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.