Saturday, November 22, 2008

MEMOIR: What I did during the war

On March 16, 1946 I was discharged from the Army as a staff sergeant after three years of service. For two years, I had been stationed in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. Aside from bouts of amoebic dysentery and dengue fever, I was lucky to come home relatively unscathed. I was 21 years old, but felt at least 10 years older.

I had not seen combat, and except for a depth charge dropped on a German submarine attacking my India-bound troopship off the coast of Brazil, I had not heard a shot fired in anger. Nevertheless, I was treated like a conquering hero by my family and neighbors on my return home.

But I had done nothing that could be regarded as heroic. I had been trained as a Signal Corps Teletype operator and cryptographer. I had also received three months of infantry training prior to being shipped overseas. But when finally assigned to the 903rd Signal Co., which was attached to the Army Air Forces, I was never called upon to use any of these skills.

My accomplishments as a soldier were quite mundane. My outfit supplied and serviced airborne electronics equipment for the 14th Air Force in China, the 10th Air Force in eastern India, and the Air Transport Command, which flew supplies over the Himalaya Mountains to both U.S. and Chinese forces.

The 903rd also operated a major military message center in Bengal and built portions of a telephone line along the Burma-Ledo Road running from Calcutta to China. I worked as a warehouseman, an armed guard on supply missions to Assam, Burma and China, and wound up as the company clerk after it was discovered that I was a skilled typist.

My chores as company clerk were sufficiently heavy that my commanding officer hired a civilian Bengali lawyer as my assistant. His name, as I recall, was either Mukerjee or Banerjee. He was at least twice my age and earned more working as a clerk for the U.S. Army than practicing law in Calcutta. He spent much time turning me into an ardent supporter of Indian independence from Great Britain.

After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, I was promoted to be the company's acting first sergeant, replacing a man who was eligible to return to the States. A few months later, when I became due for shipment home, our new company commander offered me the permanent job of first sergeant and promotion to that rank if I signed up for at least six months of additional overseas duty.

I was eager to return home and turned down the offer. I later learned that the outfit was eventually transferred to Shanghai to disarm Japanese troops and to help restore order in liberated Chinese territory. I began to regret my decision because the new assignment sounded far more exciting than what I did during the war.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Obama must cope with Bush foreign policy blunders

I have often wondered about the sanity of the Bush Administration's foreign-policy makers. What prompted them, for example, to negotiate with Poland and the Czech Republic to install anti-ballistic missile sites in those two countries?

The sites are supposed to be a defense against long-range missiles launched by Iran. But neither the two Slavic countries or other Europeans have been threatened by Iran. The Iranians do not lack for countries they regard as enemies. But how would radar systems and anti-missile missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic provide a defense for Israel and the U.S., the two nations on Iran's hit list?

The Russians initially responded by threatening to establish offensive ballistic missile sites in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave located between Poland and Lithuania, a territory once known as East Prussia. But the Russians have moderated that threat. They evidently recognize that President-elect Obama is likely to abandon Bush Administration policies that they have regarded as provocative.

On the more critical Iraq/Afghanistan front, I believe that Obama should speedily withdraw from Iraq. The Iraqis have established a relatively stable government, and increasing numbers of the country's political leadership are demanding that U.S. armed forces leave.

Instead, we continue to spend billions of dollars building Iraq's infrastructure and to bribe once-insurgent Sunni tribesmen to behave. Meanwhile, Iraq is keeping its growing national treasury, built by increased oil production revenues, sitting in a bank.

As for Afghanistan, I think Obama's intent to deploy more troops there is as unwise as President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. The original decision to invade Afghanistan was a logical effort to punish the forces responsible for 9/11. The enemy was both the Afghan Taliban regime and the Arab-dominated Al-Qaeda terrorist organization that had planned and launched the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The Taliban had provided shelter for Al-Qaeda after the latter's leadership had been forced to leave Sudan. Ironically, the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement, was an outgrowth of the Afghan forces that had been supplied by the U.S. to fight the country's Russian invaders.

But I fear that it is too late to win the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. was well on its way to destroying both the Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies. We were forced, however, to reduce our forces in Afghanistan and to concentrate on the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This allowed the Taliban to regain much of its strength. It now threatens to overthrow the pro-American and increasingly corrupt Karzai regime. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda's leaders have established their primary bases in neighboring Pakistan's lawless tribal region and probably in Somalia, a nation torn apart by civil strife. They have also sponsored the creation of allied anti-American Muslim terrorist groups in North Africa and the Persian Gulf area and perhaps even in Europe.

The U.S. has inadvertently caused heavy civilian casualties in Afghanistan while seeking out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda bases. The result has been a deterioration of popular support for the Karzai government.

I do not believe that the deployment of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan will destroy the Taliban. Indeed, with the move of much of the Al-Qaeda organization to Pakistan, there is evidence that the U.S. has taken preliminary diplomatic steps to deal with the Taliban.

The alternative to defeating Al-Qaeda and capturing its leader, Osama bin-Laden, would be to invade Pakistan's tribal region, where the terrorist group is now headquartered. I cannot imagine, however, that the incoming Obama Administration is prepared to undertake such an adventure right now.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Honoring our war veterans

As a boy growing up in the Bronx during the 1930s, the annual Armistice Day parade on the Grand Concourse, the borough's broad, tree-lined boulevard, was for me one of the most exciting events of the year.

Armistice Day celebrated the ending of World War I. The holiday was officially renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to also honor those of us who served in World War II or the Korean War.

I will always remember the legions of aged World War I veterans, grouped by American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts, marching down the Concourse with flags and military banners flapping in the wind. Army bands and formations of soldiers and sailors on active duty in the armed forces marched briskly with them. The colorful patriotic scene was a welcome break to the dismal atmosphere of the Depression.

A special place of honor was reserved in the parade for a handful of survivors of the Spanish-American War and Civil War, most of them walking with canes or being pushed in wheel chairs.

I assume that the Veterans Day parades are still conducted each year on the Concourse, now dominated by Vietnam veterans. But I envision geriatric World War II veterans like myself--all now in our 80s and 90s--replacing those Civil War and Spanish-American War veterans in that special place of honor for heroic relics of past wars.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Welcome, President Obama

Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Princeton professor who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, had an extremely poignant comment about Barack Obama's election. "If the election of our first African-American president didn't stir you, if it didn't leave you teary-eyed and proud of your country, there's something wrong with you," he has written.

I did not initially support Obama as the Democratic candidate. The party had an impressive lineup of candidates during the primary election race, each of whom, I believed, was far more electable than Obama.

My primary interest was to see the Republican candidate defeated. I recognized that Obama was an exceptional political figure. But I feared that bigotry would prevent an African-American from being voted into the White House.

Happily, I was proven wrong. The election of Obama demonstrated to the world that the United States is indeed a unique multi-racial and multi-ethnic democracy. His victory should restore the magnificent international image that we enjoyed until President George W. Bush's irrational and aggressive foreign policies destroyed it.

In response to Obama's election, American flags are once again being waved enthusiastically abroad rather than being burned in anger. Bigots are unfortunately still around in our country, but they have been defeated.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Adventures in blogging

I was saddened and astonished to receive an e-mail message earlier this week from a man in Miami Beach, Fla., identifying himself as the grandson of Owen Crenshaw.

In December 2006, I published a story in this blog entitled "Tales of the 903rd Signal Co." (That was the Army outfit in which I served in India during World War II.) The posting contained a photo of six soldiers, one of whom was Owen Crenshaw. I am standing next to him in the picture.

"My grandfather passed away two days ago at age 92 in a San Antonio, Texas hospital," the grandson wrote. "Until he suffered a severe stroke three weeks ago, he continued to live 100% independently, including driving himself to breakfast every morning from the house he built for his retirement in 1975."

Out of curiosity, I assume, the grandson Googled his grandfather's name and came up with a reference to my blog piece about the 903rd Signal Co. Unfortunately, when he downloaded the story, all he came up with were the first several paragraphs in which his grandfather's name is mentioned. The group photo also failed to appear. The blog archives had evidently deleted or damaged the material.

The grandson asked whether I could send him a copy of the picture and the full text of the blog piece. "I would love to know if there is anything you remember about [my grandfather]," he added.

I am not very skilled in blogging technology, but after considerable effort, I was able to extract both the full text of the nearly two-year old blog piece and the photo from the bowels of my computer. I successfully e-mailed them to the grandson. He was delighted to receive them. He told me that the photo would be displayed at an upcoming memorial to his grandfather.

I am now in my Florida winter home, not far from the grandson's residence. We are planning to meet so that I can tell him everything that I can recall about Owen Crenshaw. I had not seen or spoken to Owen in 63 years. But I remember him well because of the intimate bond we had formed during our two years of World War II Army service together in India. He eventually became the outfit's first sergeant. I was the company clerk, so we had an especially close working relationship.

The grandson e-mailed a photo to me of his grandfather which was taken shortly before his death. I could not recognize him.

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