Senator Bob Dole and me
I've been reading recently about former Senator Bob Dole's new autobiography in which he reveals in clinical detail the horrendous battle wounds he suffered during World War II and his prolonged, agonizing struggle to recover. I've often disagreed with Senator Dole's domestic politics. But I regard him as a genuine American hero. And I stand in awe at how, despite serious physical disabilities, he became a nationally renowned political leader.
In contrast to Senator Dole, I was lucky to emerge from that war relatively unscathed, never exposed to actual combat. In three years of service, including more than two overseas, the only time I heard a shot fired in anger was the launching of a depth charge against a German submarine that attacked my troopship off the coast of Brazil. (The enemy missed us; I never learned whether we hit him.)
I trace my good fortune to a series of flukes, starting on my first day in the Army on April 14, 1943. I was one of about 25 Bronx 18-year olds, most of them former schoolmates, inducted as a group at Camp Upton, N.Y. My first lucky break (I didn't recognize that it was one at the time) was when I was unable to get a bed in the same barracks with most of my fellow inductees. As we marched down a street being assigned to barracks, the handful of men behind me and I were directed to a barracks across the street from the others..
Three days later, the men in the barracks in which there had been no room for me were shipped to Camp McCall, N.C. to be trained as glider-infantry men. The guys in my barracks were shipped to the Air Corps basic training center in Miami Beach, Fla. We were greeted by a colonel who, with a straight face, told us that we had been "scientifically selected for the Air Corps as the cream of the crop." Obviously, he didn't know about the bed shortage in one barracks at Camp Upton.
When I came home after the war, I ran into a couple of the men with whom I had been inducted three years earlier. I learned that about half of our group had been killed or wounded in action in France and Germany with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
It is on such strokes of good or bad luck that one's wartime experience evolved. During basic training I had the option of selecting what the Army delicately calls a "military occupational speciality." I volunteered to be an aerial gunner, but was rejected because of color blindness. I have never figured out why my difficulty in distinguishing certain shades of blue from certain shades of green would have inhibited me from shooting down enemy aircraft. Combat records showed that being an aerial gunner was as hazardous as being a glider-infantryman.
Still another fortunate fluke occurred at Camp Patrick Henry, Va., a staging area for the Hampton Roads port of embarkation. When I arrived there in late December 1943, the battle at Anzio in Italy was raging. U.S. casualties were heavy, and all troops being shipped from Patrick Henry were headed for Anzio as replacements, via North Africa.
This prospect for my contingent of men, all of us unassigned to any specific unit, was reinforced when we were issued trench knives, a piece of equipment none of us had ever been issued before. They were quickly taken away from us, however, because so many of the guys had injured themselves opening up beer cans with the knives. Perhaps because of this show of military ineptness, my group was put aboard a troop ship that wound up in Bombay, India, via Capetown, South Africa--far away from the battleground at Anzio.
So my entire military career turned on these three peculiar flukes that probably helped account for my relatively healthy survival from war.
The most potentially hazardous duty that I experienced was doing guard duty in the jungles of eastern India for several days, on alert for Japanese troops invading from Burma. They had already conquered the border province of Manipur. But the Japanese never appeared in my territory. Perhaps they were deterred by military intelligence revealing that a soldier who flourished on flukes was on guard there.