Henry F. Tonn, ed., Remembrances of Wars Past
A War Veterans Anthology
Remembrances of Wars Past
Publisher: Fox Track (Sept. 2012)
Length: 216 pp.
This is a collection of twenty-two pieces of prose (fiction and nonfiction) and twenty-three poems from award-winning writers all over the United States and several foreign countries. It provides a kaleidoscope of images from the American Civil War to the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In “Ghost,” a poor farm boy undergoes an entire personality change as he becomes a cold-blooded killer for the military.
In “Insanity is Contagious,” a wife struggles to keep her own sanity while dealing with a husband’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In “Buchenwald Diary,” a soldier tours a German concentration camp and is stunned to find little difference between the dead and some of the living.
And In “Abu Ghraib Suggests the Isenheim Altarpiece,” the issue of American torture is questioned.
“Moments of terrible beauty, horrific pain, transcendent wonder, awe, and longing permeate the pieces gathered here.” — Christine Doyle, PhD, Professor of English, Central Connecticut State University.
“This collection gives readers vivid insight into the memories, emotions, and scars of those we’ve sent to fight.” — John Day Tully, PhD, co-editor, Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War.
(from the verbal history of Richard Daughtry)
I never wanted to be a soldier. I wanted to be a football player. After playing halfback in high school, I went off to the University of North Carolina in 1938 with the intention of becoming a college star. But the coaching staff didn’t see it that way. Instead of letting me run the ball, they had me blocking for other players in the backfield. I ended up carrying the ball once the entire season and finally left in disgust. My sophomore year I didn’t play football at all and eventually dropped out of college altogether because I had no backup plan to being a football player. While I was contemplating my next move, the war broke out and I became a soldier just like everybody else.
In July of 1942, I went to Florida for a little boot camp and then to South Dakota where they taught me Morse code and how to shoot a machine gun. Unfortunately, they never issued me a machine gun, eliminating any chance of my demonstrating my skill in military combat. Next they shipped me to Wisconsin where I learned radio operation for a fighter plane. I specialized in the P-47. In July of 1943, I boarded the Queen Elizabeth for a five-day trip across the Atlantic to the British Isles. I was seasick the whole time. It was terrible. The ship went up and down, up and down. God, it makes me queasy to think about it even today. By the time our ship reached Scotland, I was so weak I could barely carry my bags down the gangplank. And I remember when my feet finally hit the ground a little boy approached me and said, “I’ll take you to my sister for a cigarette.” His timing was terrible: I wasn’t in any kind of shape to take up his offer.
They transferred us by train to Colchester, near the east coast of England, where a covey of Air Force bases were located, and that’s where I remained for the next year. P-47’s accompanied bombers to Germany and I worked on their radios. When I wasn’t working, I read or played cards or just shot the breeze. A lot of poker and blackjack was going on, but you had to be careful because some of those guys were professionals and would cheat the pants off you. They don’t divulge that sort of thing in the literature about the war but that’s the way it was: the American army was full of vultures. I don’t remember any chess or checkers being played, but out of the whole squadron of 250 men, four of us played bridge, and we’d get together from time to time. And softball was popular during the summer.
I took the railway to London a couple of times on leave and wandered around the town to see the sights. We’d be accosted by prostitutes as soon as we emerged from the train. They were everywhere, offering you everything. We’d been thoroughly briefed on the diseases they could pass on, but plenty of guys succumbed anyway.
A joke that went around goes: A guy gets off the train in London and a prostitute approaches him and says, “I’ll bet I can give you something you’ve never had before.” And the guy shrugs and says, “The only thing left is leprosy.”
I’m telling you, there is nobody hornier than an American soldier. The British were right: “They’re oversexed, overfed, and over here.” We were young, our hormones were raging, and there was no one to take care of our needs except prostitutes. It put you into a helluva fix. And as I look back on it, the horniest of the hornies were the American Italians. Being from the South, I’d met very few Italians till I went into the Air Force, but they certainly get my award for being the most willing to access all available opportunities. There were two guys from Providence, Rhode Island, who, well, if a mare galloped through our base, we feared for its virtue.
I met more girls from the general population in France than in England. They were always hanging around the American soldiers because we had cigarettes and chocolate, and sometimes that could lead to some promising relationships. You were always hoping to get lucky, of course, but often if things got too heated the French girls would say, “Je suis bonne,” and you were out of luck. “Je suis bonne” meant “I am good,” which meant I don’t sleep with American soldiers, or perhaps anybody else for that matter. I heard je suis bonne entirely too often while I was in France. I understand the French are supposed to be more liberal about matters of the flesh than people of most nations, which is great. But I think I met every virgin in the country while I passed through. I was forced to be a lot more “good” than I ever wanted to, I can tell you that.
I arrived in France several weeks after D-Day in June of 1944 where an air base had been set up to support the infantry. We got bombed and strafed periodically by the Germans, but, in general, we were pretty well protected by anti-aircraft guns on the perimeter. It didn’t get too bad from my perspective till November arrived and winter started setting in. Europe had one of its coldest winters ever in 1945. In January and February the temperature rarely rose above freezing, and the nights were brutal. I slept in a tent with no heat. To keep yourself from freezing to death, you rolled yourself fully clothed in your flight jacket into your sleeping bag on your bunk and then covered yourself with whatever blankets you could find.
Sometimes I’d be up at five-thirty in the morning to get the planes ready. Snow covered the ground and we’d have to bulldoze it off before the planes could take off. I was a tech sergeant in charge of thirty-five planes and there was no option to rising early in the morning. At one point I didn’t bathe for a month, just lived in my flight jacket. I had it rough, but I swear to God my hat’s off to the infantry in our army who often had to live out in the open under those conditions. I don’t know how they did it. It’s a wonder every damn one of them didn’t get Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Another thing I want to talk about is the food: it was terrible. In the morning we were served Shit-on-a-Shingle, which was some sort of chipped beef covered with white gravy on toast. It tasted awful to start with and by the time you got it to your tent, it was also cold. Lunch and supper weren’t much better. I took to scavenging through the countryside when I was in France bartering with the farmers for eggs and apple cider. I’d give them a carton of cigarettes and they’d give me a couple dozen eggs and two pints of cider. Any time I could avoid eating service chow, I did. I’ve never understood why the food for American troops was so bad. I’ve read that the Italians ate spaghetti and the Germans ate sausages and the French ate, well, French food. Meanwhile, we ate crap. I read once that a group of German prisoners was complaining about the food, saying the Geneva Convention specifically stated that they should have the same food as the regular army. They were told this was what the regular army ate. They said, “Mein Gott, how do you live?”
We should do better.
Another thing I want to talk about is the swearing. If you don’t know how to swear when you go into the service, you’ll learn quickly. American servicemen swear about everything all the time. I came to think motherfuckingsalt was one word; my mother had just been mispronouncing it all those years. Sometimes in one sentence you would use more swear words than regular nouns, verbs, and adjectives. The officers swore just like the enlisted men. We had that in common. It was the only way you could get anything done. If I said, “Clem, take that mop and clean out the latrine,” the guy would give me a blank look. But if I said, “Clem, take this fucking mop and get your goddamn ass over to the motherfucking latrine and clean the sonofabitch,” he’d smile and say “Yes, Sarge,” and hop right to it.
The pilots in our squadron ate better than the ground crew and I never begrudged them that privilege. Every time they went up in those planes they were challenging death. It was kill or be killed, to use the old cliché. You soon learned that you could have a close friend one day and he’d be gone tomorrow. A lot of pilots died through stupid errors, though, errors that had nothing to do with the war. I had a good friend once who was a pilot and he was in the air one day horsing around with another pilot directly over the field. They were flying parallel to each other and did simultaneous barrel rolls. Unfortunately, they came out of their rolls too close together and collided. My friend’s plane spiraled down and smashed directly into a farmer’s barn and exploded into violent flames. I hope he died on impact because that’s a terrible way to go. What a ridiculous waste of human life, and this sort of nonsense happened all the time.
As the war progressed, you just got used to people dying. Thirty-five planes would take off in the morning and only thirty-three would return. You’d suddenly discover that you didn’t have a second baseman on the softball team anymore because Bernie was gone. What an inconvenience! It sounds calloused but that’s the way it was. War changes people in more ways than you can imagine. It’s a wonder anybody’s normal when they get back.
Here’s another example of the same thing: I used to get drunk with one of the pilots and then we’d go up in the training plane for a joy ride. We’d buzz the French farmers in their fields, sometimes diving so low we’d make them hit to the ground to avoid us. They’d come up shaking their fists and using dirty French words. We’d laugh. But one day while we were horsing around, we ran into problems. When we tried to switch to the reserve fuel tank, it didn’t catch, and the engine died. We went into a tailspin and dropped a thousand feet until the pilot got the plane under control. It burst my eardrum. He turned back to me and said, “I can roll the plane over and we can just drop out and parachute down if you’d like.”
Well, that idea scared me to death. “What’s the alternative?” I asked.
“The alternative is I take it down on dead stick. Of course, you know, that’s dangerous. We might crash.”
“Can you do it drunk?”
“Hell, I’m sober now,” he said.
So was I!
He radioed ahead and informed them of our plight and then started circling the field. Two fire engines and two ambulances drove out to the runway and lots of men from the squadron came out to watch the show. In case you’re not aware, it’s hard to land one of those heavy planes without an engine, and many a pilot has died trying. I gave us a 50-50 chance. But he landed it, and I’m alive today to tell the tale. That’s the last time I went up with him, though, drunk or sober.
Crazy things happen in war. Once in the early morning while we were all lined up for breakfast, a German bomber flew directly over the field. He was all shot up and flying sideways like a mangy dog slinking down a sidewalk. The plane was so low we could see the flight crew’s faces, but we couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Here we were, an air force squadron with one hundred and five planes on the ground, but not a single one ready to take off. If I’d had my carbine I could’ve shot them right out of the sky, but none of us was armed. We cursed about it all day. It was humiliating. He might as well have given us the finger while he flew by.
The best pilot I ever saw was Francis Gabreski. He led all European pilots in the World War II theater with twenty-eight kills, and was simply in a class by himself. His fighter group was the famous 56th, which registered more kills in the war than any other group in the Eighth Air Force. Francis was always looking for interesting sorties and he was friends with our squadron leader, so when our fighters were heading off to a promising place, he’d join us. He was that way: he did whatever he pleased. That probably kept him from achieving a higher rank in the Air Force than he did because he didn’t play by the rules. But it also resulted in a lot more Germans dying in combat.
When he sat in a cockpit, the airplane fit around him like a suit of clothes. He did things other pilots simply couldn’t imitate, even though they tried. I used to work on his radio and I never saw a bullet hole in his plane. He just flew too well to get hit by enemy fire. Every time he scored a kill, he’d do a barrel roll coming in to the base. On one occasion he did two but didn’t get credit for either one. There was no independent confirmation. I once asked him how many planes he really shot down in his career, and he estimated seventy-five. But he never talked about them. The Air Force said twenty-eight and that’s what he accepted.
On July 20, 1944, on what was supposed to be his last mission, he flew too low over an enemy field while strafing and his propeller hit the ground and he crash-landed. They caught him five days later in the woods and he was interviewed by the famous German interrogator, Hanns Scharff, who said, “We’ve been expecting you for a long time.” Scharff smiled and held up a military newspaper showing Gabreski’s twenty-eighth kill. Francis — Gabby, they called him — was a prisoner of war for the next ten months, but in April he came strolling into the camp after being liberated by the Russian army. He had this big grin on his face.
They called Gabreski cocky and arrogant, but I always liked him. He was friendly to ground-crew people like myself. He was a good man.
Of all the death and dying I saw, the worst was the concentration camp at Buchenwald. I’ve talked about it in the past but, interestingly enough, I forgot to reveal the worst thing I saw that day. It was so horrible repressed it for seventy years. But one day it just popped into my head.
In Buchenwald, the Germans had something called “the killing room.” It was a room constructed beneath the ovens to prepare human bodies for incineration. The prisoners — usually dead — would be tossed down a chute from outside and then stacked up. If for some reason someone were still alive, he would be clubbed over the head with a mallet and killed. They then transferred the bodies into the main room where a series of meat hooks were arranged on the walls. One hook would be attached to the wall and two others would be facing outward. The body would be hung by the neck, just under the jaw, from the two hooks so that the shoulders would sag and the body became straight. This was necessary in order to slide the body properly into the ovens above. When the body had hung for an established length of time, it was transported by elevator upstairs to the ovens.
As I have said, I arrived in Buchenwald about twenty-four hours after it had been liberated and a Jewish prisoner took me and some of my buddies around the camp. Of everything I saw, this was the most chilling. The Germans had tried to clean the place up and take the hooks down before they left, but four hooks still remained in place and you could see remnants of blood on the floor and walls. Our Jewish guide said he had known about the place for a long time but he never ventured anywhere near it until liberation. He said a senior German officer assured him that some of the men were still alive when put on the hooks and the death was agonizing. I understand that room can be seen today at Buchenwald because it’s been preserved as a memorial. They call it the “execution room” now, but our guide definitely called it the killing room when our group passed through.
It perplexes me to this day that normal German people who had wives and children and the equivalent of white picket fences around their houses could also indulge in this kind of heinous behavior. I just don’t understand it.
After Buchenwald, the war with Germany came to a rapid conclusion. Since we were still fighting the Japanese, our squadron was sent to southern Germany to prepare for jungle warfare. But the Japanese surrendered before we were deployed overseas. I am grateful to Truman to this day for dropping that second atom bomb. If he hadn’t, there would have been more bloodshed, more pointless bloodshed.
It took us five days to cross the Atlantic by ship at the beginning of the war, but it required two weeks to get back home. This ship was simply slower. I was sick the whole time and so was everybody else. God, it was awful. The vomit in all the bathrooms was two inches thick. As far as I know, nobody ever cleaned it. I was never happier in my life than when my feet finally hit American soil.
I took a train directly to my home in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and tried to get my life together. Soon after, I moved to Wilmington, on the coast, where I managed to find a job. After six months or so, though, I started having trouble with dizzy spells and digesting my food. I went to a doctor and he said this was a case of delayed battle fatigue; he saw it all the time. He gave me some pills and told me to go fishing because it would relax my nerves. I did, and the problem eventually went away. I haven’t had it since.
I feel fine now.
Copyright © 2013 by Henry F. Tonn