Wednesday, November 01, 2006

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.

6 Comments:

Blogger Ginnie said...

It was so interesting to read your blog since I just saw "Flags of our Fathers" last night. It is the Clint Eastwood film (he as Director) about the raising of the flag over Iwo Jima. I found it very difficult to watch...I was a young girl then but I remember WW II vividly and losing a lot of close relatives and friends. You were lucky indeed.
I am going to post a blog tomorrow about somewhat the same thing.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006 5:03:00 PM  
Blogger Chancy said...

Mort, yes you were lucky to have been spared during WW2. My brother was also in the signal corps.He had been employed with the Western Electric, a division of AT&T so I suppose that is how he came to be in the signal corps. He was stationed in Northern Africa and did not see combaty duty and came home safely. My cousin was not lucky as he died in Holland. He left a young wife and baby boy whom he never saw.
My second brother enlisted in the Navy when he was about to be drafter, He was really lucky He was stationed in Hollywood Florida for a while and then transfered to Seattle, Washington. Before he could be shipped overseas to the Pacific theater the was ended.

All this seems like yesterday with all the memories. I ws 15 when the war ended.

Thursday, November 02, 2006 4:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad you made it through Mort. My youngest boy and I put extra change in the collecting tin for the Poppy Appeal today and I though of all the boys that weren't so lucky. God bless them all.

Saturday, November 04, 2006 2:06:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

Circumstances do somehow seem to serendipitiously place us in harms way, or keep us from harms way.

Our family was fortunate that my older brother became a radioman in the Navy, though he did serve overseas, but came safely home unharmed. Am glad you did, too.

Yes, there are no safe positions in this Iraq disaster -- except those of the individuals who sent them there in the first place.

Sunday, November 05, 2006 3:08:00 AM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Wonderful writing,Mort. My dad also "made it through" WWII, having been part of the Normandy Invasion.
But you're so right...the war in Iraq doesn't allow our military to have the luxury of being "lucky."
RE: Your comment on my blog. While the Clark/Obama might be a good ticket....I don't think Obama would go for that...being second best. And I don't think he should...with his intelligence and competence, he doesn't need to settle for second best. Thanks for the comment.
(You might be interested in the entry I have planned for tomorrow...on Independents)

Sunday, November 05, 2006 11:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Octogenerian ... I was not quite old enough to have served during World War II inasmuch as my 18th birthday and registration for Selective Service occurred in July and Japan surrendered in August, 1945. I did serve immediately after hostilities as a part of the occupying force in Japan. But, the purpose of this comment is to mention the experience of my uncle who was a pilot in the Army Air Corps Transportation Command, stationed in Assam Province, India. All of his flying was over the Hump. He was the only pilot among the group of pilots who went to India with him to survive and return to the United States. His most harrowing experience was on a flight over the Hump that was carrying Chinese soldiers. Because of the wind currents and the weight of the airplane, it was not able to gain sufficient altitude to get over the highest peak on the route. The commander of the Chinese determined it was necessary to lighten the load, and instead of throwing out the equipment in the cargo, the soldiers were tossed from the plane at whatever elevation the plane had managed to reach, and thus lightened, the plane went over the mountains and completed its journey safely. My uncle said he had nightmares thereafter of soldiers falling to their deaths without parachutes. He said all of his buddies who died, died when their planes hit the mountains. It was a very difficuly crossing. ... Caponer

Tuesday, November 07, 2006 11:17:00 AM  

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