MEMOIR: My "good fortune" in wartime
Every year as we observe the Veterans Day holiday, I reflect on my good fortune in having emerged from three years of World War II military service--26 months of it overseas-- relatively unscathed. I think of the hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, including two boyhood friends, who were killed, wounded or traumatized by combat, and I recall how I evaded misfortune because of a couple of strokes of good luck.
My sense of having been lucky during the war was reinforced recently when two of my New Jersey neighbors appeared on a local community TV program to talk about their wartime experiences. One of them had been an infantryman who was wounded in combat and captured by the Germans. He spent nearly a year as a slave laborer in a PW camp. The other man survived a troopship sinking in which more than a 1,000 men died.
The two veterans broke down as they recounted their experiences. The former PW had kept his a secret from his family and friends for 50 years. He had begun to talk about it only after undergoing psychiatric treatment. As I listened to their emotional accounts, I recalled that my most harmful wartime calamities were dengue fever and amoebic dysentery contracted in India.
I encountered good fortune on my first day in the Army on April 14, 1943, when I was inducted with about three dozen other 18-year olds from my Bronx neighborhood at Camp Upton, N.Y. My first lucky break (I didn't recognize it at the time) was not finding a bed in the same barracks with most of my fellow inductees. As we marched down a street being assigned to barracks, I and the handful of men behind me were ordered into 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 of the barracks at Camp Upton.
When I came home after the war, I met 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.
During basic training I had the option of selecting what the Army delicately calls a "military occupational specialty." I volunteered to be an aerial gunner, but was rejected because of color blindness. I 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. As a gung-ho kid genuinely eager to "see action," I was despondent about being turned down. I later learned that casualties among aerial gunners were as heavy as those of glider-infantry men.
Last year, after reading his autobiography, I corresponded with Sen. Bob Dole, the former Kansas Senator and Republican Presidential candidate. He told me that when he was inducted into the Army he applied to be an aviation cadet. He was also rejected because of color blindness. He was then assigned to the 10th Mountain Infantry Division and was seriously wounded in combat in Italy, losing the full use of one of his arms.
I was luckier with my rejection. I ended up in the Signal Corps for training as a Teletype operator and cryptographer. Apparently the demand for infantrymen, however, was more crucial than the need for Teletype operators and cryptographers, and I did subsequently undergo infantry training at the overseas replacement training center at Jefferson Barracks, Mo.
One training exercise involved crawling under a barbed wire fence as live machine gun fire soared overhead. I remember ripping the seat of my pants on the barbed wire and being forced to repair the tear with my very limited sewing skills. I went through the war with very primitive stitches on the seat of my pants.
Evidently there was a shortage of fatigue uniforms because the supply sergeant refused to give me a replacement pair of pants. But maybe he thought I had kept my rear end too high up during the exercise and was trying to teach me a lesson . The crawling-under-fire experience was as close as I ever got to hearing a shot fired in anger. I was fortunate never having been called upon to test my skill as an infantry rifleman, which was far superior to my talent as a seamstress.
I did get to hear the explosive sound of what might be regarded as a battle when depth charges were launched from my troopship against a German submarine that had fired torpedoes at us in the South Atlantic Ocean on our way to India. The sub missed us, and we didn't hang around long enough to learn whether we had hit the sub.
In World War II, the rule of thumb was that it took at least 10 non-combatant troops--clerks, mechanics, truck drivers, warehousemen, cooks, and the like--behind the lines to support a single soldier in combat.
There was no need for more Teletype operators and cryptographers in the 903rd Signal Co., to which I was eventually assigned. So I was given the job of supervising a gang of Bengali coolies loading trucks at a warehouse with airborne electronic equipment. The vehicles were driven to nearby bases of the 10th Air Force and the Air Transport Command in Assam and Burma. Other supplies were trucked over the Burma-Ledo Road or flown over the Himalayas (known to us as "the Hump") to the 14th Air Force and to the Chinese Army.
My talent as a typist was eventually discovered, and I was promoted to be the outfit's company clerk and later its acting first sergeant for a brief period. My position was so lofty that a Calcutta civilian lawyer, who was more than twice my age, was hired as my assistant. The Army's wage was obviously more than he could earn in his law practice. (When he wasn't doing office chores, he promoted the cause of Indian independence from Great Britain to me; I was a sympathetic listener.)
In short, I served during World War II as one of those 10 non-combatant troops supporting the guys in combat. The war in Iraq, however, has destroyed the notion that truck drivers, mechanics and other supposed non-combatant support troops are safe from combat dangers. In Iraq, they are being killed and wounded in what is essentially a guerrilla war where there are no conventional battle lines. They are not getting the chance to be as lucky as I was more than 60 years ago in not being exposed to battle as part of "support" personnel.