Posts Tagged 'war stories'

Tales Heard at Daddy’s Knee (Part IV)

Sorry for the hiatus, Sports Fans.  For the first time in my life, Daddy asked for something for his birthday–a day trip to Galveston.  There is no doubt that I bent over backwards to give him a memorable trip.  We all piled into the Jeep Commander we’d rented (my beloved RaggTopp was getting a new tranny) and headed off as soon as swim practice was over in Brenham.  There was Mama and Daddy, me, my 12-year-old son (whom we call The Bear, or just Bear), my 16-year-old daughter (whom we call Ladybug, or just Bug), and her boyfriend (whom we affectionately call “El Ese”–it’s a Hispanic thing that is A Tale For Another Day).

We arrived on Galveston Island just in time for a late lunch.  It was a tough choice; we strongly considered the drug store lunch counter that had been highly recommended in the current issue of Texas Monthly, but choose instead to try to find the magnificent Greek restaurant along the seawall where Hubby, Ladybug, and I had eaten 4 years earlier.  Success!  We had a magnificent meal of gyros, saganaki and splendiferous salad.  We then drove around the old neighborhoods to see some of the beautiful turn-of-the-20th-Century homes that have been so well preserved thanks to the combination of the aforementioned seawall (a hard lesson learned after the unnamed hurricane of 1900–still the greatest natural disaster in American history) and strict development codes with a clear preference for preservation over demolition.

On a lark, we drove to the opposite side of the island to check out the Lone Star Flight Museum, arriving a scant 20 minutes prior to closing.  Oh!  If only we had come here first after lunch!  When we were paying for our entry into the museum, Daddy asked the docent if they had on display an example of the aircraft in which he flew during WWII.  She very excitedly and personally guided us outside the hanger where the museum is located to a flight-ready Marine PBJ (a B-25 Mitchell to those of you not fortunate enough to be related to a WWII Marine) decked out in the regalia of a Doolittle Raider ( for those of you whose History education, for whatever reason, was deficient).   The next day, the museum was offering flights in the PBJ to the public, at least those willing and able to fork over $325 each for the privilege.  Daddy, in playful indignation, had to comment that in 1944-45, the Marine Corps paid HIM to fly in one!  Still, just like always, it got Daddy to start commenting about the war, telling the Tales I have loved so much all my life.  I had to admit a modicum of jealousy for the raptly-attentive docent, who was hearing them for the first time.  I wonder if I still have that totally-absorbed and fascinated look she had when listening to Daddy’s stories?  I sure hope so; as time goes by, the importance of keeping these Tales fresh, yet accurate, is becoming increasingly crucial to me.

Anyway, I have saved my favorite Tales of Daddy’s time in service for last in this series (although I do reserve the right to revisit this subject sometime in the future).  This particular Tale took place while Daddy was stationed on Mindanao, the southernmost of the major Philippine Islands, and home to the Moros, a band of native islanders who practiced Islam, cat-burglary, and cannibalism;, all in a most cold-blooded manner (at least at that time).

Many special precautions had to be taken because of the constant threats from the Moros, both real and perceived.  The one thing in the GI’s favor was the Moros hated the Japanese just as much, if not more.  There was a constant armed guard, but it didn’t keep the Moros from raiding the Marines’ tents at night.  The Marines were given the sternest of warnings that if they happened to hear a noise in the night, they were to stay put and pretend to be asleep if they wanted to live.  If the Moros thought they were in danger of being caught, their simple solution was to slit the Marine’s throat.  As long as the Marine was asleep (or they though he was), he was OK.

Anyway, in keeping with wartime policy, once a member of an aircrew had his replacement on-site, he was shipped away from the action.  Two aircrew, upon learning that they would be leaving the next day since their replacements had arrived, took off to meet with the Moros.  They not only returned with their vascular systems intact, they had all the trinkets and native souvenirs they could carry.  They departed the next morning without incident.  Later that same day, the chief of the local Moro tribe was brought to the Officer of the Day.  The chief produced an official-looking document and demanded his warplanes.  Apparently, the two aircrew (who astutely signed the documents as “Joe Blow,” “Kilroy,” or something to that effect) had contracted with the Moro Chief to exchange the trinkets for the warplanes–never mind what in the world the Moros were going to do with said warplanes!  What happened to the two aircrew (of if their true identities were ever discovered) is unknown.  This much is known:  the Chief left the base empty-handed, and the night guard at the Camp was doubled for the duration!

Like all youngsters growing up near Atlanta, I was well-schooled in the role of Coca-Cola during the war–Asa Candler’s astute provision of refreshment to GI’s worldwide transformed Coke from a regional drink to a world-wide powerhouse.  There was even a steady supply maintained on tiny Emerau, albeit inside a fenced area and under armed guard.  One day, the guard was a Marine from Daddy’s unit, VMB 433.  A major who, if not the inspiration for Frank Burns, could well have been, happened to drive past the Coke supply depot just in time to see the guard polish off an appropriated bottle and toss the empty onto the pile of spent bottles.  The major promptly had the guard arrested and charged with Theft of Government Property, Value 5 Cents.

Even during wartime, we enjoy certain rights as citizens, including the right to legal defense.  An Area Defense Counsel (ADC) was assigned to defend the hapless guard.  This particular attorney, by this late period in the war, had been around the block a few times with petty jurisprudence and had become somewhat jaded.  The court-martial began, with the major giving detailed, lucid, and seemingly-damning evidence of the events he had witnessed firsthand.  After the Judge Advocate General (the JAG, the prosecutor) was finished, he stepped aside for the ADC to cross-examine–a seemingly pointless task.  The ADC stood up, strode as casually toward the witness stand as military formalities allowed, and asked only one question:  “Can you produce the corpus delecti?”  The paleness and slackening jaw of the Major provided all the answer necessary.  The guard had at least had the presence of mind to toss the evidence onto the pile of empties; knowing which bottle was the stolen one was impossible.

The court-martial ended with the case being dismissed for lack of evidence, the guard being returned to duty without punishment and the major being officially reprimanded for sloppy prosecution.  Well, I can’t honestly say that the guard didn’t receive punishment; it just wasn’t official.  After the reprimand, the major was reassigned from his administrative post and sent to…you guessed it…VMB 433, in the chain of command of that poor guard.  Yeah, I think he got punished, all right!

Now we skip ahead some 20-25 years.  Daddy was chatting with a wine-and-spirits proprietor in my home of Athens, GA, who had one of the better shops in town.  During the course of the conversation, it came out that the proprietor had also been in PBJ’s during the war, which prompted Daddy to retell the above Tale.  Not only was the gentleman already familiar with the tale, he grinned and said to Daddy “You DO know who that ADC was, don’t you?”

“No,” Daddy replied.  Time had erased that particular part of the Tale from his memory.

The shopowner relished the moment of revelation:  “Senator Smathers from Florida!”  As in Senator George Smathers, as in the one who bested incumbent Sen. Claude Pepper for that seat, all the while refuting the popular claim that at rallies throughout the Sunshine State Smathers had called Sen. Pepper “a Homo Sapien” who “habitually practiced celibacy before his marriage” and had called Pepper’s actress sister “a thespian.”

The name-calling really never happened. The truth hurts, doesn’t it??  Still, it makes a great Tale, and if it were true, it would have shown Sen. Smathers as having a clear assessment of the intelligence of the average American voter long before anyone else did.  Oh, well.

Tales Heard at Daddy’s Knee (Part III)

Tonight I pay tribute to the source of most of Daddy’s best stories:  his service in the Marine Corps in WWII.  Daddy missed his high school graduation in 1942 due to his enlistment, but he has never expressed regret over it.  In fact, Daddy said that he was so gung-ho to join the USMC because being a Marine meant never having to endure a European winter–very important to someone who had spent his entire life in locales where it never snowed!

As American involvement in WWII segued from inevitable to imminent in 1940, Mama Lucy received an offer she couldn’t refuse:  dietary director for the Army’s training camp in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.  Since her husband and both parents had already passed on, there was no reason to live hand-to-mouth in Moultrie when she could draw a salary AND be given an allowance for food and housing in Hattiesburg.   Never mind the fact that working for the Army would be one of the most secure and stable jobs in an economy still recovering from the Great Depression and now ramping up for war.

Shortly after the move, my daddy’s brother, A.P. Junior, left to accept his appointment to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.  Daddy had one year of high school left.  His entry into the Marines has already been documented, now we get to the good part:  the war stories.

First off, as a veteran myself, let me take a moment to express my utmost respect to all who have served our great nation and the defense of freedom, wherever and whenever the call reached you.  I know there are many war veterans who refuse to talk about their experiences, not wanting to relive the hell that war truly is (yes, I know Sherman said it–truth is truth, regardless of the speaker).  Daddy’s war stories are legion, but each one is a side-splitter.  Yes, Daddy saw combat during the war (he earned an Air Medal for surviving 26 missions), and I know there is hell he won’t discuss (to this day, he refuses to consider ever buying a Mitsubishi–even though he has no trouble owning other Japanese products.  I also won’t consider one, out of respect for Daddy).  Still, it is obvious to me that the way Daddy has dealt with the war is to find the humor in the hell–a strategy that made the creators of M*A*S*H a mint.  I learned that lesson as well; my way of coping with downturns in my life is to try to find some levity.  Abraham Lincoln said it best, when he had been castigated for cracking jokes during a Cabinet meeting at the darkest period of the Civil War:  “I must laugh, else I shall surely weep.”

One of the stories from early in the war involved volunteering:  something that any sensible recruit knows NOT to do.  For Daddy, though, it paid off.  Daddy was a scrawny, wiry lad of 18 going through his various training assignments.  There was Basic Training in San Diego, California; RADAR School (in the days when RADAR “didn’t exist”) in Jacksonville, Florida; and Flight School in Cherry Point, North Carolina.  If Daddy had any difficulty with the rigors of training, there isn’t a Tale about it.

Anyway, while Daddy was stationed on the island of Emerau preparing to support the invasion of the Philippines, the time came for Daddy’s unit to “police the area”–clean up and/or do maintenance to those of you without military experience.  The day’s assigned labor was going to be tedious and heavy–just the wrong thing when you’re 5’11” and 125 lbs. dripping wet.  Then the call came out:  was there anyone in the unit who had experience operating a cherry picker?  Even though Daddy had never even been in a cherry picker (you know, that piece of equipment telephone and cable maintenance people use to access those high wires–a bucket on an extending arm mounted on a truck), much less knew how to operate one, his hand instantly shot up, and he was given the job.  So much for the grunt work!

Hearing this Tale as a child, I knew all too well that liars eventually get caught; at least I always did when I tried it.  So my logical question to Daddy was “What happened when they found out you couldn’t operate a  cherry picker?”  His matter-of-fact reply was accompanied by a deadpan expression that would have made Buster Keaton proud:  “By the time they found out, I could!”

Not all of Daddy’s Tales centered around him.  A particulary entertaining one centered around a classmate of his at the Citadel, where Daddy spent his Freshman year of college on the GI Bill after the war.  His buddy was an Extended-Duty Corpsman during the war, which means that since he was assigned to a ship that was too small to justify a full-fledged physician, he was trained and authorized to perform some MD duties should an emergency arise.  Anyway, while stationed in Pensacola, there had been some bad blood between the base and the civilian community because some Naval emergency vehicle operators had thought it great fun to drive at breakneck speeds through town with sirens blaring when there wasn’t an emergency.  The hospital commander had decreed that any reports of Navy emergency vehicles speeding through town with sirens blaring were subject to investigation.

Sure enough, one day Daddy’s buddy was ushered into the hospital commander’s office.  Once the formalities of “attention” and “at ease” were over, the commander got right to the point.

Hospital Commander:  I understand that you were speeding through town yesterday morning with lights and sirens on.  Is this true?

Corpsman:  Yes, Sir, it is.

Hospital Commander:  Was it an emergency?

Corpsman:  You tell me, Sir.  It was your wife.

Hospital Commander (laughing):  Dismissed!

Apparently, the morning before, the commander’s wife had gone into premature labor.  She was rushed to the local hospital, and everyone turned out fine, including the corpsman who knew just what to say and how to say it when faced with a ridiculous situation.

Now, lest this post extend to Brobdingnagian proportions, I will jump to May, 1945 to tell a Tale as hilarious as it is brief.  Daddy was still on the island of Emerau in the Solomon Islands, it was late spring and oppressively hot and humid; almost as stifling as Houston this time of year!  The hour was around midnight; those Marines not on duty were trying to escape the weather by catching some shut-eye in their tents.  In the silence, a lone voice rang out, piercing the night.  “The war’s over!  The war’s over!  Germany has surrendered!” was the cry echoing repeatedly and relentlessly throughout the camp.  Some anonymous, wise Marine took it upon himself to speak for the whole camp:  “Shut up, you g*******d drunken idiot!  We’re fighting the Japanese!”  Thus ended the observance of VE Day in Daddy’s camp.

Next Time:  more Tales from WWII

June 2020

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