Saturday, June 5, 2010


This story hinges on the cusps of coincidences. In 1960, when I was 13 years old, my family was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base,just outside Washington DC. Dad used to take me to the NCO Club with him on Saturday afternoons after we had finished our work in the yard of our new home and on any other chores my Mother had dreamed up for us to do. At the Club, I was introduced to my first mixed drink - a Roy Rogers - and to my father's friends, who found in me a new and receptive audience for their reminisces, and who, after a few beers and several mixed drinks of their own - regaled me with some fascinating stories about World War II. Since we had been stationed in Japan in the mid-'50s, I already had a well- developed interest in the War and, as it turned out, one of my Father's friends told me of how he had survived the Bataan Death March which followed the fall of the Philippines in April of 1942 and prompted General Douglas MacArthur's famous quote "I shall return." What I remember most about these stories was the sing-song nature of the Japanese speech patterns. "Iti eades, boy-san tounae day-sho." It is especially ironic at how beautiful the rhythms are and how horrid the images are expressed in the language. I am not sure how those words are actually spelled in the Japanese language or what they mean but this is how they sound phonetically to my ear. Beautiful rhythms mixed in with the horrific nature of the stories actually expressed by those rhythms.

It was the coincidence 0f a Zippo lighter appearing in both of our recollections twenty years apart that appealed to me and was the most telling aspect of both stories. I had seen advertisements in a stack of old Field and Stream magazines at my barber shop that highlighted the durability of the Zippo lighter. Apparently, they were in the midst of an ad campaign about the unusual places that Zippos happened to turn up and one ad featured a lighter that was still functioning after it was found in the stomach of a dead grizzly bear and another one that had - to my surprise - survived the Bataan Death March itself. This, of course, dovetailed nicely with the story I had been told at the Club by one of my Father's friends about his survival and his Zippo's survival of long odds in the almost impossible situation on the Bataan peninsula in 1942 and how it was itself an ironic commentary on a story of survival at all costs. What I most wonder, however, is how many Zippos actually survived Bataan or if the story itself was apocryphal . Truth and beauty do not always intersect.People who write about the soldiers involved in warfare always have uncovered the most horrible things that the pressure cooker of war produce in the people who fight in them. As a person who has always had an interest in such things I always remember that as the weapons of war devoloped so did the carnage produced by them. I remember a recurring image of a soldier in the trenches not being able to fall to the ground after being shot several times. He appeared to be strung up in mid-air and looked for all the world like a marionette, an effect that can only be produced by machine-gun fire - a weapon that was introduced to warware around the turn of the 20th century just in time for World War I. It was obviously a popular image as I saw it reported as both historical fact and as a fictional construct several times. I didn't know whether it actually happened but it was very vivid in it's own right.

This the story he told me as I remember it from over fifty years ago. Whether it actually happened that way or not is really beside the point:

When the end came, it came in a rush. We were spread all over the southern part of the Bataan peninsula and there were roughly seventy thousand of us, American and Filipino, left in theater and there was not much fight remaining in any of us as we had been under siege for an incredible length of time."" We were outnumbered better than five-to-one, with more Gink soldiers pouring in all the time and we realized that it was going to be either surrender or die. The indigenous population, which numbered some ten thousand in all, were caught between us and the enemy and we decided that surrendering to anybody who happened to come around was probably the best thing for us to do because the Japs had to get us out of there so their own people could continue to move in and prepare for the big assault on Corridor, the stronghold just off our coast. We were just in the way which was a new feeling for somebody who considered himself a pretty fair rifleman and his country the only invincible power on earth. We were at the base of Mount Cabcaben in nearly impenetrable terrain when we started out on our long journey which came to be called The Bataan Death March and, God bless us, it was aptly named. The first thing they wanted us to do was get assembled at a place called Balanga. We were to get there on our own from wherever we happened to find ourselves but we had no food or water, and were completely exhausted and it was just starting to occur to us that our nightmare, far from winding down, was just beginning. There were only nine of us left who had survived the final assault at Mount Cabcaben and we began walking across a pre-cleared firing area toward Balanga as it was only twelve or fifteen miles from where we were."

"We had been employing maximum stress procedures for a long time and followed the example of the indigenous personnel by eating dogs, monkeys, lizards and whatever insects we could find. Eating bugs was a new experience to us but it came under the general heading of any port in a storm because if you are hungry enough, you will eat anything, a lesson we learned in abundance during those terrible times." "Once I saw one of them, a Filipino, eating the meat of a python. I never ate python and I never ate monkey after the first time. Lizard you can keep down but monkey-meat is like eating something that came jumping and swinging out of hell itself and I was willing to go just so far with the max stress routine. The other thing was malaria, which everybody had. But it really wasn't too bad under the circumstances as we were able to get some sugar cane from the fields which alleviated the symptoms to some extent and what streams there were to drink from probably made us prone to dysentery but most of us were suffering from it in the first place and we had to have water. We had a colonel with us and he had a pass that some Gink officer had given him when we surrendered. He showed this pass to anybody we ran into on the road and they didn't give us too much trouble. They searched us and took rings and watches and anything else they could find, but I managed to hold on to my Zippo lighter, which twenty years later was part of an ad campaign I saw that they were running: THIS ZIPPO SURVIVED THE BATAAN DEATH MARCH. I managed to keep it hidden in the toe of my boot and held on to it for the rest of the war. (I have it to this day). We got to Balanga that night. We had covered the distance in one day with hardly any strain. When we arrived we heard the enemy had executed about four hundred indigenous military personnel, officers and noncoms. The Filipinos were on their way to Balanga like the rest of us when they were stopped by some Japs who were part of an aftermath reaction force. They let everybody go except the officers and noncoms, who were lined up in several columns and then tied together at the wrists with telephone wire. Then they took out their swords and bayonets and killed them. We heard they beheaded most of them. They didn't use any guns and it took about two hours to kill all four hundred. Must have been something to see. We heard it was revenge for something the indigenous personnel had done, but nobody knew what. To tell you the truth I don't think anybody cared. In the situation we were in, which was one of total, complete and utter heat and boredom, wondering what manner of crawling scabby insect we were going to dine on next, the fact of four hundred headless Filipinos was a topic for pleasant clubhouse gossip, something to discuss briefly in mild awe and almost admiration for the Ginks for at least having a sense of spectacle and to be grateful for in a way because it took our minds off our own problems. But Balanga itself turned out to be unforgettable. Thousands of men were pouring into the town, from every direction, particularly from the South.
They put some of us in pastures. Others they kept in small yards behind barbed wire. We were all jammed together and it was impossible to sit down and the whole town smelled of defecation. The whole town! We were told to use the ditches to do our business in but they were so full of dead bodies that the smell of the dead and dying kept most of us away. Men with dysentery couldn't control themselves and had to defecate where they stood. Others just fell down and died. All this time in Balanga standing in the pasture and later burying some of the dead I tried to take my mind off of our situation and think of my wife and all I could bring to mind was a scene from our wedding day: we were standing on the lawn of my parents home at Old Kinderhook in northern New Jersey, just across the river from New York city, a small group of musicians clustered off to our left playing something romantic by one of the Dorsey brothers and that conjured up a modicum of sanity in a world gone insane : my home and bed, my beautiful wife's hair and lovely hands, but that image kept drifting away and I was too numb or, God help me, unfeeling to care really whether I could bring it back up but still she shimmered there, an image of loveliness standing alone half-profile, in a dim room like a Madonna on a Catholic medallion. Then she and the lawn and the musicians morphed into a horrific scene of men burying the dead, maggots and torn flesh everywhere, the smell of death overwhelming everything and then, abruptly, it all faded away and we were on the move again and the Japs were giving us rice to eat and sending us north but there were guards this time. We continued walking northward to a place called Orani. We saw a lot more corpses on the road and some indigenous noncombatants gave us more food and we drank polluted water from streams or puddles or out of leaves or whatever else could hold water. We weren't supposed to break ranks but we did anyway. We had to have water. It was worth the chance, no two ways about it. A lot of men were shot or bayoneted getting water. One of the guards was singing a song, walking along beside us in the hot sun. A sergeant named Ritchie, a demo expert with one of the anti-transit security outfits, broke ranks then and jumped the guard from behind and knocked his weapon into a ditch. Then he straddled the guard and started tearing at his throat. I don't think he particularly wanted to kill the guard. He just wanted to get inside him, open him up for inspection. Then a Jap soldier came trotting up the line and bayoneted Ritchie in the back. When we got to Orani it stank even worse than Balanga. Just outside the town though, about a mile outside, I saw something so strange I thought it might be a vision, something brought on by the hunger and malaria. Attached to some trees at the edge of a field were two swings, obviously homemade, just boards and ropes fastened to tree limbs. Sitting on one of the swings, was what I thought was a Jap soldier but maybe it was the glare of the sun or maybe just the distance but he seemed to be a very old man, almost ancient. He wasn't wearing a uniform so I couldn't tell if he was an officer or not. You could always tell a Jap officer from other soldiers because, as a class, officers were significantly taller then the men they commanded. He was

looking at us, gliding very slowly on the swing a few inches forward, then a few inches back, his long legs just barely scraping the ground, looking at us and singing a song. At first I hadn't realized he was singing but now I could hear it coming across the field, a slow and what seemed a very sorrowful song. Maybe it was my imagination and maybe just my ignorance of the language but it seemed to be the same song the guard was singing before Ritchie jumped him and got killed for his troubles. And he just sat there, moving a few inches either way, singing that beautiful slow song and his hands loosely gripping the ropes along both sides of his head. If it was a vision, then it was a mass vision because all of us looked that way as we went along the road. But nobody said anything. We just looked at him and listened to the song. A little ways further on we passed one of the village pacification centers set up by Tech II and Psy Ops before the enemy terminated the whole concept. We were only in Orani about a day and then we walked to a depot of sorts in a larger town a little farther north called San Fernando, where they stuffed us in a warehouse. There were thousands of us in there, crushed and elbowing and going out of our minds. Nobody could sleep. We were all locked together and the stink was worse than ever because we were indoors. From there we walked to a rail center where they had trains waiting for us. Some of us were given food here and some weren't. We all looked forward to the trains, some dim and still functioning part of our minds thinking of God knows what childhood times we had spent on trains, the Twin Cities Zephyr if you were from the Midwest, or the San Francisco Chief or Afternoon Hiawatha if you were from the West; some dim vision of going across the Great Plains on a Union Pacific train and everything is vast and wild and mysterious because you were only ten years old and America seemed as wide as all the world and twice as invincible. We looked forward to the trains but we should have known better by this time. They put us in boxcars. Whatever position you found yourself in when you were pushed into the boxcar, that was it for the whole trip. There were no windows and the doors were closed. It was the warehouse again, this time on wheels. A few minutes after the train started, somebody began to moo. That set us off. Soon we all began mooing and snorting, making noises like sheep, cows, horses, pigs. The Psy Ops people never told us about this kind of environmental reaction. Nobody laughed. We weren't fooling around. This was no comic celebration of the indomitable human spirit. No protest against inhumanity. We were cattle now and we knew it. We were merely telling ourselves that we were cattle and we shouted moo and baa in absolute seriousness and total overwhelming self-hatred. We were livestock now. How could anyone deny it? What else could we be but livestock, locked up as we were in boxcars and stepping in puddles of our own sick liquid shit. The ride seemed to take years. It seemed a trek across Asia. When, at last, we were all off the train we walked to the POW camp the Japanese had set up at what used to be Camp O'Donnell but we called it Fort Hirohito, where they processed us with one of our own incremental mode simulators. The march was over and I tried to get back to the small white beauty of my wife. But I had trouble returning. It was April and it was hot, the dawning of springtime in my part of the world but obviously not here, and it was odd that it brought with it a jumbled group of recurring musical images for reasons I couldn't envision, but there was our neighbor, Harkavy, who we called "the country squire", drinking Jack Daniel's on the rocks, decked out in his star-spangled pajamas like it was the 4th of July and playing his fiddle like a damned fool. And there was my mother dusting the piano in the old house like a Pharaoh's widow come to clean the tomb in preparation for some momentous occasion. And there were the musicians again milling about on the front lawn, strangely tinkling away and the minister and guests and our wedding taking place in the background. But it was all fading away in a disjointed jumble of sights and sounds in some dark part of my mind and I had to get back there because it was in Balanga that they forced us to bury the dead. It was in Balanga that they forced us to bury the dead. It was in Balanga that they forced us to bury the dead and I was throwing dirt onto the body of a Filipino when he suddenly moved. Poor little blood-faced indigenous Filipino soldierboy. When he started to rise from the ditch. Dozens of dead men around him covered already with maggots, completely covered so that the ground, the earth, seemed to be moving, rotting bodies everywhere and the whole saddle trench about to erupt. When he lifted himself on his elbow. I dropped my shovel and leaned way over the edge of the trench, all those billions of ugly things swarming into the mouths of my dead buddies and their dead buddies and their buddies' buddies and the tough-little brown-little indigenous military personnel. When he tried to extend a hand to me. I leaned way down and then felt something jab me in the ribs. It was a guard jabbing me with his bayonet in a light, casual, condescending and almost upper-class manner like a bloody British officer of the 11th Light Dragoons poking an Indian stable boy with his riding crop. When he tried to rise. I pointed to him, trying to rise, and then the guard did some pointing of his own. He pointed his bayonet at the shovel on the ground and then at the boy in the ditch. It was rather a deft piece of understatement, I thought. He wanted me to bury the little wog anyway."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


It seems like only yesterday that she was born. Barbara had her by way of Cesarean as Carly was, in med speak, a double footling breech. It is hard to believe that not many years ago she would not have survived.

Well, that was cheerful, wasn't it? It seems like only yesterday that she was wholly fixated on dinosaurs. When I got my first computer, 1998 I think, I used a picture she drew of an orange-spotted dinosaur for the desktop picture. I kept it up there for many years.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


Dad's Italian adventures:

"It was a whirlwind about this time and the merry-go-round of re-assignments finally placed us in the 5th Army just in time for the invasion of Italy in September of 1943. I think I already told you we ended up as part of the 5th Army because our MOS was Aircraft Maintenance. Again we were alongside of Montgomery and his 8th Army. They landed on the docks at Taranto and met only token resistance. Monty was able to move pretty quickly up the Adriatic coast and captured the airfields at Foggia which put our air power that much closer to Germany. On September 9th, we hit the beach in strength at Salerno and the Germans made an all-out attempt to push our landing back into the sea. We met an enormous amount of firepower at that beachhead even though the Germans had a big job on their hands trying to disarm the entire Italian Army because King Victor Emanuel was trying to negotiate a surrender and was asking the Allies for an armistice at roughly the same time we were making our landing. We were awfully damn lucky that Hitler did not reinforce his troops as they came very close to keeping us from even landing on that first day. My unit landed on the third day with all the equipment to unload and we were still under one hell of a lot of fire. We eventually got a lot of that equipment to the airfields the British had just captured at Foggia. I hadn't seen so much artillery since the Kasserine Pass in North Africa and believe you me, it was one God damned frightening experience."

"Being under intense fire can produce the weirdest effects. We were off loading jeeps onto the beachhead and Bang! Bang! Bang! three of them in a row got blown up as we tried to unload them. It seemed as if everything they aimed at, they hit and there was something very damed frightening in that experience. We were exposed on the beach and there was nothing we could do. The smell of gasoline and shrapnel from the destroyed jeeps was in the air. Super heated metal has a unique smell so adding that to the mixture of burning rubber and gasoline will produce something you will never ever forget. The guys who ran the apparatus that lifted the jeeps off the landing vehicles were scrambling around in that - stew - and everybody feared that they themselves would blow up with all that crap in the air. Everybody - and I mean everybody - got zinged and dinged a little from all that flying debris and after a while, nobody called for a medic unless they were seriously injured. But those three jeeps being destroyed all in a row really put the fear of God in all of us. Time seemed to stretch out and produce a kind of paranoia and the shells that didn't hit the jeeps, hit the sand so everybody had a stinging sensation in their eyes from the combination of fumes and sand and we were all disoriented as there was very little cover and everything was just happening so God damned fast and in no kind of order and enough guys got killed to make that fear very real. But that kind of fear flattens out and you weren't able to make sense out of anything after a while. But the absolute worst thing - and this sounds weird - but the worst thing was when you were out of range of all that shelling, the fear returned. When we went back to the ships to get a new load of equipment and all those sounds and smells started to diminish, we knew not to relax because we were just going to have to go back into that hell that was on that landing zone. Non-stop activity was the key to not losing your mind and we didn't want to stop until we could stay stopped and that was when the shelling stopped completely. That third day - the 12th - ended at roughly 1o o'clock that night and some guys just plopped down on the beach but others just wanted to get the stink of the day off of them and hosed themselves down or just jumped into the water. But the next day's activity needed to be laid out. We had tons of aircraft parts that needed to be ready to be moved forward at a moment's notice. So we forced ourselves to go back to work until we were ready for the next day."

"We were exhausted but sleep didn't come easy for any of us. For a lot of men this was their first time under fire and this was the end of the Allie's third day on European soil and a partial repayment for Dunkirk. We took a certain amount of pride in that. There was obviously a lot of work to be done, but Lafayette, we had arrived."

"We figured since the Germans did not oppose the initial landing the British made at Taranto, they were saving all their firepower for us. By the time we got everything off-loaded, the shelling had all but stopped. I guess the Germans figured they were not going to push us back into the sea regardless of how much hell they poured down on us. By the time we had everything ashore we linked up with the British 8th on September 16th and fought our way into Naples, the northernmost port city that could be covered by our bases in Sicily. After we took Naples, things suddenly changed and the Germans began a sort of orderly withdrawl rather than their usual bitter end tactics. Since Hitler couldn't - or wouldn't - reinforce his troops it seemed like they began concentrating on building a series of defensive fortifications to prevent us from advancing any further north than we already were. The winter of 43-44 saw the Germans altering their tactics from resisting us at the beaches to blocking the roads that led to Rome by fighting a rear guard action that resulted in the creation of what was called the Gustav Line that ran from Minturno in the west to Ortona in the east, cutting completely across the peninsula pretty much at its narrowest point as well as a series of other interlocking lines that supported one other. We heard that Hitler had replaced the General in charge of Italy and we could believe it. Their tactics completely changed and they used what time they had to construct the pillboxes and other fortifications that we began to face and the resistance we saw stiffened and every foot of progress we made came at a price. And I think what the Germans wanted to do was draw a line in the sand that said , you know, beyond this point you will not go. We ran into major difficulties as we approached those defensive positions in our attempt to move towards Rome. As the 5th Army attempted to move north from Naples up the old Appian way our ability to move became extremely difficult. The Apennine chain to the east of us ran down the spine of the peninsula and those fortifications took full advantage of the rivers that had to be crossed and they flooded the open valleys by diverting the rivers, and of course, the miserable God damned weather that fully favored the dug-in troops and we found ourselves pinched between the coast to our west and the mountains to our east. If ever there was an ideal setting for an enemy to take a defensive posture, this was it - mountainous terrain with the winter setting in."

"Meanwhile, the 8th Army was moving up the Adriatric coast at a good clip and was able to cross the Moro river at the port city of Ortona, the extreme eastern end of the Gustav Line. The Germans were instructed to prevent the line from being breached and hold the city at any cost. We found out later that the German High Command considered Ortona to be of such strategic importance they told their men to "fight for every house and every tree" and sent in the battle-hardened First Parachute Division to engage Canadian and New Zealand elements of the 8th Army in some of the most vicious house-to-house hand-to-hand fighting of the campaign. Ortona was one of the few usable deep water ports on the Adriatic coast of Italy, and thus allowed the British to shorten their supply lines which at that time stretched all the way back to Taranto where they had come ashore in the first place so it was strategically important to the British also. The battle was so intense the fighting became known as "Bloody December." It was truly amazing what happened to the people who lived in Ortona who were not able to evacuate or get out of the way and had to stay behind hiding in all manner of ingenious places like barns, carriage houses, public buildings and the basements of homes that had been destroyed and, therefore, as far as the both sides were concerned, neutralized. The battle went on for eight days and became known as "Little Stalingrad" which tells you all you need to know about how horrible the fighting was. Ortona added "mouse-holing" to the nomenclature of urban warfare to describe how holes were blown through interior walls of houses and buildings and grenades were thrown in to clear the space so small groups of advancing troops could move down through the structures from above and be under cover. Once Ortona was taken the eastern part of the Gustav Line was now in full breach but, once again, the weather played hell with our plans and blizzards on the eastern side of the Apeninnes forced the offensive to a halt. When you came right down to it, there were only three possible approaches to Rome and one of them, Highway 5 in the east, was marked by steep slopes and the continuing blizzards made air support out of the question so that way into Rome was not feasible on a number of different fronts. Highway 7, the old Appian Way, ran up the west coast from Naples and that was where we were stalled as the Germans had flooded the Pontine Marshes south of Rome which put that way really a mess to have to navigate and getting to Rome that way would have meant moving a large number of troops all the way across the peninsula in the winter so that was out. What that meant was that both the British 8th on the easternside of the Appennines and the American 5th in the west were both bogged down by the weather and the obstacles constructed by the Germans at the Gustav Line. That left just Highway 6 at the entrance of the Liri Valley as the only real way to get to Rome but it faced Monte Cassino and that was the linchpin and the anchor of the Gustav Line. Blocking our abilty to advance was the fast flowing Rapido River that rose in the Apennine Mountains and turned into the Garigliano River as it dominated the entrance to the Liri Valley. Elements of the 8th were moved from the Adriatic coast to the valley and the fighting took on a real international flavor as troops from New Zealand and India fought unsuccessfully at the entrance to the valley into January 44 until the New Zealand commander called for the destruction of the ancient abbey that sat on top of Monte Cassino. Because of its historical significance, the Germans refused to use it as part of their defensive strategy but the Allies had never believed that to be the truth as it was ideally situated to look down on our troops. We launched a massive air strike the first week in February and completely destroyed it but this presented a whole new set of problems for us as the Germans rushed crack paratroopers into the rubble and they were able to fend off two major offensives directed at their deeply entrenched positions. As we got deeper into winter, we were no closer to Rome as we prepared for the third major offensive of the campaign. By this time we had 1o divisions committed to taking Monte Cassino and we were still stalemated."

"At roughly the same time all this was happening, the VI Corps using both American and British troops made an amphibious landing behind the Gustav Line at Anzio. The Germans kept us pinned to the beach as they launched counter attack after counter attack. General John P. Lucas was blamed by the British for not being aggressive enough at the beachhead and making no attempt to breakout and meet the German 1oth Army in any kind of meaningful way and accepting the horrendous casualties that accurred as the result of his timidness and was eventually replaced by General Lucien Truscott. It wasn't until the weather cleared and the Germans were thrown into the fourth and final offensive at Monte Cassino and we finally blasted through the Gustav Line that Truscott was able to breakout of Anzio and launch an attack on the German 10th's rear as they were called into reserve to deal with the attack at Monte Cassino. We now had the Germans in full retreat and the way to Rome was now open and we were in position to demolish the 1oth Army when Mark Clark decided not to pursue them and move with the 5th Army into Rome."

"In one of the great ironies of the war, Rome was declared an open city on June 4, 1944, two days before the most climactic event of World War II: DDay the 6th of June. And my sister, your Aunt Ruth, Lt. Ruth M. Haddick hit Omaha Beach on DDay plus 6. She was an Army nurse, serving in a forward unit taking care of the wounded. I don't know what they called themselves then, but later we knew them from television as M*A*S*H units. On the other hand, I think your Aunt Ruth resented the way the nurses were portrayed as sex objects. Take a look HERE to see what I call Aunt Ruth's war."


Friday, April 24, 2009


Dad told me this story thusly:

"Boy, you shoulda seen it! They didn't call Erwin Rommel the Desert Fox for nothing and this is a good illustration of why. Here we were, chasing him all over the desert, short on rations, short on water, sleeping in tents and having to post guards to keep the damned Arabs from sneaking up at night and stealing the tents from right over top of us. It was a wise man who acted like he wasasleep when they were stealing the damned tent because more than one man got his throat cut in the process. This was March of 1943 and we were advancing along the North African coast towards Tunisia near the end of hostilities in the North Africa campaign and it was the prelude to the expected invasion of Sicily. We were attached to the British Eighth Army pushing Rommel's tank corps towards the American 1st Army in central Tunisia. We actually overran Rommel's tanks because he - now get this! - BURIED them in the damn desert lock stock and barrel - tanks, men and all - in an all-out effort to avoid getting trapped between the two arms of a giant pincer movement involving the British Eighth and the American First. Hell, we were in sight of the First before we realized what had actually happened and we wheeled around and played HELL digging the bastards out. The Desert Fox for true! But it was a mess, a real mess. We were all scrambling around like a bunch of beetles on a skillet as Rommel was trying desperately to avoid being trapped and we had a hell of a time trying to tell who was who and what was what. But we finally got it sorted out and squeezed Rommel's Tank corps in that giant trap and, in mid-May, Rommel's tank corps finally surrendered and we had about 100,000 prisoners of war on our hands, none of whom was Rommel, of course, because he and his staff were able to get out of Africa to the Italian mainland where they were safe and that was it for the resistance in North Africa. We thought we were through with Monty as we had heard rumors about General Patton and a proposed new army. But nothing ever works out the way you want it to happen, now does it?

A funny story from those days in the Tunisian desert. We were always on short rations and the Bedouins tried to keep a wary eye on their livestock but one day in early spring, damned if we didn't run across a goat out in the open. There were three of us and all we had, aside from our 50-caliber machine guns, was a ball peen hammer and a pocket knife and we knocked that goat on the head with the ball peen hammer and butchered him on the spot with that pocket knife. We would have shot that damned thing to pieces if we had used our machine guns. But for God's sake - all we wanted was something to eat.

We always had a problem being Americans as part of a largely British army and after Rommel's surrender in the middle of May we became odd-men-out and ended up as garrison troops guarding all those prisoners of war until the invasion of Sicily opened up and we became real soldiers again. We were detached from the British Eighth in July of 43 and, because we had chased Rommel all over Tunisia, we were considered "combat savvy" and were the headquarters troops for Operation Husky - the invasion of Sicily. We were the first force of Field Army size to see combat in the war. The I Armored Corps was redesignated the Seventh Army aboard the USS Monrovia and handed over to General George S Patton, thus our motto was "Born at sea, Baptized in blood" and after we ended up capturing Messina, "Crowned in glory" was added to our motto. We weren't as entirely liberated from that damned Montgomery as we thought. We formed the left flank of the British Eighth but we played a very important part in the liberation of Sicily and ended up doing most of it ourselves and overshadowed Monty, first by capturing Palermo - there's a funny story about that - the General staff gave in to Monty and had second thoughts about Americans capturing the city and our orders to take it were countermanded but Patton told the British those orders were "garbled in transmission" so we went ahead and captured Palermo anyway - and ultimately, we beat the British to the gates of Messina itself. Monty really wanted to liberate Messina but so did Patton because of the stinging remarks the British made about our competence early in the war - they never let us forget that fiasco at Kasserine Pass in North Africa. We got our noses bloodied right out of the chute, which, when you got right down to it, was our first real action in the war and the race for Messina was on! There was a motley collection of Germans and Italians in front of us and the Germans had an ulterior motive in their resistance: they wanted to buy time for as many troops and equipment as could be evacuated to the Italian mainland through the straits of Messina and they put up just enough of a fight to get those troops evacuated and then poof! - they melted away. Patton was suddenly able to move while the combination of the miserable terrain, and the damnable heat kept Montgomery bogged down as he approached the city from the Northwest and the best Monty was able to do was "rendezvous" with Patton after we had already entered Messina and we finally were able to get out of Monty's shadow by our achievement of those goals and to establish an American - screw the British! - an AMERICAN stamp on the Sicilian campaign.

But by then that damned Drew Pearson had told the world about Patton smacking a kid who was in the hospital with battle fatigue - Patton had a really low tolerance for anybody other than tough guys and he always liked to visit the wounded after a major battle - he referred to them as "his heroes." Patton was not very enlightened when it came to psychological problems and when he heard that some kid was in the hospital ward because of his nerves - man, he just exploded, kicked the kid in the ass, slapped him around some and ordered the doctors to send the guy back to his ouftfit forthwith. The whole affair turned into a fiasco for the Allies and public opinion turned against Patton when it was learned that the soldier had malaria. We were never sure that Drew Pearson hadn't made that little item up as that part of the story came out "conveniently" later than the original story. Drew Pearson hated Patton, we all knew that, so we wouldn't put anything past him. What was ironic about this whole mess was that the Germans could not believe that the Allies would relieve a general of Patton's caliber just for slapping around some private and they kept waiting for the other shoe to drop but it never did. Patton eventually regained the status he had before the slapping incident but only after the invasion of Normandy when he was given command of the Third Army. The High Command used his noteriety as a perceived pariah to decoy the Germans. By this time, however, those of us whose MOS was Aircraft Maintenance ended up being re-assigned to Mark Clark's Fifth Army. Patton's old command, the Seventh, ceased being a front-line organization and was used for various mop-up details and Aircraft Maintenance personnel were not a necessity for them. It was like a three-ring circus in those days, for true. We had soldiered with Bernard Montgomery, we'd soldiered with George Patton then, finally, we had soldiered with Mark Clark. There was a big difference in the personalities of those three guys, I'm here to tell you, and we saw plenty of action in 1943 and '44. We thought the invasion of Italy was going to be a cakewalk. I remember what they used to say about Mussolini during that time that he "made the trains run on time." He was deposed during the Sicilian invasion and we opened negtiations with King Victor Emanuel but got nowhere. Italy took the better part of a year to conclude and cost us a quarter of a million men and, as it turned out, our ultimate victory there was overshadowed by the Normandy invasion which took place roughly about the time that Rome fell so what credit we deserved was lost. I remember after the war I was told we missed all the action because we weren't part of the DDay landings and the breakout! I don't think we missed a damn thing because when we landed at Salerno three days into the invasion of Italy we were still under one hell of a lot of fire."

Monday, April 13, 2009


My father bought our first house when we arrived in Washington DC. Our first house! It meant we, at last, owned ground and Dad was going to make the most of it. He planted several trees around the perimeter of the property. The only one I remember was the mimosa. And he planted flowers, lots of them. But what I remember the most were the rose bushes.

My brother Bob helped him on the basement reconstruction project. On alternate weekends, Dad took my brother to the dump and they would come home with all kinds of building materials: scrap lumber, old bricks and pieces of paneling. From all that stuff, he had my brother straightening nails, squaring up the bricks and cutting the lumber into usable pieces to be used as headers for doorways and such. My brother was about 10 and my father wanted him to feel like he was a part of the building project and teaching him about tools at the same time. The only part my brother didn't accomplish was actually installing the door itself - a little too complicated for a 10 year old, my father thought.

On the other weekends, he and I would work on the lawn and the plants. We would head out to the woods and look for rich soil to bring home to create an enriched planting base for the flowers. We mixed the soil we dug up with fertilizer and loam he bought from the gardening shop to create a rich base into which we planted our flowers. It was my job to dig up a trench about eight inches wide and eight inches deep, dispose of the rocky detritus across the street in the drainage ditch and refill the trench with the mixture we created for the flowers.

You may be getting the impression that my father was some kind of a fanatic, an impression our neighbors surely had but to his sons, to his sons he was a teacher and we learned our lessons from scratch and were intimately involved in whatever project he dreamed up. For my brother, the project was the wall that separated the laundry room from the workshop - the entire wall, floor to ceiling, from framing out the doorway to the finished paneling of the wall itself.

My Dad started talking to the owner of the gardening supply place that he frequented. He began gathering information about breeding roses, the darker the better. He confided in me that he wanted to breed a Black Rose, something that had never been done before. The manager of the supply store told him to buy a dark red rose bush and put some black ink in the water but my Dad wasn't interested in "cheating his way to the Black Rose," is how he put it. He experimented with the Black Baccara and Black Jade varieties which are really red but have dark undertones.

He figured that breeding them together would bring him closer to the Black Rose than any other way. He gathered all manner of tools to separate the pollen and used paper hats to keep the germinated plants apart. I helped him with the actual work of germinating the plants but I'm certainly not going to stand on ceremony and say I'm a little bit of an expert here. I'm not. It was my Dad who did all the heavy lifting; I just helped with the scut work.

What I do recall, however, was the pruning I did in the dead of winter.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I found this picture of my father on the Internet the other day. I have been thinking of him a lot lately so I thought I would post his picture. I don't recognize it so I don't know where it was taken.

He has been gone for better than 4o years yet not a day goes by that I don't think of him

Well, what do you think, Nikki?

Saturday, February 28, 2009


I had put out the candles and was sitting in the dark, brooding. I listened to the wind howl in the middle of a God-awful thunderstorm which, although I didn't know it at the time, was part-and-parcel of tornado weather. My head was spinning. I felt vaguely ill. Then a thought crystallized: Why not call my ex-wife and daughter and tell them I was OK. They lived in Arizona and I knew they would be worried. As soon as the rain let up, I would walk to the corner, a little more than a block away, and use the public phone booth.

I know what you are probably thinking. If the phone wasn't working in my house, why would the phones be working on the corner? I think the events of that day had scrambled me, slightly disconnecting me from rational thinking and the fact that the question never occurred to me speaks volumes about my state of mind at midnight on the day tornadoes ravaged my part of the country.

I needed it to stop raining long enough for me to walk that block and put my plan into action. By 1AM, the rain had slowed to a drizzle and I went down the stairs and looked out the door. The air was full of water but it wasn't raining. I could see occasional flashes of lightening but not much else. You don't realize how little residual light there is at night in a city until you are in the midst of what amounts to a complete blackout. I mean, it was DARK. And very very quiet.

I walked up the slight hill to the corner, aware of the sound of my shoes scraping the pavement. My senses were alive; I could hear myself breathing. Do you remember the old-style phone booths made of metal, with sliding glass doors that looked not unlike vertical coffins? The sound of the metal doors scraping against the metal of the floor grated on my ears as I entered the booth. When I put the money in the slot and failed to hear a dial tone, I suddenly became aware of the absurdity of what I had just done. Of course, there was no dial tone! Nothing at all was working in this part of the city. I was awash in a sea of strange images. I could still see flashes of lightening. It was starting to rain again. I realized I was on a metal platform in an electrical storm. I saw a kid standing on the corner.


He was wearing a red and gray checked sweater and wore his hair cropped short. I hadn't noticed him on the way to use the phone. Where had he come from so suddenly, I wondered. I stepped out of the booth and walked towards him. There was no traffic, no sound, nothing at all.

We exchanged glances. He said, "Do you like sex?"

I looked at him in wonderment. How do you answer a question like that? "Yes," I said. "I do."

He looked me in the eye and said, "With me?"

And on that note, gentle reader, I strode briskly away from the young man in the red sweater and close-cropped hair and left him standing there alone on the corner and walked home in the rain. I went to bed, completely convinced that I had just experienced the last surreal moment of a truly surreal day