he gave me. I said thank you. He smiled and left.
As I peeled the orange I felt that I might get to Kobe without having my throat cut after all.
When we pulled into the Kobe station I was stunned. The city had been flattened by American bombers. Pinpoint bombing had made a wasteland of the city, but in the dim dawn light I saw that the bombers had purposely left two large buildings standing untouched. I learned they had been designated as American Army headquarters. And in 15 minutes or so I had my buddies swarming all over me, glad to see me, and asking me why I came to Kobe when I had enough points to go home, which they had assumed I had done. Yeah, sure.
A couple of months in Japan was enough for me. After making the necessary arrangements, I slapped backs and kicked ass with my buddies, and later boarded a ship that was going east, not west. After a month at sea, sleeping in a ship’s bunk with my face three inches from the bunk above me, I eventually saw the Statue of Liberty and nearly wet my pants.
But I must tell you two shitty things about the boat trip home. First, I learned that my buddy, Ray Sheehan, had left Japan a week after I did, but got home two weeks before me. You see, his ship went to San Francisco, but my ship went around the bottom of the States, through the Panama Canal, thence up to New York. I figured this was an old Army trick to keep me in the military as long as possible.
The other bad-ass thing that happened was that I broke my glasses while on board ship, so that when we finally went through the canal I missed seeing the spectacle of it. Shit!
When I finally got to the separation center to be discharged, we GIs were told that if we re-enlisted for three more years, we’d get a $300 bonus right there. Most of us quietly said, “stick that three hundred bucks where the sun don’t shine; just give us our discharge papers." Then I hopped on a train for Chicago, where my fiancé was waiting for me.
After our highly emotional meeting, I told Doree (my soon to be my wife) that the two best things that happened to me during my three years overseas were that I didn’t get wounded and I never got a Dear John letter.
To close, guys, let me say this: if you ever have to go to war, I pray that neither of those two bad things ever happen to you. The former may break your body but the latter wiill break your heart.