Monday, June 25, 2007

MEMOIR: How my parents learned where the Army sent me

There is a tendency for the Bush Administration to over-react to what are conceived to be national security threats. Perhaps the reason is to compensate for the blunders committed before 9/11--the failure to acknowledge warnings of imminent terrorist actions, the failure of the CIA and FBI to coordinate intelligence data, and the failure to recognize the presence of Al-Qaeda agents in this country.

There is no question that the current threat of extremist Islamic terrorism is genuine. But some of the government responses since the 9/11 attack have been ineffectual, if not irrational.

For example, Washington's color-code hysterics that warned about imminent acts of terrorism were false and confusing. The official warnings provided no guidance on what individual citizens were supposed to do, and they wasted the resources of local authorities struggling to respond to the erroneous warnings about the threat.

Another example of the absurd anti-terrorist policies is the system of airport security checks on passengers. To assure political correctness, the checkers avoid passenger profiling, which would be a logical security tool.

After all, we do know what the 9/11 terrorists looked like, and we have good ideas about the appearance and behavior of those who are still serious terrorist threats. This knowledge, however, does not necessarily conflict with intelligence findings that Al-Qaeda has instructed members of its sleeper cells here to assume mainstream American identities and lifestyles as much as possible.

Instead of focusing on truly suspicious airport passengers, the inspectors also routinely check out WASP-looking old women, physically-disabled persons in wheelchairs and other obvious innocents, ordering them to take off their shoes to examine whether explosives are concealed in them.

These nonsensical post-9/11 security tactics remind me of some equally irrational World War II security policies. I remember being on a troop train in late December 1944, traveling from St. Louis, Mo., where I had received infantry training at Jefferson Barracks, to Camp Patrick Henry, Va., a staging area for the Hampton Roads port of embarkation.

Our destination was kept secret from the troops aboard the train. Only when we arrived at the camp were we told that we were in Virginia. But we were not allowed to inform our families. When I phoned my mother in New York, she naturally asked where I was. As I was about to answer her question, some one monitoring outgoing phone conversations cut me off before I could respond. I have always wondered what military benefit our German and Japanese enemies could have gained by knowing I was in Virginia.

After several days, we finally shipped out aboard a British luxury liner, the HMS Empress of Scotland, that had been converted into a troop ship. I estimate that about 5,000 troops were crammed into the vessel. As the ship moved out to sea, all the troops were ordered below decks so that we could not look at the port's "strategic facilities."

I assume that the reference was to such sites as anti-aircraft installations, oil depots, and cargo-handling facilities. If there were any spies among the U.S. troops aboard the ship, I question how they could have possibly communicated what they saw to the enemy, assuming that they knew how to identify facilities that were truly strategically important.

After a month at sea, interrupted by a brief stay in Capetown, South Africa, our ship landed in Bombay, India. As I recall, it was at least a year before we were officially allowed to write home that we were in India. Our outgoing mail was heavily censored by our outfit's own officers. I used to wonder who censored their mail and whether they could tell their families where they were.

Was it really that significant to the Japanese to know that soldiers like me were now in India? I had been trained in the Signal Corps as a Teletype operator and cryptographer. (The Jefferson Barracks infantry training was to supplement these occupational skills.) I cannot imagine that this knowledge would have affected Japan's strategy to invade eastern India or its efforts to block the shipment of U.S. military supplies to China.

By a strange happening, I wandered into a Bombay synagogue while on a day's leave to visit the city. The result was that I was soon able to avoid the restriction and to let my parents know where I was.

A section of the synagogue, which had been founded by Iraqi Jews, was devoted to a community center. Several ping-pong tables were set up in it. When he saw me come into the room, a man named Harry Zussman challenged me to a game.

I don't remember who won the game, but Harry and I quickly became friends. I was stationed for about a month at a U.S. Army replacement center located at an RAF base outside Bombay. While awaiting assignment to an operational outfit, I was frequently allowed to visit the city, where I arranged to meet Harry and spend time with him.

He was a British Army sergeant who had been seriously wounded during the British retreat from Burma. After recovering from his wounds, he was assigned to be a drill instructor in the British-officered Indian Army, also based outside Bombay. The assignment was apparently a sinecure that allowed him lots of free time to come into the city.

When I told him that I was frustrated by my inability to let my family know that I was in India, he said that his outgoing mail was not censored. Harry, who was a native of London who spoke with an engaging cockney accent, volunteered to write to my parents in New York, informing them that he had met me in Bombay.

My mother responded to his letter and shipped him a fruit cake and a kosher salami to show her appreciation. They soon became wartime pen pals, particularly after discovering that their respective parents had originated in the same Czarist Russian province.

Many years later, my wife and I visited London while on a European tour. The first thing I did in London was to check the local telephone book, seeking Harry's name and number. I was disappointed that I did not find him listed. I wanted to thank him for for enabling my parents to know that I was serving in India. It was information that was far more important to them than it could have possibly been to the Japanese.

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Blogger Jim said...

I'm an ex-US Navy ditty-chaser, linguist (1960-70) who volunteered for several temporary submarine missions in the Med the last years or so of that decade. Each time we sailed, no one, not even our wife, was to know we were on such a boat. They took seccrecy to the extreme. One fellow's child died while he was out on assignment and he was not given any notification until they returned several weeks later! I love my country, would have made the Navy a 20-year career if saving my marriage hadn't become a priority; but, of a truth, sometimes "upper-level" reasoning makes little sense....

Tuesday, June 26, 2007 7:31:00 AM  
Blogger Chancy said...

I agree about those silly color coded alerts that we were subjected to while Tom Ridge was holding forth in DC.

But talk about secrecy, Dick Cheney is taking it to the extreme by having the gall to claim he is not part of the Executive Branch to avoid letting any of his "precious paper secrets" see the light of day.

Don't get me started.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007 2:08:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

I had a family member who experienced censorship when in WWII. He had worked out a code with his mother before he ever left the country, so if he was land based and it was appropriate, he could let her know where he was. She never told anyone what she correctly deciphered from his communiques until wars end. She surely had great peace of mind compared to the not knowing so many experienced.

I suppose given the fact he was associated with the submarine service assigned to the South Pacific during a very critical time such secrecy was appropriate. But, what you describe just doesn't make sense.

Saturday, June 30, 2007 12:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Claude said...

Another very interesting memoir.
All the letters my mother received from Poland where her father, brothers and sisters were, were opened and she said that sometimes, lines would be struck out.
I've also read that people received letters that had been opened and that said that the letter had been opened by censorship services.
What good did it do? No idea...

You seem to have found a way of adding photos ;)

Monday, July 02, 2007 1:16:00 AM  
Blogger Will said...

My father, a submariner, was called away during the Cuban missile crisis and the whereabouts of the sub was highly classified. One day several months down the road my Mom went to get her hair done. Chatting away with her hair in curlers, she mentioned to the hairdresser that she was ready any tome for her man to return from the sea. The hairsdresser asked and Mom volunteered that Dad was on the Irex. The hairdresser told Mom not to worry that the Irex would be in day after tomorrow. Sure enough, she was right. Always thought it was funny how much classified info the hairdressers, barbers, and cabbies must have known in Groton and other ports of call through the years.

Thursday, July 05, 2007 11:53:00 AM  

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