Son Dinh achieved professional success as a lawyer in Vietnam. When he emigrated to the United States he could not transfer his law degree here. Fortunately, his ingenuity, diligent study, and hard work enabled him to excel in a new career in electronics at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida. There he met Janet Goode and their friendship and mutual interests in music led to a loving relationship and eventual retirement to Oak Hammock at the University of Florida. In 2013 Son Dinh told me some of his experiences in Vietnam from the time of the Japanese occupation to his emigration to the U.S. His written story appears first here followed by a conversation he and I had.
Friends often ask me to tell them more about myself. I had learned in my French education that “le Moi est haissable.” That means that talking about oneself is ugly. So, this is only a very casual talk, in which I would share some of my thinkings about facts of life, and some real stories happening in my life.
First of all, I was born in the former French Cochinchine, which was part of the French Indochine (Tonkin, Annam, Cochinchine), and which later became South Vietnam. When the Japanese came to occupy Vietnam, I was just 9 years old. I still remember people talking about some kind of blockade of Saigon. Food supplies could not come in. I remember my mother had a substantial rice stock in the house, but for many months, we ate only rice with some watercress and fish sauce. We had a market in the neighborhood, but it was kind of empty. The Allied aircraft came to bomb Saigon almost every day. I remember many nights we kids came out to look into the skies and see the B-29s shining like miniscule diamonds in the moonlight. I thought they were beautiful. I also enjoyed seeing the powerful light the Japanese shone into the skies and fired anti-aircraft guns at the Allied airplanes.
When the news of the surrender of the Japanese came, many Japanese officers living in a house next to the house of my grandparents committed hara-kiri. I did not see them with my own eyes, but the people who gathered in front of that house to look said there was a lot of blood.
Next to our house lived a French family name Chevalier. They were very good friends with us. When the French came back after the Japanese defeat, they gave us French bread and chocolate. For us kids, it was wonderful. My parents sent me and all my siblings to Vietnamese elementary schools so that we could learn about our Vietnamese heritage. After that, we went to the French high schools and colleges for further education. We grew up in a French environment, reading French local newspapers, French magazines, listening to French radio, taking music lessons with private French teachers.
Saigon at that time was nicknamed the Pearl of the Extreme Orient. Life was wonderful. People used to think that the colonialists are horrible people. I think there is some truth in it, but on the other hand, the French did bring to my country a lot of civilization, electricity, railroad, ships, cars, industrial factories. These are historic facts everybody can find on the Internet.
Some French famous pianists came to Saigon to give recitals. I went to listen to them, and developed a love for classical music. It was how I started to study music and the piano. At that time, there was no music school in Saigon, and the only way to study music was through private lessons with the local French teachers. I still remember when I was 12 years old, I went to a violin recital given by a young French violinist who just won 1st prize at the conservatory of Paris. I still remember she studied with the world famous violinist Jacques Thibaud. At that time, I already had a lot of piano studies, but I fell in love with the violin, and started to study that instrument. I had to ask a friend who lived in Paris to get me a good violin from Paris and ship it to me. In short, the French gave me, beside a vast knowledge of the world through the Lycee Chasseloup-Laubat (high school), the love of Western classical music, which is now the happiness of my life.
Unfortunately, a few years later, it was war between the French and the North Vietnamese Communists. It was true that the life in Saigon was not much affected for many years, and I could finish my high school and my law school in a relatively peaceful environment.
About 1955, there was a French captain who had to go back to France. He had a beautiful female German shepherd he was not allowed to take with him back to France. He was desperate and looked frantically for some good house for his dog. I took his dog in. Her name was Diane. Here was the interesting thing about Diane. When she first came to our house, she did not want to hear anything in Vietnamese. We had to speak French with her. But just a few weeks later, she could understand Vietnamese. So I think maybe a dog can learn foreign language faster than a human being.
After graduating from the French Law School in Saigon, I went to Montreal to attend McGill University, where I got a Master Degree in International Aviation Law. After graduation, I went back to Vietnam, and was drafted into the military, where I would spend four years, from 1962 to 1966. My memory becomes fuzzy, so I cannot always go into details. I just try to tell what I can remember.
First, I was sent to a concentration base, where they gave me military haircut and some military clothes. We lived in some very basic wood construction, slept on wood trunk beds, and learned to live basic military life, getting up on time, having meals on time, doing bed and cleaning the place where we lived, etc. For bathrooms, we dug holes in the ground, poured some lime into them, put some wood planks across to sit on. It was so filthy that you have to be tough to use these horrible holes. It seems like these people had no idea how these holes could contaminate the water. About these barbaric sanitary setups, I remember two stories.
One day, a poor guy who had a bad case of epilepsy fell into that hole. It was a big commotion in the camp. Some soldiers pulled him out and threw water on him to wash him. I had a cousin who was a medical doctor. He was so scared of these holes that he could not have bowel movement for many days. One day he collapsed, and they had to take him to a military hospital where they had to take drastic measure to help him have a bowel movement.
After a short time at that camp for triage, we were sent to the military school Thu Duc, where I would spend 10 months for basic military training. After graduation, I became a lieutenant and was assigned to the South Vietnamese Air Forces “Tan Son Nhut” (TSN) base. I was personnel manager of the Air Traffic Control and Météo unit. All my staff had been trained in the US and were very competent. During the Vietnam War, TSN air base was the busiest in the world. Day and night, non-stop take-offs and landings, and practically no accidents. My job was to organize shifts for my staff, keep all documentation (maps, weather forecasts) for pilots, get or give diplomatic clearances to Vietnamese military aircraft to go abroad, or foreign military aircraft to come to Vietnam or just overfly through Vietnamese airspace. In case of accidents, I went out to investigate.
I used to go to the officers’ cafeteria to eat, and listen to stories. One day, I heard this from some Vietnamese pilots just back from a combat mission. They went out with some American pilots, and one of the Americans was shot down by a VC hidden in a tree. According to the Vietnamese pilots, the American pilot made a big mistake by coming to the combat zone three times from the same direction. The VC was waiting for him to come back and just shot him right through his cockpit. The Vietnamese pilots said they never took the same pattern to come back.
One day, I had to go to some airfield in Kontum for some assignment. I do not remember what it was. In any case, it was a formation of three Huey gunships flying from Saigon to Kontum. On the way, I think it was near Pleiku, we were shot at furiously from the ground. The three helicopters I was with just made a turn around, always together in the same formation, to shoot back at the VC on the ground. I was thinking that if the guys on the ground had good anti-aircraft guns, we would all be dead. Why the American pilots did not disperse and come back from different directions so that the VC would not have an easy target? That trip confirmed what I heard before that some American pilots did not vary their flight patterns enough.
The three helicopters I was with flew in vertically, because the region was infested with VC and they could not take the risk to fly in low. So when they landed, it was like a rock dropped from the air. In a very short time, from a very high altitude where it was cold like hell, we were on the ground where it was hot like in an oven. I almost fainted. I looked at the pilots. They sweated profusely, but just talking and laughing as if not affected at all by the heat. I remember that I was thinking they were amazing.
During my service in the military, what I hated most was that we were confined in the base all the times for various reasons, but mostly during coups or coup attempts.
President Ngo Dinh Diem had a caserne of Special Police Forces in front of our Tan Son Nhut Air Forces base. At one time, the military prepared a coup to overthrow Diem. I was ordered to move all my guys out to position them in front of the entrance to the base. My memory of all these events is very fuzzy, and I do not remember the details. I still remember I had my guys install machine guns, rocket launchers and mortars at the entrance of the base, in coordination with some other units. Tanks had been brought in, ready for a huge clash with the Police Forces of Diem.
I remember a funny detail. I was telling to one of my guys to bring his machine gun to one location, in direct view of the caserne of Diem’s Police Forces. He was crawling on the ground, too frightened to stand up. I shouted at him, to stand up to move the machine gun. He said “Lieutenant, I forgot my helmet, if I stand up, I can receive a bullet to my head.” I found it very funny. I told him the chance he received a bullet to his head was one over one million, and threw my helmet to him, telling him to put it on his head. He handed my helmet back to me, and stood up to move his gun. The situation was tense, but after a few days, nothing happened. Diem survived the coup that time, but he was killed in another coup.
As said, most of my military life was administrative. The Vietnam War had been covered extensively by thousands of books and videos, with accurate details. It is not necessary I tell stories where I had no connection.
I remember one high-ranking Vietnamese officer in the base who was allowed to operate a barber shop for the GIs. I do not remember exactly, but it seems like it was $5.00 a haircut. What I remember is that the guy hired beautiful girls to work in his salon. I never went to that place, practically reserved for the GIs. I learned that the girls had to wear white lab coats, unbuttoned at the top, and no bra. They made a lot of money, and many of them got married and went to the USA with their GI husbands. Naturally, our Vietnamese officer owner of the hair salon made huge money too.
A few times on assignments, I saw bodies of VC. One day, on the road, we were driving at around 45km/hour, and on the side of the road, there were four bodies of VC. One of them had the back of his head completely gone, but the face was still intact. It was about noon time, and it was hot, I did not know how long these bodies had been there, but the stink was unbearable, even though we drove by at high speed. A little bit later, I saw some South Vietnamese soldiers carrying another dead VC in a rice field. They tied the arms and the legs of the VC on a pole through his limbs to carry, like you see pictures of tigers killed by the British people in India in the past. When we arrived at the location of our assignment, I saw another body of a VC, leaned against a tree. Someone put a hat on his head and a cigarette in his mouth. At first, I thought a guy was having a nap, but when I came closer, I realized it was a dead VC. There was a note stapled to the tree above his head, saying he was murdering the civilians in the village for not giving support to the VC.
As said, I was mostly annoyed when we confined to the base, sometime for weeks. What did we do to kill time when not on duty? Well, we read. During these years of war, in Saigon, People loved to read stories of martial art. There were some Chinese writers who specialized in writing martial art stories. Their books could be many thousands of pages. It seems like their imaginations are infinite. Their stories keep going on and on and on. When we were allowed to go home for a few hours, we stopped by book stores to rent a big stack of these books, and read them during the nights.
One thing I much dreaded in the military was the Honor Guard. Vietnamese pilots got killed all the time. When they brought in a dead pilot, we had to take turn to stand the Honor Guard. That means two officers wear ceremonial uniform and stand motionless both sides of the coffin for two hours. During my time in the military academy for basic training, I developed bad varices in my right leg and had to go to the military hospital for surgery. Veins in my leg were weak, and standing a long time was for me very painful. Because of my lower rank, they scheduled me to stand Honor Guard all the times.
One night I and another officer were scheduled to come to take the Honor Guard in the middle of the night. When we arrived, two captains who had the shift before us were outside the room where the coffin was. It was in the front room where Buddhist monks took turn to recite prayers for the soul of the dead. We asked what happened. They said that while standing near the coffin, they saw with an absolute clarity the killed pilot coming in and smiled at them. They were so scared that they ran out of the coffin room. I had never seen a ghost in my life, but the two officers were so frightened and sincere that I did believe what they said. The next morning that story was circulated in all the base. Everybody believed it, because these two officers were much respected in the base.
The communists confiscated many things in Vietnam, including pictures. So I don't have any pictures to show.
A Conversation with Son Dinh
You mentioned many coup attempts against the regime of President Diem. I remember 1963 like yesterday: the Buddhist monk burning himself to death; Madame Nhu, the powerful wife of Diem's brother nicknamed the "Dragon Lady"; assassination of Diem and his brother by South Vietnamese soldiers. Then President Kennedy's assassination a short time after he had approved the coup that killed Diem. JFK's murder cast suspicion on those like Madame Nhu who disliked Kennedy.
It was a very complicated time. Diem and Madame Nhu were unpopular. Many of us did not like Diem's persecution of the Buddhists. There were Army officers who hated Diem and high generals that liked him and other officers in the middle. Sometimes it was hard to tell who was on which side. During the coup attempt I described, I was just a lieutenant following orders.
I remember that South Vietnamese general shooting a VC soldier in the street. Can't recall his name.
Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. He was Chief of the National Police. The shooting happened a block from my house during the Tet Offensive in 1968. I did not see it at the time. The photo went all over the media.
The incident fueled anti-war sentiment against the South Vietnamese and Americans. Loan looked like a fat oppressor and the VC like a poor underdog. I understand the American who took the picture later apologized to Loan and called him a hero.
Photos never tell the whole story. There were many misunderstandings in that war. A relative told me about an American professor who was against the war. He had a South Vietnamese student who'd been through some of the worst times. The student told the professor about his experiences in Vietnam. After that, the professor changed his opinion and was for the war against the communists.
Many people, including some military, think the Vietnam War was a long, no-win situation at a terrible cost in lives and resources. Do you think the war could have been won?
Yes, if the Americans had kept up the pressure and continued aid to South Vietnam. At the Paris Peace Conference the communists played tricks. I knew a reliable source who had inside information on the conference. He told me that any papers the communists signed they would just throw them away later and go on fighting. He said the Christmas bombing in 1972 hurt the communists so much they were close to surrendering.
William (Bill) Ebersole's life has been one long success story. At age 14 he earned his Eagle Scout badge and began 2 months of service in the 1939 session of the Florida Legislature as a page in the House of Representatives. There he associated with and learned from officials who have received high marks in Florida history including Governors Leroy Collins, Fuller Warren, Dan McCarty and others. A decorated World War II veteran and University of Florida graduate, Bill began his distinguished thirty-six year career at the Gainesville Sun in 1948 while a University of Florida student, as a linotype operator working part time on the night shift for 75 cents an hour. He became a full time employee in the advertising department of the Sun during the summer of 1949 after he completed his Journalism degree. A year later he married his pharmacist wife Wanda and they raised two children. He became the Advertising Manager of the Sun while it was still privately owned. It was sold in 1962 to Gardner Cowles, owner of Look Magazine and he became the General Manager in 1966. When the paper was sold in 1971 to the New York Times Bill was named its Publisher and held the position until he retired in 1985. In 1986 Bill began a second 20-year career in commercial real estate. His 61-year marriage ended in 2011 when his wife Wanda died after a 14-year bout with Alzheimer’s. Bill married his second wife Anna in 2012 and they reside at The Village, a retirement community in Gainesville, Florida, where they are enjoying leisure activities and traveling. In late 2012 I interviewed Bill about his experiences as an Army Air Corps pilot in World War II.
I was 18 when I joined the Army Air Corps in 1942, a month following my 18th birthday. I wanted something nice and safe, so I applied for the Army Air Corps. Living in a foxhole didn't appeal to me. I did basic training in Miami Beach. After basic I went to Nashville for classification. I scored high enough on the tests to be classified a pilot trainee. I was then sent to a three month stay for ground school training in a college training detachment at Clemson University for pre-flight training and then began my pilot training at a Primary Flight School in my hometown of Arcadia, Florida. My father was the publisher of a weekly newspaper in Arcadia. His print shop did a lot of printing for the Air Corps and he knew a lot of air force personnel so was able to somehow influence the military powers to send me to Arcadia for my primary flight training.
My primary trainer was the two-person bi-wing Stearman PT-17. Training in Arcadia was wonderful. The whole time I was engaged in flight training in Arcadia I always knew where I was because I had hunted and fished in the area since my early youth. After about 30 hours of flight training I had a change in instructors and received an earlier than usual flight check that enabled me to begin my acrobatic training earlier than the other trainees. That kind of flying wasn't usually done until a trainee had 40 to 45 of the 60-hour program completed. I enjoyed the aerial acrobatics and was selected to do acrobatics for my squadron at the graduation of my primary flight class.
My next assignment was at Gunter Field in Montgomery, Alabama, where I flew a BT-13 Basic Trainer, a much larger 2-place plane used to teach more advanced flying skills. From there I went to Craig Field in Selma, Alabama, and became proficient in the AT6, a larger, faster and much more advanced plane that had a controllable pitch propeller, retractable landing gear, landing flaps, fixed guns in the wings, navigation instruments and many other features that I had to master before moving into combat fighter planes. I completed the advanced flying course and graduated in the Class of 44-D (the fourth month of 1944) on April 15, 1944, receiving my commission as a Second Lieutenant with my new pilot wings.
So you'd been in training for about two years.
What stands out the most for you in flight training?
I always enjoyed the acrobatics and was amazed that the Army Air Corps, which it was called until 1947, could take a person that was barely 18 years old, who had never been in an airplane before, and train him to be proficient in the sophisticated planes that I was taught to fly.
I always looked very young. I remember an incident that happened a few days after I became a Second Lieutenant when I was walking down the street in Selma, Alabama, where I received my advanced training. I passed a Sergeant coming down the street who saluted me, and then said: "Lieutenant, can I ask you a question? I answered "Sure, Sergeant, what is it?" he said “Sir! How old are you?” (Laughs)
A funny thing that I remember happened on a solo cross-country flight in early 1945. I was flying solo in an advanced trainer single-engine AT-6 on a practice cross-country flight out of Selma, and overheard on the radio two men talking in another plane. They were apparently practicing instrument flying: one was flying on instruments under a hood, and the other on lookout for other aircraft, etc. They probably thought their conversation was totally private, but they'd mistakenly switched their intercom to a live broadcast mode. One said, "You take it Joe. I'm all (fouled) up!" The word used was not "fouled," but a similar four-letter word commonly used in the military. The air traffic control tower came on and said, "Will the pilot making that last transmission please identify yourself." No answer. The tower asked again. Still no answer. For the third time the tower asked the pilot to identify himself. Then a voice came over the radio saying "I'm not that (fouled) up!" (Laughs)
I can imagine what that "bad" word was. (Chuckles)
Oh yeah! It was banned for use on the radio along with many similar words. After graduation, we started flying real fighters. I got 10 hours in the P-40. That required a new skill handling a single engine plane such as a P-40 or a P-51 with such powerful engines. The reaction of the propeller spinning in one direction forced the plane to roll in the other direction. This was controlled primarily by the rudder. In constructing the plane, the rudder was permanently set to correct a normal amount of torque, but a dive required a great deal more of left rudder pressure, and a climb required more right rudder pressure.
We had to be extra careful as we began flying these planes that were so much more powerful. We did not have an instructor in the plane with us. Everything was solo because it only held one person. And it became the most dangerous time of a new pilot's career. After a new pilot first became skilled at flying and started becoming confident, he began thinking he could master the plane and could do almost anything he wanted to with it. It was like a young kid driving a car for the first time and thinking he can do all kinds of things behind the wheel. That's when a lot of accidents happen. Overconfidence caused serious accidents and crashes. There were a few pilots that talked about flying under a bridge. That kind of flying was just foolishness. I was pretty conservative and never took that type of unnecessary risks.
After training in the P-40 I went on to a P-51 Overseas Training Unit (OTU) school in Bartow, Florida. The P-51 had a real powerful engine, 1500+ horse power. I ended up with about 240 hours of flying time in P-51s. My roommate and I got in a plane every chance we could get. We volunteered to pull targets. I remember pulling a target about 10,000 feet up over Clearwater. The target was about 70 or 80 feet long and 8 to 10 feet wide. Planes would make passes at the target, trying to approach it from the side and shoot at it at an angle of about 90 to 45 degrees. It could be dangerous for the towing plane if the planes attacking the target dropped too far to the rear of the target to take their shots.
The P-51’s I flew in training had one operating 50-caliber machine gun in each wing. The guns were permanently mounted in the wings in a fixed position. The pilot aimed the plane using a gun sight mounted on top of the dash board. The bullets were dipped in a chalk-like paint that was a different color for each plane so when the target was brought back to the base, it could be determined which bullets scored hits on the target. For ground gunnery training, they placed targets on an ocean-side key in the Inland Waterway near Clearwater and we'd dive down and shoot at them.
My roommate and I had the highest gunnery scores in our class and I'm sure that's why they pulled us out of our training in Bartow and sent us over to Lakeland as replacement pilots to join a group training there for long-range bomber escort missions. When we flew in combat, all six of the gun positions were used, three in each wing. Out of every five bullets we shot, two were incendiary, two were armor-piercing and one was a tracer.
We had twice as many pilots as normal in our Group because of the extra long range of the missions we would be flying so when we left Florida for overseas duty the pilots were divided into two groups. One group went to San Francisco and was put on an aircraft carrier being used to transport the planes to Guam. They were unloaded there and were being prepared for the long range flights they would soon be making after the landing strip was completed on Iwo Jima.
The second half of the pilots, of which I was a part, went to the port of embarkation in January 1945, going by train from Lakeland to Seattle and then sailed on a Dutch ship to Hawaii where we stopped for a couple of weeks, then made short stops at Enewetok, and Saipan, arriving at Iwo Jima in April. We sat parked off the shore for about a week. The island was pretty well secured by then, but there was still some enemy resistance. While we were still on the ship we saw a lot of trip flares going off at night. Japanese troops hiding in caves would come out of hiding at night seeking food and water. About a week before we left our ship, a large group of the remaining soldiers in a suicide attack ran through the tent area where a group of early-arriving pilots in another Group were camping and threw hand grenades into the tents successfully killing about a dozen pilots.
After coming ashore from our ship, we were so unnerved that for a number of nights we slept on the ground under our cots, made up to look like someone was in them, with our cocked .45 pistols at our sides. No one dared to venture from the tent after dark—for any reason.
We had to wait for the construction of the air strip to be finished before the rest of our squadron could bring the planes up from Tinian so we could begin flying again. We slept in the wall tents for a while.
I was fortunate because from my Boy Scout training I knew a lot about camping, hunting, fishing, living outdoors, and even starting a fire without matches, practical things like that. Most of the pilots I was with did not have any outdoors background. They didn't know you had to punch a hole in a can of beans being heated on an open fire to keep it from exploding. (Chuckles)
I flew my first combat mission, on May 1, 1945, which was a dive-bombing mission at Chichi Jima, located about 45 minutes from Iwo. I dropped two 500-lb. bombs on a radio transmitting target that had been notifying the Japanese mainland when planes were over the area heading for Japan. I made a second mission there several weeks later. This is the same target where President George H. W. Bush, as a Navy pilot, was shot down during the war.
Did you get into any dogfights?
No. I had been trained to handle enemy planes attacking us and I saw Japanese planes, but I didn't have a chance to shoot at any. After only a few of our missions which were to protect the B-29 bombers on their daylight raids to Japan, the Japanese stopped attacking the B-29’s because their losses were so heavy. We were then assigned specific airfields to attack. Sixteen of our planes would attack an airfield. Twelve of the planes would drop down from 15,000 feet to tree-top levels while four planes providing top cover to protect the lower planes in case enemy fighters came around. If weather prevented us from attacking the airfields we would seek secondary targets: boats, trains, or anything that had any military value, even radio towers, electrical transmission power lines, etc. Most of my targets were in and around the Tokyo area.
We weren't too worried about Japanese fighters coming after us. They were saving their planes anticipating an invasion of Japan. We had no official word but we all felt that we were moving toward an invasion of the mainland of Japan in the Fall and this was confirmed after the war. We knew if there was an invasion we'd be in the thick of it.
On a strafing mission, we'd get fifteen miles from the target and dive in at 400 to 450 miles an hour. Once at tree-top level their radar couldn't pick us up. When we got a target in our gun sight, we were often going so fast that we were in a nose-down position to stay down because of the added speed, so we had to pull the plane up so we could fire down at the target. We came in so fast they couldn't hit us--their fire just went behind us but pulling up to fire was dangerous because we became a more vulnerable target. I got credit for destroying a twin-engine bomber on one mission and probably destroyed a single engine fighter on another.
On one mission when several of the primary targets were closed in by bad weather, we spread out in all directions, seeking other targets. We found a train moving into a rural station and several of us dived down and attacked it. I picked out what at first glance appeared to be an engine and clobbered it but it turned out to be a caboose. It was backing up. Meanwhile planes from another of our squadrons found it and started moving in on it as well. My flight leader called me and said, "Bill, let's get out of here before we run into one of our own planes.”
The two of us flew South toward the Inland Sea where we saw and attacked a 100-ft freighter. We were over the water so there was no ground fire to worry about. Starting from an altitude of about 1000 feet, my flight leader dove down and attacked the ship in a pass not unlike the ground gunnery exercise we received in our advanced training. As he pulled up I followed doing everything that helped me get such good scores in my training: I centered the needle and ball on the instrument panel, dropped ten degrees of flaps, slightly lowered the rpm, and got into close range before firing. We pulled up, circled, and made a second attack. My gun camera film later showed that most of the rounds I fired did in fact hit our target. We left it burning and I got credit for probably destroying the ship.
Another time I was the fourth plane in a 4-plane squadron attacking a Japanese aircraft carrier in the Inland Sea. We peeled off one at a time and dove down at full power to individually attack the ship. I could not shoot at the carrier until the three planes ahead of me shot first. This was the fastest I ever flew in a P-51. As I began pulling out of the dive, I blacked out losing all of my vision but could still handle the plane’s controls. You can't do much damage to a carrier with 50-caliber machine guns. It was stupid to put us to that kind of risk. We didn't have any bombs to drop on it. We had only machine-guns.
Bill Ebersole from his unit's impressive album, 506th Fighter Group: The History of 506th Fighter Group, Iwo Jima 1945. The cartoon (top left) shows an American pilot shooting a Japanese soldier out of an outhouse. The title means "Honorable Mistake." The description gives Bill's account of his squadron's attack on an enemy aircraft carrier which he told me earlier. It also lists Bill's decorations: Distinguished Flying Cross , Air Medal with Three Oak Clusters, Distinguished Unit Citation, Asiatic Pacific Campaign and American Campaign medals.
Did your squadron suffer any casualties?
On one mission on June 1st, 1945, out of about 245 P-51 planes on a mission to Japan, a total of 29 P-51 planes and 28 pilots were lost trying to go through a severe cold front about halfway between Iwo and Japan.
After this, great care was taken to be very aware of dangerous weather conditions.
On the way back from a one strafing mission, I was flying on the wing of my element leader when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire. I knew the pilot. We all lived together and trained and flew together. His plane was trailing coolant as we headed back to Iwo. Heavy smoke began streaming out of his plane and he began preparing to bail out. We had already passed one Navy rescue ship and were heading toward another that could've rescued him when he was in the water. He did all of the things we were told to do: eject the canopy, lower wheels and flaps, trim the plane, slow it to a near stall, and exit over the left side of the plane. But as he bailed out he hit the plane's horizontal stabilizer. He fell through some clouds but we never saw any evidence that his chute ever opened.
My flight leader and I remained in the area for fifteen or twenty minutes but our fuel was low so we had to leave. We continued on toward Iwo. Our planes had limited navigational aids. I was flying on the wing of my flight leader when my instruments indicated we were missing Iwo. When I called him, he said he had been having some problems with his instruments and would fly on my wing using my instruments to get us home. I turned almost 90 degrees to the left. Iwo came in sight 10 or 15 minutes later. I landed with only a 5-minute supply of fuel left. This was my longest flight in a P-51, eight hours and twenty minutes. My VLR (very long range) flights usually averaged 7 ½ hours to 8 hours.
How did you cope with anxiety, fear?
I don't recall ever having any fear. The training was so good it helped you to be level-headed and feel like you're in control. There were some things you couldn't control, but the training gave you a sense that there was a lot you could. It's just amazing when you think about the training program. Like many back then, I was just a youngster when the war started, never been in a plane before, and they were able to take a lot of us and teach us how to do all these things with an airplane in combat. There were some that became very fearful. One man came in after a mission and said, "You know, this is really dangerous. I'm not gonna do it anymore." They shipped him back to Hawaii for rest. When he came back, he still wouldn't get in a plane again.
Did you ever have any misgivings about hitting civilians?
I wouldn't have made a good ground soldier. I did have second thoughts about a freighter that I seriously shot and probably destroyed in the Inland Sea south of Tokyo. It didn't seem to be armed, didn't shoot at us, but we made strafing passes at it. I did the most damage to it. It was pretty much destroyed.
I realize the two Atom Bombs dropped on Japan killed thousands of Japanese but without them, we would have attempted to invade Japan and the loss of life by the allies and by Japan would have been unimaginable and may have exceeded the atom bomb losses. I doubt that I would have survived an invasion of Japan because I would have surely been in the midst of it.
A few weeks after the war was over a friend, who shared the same plane with me during the war, and I decided we would see if we could hitch a ride on one of the transport planes that stopped at Iwo to refuel before heading on to Japan. We decided we would take the risk of going AWOL (Absent With Out Leave). The friend said “Bill, we've been sticking our necks out around these islands so long the Army's not gonna do anything to us.") We filled our pockets with things like sugar and cigarettes and candy bars and climbed on a plane heading to Japan where we spent several days, including my 21st birthday on September 30th, 1945, roaming around Yokohama and Tokyo.
Yokohama was burned out and in total rubble and ruins with only a few building shells standing. There was some destruction in Tokyo but there were still many areas that seemed untouched by the war. The people were very polite to us. We met a man on the street and were somehow able to communicate that we wanted to find a kimono. He could not speak English but understood what we were looking for. He took us down some narrow streets and he led us to his home. We left our shoes at the door, entered his home and sat on the floor while his wife and daughter modeled several different kimonos that he was willing to part with. We traded him all of our goodies plus the friend's army wrist watch for two kimonos which my friend wanted to take home to his wife. They were very nice to us. I later told my buddy, "This is just amazing how nice these people were. It changed my whole outlook on the war. The soldiers we fought were the villains, and the civilians were very friendly and likeable. I don’t believe I would be that way to anybody that had just conquered us." No one ever said a word to us when we returned to Iwo.
This war stuff is very bad. The politicians want something another side has, and they get the people all lined up behind them and go to war. It's still going on today in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and other places.
I flew my first mission on May l of '45; I flew my last mission on August 5, 1945, the day before we dropped the atom bomb. I was on Iwo Jima and didn't know anything about the atom bombing till later. Hiroshima was as far away from us on Iwo as Miami is from Chicago.
What do you think has been the biggest change for the United States since World War II?
Democrats and Republicans used to work together much better than they do today. Eisenhower, Nelson Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan would work with Democrats. The two parties would get together and hash things out, compromise, arrive at solutions they could live with, and the country could move forward. But in recent years Democrats and Republicans have become extreme parties, mostly uncompromising. That's got to change. We can't keep on going the way we are now. This grid-lock we have today has got to be broken. If we don't break it, it's going to break us.
I have a concern for the poor people and the disadvantaged people. We've got to look out for them. One time I played in a golf charity for the benefit of families with small children, so they could have decent shelter from the rain and cold. This friend, who was a regular golf player in my golf group, wrote me a note and said, "I'm not gonna give to that. I worked for my money. Let them get out and work for theirs." That's such a shallow and very selfish attitude that is shared by far too many people today.
We don't have any statesmen today. We got a lot of politicians who are looking out for their own interests rather than the good of the country. We need to have statesmen again, like Florida’s Leroy Collins, Bob Graham and others who work for the good of us all.
Eva Maráková Eichhorn was born in Kroměříž, Czechoslovakia (now two countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia). She grew up in Němčice nad Hanou, a small town, where her father was a postmaster and her mother a homemaker. Since 1978 she has lived in the United States, most of the time in Gainesville, Florida. Her first job was an enjoyable stint at the University of Florida Library. Then she joined UF's Department of German and Slavic Languages and Literatures as a professor of Russian. "My students were brilliant," Eva recalled. "What took three years in Brno where neither the students nor the teacher really wanted to study or teach Russian, my American students were able to learn in one year." The College of Liberal Arts awarded Eva for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching (1991), and The Division of Student Affairs honored her for Outstanding Service And Dedication To UF Students (1994). A year before retiring from the university, she submitted a proposal to teach Czech at UF. It was granted and Czech is offered as one of the languages in The Center for European Studies. She is still involved in the Czech program at UF and occasionally teaches a class in the Prague Summer Program. She has two sons by her first marriage and two grandchildren. The late Heinrich Karl Eichhorn, her second husband whom she married in 1977, was an astronomer of international renown after whom an asteroid is named.
What do you think was the major historical development (long-range cause) that led to the movement called "Prague Spring"?
I would have to start at the end of the Second World War when the era of domination by the Soviet Union started. Gradually, the liberators became oppressors, in 1948 a communist regime took over Czechoslovakia, and our previously prosperous country became poor. People lived like in a cage, isolated from the free world by the Iron Curtain. Many of us yearned for freedom and eventually that desire took the form of the Prague Spring in 1968.
How did communist oppression directly affect you and your family?
We lived in a nice two-story house that belonged to us. There was a post office on the ground floor and our apartment on the second floor. The post office moved out just after the end of the Second World War, and we were planning to use the whole house for ourselves. My father had become disabled and living on the ground floor would have made it a little easier for him to get out and enjoy the fresh air. But because there was supposedly a shortage of living space and, probably, because my father was an outspoken adversary of the communist regime, we were not allowed to do that. The lower part of our house was rented to various institutions for a nominal rent without my parents' permission.
In the 50s when the communists collectivized the farms, farmers were losing their land or were sent to prison if they refused to join collective farms. My father became an advocate for farmers in our town, and he had a file cabinet full of "cases." Sometimes he would ask me to rewrite some grievances by hand because his typewriter became too well known to the authorities. Every day my father would
listen to the Voice of America and make notes so that he could tell people coming to our house what was new behind the Iron Curtain.
After I finished the elementary and middle schools in Němčice, I applied for admission to the Gymnasium in Kroměříž. My application was turned down because the official said my grades weren't good enough. My grades were straight A's. After my father wrote an appeal, I was admitted to the Gymnasium in Jesenik, six hours by train from my home. In my class, there were two other girls who were sent there in order to get us out of the influence of our parents. After one year, all three of us were allowed to return to the gymnasium closer to home.
In 1956 I applied for admission to the College of Philosophy at Brno University where I wanted to study Czech and German languages and literatures. Everybody was telling me that I had no chance to get there because of my family background. I did pass my entrance exams in both Czech and German; about a month later I received a letter telling me I was admitted to study Czech and Russian. Later I found out that some people were not permitted to have access to Western languages. I was obviously one of them. So I studied Czech and neglected Russian but graduated with a degree in both. Interestingly, it was almost always Russian that helped me to get a job. A year before my graduation, my fellow students and I were offered an application for membership in the Communist Party. I don't know how many of us applied; some of my friends did, but I did not.
The deaths of Stalin (and Gottwald) 1 in 1953 and Khrushchev's famous speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 brought some hopes for changes. But demonstrations and uprisings were always brutally crushed by the existing communist regime. I didn't expect to live long enough to see the situation change.
Where were you when you first learned of the Prague Spring movement?
In 1967 I was living in Brno, working, having two children, the younger one with serious health problems. My major concern was my family and I was not interested in anything else at that time. I knew, of course, that there were some changes in our communist government. It looked like the old Stalinist Guard was being replaced by a new group, more open to some reforms. In January 1968 Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party and everything started to change. It was probably my favorite newspaper Literární Noviny that made me pay attention. Censorship was lifted. Articles were interesting, critical, touching on subjects nobody was allowed to write about before such as political-philosophical discussions on civil liberties and guarantees, Czech-Slovak relations, religion, the political processes of the 50s, etc. Long forbidden authors like Jan Zahradníĉek were publishing again.
How did you first react to Prague Spring?
At first, I was skeptical. I did not believe that things were going to be much different than before. In my opinion, it was just a new group of communist leaders taking over and replacing the old group. After all, they were all communists and, in their speeches they always emphasized the leading role of the Communist Party in our future. But, later on, I started to entertain the thought that, maybe, this was a different Communist Party than before.
What did those closest to you first think about it?
I had seventeen colleagues. About half of them were Communist Party members. Out of those, probably just one was a real communist and she did not like at all what was happening. Another one or two were careful enough not to show what they were thinking. All the others, both party members and non-party members were excited and hopeful. I don't remember if any of my colleagues joined this "new" Communist Party during the Prague Spring but many people did.
At the time I was working at the Brno Military Academy. My boss pressured me to join the Party. The Party wanted only young people up to age 30 and I was just under that age. I kept putting him off. He had a heart attack, there was all the chaos of Prague Spring, and by the time it was over I was too old for the Party. (laughs)
As Prague Spring developed over several months in 1968, what did you and those closest to you think about its chances for success?
In summer, our family went for vacation to a mountain resort. I still did not trust the new development completely but the chances for success looked good. The Czech government did not want to separate itself from Moscow (many people were hoping that it would) or leave the Warsaw Pact. There was no reason for Moscow to feel threatened. When our stay in the resort was over and before returning home to Brno, we stopped at Němčice to visit with my mother. It was in the morning of August 21 when my mother went out to buy some fresh bread and came back with strange news. Somebody heard on the radio that the Russian army entered our country at night and there were tanks on the streets of Prague and more airplanes were landing at the airport. It was a shock. We could not believe it. But soon there was a newspaper with pictures and it was true.
How did the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces affect your daily life? Were you ever in danger?
We stayed with my mother in Němčice till the end of August. This town has one advantage in time of war. There is a railroad bridge over the only road going through the town. The bridge is low and that is why no tanks can enter. But many people were afraid that there would be a war. It seemed to be safer to stay there as long as we could. Neither my mother nor her neighbors had TV. We were listening to the radio and reading newspapers but the information was scattered. We could not get a clear picture of what was happening. There were rumors that in a town nearby somebody was shot. It turned out to be true. When we returned to Brno, the worse was over. I did not go downtown. I did not see any Russian soldiers at that time. I worried about my children, about our future, and, of course, I was, terribly disappointed.
What was the most compelling thing that you learned about Soviet troops during their invasion and occupation of Prague?
People were saying that the soldiers were mostly very young. Many of them seemed to be from eastern parts of the Soviet Union. Some of them were not sure in what country they were. They were scared; they seemed to believe that they came to help Czech people and did not understand their hostile behavior. I heard the Soviet soldiers were kept in strict isolation (probably for their own safety). Later, when the presence of Soviet soldiers in Czechoslovakia became permanent, the resistance of the Czech population was expressed in seemingly insignificant actions like refusing services. My American husband witnessed a situation in a tobacco store in Olomouc: a young Russian soldier wanted to buy cigarettes. The saleslady told him she did not have any, but the cartons of cigarettes were clearly visible. The soldier did not dare to argue and left confused. Later, there were Russian stores in every city with a Russian garrison. Very often people would tell the soldiers they did not understand Russian. This was not true because since 1948, everybody in Czechoslovakia learned Russian starting in elementary school.
Any other situations in this critical time that you recall?
We returned to Brno at the very end of August in 1968, just before the school started. My oldest son was eight years old and his school was at the walking distance from our apartment. I could see him from our balcony walking with other children down the road, passing a column of tanks parked along the street. That picture got stuck in my memory. The tanks just stood there for about three more days. Later, I found out that just a week earlier the city was not that calm and was very tense. A friend of mine told me that her student from the military academy called her the night of the invasion and recommended that she and her family get out of the country as fast as possible. She also told me that Brno Military Academy supplied all ambulances with gas during the first few days after the invasion and one of the high ranking officers was seen driving an ambulance himself.
During the Prague Spring, my first husband got an invitation to teach astronomy in Tampa, Florida, for one year in 1969. USA was for sure not one of the selected countries, but everything was possible during the Prague Spring and he got permission to go to Tampa. Unfortunately, I did not get unpaid vacation that was usually granted to spouses in such a situation.
Prague Spring was over in 1969, travel became more restricted, and my only possibility to join my husband was to end my employment with the Brno Military Academy and trust the oral promise given to me by a commander of the academy that, if I come back, I will get my job back. After spending a year in Tampa thinking about the situation back in my country, my mother and my marriage, I decided to go back. My whole family returned to Brno. I did get my job back but my husband did not. My marriage did not survive the difficulties we went through and three years later I was divorced. In 1977 I applied for permission to leave the country with both my children. For the whole year I did not get any answer and I was discouraged to ask. In 1978 I did get the permission and left.
How does Prague Spring compare to the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet domination?
The Hungarian uprising turned into a bloody revolution. Hungarian people fought the Russians with guns. Alexander Dubček constantly urged Czech people to stay calm and the army was instructed not to resist. There were casualties but compared with Hungary, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was relatively bloodless. Also, Dubček's political program was "socialism with a human face" where the Communist Party would still play a leading role and Czechoslovakia would still be a loyal member of the Warsaw Pact. That was why the
Dubček government believed Moscow would not feel threatened and would not invade the country as it was the case in Hungary.
Why do you think that Prague Spring failed?
I think that Prague Spring was destined to fail from the very beginning. It was naive to believe that Moscow would tolerate the reforms envisioned by the new Dubček Party leadership. Also, it seems to me that Dubček overestimated his personal relations with the Soviets. When the troops of five Warsaw Pact nations invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia, Prague Spring was over.
What do you think has been the legacy of Prague Spring and the Soviet occupation for the present Czech Republic?
When I think about my feelings during the Prague Spring I come to the conclusion that for me, as for most of us, it was all about freedom. I agree with Jiří Pehe that "... desire for freedom despite external danger ... we should consider one of the most important legacies of the Prague Spring." Here is an excerpt from Pehe's article that I have translated into English.
Czechs and Slovaks have many reasons to look back to 1968 with pride. The model of democratic communism was indeed utopian, but when it was later used in the Soviet Union, it began to change the communist dictatorship into a pluralistic political system which contributed to the fall of communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
While Soviet tanks crushed the "socialism with a human face"--although even this idea eventually came back in the form of glasnost and perestroika--they failed to fully suppress the struggle for human rights. This soon came back in the form of an ideological base of dissident movements in the communist bloc, which ultimately contributed to the collapse of communism together with the revitalized virus "socialism with a human face" that Gorbachev brought to the Soviet system in 1985. 2
1 Klement Gottwald (1896 –1953) was a communist politician and longtime leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.
2 Jiří Pehe. "What is the legacy of the Prague Spring 1968?" CRO 6, 8. 21. 2008.
Leonard Emmel was born in Wilson, Arkansas, and lived in a number of other places: chiefly Auburn, AL; East Lansing, MI; and Bushnell, FL. In 1935 he and his family moved to Gainesville, FL, where his father, a veterinarian, took a position in the Animal Husbandry Dept. at the University of Florida. A pre-med student at the University of Florida (1941-1943), he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania Medical School in 1944 and completed his residency in 1949. He also served a residency in the Thayer VA-Vanderbilt medical program (1950-1951). After two years of Army service during the Korean War, he began practicing internal medicine in Gainesville, FL in 1953 and continued that practice until his retirement in 1989. Leonard and his first wife, Rachel Bushnell Rodenbach, 1 had three children, seven grandchildren, and two great grandchildren. Rachel died in 2010 of multiple melanoma. Leonard and his second wife, Linda Lucille Pennell, 2 now reside at Oak Hammock at the University of Florida. Leonard recounts the highlights of his medical service in the US Army.
I was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School for the class entering in January 1944. The Army drafted me in December 1943 and sent me to Camp Blanding for about a month. Since I had been accepted to medical school, I was sent to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and enrolled in the Army Specialized Training Program as a Pfc. I attended medical school at Penn until April 1947, the same year I was discharged at Fort Meade, Maryland.
After my residency at Penn, I worked for two years in their Department of Pharmacology (1949-1950). We measured the effect of 100% Oxygen on cerebral blood flow at 3½ atmospheres pressure. This was fascinating basic research done in a pressure chamber under the leadership of Dr. Christian Lambertsen, who was the father of the Navy Frog Men. While he was a med student at Penn, Lambertsen devised an underwater breathing mask.
During the Korean War, I served as a 1st Lt. in the US Army Medical Corps and was stationed at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas (1951-1953). The head of our hospital was a Colonel, and the head of our Medical Service was also a Colonel, both regular Army. Beneath the Colonel most of the officers were non-career officers: 1st Lts. or Captains serving for a period of two years. Our morale generally was good as we had only two years to serve and then we would return to civilian life.
My residency and pharmacology training qualified me as a specialist in internal medicine. I had Dispensary duty every morning for sick call lasting one to two hours; then I reported to the Cardiac Ward at the hospital where I was in charge the entire two years of my service. We handled heart disease, a few general medical patients, and heat stroke. Camp Chaffee was an infantry training base, and we supported the basic training of infantrymen. A number of trainees had severe cases of heat stroke. These cases were my challenge and responsibility. Our hospital did not receive combat casualties. My impression was that medical and surgical casualties from Korea went to hospitals in Hawaii or California.
Heat stroke victims constituted an urgent emergency. We knew that the man's life was at risk, in our hands, and we had the means to save him and possibly prevent brain damage. A soldier would collapse during his training, while on the march for instance, or while undergoing extreme physical activity in hot weather, and be completely unconscious with an elevated temperature of 106-107 degrees. In the field their flushed face, skin extremely hot to touch, and unconsciousness indicated the need for immediate attention. I recall patients with temperatures of 108 or 109 degrees. The longer their temperature remained elevated, the greater the chance that they would suffer severe brain or liver damage. This was something we tried to prevent. Oddly enough, these patients stopped sweating.
Leonard Emmel as a soldier-medical student at the University of Pennsylvania (ca 1944)
The best treatment at that time was lowering the temperature of these men as swiftly as possible. The course we finally settled on sounds barbaric, but it was successful and we did not have any casualties or organ damage. The patient would be placed in bed, stripped naked, and we would sponge the individual off with ice water, even put ice cubes next to their bodies. Four of us, all medical personnel, would do the sponging at a feverish pace, two of us at the upper body and two at the lower body. After a few minutes of constant sponging, the victim would lie in a small pool of ice water. We monitored his temperature throughout this process. At first we had little effect despite our frantic efforts. I recall after about 10 or 20 minutes the temperature might begin to decline. This tiny progress encouraged us greatly, for it showed our efforts were beginning to take effect. Our treatment might be necessary for an hour or two. The patient remained unconscious and unresponsive all this time.
With time the patient's temperature would decline to levels of 101-102 degrees, and we slackened our efforts. When it fell to 99 degrees we stopped sponging as the worst was over. During the course of treatment an IV of saline would be started to hydrate the victim. The patient would gradually return to consciousness some time after his temperature subsided.
The sponging required teamwork with four people working at full speed, one person in charge of the group, a least one person keeping four buckets of ice water always ready. One person had to keep a close eye on the temperature.
We medical officers discussed whether it would be efficacious to put the patient in a bath of ice water, but we feared so sudden a shock could be harmful. We applied to the Army for a grant to study heat stroke, but we were denied.
My service in the Army was beneficial in a general sense. The greater the extent of one's experience, the greater the source of knowledge one draws upon.
How do you think the practice of internal medicine today compares with that during your 36-year career?
There are many changes that have occurred, many for the worst. The government continues to increase their demands and paperwork to satisfy their regulations. There have been vast technological changes such as increased use of MRI and CT scans. I sometimes feel that today's physicians are almost powerless without an MRI or CT. Obtaining an appointment with a physician within a reasonable period of time is much more difficult than it used to be. Demand for their services makes it almost impossible to get an appointment in a few days. Speaking with a physician over the phone is next to impossible. This used to be commonplace. When I went into practice in 1953, physicians competed for patients by providing prompt efficient service. Today I see little evidence of competition.
In my practice I was fortunate to form an association with Dr. Richard Anderson around 1960. We built an office and shared space in it until my retirement in 1989.
1 Leonard's first wife Rachel was a descendant of David Bushnell who devised a submarine during the Revolutionary War and attempted to sink British ships.
2 His second wife Linda was in nursing home administration prior to their marriage. She has four children of her own and five grandchildren.
Reginald (Reg) Fansler was born in St. Clair, Missouri, in 1916. He met his wife Avis in Germany when he was in the Army and she was working in Special Services. They were married for 59 years before her death in 2009. Their children are Marilyn, Susan and Mark, all doing well. Reg spent most of his working life in the Army and retired in 1971 as a full colonel. As a civilian he worked in law enforcement in Georgia and in real estate in Hawaii. He and his family lived in Honolulu for 30 years before moving to Oak Hammock at the University of Florida in 2007. Reg’s 30 plus years of military service span three wars. He first joined the Army in 1937, and he begins his story with what motivated him to enlist then.
From Illinois to the Philippines
My family moved to Illinois when I was a boy. I spent 15 years working on a farm near Greenfield, Illinois. At 17 I graduated from high school and took off. I figured I couldn’t compete with my older brother, so I just left and headed west and worked at various jobs. I had some interest in the military and read brochures about it. One day I walked into an Army recruiting office in Eureka, California. I asked if I could go to Tientsin, China. That’s where I wanted to go with the 15th Infantry Regiment. The recruiter said, “I can take care of that. Just sign on the dotted line.” I did and soon I was in San Francisco. The captain in charge was about 50 years old, like many in the pre-World War II Army which was only about 150,000 in the military at that time. He said, “Sorry, son, only prior service men get Tientsin, China. I said, “What are my options?” He said, “You can turn around and walk out the door. Or I can send you to the air corps in Hawaii or artillery in the Philippines.” I had relatives teaching at the university in the Philippines, so I chose the Philippines and signed on for three-years.
I started my military career on Corregidor Island. I went through basic training and advanced individual training and did the various duties required of me. I was in the 59th Artillery Regiment, coast artillery. Our mission was guarding the entrance to Manila Bay. We had the 12-inch Barbette Cannon, 12-inch Smith 1 and Smith 2 Cannons, and a 14-inch disappearing mortar-like gun. My job was scope operator on the Barbette Cannon.
Impressions of General Douglas MacArthur
I saw MacArthur many times. He was a very distinguished man, always in a white dress uniform. We admired him from a distance. I heard him speak many times in the Rizal Stadium in Manila. We’d stand in formation at parade rest and wait a half hour for him to show up and listen to him speak for an hour or more. He was High Commissioner over the Philippine Islands. He was a fine speaker, but the sun would get pretty oppressive. I think about the third time we heard him speak he got tired of seeing soldiers pass out and fall to the ground. He allowed us to put bayonets on our rifles, stick ’em in the ground and lean on the rifles. That was about the only thing we appreciated him for. (Chuckles)
What do you remember of Philippine culture then?
There were two coast artillery regiments and one regiment of Philippine Scouts, all under the command of the U.S. Army. They were good soldiers and very pleasant people to deal with. They were very competitive in all activities, training, firing range, sports—excellent soldiers. At that time the Philippines was a territory with a president who worked directly with MacArthur.
Did you see any resentment because of U.S. control?
In the north relations between us and the Philippine people were pretty good. Most of the resentment was in the south around Mindanao among the Muslim population; and they’re still fighting today. When we went on leave, the Army always cautioned us about Mindanao. They’d say, “You’re taking your life in your hands in Mindanao.” But in the north everything was peace and quiet.
My last six months on Corregidor I was a corporal and assistant supply sergeant. I was involved in a big effort to refurbish buildings, deal with supplies and renovate the hospital in the Malinta Tunnel. We knew the Japs were coming, no doubt about it. With limited resources we were trying our best to get prepared. The infantry division in Manila would come to Corregidor and practice landings and all kinds of operations. Later when the Japanese attacked Corregidor, our guns couldn’t depress enough to hit the Jap landing crafts. They just sailed under our guns and swarmed onto the island.
I remember in ’39 the battery commander began to show up at reveille. That was unusual. He was trying to persuade us to extend our enlistments. It didn’t work on me. A number of men extended and they’re in a graveyard someplace. They got caught in the Death March. I knew two who survived. One became a master sergeant in the Air Force. The other later turned up as a lieutenant in my MP command. I wish I could recall their names. I remember that lieutenant talking about the Death March: “How to survive!” he said. “Every waking moment was spent trying to figure out how to survive.”
I liked the Army and the discipline and what I learned. Some people don’t like being told what to do, but I didn’t mind being told what to do. I just didn’t want to make a career as an enlisted man. In 1937 I applied to officer training but didn’t make it. I didn’t have enough math and science. Back then you could get an early out, so I decided to leave the Army after 25 months and go back to California. I still had hopes of becoming an officer some day.
Back to the Army and into an MP Unit
When I got out, the Army talked me into staying in the Inactive Reserve. I said, “What’s that going to cost me?” They said, “Just provide us with an active address and phone number where we can reach you, and we’ll pay you $2 a month.” I was working on the Shasta Dam Project in California when I got a letter from the President ordering me back to active duty. That was Christmas Eve, 1940. They’d already been drafting men in ’40. In February 1941 I came back to active duty as a corporal. I was processed at Monterey, California, and then sent to Camp Roberts, California, and assigned to the Adjutant General Headquarters. All I did for three days was run a mimeograph machine. I got tired fast of being an AG slave. So I walked across the street to a Military Police unit where a friend was assigned and asked about joining them. They were eager to get me in the unit. I said, “Let me go get my gear!” This NCO said, “You sit right there. I’ll go get your gear for you.” That’s how I got in the Military Police.
I liked the work. It was active. I was outdoors. A few days after I joined I was told to recruit ten men for the Military Police. I came up with ten stalwarts who stayed with me for many, many months. We learned about the Uniform Code of Military Justice, where authority comes from, how it’s used, how it’s abused. We trained with hand guns and rifles. We didn’t have any training for town patrol and that was our duty. We had a manual that said how to put on handcuffs and fire weapons and how to handle prisoners, but town patrol duties we had to learn on the job (OJT). We had to read the manual and apply it to a town patrol situation, like putting on handcuffs.
Had to read the manual while you were in some joint trying to cuff a guy?
Yes, OJT! I had men with me who were good at maintaining control. Two of them had been state troopers in Roanoke, Virginia. I had a hard time understanding them at first. They used words like ote and abote (Chuckles). I was the duty NCO and I taught them how to apply their knowledge to military situations. They did excellent police work. There was a lot of drunkenness and prostitution going on. Dealing with drunks and fights, routing GIs out of houses of prostitution—we learned all that on our own. I was responsible for town patrol in San Miguel, California, about 2 ½ miles from Camp Roberts. That town had 11 bars. Across the railroad tracks four nice homes had been turned into houses of prostitution.
Were you ever in danger of your life in those situations?
Have you ever been thrown out of a truck traveling 15 miles an hour? I was. Two guys were drunk and I thought I could handle them, but they grabbed me and threw me out of the moving truck. Got scratched up but I wasn’t hurt bad--never had a broken bone in my life. On town patrol you’re always in danger. I remember this training outfit of American Indians. Boy, they couldn’t handle the booze. The Army put out an order that Indians couldn’t drink alcoholic beverages, but other soldiers would pass booze to them under the table. The Indians became very violent when they were drunk.
How many physical fights were you in?
About one a night. You’d run into rowdies and drunks that wouldn’t cooperate. You couldn’t pick ’em up and carry ’em so you had to use special holds. The most effective hold was to lock a man’s arm behind him and move him out. Another effective one was to grab him around the neck and by the seat of his pants and you could march him pretty well.
Were you ever hit in the face?
I never was, but I remember one of my men getting hit with a beer bottle—cut his cheekbone and knocked him down, but he came right up from there. His name was William Fiske, a lumberjack from Oregon—strong, strong! When he put his hands on a man, that man was his.
News of Pearl Harbor caused all hell to break loose around us. Sirens going off, vehicles rumbling, troops gearing up, on the move! We were put on continuous duty. They lectured to us on what to do and when to do it. We guarded all bridges, kept all lights out. It didn’t make any difference what you’d been doing before Pearl Harbor, now you had a new situation and new rules you had to follow. Here’s a picture of me as an MP Staff Sergeant.
Dealing with Rowdies and Prostitution in North Africa
I eventually applied for OCS, was accepted, and in December of ’42 I had a short leave before reporting for officer training. First time I’d been home since 1934! I went through OCS at Ft. Custer, Michigan, became a second lieutenant February 26, 1943. I wound up with a company, 438 MP Escort Guard Company. Our mission was to escort prisoners. For a while all we did was train, train, train.
My first overseas duty was in Oran, North Africa. This was 1943. Earlier we’d been whipped almost out of existence at the Kasserine Pass. [General Omar] Bradley had lost almost a whole division. But the Allies regrouped and reconstituted their operations and Mr. Desert Fox [General Erwin Rommel] was defeated. Thousands of German and Italian troops surrendered.
In Oran my outfit was assigned to the Mediterranean Base Section. When I got there, the 1st Division was coming back from the desert. They got billets. We got tents and bivouacked on a hill. (Chuckles) Then the 2nd Armored Division came back from the desert. They were an obnoxious bunch of people, rednecks. They’d roam around at night and throw rocks into headquarters. So a bunch of us second lieutenants led foot patrols to keep the rowdies in line.
Houses of prostitution were in full operation. There were long lines of GI’s going into the houses. The men were processed into the houses on one side and they were processed out on the other side.
How was the processing done?
Army medics made sure their penises were washed and clean going in. Navy corpsmen might’ve been involved in the processing too, I don’t recall.
How about going out?
They might’ve used a syringe and shot something up the penis, but I’m not sure of that. They were processed going out, I’m sure about that—military regulations. By the time I’d gotten to Oran the second time, Eisenhower had put all the houses of prostitution off limits. Then MP’s had to make sure GIs didn’t go in there. We roamed the halls of the houses checking to see if soldiers were there, and if they were we routed them out. Those houses were exquisite buildings, beautiful tapestries, beautiful carpets. In Oran there’s a long beautiful coastline and a beach. Part of the beach then was the Nurses’ Beach. After the houses were put off limits, everybody tried to figure out a way to get to the nurses. Fortunately, there weren’t many violations. Men were busy processing, moving out to Italy. They didn’t have much time to fool around.
Handling German POW’s
My most challenging job was handling German prisoners. We’d pick them up at collecting points and shuttle them to La Stina [sic] Air Base.* They were the remnants of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. They were loaded onto ships and sent to the U. S. Each ship carried 500 German POWs. They were put in the holds of the ship and allowed to come out one or two at a time to go to the bathroom. We had to make sure they used the leeward side of the ship or it would get messy. They had buckets to use if they didn’t want to come out. We had to make sure we had enough supplies and water for the crossing. A big challenge was determining how many potatoes we needed. Those Germans loved their potatoes. My POW ship was the same one I came over on: the USAT Borington Queen. [sic] *
We had pretty smooth sailing, 100 plus ships in our convoy. We were protected by our warships and submarines. We’d sail this way and that way and that way and this way so as not to be targets for German U-boats. Patton’s people had captured an Italian Major General and his staff. They were senior officers assigned to my ship. We were told to put them in a nice suite.
I wonder if the Italian general was Giovanni Messe. Messe surrendered German and Italian troops to the Allies after Rommel got sick and returned to Germany.
He may have been, but I don’t think so. Seems the one I had was from Palermo. I was still a second lieutenant. Every morning this Italian general gave me list of things as long as a maiden’s prayer.
How did you deal with prisoners on ship?
With a hard-nosed attitude. I told them what to do and they did it. I didn’t have any trouble with them. I had a German interpreter by the name of Walthemathe. He was a well-educated enlisted man, university graduate, tall, good physical specimen. He dictated my edicts to the senior German NCO and everything worked out fine. We shipped over to Newport News, Virginia. I got a ten-day leave, went to New York, checked into the Commodore Hotel and made myself comfortable. Then it was back to Oran, North Africa.
After my second tour in Oran, I was separated from my unit and sent to the German POW camp at Camp Hearne, Texas, not far from Texas A & M University. I spent six months there assigned to a headquarters company. My job was Defense Counsel for American soldiers being tried for various infractions. After that I was ordered to take a cadre to Camp Joseph T. Robinson in Little Rock, Arkansas. That camp held 21,000 German prisoners. This was 1944.
There were various POW sites in Arkansas. I took 360 Germans to one in Crawfordsville, Arkansas, about six miles from West Memphis. Facilities were built including separate mess halls for us and the Germans and a guard tower. Germans ate pretty well in our camps, lots of hamburger and potatoes. We even made special lunches for the Germans selected to work in the fields. They consisted of spam, baloney, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The farmers in the area had no labor but women and children. Many Germans worked the farms. I had a contract with a number of farmers to provide them 300 working bodies six days a week.
Challenges in Korea
I got to South Korea in 1953. I was a major then. It was pretty peaceful when I got there. Eisenhower had put a stop to the fighting. I became Chief of Law and Order at 8th Army Headquarters. Then I was assigned to supervise the movement of North Korean prisoners by train and trucks from Inchon to “Freedom City,” Panmunjom. We put them on the train and took ’em off the train and loaded them into trucks. These were dastardly, bastardly people. As we got close to Panmunjon there were stacks and stacks of clothes and shoes and boots on each side of the road. The North Koreans took off just about everything but their drawers and threw the stuff out of the trucks. They filled socks with feces. Every once in a while you’d get a sock of feces thrown at you. Never knew what was coming at you. This was a very trying assignment for me.
We also had to maintain security for our pipelines and supplies going north. Every morning we’d get up and see how much we’d lost. South Koreans had nothing, so they didn’t worry about stealing. They’d strip limbs from trees for fuel. A bunch of them would jump up and down on a pipeline till it sprang a leak and they’d carry off the oil. They stole clothes, blankets, boots, just about anything they could carry off. We had to put guards on all our supplies.
MP Action during the Tet Offensive
Times sure do change. In 1943 I went to North Africa as a second lieutenant on a troop ship. In 1967 I flew to South Vietnam as a full colonel on a Pan Am 747 jet, first class. My tour in Vietnam was 12 months. We had about 7,000 MPs in Vietnam. I was the Deputy Provost Marshal of the USARV [United States Army in Vietnam] Brigade at Long Binh. I spent a lot of time in the boondocks with MP units making sure they had enough food, supplies and equipment. I reported to General Harley Moore, the USARV Provost Marshal and Commander of the 18th MP Brigade. I reported indirectly to Colonel William Henry Gibson, Jr. Gibson was the MAAG [Military Assistance Advisory Group] Provost Marshal in Saigon. The only contact I had with South Vietnamese military was at MAAG meetings in Saigon. General Westmoreland, the overall Vietnam commander, was at these meetings. Usually I was seated near General Creighton Abrams, CO of the MAAG group then. The meetings dealt with law and order, discipline, morale, things like that.
In late January ’68 along came Tet and all hell broke loose. Colonel Gibson ran out to take charge and caught his groin on a swimming pool post. The 816th MP Battalion took the brunt of the attacks in Saigon and suffered several casualties on our Embassy grounds. They protected the Embassy and stopped the Vietcong. They distinguished themselves valiantly. The next day the VC hit an ammunition dump not too far from our Brigade headquarters at Long Binh. The explosion blew the corner of our building off its foundation. We all got to work and piled sandbags up higher and higher. The worst of Tet lasted 48 hours, but the VC and NVA [North Vietnamese Army] attacked on smaller scales continuously. There was a river behind our Long Binh Headquarters. VC would come up in boats and try to infiltrate our area. For a while the VC attacked around there about every night, but they never penetrated our Headquarters security. After Tet, Vietnamese were suspect, including those working around American units. You had to be careful who you had working for you. During Tet, VC had come out of the woodwork in places we thought were secure.
Did Colonel Gibson’s injury put him out of action?
No. He was in the hospital for six weeks; then he was back on the job. As a side note he took an artillery unit topside into Corregidor. He was part of MacArthur’s success in recovering the Philippines. He later became Commandant of the Military Police School at Fort Gordon. He was a great officer.
Did you have to deal with many desertions?
Every time you got combat you got desertions. But I didn’t see that many when I was in Vietnam. Desertions got worse after the Tet Offensive. We were constantly badgered at Headquarters to do something about GI drug problems—marijuana, cocaine, heroin. We put out bulletins on the dangers of drugs and the need to avoid them.
Colonel Fansler lecturing to troops on the dangers of drugs, 1968. The sign reads, He Was Curious!
Some Vietnam vets told me GI deserters ended up as drug pushers in Thailand and never returned to the States.
I wouldn’t doubt that at all. There are always situations in war that people take advantage of like black marketing, selling drugs and illegal stuff. They disappear from the law and stay in foreign countries.
Did you have any women in your command?
No. After I retired from the Army in 1971, two things happened: We got an all-volunteer Army and women became part of it. At first there were only a few in MP units. By the time of Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq, women were in all branches of the military, including the Military Police.
In ’71 the Army said I was 60% disabled and they didn’t want to have anything more to do with me. I had heart blockages leading to the heart. I had two serious cardiac episodes after I moved to Hawaii, landed in the hospital twice. This cardiac surgeon said, “I don’t know what to do with you but a pacemaker might help.” So he put in a pacemaker and that solved my problems. That was in 2002.
You had heart problems all that time and didn’t get a pacemaker till 2002?
That’s right. (Laughs) And I came out of Korea with TB. Forgot to tell you about that. After Korea I was assigned to the Army Crime Lab in Tokyo. One Friday an orderly called me and said the doctor wanted me to report the hospital on Monday. He wouldn’t tell me what it was about. I’d just had a complete physical. So I get to the hospital and the doctor says, “Guess what? You got live TB. Put that mask on and get in that robe.” I said, “OK, Doc, whatever you say.” I was treated for TB for two years. They operated on me at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital and took out part of my left lung. If you had TB and wanted to stay in service as a regular Army officer, the Army said you had to have lung surgery.
Heart blockages, TB, left lung partly gone, 95 years young—Reg, you give new meaning to the word remarkable.
But I didn’t get the Purple Heart. (Laughs)
Reg Fansler’s family celebrates his promotion to full Colonel in 1963. Daughter Marilyn (left), daughter Susan and wife Avis (right). Son Mark (center).
* Reg is not sure of the spelling of this base’s name. I could not find it in lists of World War II American air bases.
* The spelling of this ship is uncertain, though Reg is pretty sure its first three letters are Bor. I could find no mention of the ship among lists of American vessels in World War II. Reg offered a plausible reason for this: “It was probably scrapped and didn’t get in the record books.”
Erika Landgraf Gallivan
I was just a kid during the war. We lived in Tirschenreuth, Germany, near the Czech border.
Erika Landgraf and brother Josef Jr. ca. 1942
I remember all the noise from the bombings. Many American planes flew over our house day after day. Dresden was 100 air miles from our town. On February 15, 1945, we could see fire from Dresden caused by the bombing. We expected to be invaded, so my mother and others took china and linens and buried them. Tirschenreuth manufactured fine china for over 100 years. The factory employed just about everybody in the town. Families had prize china pieces to pass on to children, so they wanted to do all they could to protect this china.
One time three bombs hit outside the town. My mother thought the Americans dropped them to avoid hitting the town. We were never bombed; but Hamburg, Dresden, Munich, Cologne, and other well-known cities were devastated; the people suffered terribly; many civilians were killed by American and British bombs.
I remember kids on bikes screaming, "The Americans are outside the town." We were very scared and ran to my grandfather's house and hid in the cellar. Soon a soldier threw open the cellar door and pointed his rifle at us. He shouted, "Beer, wine, schnapps?" (laughs) We were not harmed and were allowed to leave the cellar. We saw all kinds of American vehicles and tanks rumbling through the street near our house. There were some black soldiers with the Americans. It was the first time any of us saw blacks. Some people thought they might be "African headhunters." (laughs)
Many Germans had to leave their houses and give them to American officers. Our house became a kitchen for the officers, and my mother cooked for them and cleaned up after their meals. The soldiers were generally good to us, and we had plenty to eat. They gave us children candy and gum. It was the first time that I saw an orange.
A sad thing happened with the china and linens we hid. The Americans accidentally parked their big tanks right over the buried treasures. The china was crushed, the linens were exposed, and the soldiers used the linens to clean their tanks. When they moved out, their commanding officer asked my mother to give him an account of any china that had been damaged during the occupation. The only things the families had left in their homes were old chipped cups and plates. The good stuff was buried and now gone.
I remember you said your father was killed on the Eastern Front. What kind of combat was he in, and how did this loss affect your family?
My father Josef was in the 251st Infantry Division, 471 Grenadier Regiment. After the German 6th Army surrendered at Stalingrad in February 1943, his unit was in the front line of defense at Orel, 400 miles west of Stalingrad. Strong Russian forces were pressing westward and the German line was collapsing. My father's last letter from the front was August 20, 1943, his 34th birthday. In that letter he wrote, ..."we are being driven around like aimless gypsies." Many years later, my brother visited Orel and found about where my father was killed.
A strange thing happened in 1960. My uncle was getting a haircut in Munich. On the wall he saw a picture of four German soldiers standing at attention receiving the EK II (Iron Cross II), July 21, 1943. Here's the picture that is now in a book about German soldiers during the war.* My father is third from the right. A few weeks later, all these men were killed when their unit was destroyed. *
Without our father, life was very hard for us. My mother got 55 Reich Marks for me and my two brothers. It was even harder for us in 1948 when the money changed to Deutsch Marks and our Reich Marks were worthless. My father had just begun to get his nursery business going when he was ordered to the Army. He had rented the land from the local Catholic Church. He had left us a small "nest egg" that helped a little, but we still had a hard time. My mother tried to keep up the rent but fell a little behind in payments. The priest was a stern landlord. He had no sympathy for my mother's struggle. He demanded immediate payment, my mother asked for a little more time, but he took the land away and gave it to someone else. This was the terrible way he treated us after my father gave his life for the country. I don't have any good memories of the Catholic Church. In school the nuns were often cruel to us. Sometimes they'd hit a kid's head with their knuckles. I would never go back to that church.
Steve and I married in Germany in 1962 and moved to Boston. Life was better in the U.S. but it still wasn't easy. To make ends meet I worked for a time in a jewelry factory making Super Bowl rings and Steve worked two jobs. I became a full-time homemaker and we eventually had 4 children. Life got much better for us in Boston and then in Vermont. We now have 5 grandchildren, and we have been able to retire comfortably in Gainesville, Florida. I am still very close to my immediate family in Germany and from time to time they visit us.
* From Polland, Eberhard. Vergesst uns nicht : Die Gefallen und Versmissen von Tirschenreuth! ( Do not forget us: The Fallen and Missing from Tirschenreuth) . Historischer Arbeitskreis im Oberplalzverein Tirschenreuth. Wittmann Druck & Werbung, Waldsassen (printing & publishing).
Stephen (Steve) Gallivan was born and raised in Boston. He attended Northeastern University and graduated with BA and MA degrees from Boston University. During the Cold War he served for three years in the U.S. Army Security Agency (aka ASA), graduated from the Army Language School at Monterey, California (now the Defense Language Institute), and went on to work as an ASA Czech linguist in then West Germany. There he achieved P2, the highest foreign language proficiency rating the Army gave in the early 1960's. After the Army Gallivan gave new meaning to the word diligence by teaching German at Boston Latin School and working nights at the Boston Post Office, an arduous schedule he kept for many years. Retired in Gainesville, Florida, he has continued his research into Czech and Slovak cultures and other countries in Eastern Europe. He and his German-born wife Erika are avid readers, Steve excels at gardening, Erika at cooking and swimming, and they like to give dinner parties for family and friends. They have 4 children and 5 grandchildren.
Why did you join the ASA?
In 1959 there was a draft on. Joining for three years meant being able to choose a school, like the US Army Language School.
What do you remember most about the Army Language School?
The men I met there were an amazing group. The students mostly had undergraduate degrees from universities all over the USA. Many had graduate degrees. Don’t forget, a man was exempt from the draft as long as he was a student. There was something to be learned from each of your buddies. The instructors were all refugees from Czechoslovakia, former army officers, who because they had flown fighter planes for the RAF against the Germans or because they had fought in France as part of the Allies after D-Day, they were classified as "pro Western" and faced imprisonment in forced labor camps, like the uranium mines, after returning to their homeland in 1945. Some had left before the Iron Curtain slammed shut, others blasted their way across the border into West Germany leaving not a few dead border guards behind. They had more to teach us than a foreign language.
I recall your saying that a Czech communist greeted your Monterey class via radio on your arrival in then West Germany. How do you think the Czechs got the names?
Most likely there was a spy among the faculty at the Language School. The KGB had the families of refugees from the Soviet Block under constant surveillance and blackmailed the refugees. It was a game they played throughout the Cold War, in Europe especially but also in the USA. Sometimes it backfired on them, like this: Mr. Hlasny (as you know, we addressed our instructors with the Czech word for mister, Pan) was a captain in the Czechoslovak Army and had escaped from Nazi held Czechoslovakia in 1938, fought as a captain in the infantry with the Allies in Torbruk, North Africa and returned home as a political outcast for all that. After the Communist Putsch in 1948 he again escaped from his homeland. He was 38 years old. His crossing of the border into West Germany was not pretty. He knew how to handle weapons, he was wounded but he made it. When he was 28 years old in 1938 he had become engaged to his childhood sweetheart but war intervened as did communist treatment of pro Westerners after 1945. His fiancée waited all the while in Prague. The communists refused to give her a travel visa so she could marry Pan Hlasny in West Germany. Ten years later, in 1958, Pan Hlasny was an instructor at the Army Language School in Monterey, California. He was approached by a KGB agent to spy for the Soviets. Pan Hlasny, no dummy, contacted the CIA and a sting operation was set up. The communists agreed to get Pan Hlasny’s fiancée a travel visa if he would agree to spy. You see what’s coming. Pan Hlasny got his sweetheart and the CIA got the Soviet agent. That was headline news in the San Francisco newspapers while you and I were studying in Monterey with Pan Hlasny as one of our instructors daily. On my last reunion with a group in Monterey, we visited Pan Hlasny in a retirement home in Carmel by the Sea. That was in 2004 and he had celebrated his 94th birthday. He is doing OK.
What do you remember most about your Army duties in then West Germany?
While monitoring Czech military traffic I intercepted a message saying that "the Third World War will start tomorrow." This translation was radioed to ASA headquarters in Nuremberg, then to the Pentagon and finally to JFK at Hyannis, Massachusetts. All of NATO forces in Europe were put on alert. Of course it was false, but the reality of the Cold War was brought home to us clearly at that moment.
This was probably the same incident that sent us on full alert at Herzo Base while you were at an outstation. Scuttlebutt said it was Czech soldiers drinking and horsing around.
I intercepted and translated the entire message. It included a description of a Czech squad leader of six soldiers who had established a listening post near the Bavarian border between Eger (Cheb) and Maehring. They had been on the march all day and missed chow. One of them robbed a goose from a farm and roasted it for the men, another got hold of a keg of beer and a bottle of schnapps (Slivovice), a third came up with loaves of farmer's bread. And then in the middle of the party the tenor in the squad sang "Na ti louce zelene" (On the Green Meadow), a beautiful folk ballad. By the time the message was broadcast they were well into the keg and it was obvious, but, what he said about WW III starting the next day was clear, so my job was not to editorialize but record, translate and send the tape to Herzo Base with an emergency courier.
What I remember most about my Army duties in West Germany was days and nights of endless listening to Czech military transmissions containing nothing at all of any importance. What kept the whole thing going was the Pearl Harbor' Syndrome. "We cannot sleep on the job and miss a vital transmission as in December 1941."
Yes, it was hammered into us that we had to be alert 24/7, and we were.
The Cold War started in 1945. The Soviet Army had the capability of marching in and taking over all of Western Europe. Three things together held them back, the U.S. Army, atomic weapons, and the West German Bundeswehr. Of course this is my opinion.
Mine, too. What do you remember most about your off-duty experiences then?
The most remarkable thing was that the German people were always friendly to us, helpful in every way. And we had invaded their country!
ASA GI's and Germans socializing in Kellerbar, a gasthaus in the town of Bischofsgruen at the foot of Mt. Schneeberg, 1961. Left to right Steve Gallivan (looking up); Bob Monson; Sandy Patterson; two men unidentified; Iris from Berlin, who later married Patterson ; behind her an unidentified man; Doris Hoffmann , Monson's first wife (now deceased); Ken Myers; Erika Landgraf, later married to Gallivan.
Unlike most of us who served with you at Monterey and in West Germany, you continued to develop proficiency in Czech after you left the Army to the point that you now listen regularly to Prague Radio. What are some major insights that you've gained from these broadcasts?
The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 brought a wave of euphoria over the world and especially over Czechoslovakia. What has followed is twenty years of corruption at all levels of government, including the police in that country. There is a large segment of the population who lived better under communism, with regards to employment and medical coverage.
Do you ever get from these broadcasts indications that traits of the old communist Czechoslovakia are still alive in the Czech Republic?
First let me say that when WW II ended there were the Nuremberg Trials. High ranking Nazis fled to Argentina, like Adolf Eichmann (later caught by Israelis), some Nazis committed suicide, 10 were executed (hanged), 7 were sentenced to prison terms of various lengths. Not many, but the point is the message was clear: former Nazis must pay the penalty. In addition, no copy of Hitler's book Mein Kampf could be printed in or sold in Germany. Displays of Nazi propaganda, banners, swastikas, etc. were banned. Neo-Nazi organizations were strictly prohibited. These laws are still in effect today. The Germans did it right! But when the Iron Curtain came down in Czechoslovakia after forty years, for the communists it was just a bad day at the office. No hangings, no repercussions of any kind.
Now here's a story, unbelievable but true. Czech Lieutenant Pravomil Raichl fought against the Germans in WW II on the Eastern Front. He did not trust the Russians. After the war he was arrested in the Communist Putsch of 1948. By this year Stalin was afraid of losing his grip, Tito in Yugoslavia was not toeing the mark and the Marshall Plan was offered to Czechoslovakia. Stalin set up show trials in which dissidents were convicted and murdered. Raichl was sentenced to death but escaped to West Berlin and eventually came to the USA, to Chicago. His close friend, General Helidor Pika, was sentenced to death by prosecuting Judge Karel Vas. He was hanged in Brno in 1948. Now the story gets wild.
Raichl knew General Pika was innocent and he could not abide the fact that Judge Vas was living well in Prague. In 1995 he packed a Winchester rifle in his suitcase and flew to Prague to kill Vas. Customs officials seized his rifle at the airport in Prague. He had to return unavenged to the USA. In 2001 Judge Vas was sentenced to 7 years in prison for the unlawful trial and murder of General Pika. But the sentence was thrown out (the commies again) because of the statute of limitations. Raichl got a machine pistol this time, flew to Prague , got a cab to take him to Judge Vas' house but died of a heart attack on the way. He was 81 years old.
The Communist Party was more virile in Czechoslovakia before WW II than in any other country in Eastern Europe. Some of the old communist hard liners are alive and well; the Communist Party is legal now and represented in the Czech parliament. In 1953 three young men rebelled against the communist government and fought their way through the Iron Curtain, through communist East Germany and to freedom in West Berlin. They shot their way out and killed a border guard. In our eyes they are heroes, just as are the people who risked their lives going over the Berlin Wall. They have lived in America ever since but to this day they are blacklisted in their native land. By the hard-line communists.
The communists seized all church property in 1948, Roman Catholic Churches, monasteries, convents, land. For twenty-five years the restitution of those properties has dragged on, slowed by technicalities and just plain foot-dragging by the communist elements. I mentioned the widespread corruption. For forty years the Czechs operated under the principle that it was OK to steal from the State. They have been corrupted by forty years under communism. The older generation has passed that attitude on to the younger generation.
From the communist putsch in 1948, through the Soviet invasion in 1968 and on until 1989, over 500,000 Czech citizens left the country illegally. These people were educated, professional, liberal, anti-communist. In this vacuum the communists thrived and have not disappeared. Let me give you one example , but there are thousands. In 1950 a member of the Czechoslovak parliament was arrested and charged with treason. Her name was Milada Horakova. She had been an elected member of parliament before the Nazi occupation. The Nazis arrested her for her outspoken criticism of the occupation, condemned her to death, and sent her to a Auschwitz. The war ended before her execution could be carried out. In the so called "show trials" of the 1950's in Prague, she was condemned to death by the communist government for criticizing the government. These "show trials" were instigated by Stalin.
In 1949 Israel got statehood. Stalin attempted to get Israel allied with the Soviet Bloc. Israel refused and cast her lot with the West. Stalin figured the Jews in the Czechoslovak government would undermine his influence. In the first trial the most powerful man in the country, the chairman of the Communist Party, Rudolf Slansky, was found guilty of sabotage and hanged. In that first trial fourteen high-ranking communists were hanged and of those twelve were Jews, including Slansky. Milada Horakova was not a Jew but was charged with pro-Western attitudes. The sentencing judge was a woman named Ludmila Brozova-Polednova, a flaming party member. Horakova was hanged with a loose noose, a treatment which prolongs dying for over thirty minutes. Fourteen other innocent people were executed after being tried at the same time and sentenced by the same judge. During the agony of the strangulation of Milada Horakova, this judge was a witness and continued to shout obscenities in the dying woman's ear. Now here is the kicker: In 2008, 58 years after the murder and 18 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Judge Brozova-Polednova was found guilty of murdering Milada Horakova and sentenced to six (6) years in prison. She was immediately pardoned by Czech president Vaclav Klaus.
When we served in West Germany, it was evident the country had risen from the ashes of World War II and many then were calling it the "German miracle." Your thoughts on this development?
My oldest brother was in Munich and Nuremberg in1945. He told us when he got home about the terrible destruction he saw in those cities. My older brother was in the Army five years later, 1950. When the two compared notes, again back home, the destruction visible in 1950 was still quite visible but not as bad as described in 1945. In 1960 I had courier run from Schneeberg to Nuremberg twice a week and I drove through small towns and through Nuremberg. Nuremberg looked good, with only here and there a bombed-out building. In fact, I used two bombed-out buildings as landmarks to find my way to battalion headquarters. In 1970 I returned as a civilian, flew into Nuremberg, rented a car and headed for our old base, Maehring, on the Czech border. I got lost in Nuremberg. The old landmarks and bombed-out buildings were gone, replaced by modern constructions.
The Germans I knew--I married one--made fun of the Finance Minister in the Konrad Adenauer government, Ludwig Erhard, a former professor of economics. He was a short, fat guy with a cigar going all the time and his message to the people was "Mass halten," which means something like "tighten your belts!" Perhaps the wrong slogan for a guy with a big belly. He was against welfare, something my mother-in-law with two little kids, needed badly. He was responsible for the currency reform in 1948, called "die Waehrung," which meant a change in the standard currency from Reichsmark to Deutschmark. People like my mother-in-law, whose deceased husband had a lot of money in the bank, Reichsmarks, lost heavily. She used to recite this verse:
"Iss und trink (Eat and drink)/
Solang dir schmeckt (as long as you want , i.e.. don't save)/
Dreimal ist das Geld verrenkt "(three times the currency has crashed).
That is, with the outbreak of WW I, then 1924 during super inflation when the currency was changed to the Reichsmark. So that in effect was the second currency. Then in 1948 the third change.
But you know what? Erhard was a genius. He put tough measures into effect but they were necessary. The mighty revitalized German industry is what you think of when you hear the term "Wirtschaftswunder"(economic miracle). That beautiful old lady, my mother-in-law, was taken good care of by the German government as were all war widows. In her later years she spent two weeks every year at a spa of her choice at government expense. Her pension rose right along with the economy. Sons of war widows were exempt from military service.
In the period from the atomic bombing of Japan in 1945 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, what do you see as a major success in American foreign policy? In the same period what do see as a major blunder in American foreign policy?
Our support of NATO in ending the war in Yugoslavia was a major success. Vietnam was the great blunder of those years. LBJ, for all his political acumen, and Robert McNamara, for all his brains, did not know anything about the Vietnamese people, their history, culture, dislike of China. Their ignorance did us in.
Some say the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others contend that the Cold War never ended, that the regime of Vladimir Putin is the most recent manifestation of it. What is your take on the issue?
The world economies are so intertwined now that another Cold War is not possible. It would be economic suicide.
Some have compared our campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to our agony in the Vietnam War. What do you think?
We have universities coast to coast but have not been able to put people in power who have knowledge and insight into the history and mind of the nations we have invaded.
Do you think The War on Terror is a valid term for the West's struggle against fanatical Islamists?
The implication of this term is that we must kill all the terrorists. That strategy will not work, unfortunately.
I appreciate the heavy burden the NSA now has to prevent another 9/11. However, I dislike their scooping up phone calls and e-mails of ordinary American citizens who are no threat to national security. What do you think?
For two years at the Language School in Monterey and then for a year on a mountain top listening post in Bavaria on the Iron Curtain my roommate was a remarkable young man. He was the son of a millionaire and a graduate of an Ivy League college. He was a decent person. He was best man at my wedding in Germany and I at his in Providence, Rhode Island. He went on to get his doctorate degree in history from Johns Hopkins University, was a full professor there for years and eventually returned to government service as an analyst for the CIA. In this position he had a ”top secret" security clearance. He became a spy for Cuba, was arrested, tried, and convicted and sentenced to life in prison in a maximum federal penitentiary with no possibility of parole. At his trial he testified that he had not worked with the Cuban government for money, but out of sympathy with the Cuban people for what he viewed as unjust treatment at the hands of the American government. He did nothing to harm the security of the United States, he testified further.
His case is similar to that of Mr. Snowden. But a "top secret" security clearance is even a degree beyond the precept we learned in kindergarden, namely: I pledge allegiance to the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands. My friend made a terrible mistake just as Mr. Snowden did, the difference being that a visitor to my friend in prison is confronted with a shackled image like that of Francisco Goya’s The Prisoner.
My view is that our Republic would be brought to its knees if individuals acted on their own and violated the trust granted to them with a security clearance. Spying on private citizens is unacceptable as is spying on allies like Angela Merkel in Germany. That is not us, the United States. To attack our government’s policy toward Cuba as a private citizen would be a vital element of our national perogatives. But, to be accepted into the CIA or NSA, sworn to secrecy and then work against our Republic from the inside is clearly treason. Nathan Hale was hanged by "The Crown" and George Washington surely would have been also if the British had prevailed. Snowden and my friend, however, acted alone and this was a mistake bordering on madness. Only a general amnesty can spare them and that looks doubtful at this point in time.
Born in Buffalo, New York, and a Floridian most of his life, Robert (Bob) Gasché has led a dedicated life of service to his nation, state, and community. In World War II, he fought and was wounded in the bloody battle for Iwo Jima. Called back to service during the Korean War, he again served as a Marine in harm's way. In Miami he taught in public schools for ten years and got his Master's Degree in Educational History from Miami University. In Gainesville he taught at the University of Florida (UF) for twenty years and at P. K. Yonge, the university's Developmental Research School. Since retiring from UF, Bob has been active in many Alachua County organizations. He is best known for co-founding Keep Alachua County Beautiful and his many veterans' projects. Also, Bob was one of the founders of Gainesville's Faith Presbyterian Church and the local Young Marines unit. He and his wife Carol have three children and three grandchildren. In late 2013 I interviewed Bob about his ordeals in combat. Afterward, he invited me to his home to see his collection of World War II memorabilia and to take photos. Bolded wording and subtitles below are mine.
In 1943 I was a young teenager doing welding on Liberty Ships in Savannah, Georgia. I caught so many arcs that they messed up my eyes. So I said, "That's enough, that's enough." I went to the Marine Corps recruiting station in Savannah and signed up as an 18-year-old teenager. They sent about a dozen of us to Parris Island for boot camp. When we got to the gate, they said, "You can't come in here. This place is under quarantine," since there was some kind of communicable disease prevalent. They said, "You're going to get on the train and go to San Diego Recruit Depot in California." That's where I got my boot training. Ever since I've been jokingly branded by my fellow Marines not as a Marine but a "Hollywood Marine" (Laughs)
After boot camp, I got advanced infantry training at Camp Pendleton, California, where we had a lot of training before going into combat. I was 20 years old when we boarded a ship that took us to Iwo Jima as members of H Company, 3rd Battalion, 26th Regiment, 5th Marine Division.
Insignia of the 5th Marine Division called The Spearhead
The Navy had pounded Iwo Jima for 72 days. Some observers doubted that anything could be alive on that island after all the bombardment. A few officers said it would take about three days to secure it. But Howlin' Mad Smith said it was going to be a tough operation. [Gen. Holland M. Smith, Commanding General, Iwo Jima Task Force]
Prior to us clambering over the side of the ship, they told everyone, "Take out your canteen. You're going to swallow six sulphur pills with a canteen of water."
Bob Gasché, training camp photo
We landed at Iwo Jima on D-Day, February 19, 1945. I was not in the first wave but in a later wave. When we hit the beach, there was debris everywhere, dead bodies, body parts. It was very, very traumatic--a bloody introduction to warfare! Our casualties were all over the beach. We were like ducks in a shooting gallery. The enemy had artillery and mortars on the high ground. They threw everything they had at us. It was awful. We lost the cohesion essential for unit control. We lost unit integrity. Did I know where my squad was? No. Did anyone know where their squad was? No. It was chaotic. We knew we had to get off that beach. It was a struggle for survival based on the words we had received in our training. It was stressed over and over again: Get off the beach. We crawled, we slogged, we used our weapons and anything we could find to get over the three ridges and off the beach because it was simply a killing field.
Volcanic ash was all over the island; we had to crawl and slog through it; it even got into our weapons. There were shell holes our artillery had blown open earlier, but they weren't much cover. Mortar shells rained down us constantly. The enemy could hit us whenever they wanted to. They had heavy artillery on railroad tracks. Their big guns would fire on us then roll back into hiding. The terrain was not conducive to safety in any way. We were constantly exposed. The enemy was everywhere. They'd pop up and hit us with machine-gun fire then disappear. They had 13 miles of tunnels. There was a lot of hand-to-hand fighting, but I didn't get to use my bayonet or K-bar knife; however, I did get into a number of grenade fights.
Marines Regain the Initiative
After we got off the beach, we cut across the island, tactically cut it in two. I was in the 26th Marine Regiment, the 28th was ahead of us, the 27th was to right of us. As we worked our way inland, we were able to locate some of our leaders. We had lost many officers and NCOs, but we were now able to regain our unit integrity. That was critical. We had been trained to move forward. When a squad leader or a platoon leader was killed, there was always someone to take command and lead the unit forward. We knew what to do. That's how we'd been trained. The Japanese, no. When they lost a leader, they got confused. I didn't have to take over a squad. But when a new leader moved up, I sure knew how to follow his orders.
Prayer, Marine Training, Will to Live
I believed in God and certainly prayed. Of course much of my thinking was on survival, the will to live. I wondered, Why didn't we pick an easier island to attack? (Laughs) I relied heavily on what we'd been taught in training. We had confidence and discipline. We had very good weaponry. Most of us used the M1 Garand rifle with an eight round clip, a wonderful weapon. Some men had carbines and most officers carried Colt 45 pistols. Our machine guns and artillery were excellent. We each had a tooth brush or a little paint brush. Ash was everywhere, so those items were critical in keeping our weapons clean. We also had good ground support from Marine Corsairs, Navy Wildcats and Hellcats. We would go out ahead of our front lines and put out a canvas panel. It was bright orange. As soon as we put out the panel we radioed for air support. The carrier planes would fly off the ships and pound the area beyond the panel with 50 caliber machine guns and 500-pound bombs.
We were about half way up Iwo Jima and had received a tremendous bombardment earlier. After the bombardment we got the order to move out. We did so and were soon checking out tunnels and caves. We threw grenades in them, cleaned out pill boxes and did what we could to move forward. I was advancing with my squad and all of a sudden something hit me--it felt like someone had swung a baseball bat and socked me right in the guts. I went down immediately. It was shrapnel that had hit my belt buckle and tore it to pieces as parts of the shrapnel and belt buckle drove into me. I was very woozy. It wasn't too long before a corpsman--bless his heart--came up. His name was Roshto. I don't remember his first name. He checked me over, looked for exit wounds and of course he gave me a shot of morphine. He put a ticket on me marked Critical. It wasn't too long before my best buddy came up. His name was Harvis McDonald. He was a private and became a squad leader. He went on to win the Silver Star and was killed three days before the end of the battle. I named my only son after him.
I didn't lie there too long before corpsmen came through the line of fire. They checked me over, put me on a stretcher and carried me down to battalion. At battalion they checked me again then moved me over to the beach. They gave me morphine and I lay there I don't how long. An L.C.V.P. boat came up, got a bunch of us and took us out to a hospital ship. I think it was the USS Hope. They hoisted my stretcher aboard and I even remember looking up at the cables. Since I had a Critical ticket, a corpsman said, "Take him to the OR!" In the OR the doctor looked me over and he said, "I want you to start counting, one to a hundred." He took a wad of cotton, a bottle of ether, sloshed the ether on the cotton and shoved it in my face. I did not get to three or four before I went out. I think they've improved on surgical techniques since then. (Chuckles)
Later they told me I was very lucky. The shrapnel had missed my intestinal tract by an eighth of an inch since it was lodged in my right abdominal region. The doctor said, "We're not going to take it out. We're going to leave the shrapnel in." So I didn't have to have a sewing job on the intestines--I was very lucky there. Believe it or not, that shrapnel is still in there; it travels all over my lower body. I had it under my belly skin, even some under my leg. Not long ago I was bleeding from some of it. Like they do on TV, I asked the doctor, "Aren't you going to go in there, grab it with tweezers and pull it out?" He said, "No. We don't do that anymore." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "You're going to take antibiotics." So I take antibiotics regularly.
Bob Gasche's Purple Heart Medal, received 52 years after he was wounded.
Bob's Worst Experience
The death of my best buddy Harvis McDonald hit me harder than anything else. We had made a vow before we left the ship. I said, "If I get killed, you go visit my parents." He said, "And if I get killed you go visit mine." And I did. I visited his family in Alabama. It was very sad. His death was more traumatic for me than anything I experienced in battle.
Fighting Ability of the Japanese
They were excellent fighters and lived under the Bushido Code. They would fight to the death. Surrender to them was not an option, although some of them did. Many of them committed hara kiri rather than surrender. They were good marksmen and willing to fight you to their death. We could of course outfight them and outshoot them, but their code kept most of them from ever giving up or surrendering. When they were in a cave or bunker and their situation was hopeless, they'd take a hand grenade hold it to their throat and blow themselves up. Or, they'd take off a shoe or sandal and put the rifle butt in the ground and with their toe pull the trigger and shoot themselves in the head.
Many Japanese were torched with flame-throwers. We had nothing but the highest respect for our guys with flame-throwers. They took tremendous casualties. We tried to provide them with cover fire from Garand Rifles and Browning Automatic Rifles but they still took a lot of casualties. This AP/Marine Corps photo shows flame-throwers attacking a cave. The man on the left has been identified as Pvt. Richard Klatt. The one lying on the boulder is PFC Wilfred Voegeli.
We also used demolitions to blow up caves and tunnels and torched them when we had to. And then we had the Canine Corps. They were usually Dobermans and were vicious. I'm a coward; I wouldn't go near those dogs. (Laughs) They were subject to the orders of one man. They obeyed him and when he told them to go into a tunnel, they'd go in and attack the enemy and they would come running out; they were scared of those dogs--I don't blame them! Those dogs were very effective and saved a lot of lives.
There were many souvenirs like knives and swords and pistols lying around dead Japanese. We were told not to pick up anything, particularly a Samurai sword or a Japanese Lueger-type pistol, because they might be booby-trapped. Some guys did pick up enemy items and got clobbered. Americans are great souvenir hunters. Over the years I've collected a lot of World War II memorabilia, including a Japanese Samurai sword that I bought in Japan when on leave from Korea.
One time I was near the entrance to a cave and picked up something. It was a packet of Japanese children's crayons with Japanese writing on it. We had been told that General Kuribayashi, the commander at Iwo Jima, had removed the civilian population from the island, over 1,000 people. There had been schools for the kids and the people had grown vegetables, sugar cane and mined sulphur. So I picked up the crayon package and wish I still had it. I did make a big mistake when I went in one cave--I can still remember the light and the sandstone wall. Cut into the wall was a little shelf with six bottles of Saki. I picked up a bottle--I still don't know why. Then I put it back, left the Saki there--big mistake! (Laughs) But it could have been poisoned, a booby-trap.
The Terrible Price of Victory at Iwo Jima
I shall always remember when the flag was raised atop Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. There was a wave of exultation that swept the island. But the fighting went on for many more days, and I was wounded after the flag was raised. The island was not declared Secure until March 26, 1945. Iwo Jima took a terrible toll on the 5th Marine Division. The battle pretty much destroyed the division. If we hadn't been decimated at Iwo Jima, we would have gone into Okinawa with the 1st Marine Division. Some of the guys left over from the 5th Marine Division were attached to a new division that was being formed and became the 6th Marine Division. Our casualties on Iwo Jima were staggering. We got replacements but they were raw recruits. They really didn't have the knowledge necessary to survive in battle. Most of the men in the 5th Division were killed or wounded. The total American casualties at Iwo Jima were over 26,000, including 23,000 Marines.
I was discharged as a PFC in 1946. It took a good while for many of us to get over our great anger at the Japanese. But in time that feeling dissipated and I no longer felt it. I realized that you can be angry just so long and that hatred can destroy you. My religion helped me a lot in this regard. It helped me to live with the attitude Love thy neighbor.
The Frozen Hell of Korea
I was called back to service during the Korean War and spent one year with the 1st Marine Division, 1951-52. We were part of an Army operation led by General Matthew Ridgeway called "Operation Killer." I did mostly patrol duty, road blocks, things like that. No heavy fighting compared to what I experienced in World War II. My unit didn't see heavy action like what the Army saw at Heartbreak Ridge. I was a Florida cracker used to sunshine. To me the greatest enemy in Korea was the awful cold. You couldn't dig a foxhole because the ground was frozen. We had to sleep out in the snow in sleeping bags. We had two pair of heavy wool socks. When we walked our feet would sweat. If you left those socks on at night, by morning they'd be frozen and you'd get frostbite. So what you had to do was put a pair of socks between your heavy flannel shirt and T-shirt and your body heat would keep the socks dry. Before you hit the hay, you took off the damp socks, put on the dry ones, and put the damp socks next to your body to dry. That's how we saved our feet from frostbite. However, some guys still got it so bad their feet had to be amputated.
I made Corporal in Korea and left on points. They offered men who had the Purple Heart and those who had World War II combat experience an early out. They said, "You have all these points. If you want to get out, get out!" I looked at my parka and my snow pack, and I said, "I'm ready to go back to Florida." (Laughs) And a lot of guys did also because it was so cold.
The situation during the Korean War was quite different from that in World War II. In World War II everybody was involved, the military, civilians, people working in defense plants. Most everyone supported the war effort, both young and old. The nation was united as never before. Morale was high. We had excellent training, excellent weapons and wonderful support.
During the Korean War we also had excellent training and excellent weapons, but we didn't feel the pulse of our nation that occurred during World War II. There were a lot of questions like "Why are we here?" "What are we doing in Korea?" We were not under our own command; we were under the U.N. We had guys who said, "Aw, the South Koreans don't fight well." And the British had to stop and have their tea. (Laughs) We heard the Turks fought well. If they drew their scimitar, they couldn't put it back till they drew their own blood. I don't know how true it is, but that's what I heard.
You asked what I think is the biggest change in the United States since World War II. I see a lack of patriotism, a lack of unity. I feel that this country has slipped into a dangerous position in the world. We've lost the respect of most countries. We don't have the leadership we need. We used to take a lot of pride in our President and in our Congress, but it's not there today. And when a nation loses its pride and its patriotism, it's suffering. I've written article after article about that. But I still have hope and it's in the veterans. The veterans are still holding this country together. The heritage we have, the patriotism--the veterans value these. They still take pride in being an American. At our veterans' meetings we always begin with the Pledge of Allegiance and we sing The Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America.
Bob Gasche's decorations: in right hand, Expert M-1 Rifleman Badge; in left hand, Purple Heart Ribbon, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation.
Editor's note: So inspirational has Bob been in his beautification project and in helping establish veterans' memorials, a Gainesville street has been named in his honor: Bob Gasché Drive, 7400 SW 41st Place at Kanapaha Veterans Memorial Park.
Picture courtesy of Veterans Memorials in Alachua County 2013, 2nd edition, a veteran-created publication that pays tribute to the 270 Alachua County residents and over 500 former University of Florida students who were killed while serving in our armed forces.
My father, Robert (Bob) Gentry, Sr. (1896-1978), was born in Maynardville, Tennessee, and spent most of his life in nearby Knoxville. Before his service in World War I, he worked for Southern Railway, excelled as a semi-pro baseball player, and played on the University of Tennessee basketball team. After the war he had careers in the grocery business and in advertising. He served on the Knoxville City Tax Commission and was a member of the Sons of the Revolution. During World War II he was an air raid warden. Over the years, he told me some of what he endured in World War I as a member of Park Battery, Second Corps Artillery Park, an artillery unit that served mainly with elements of the American First Army and the French Second Army.1
I look up at Dad on the wall above my desk, in a glass frame my wife gave me one Christmas: His dented campaign hat, cord around the crown; uniform drab, wrinkled; his face unsmiling, eyes wide-bright-intense; lips closed-determined; his photo the centerpiece of other things (my wife arranged as part of her present to me): His service ribbon with four stars and five battle clasps; four major battles he endured in as many months:
Aisne - Marne
Oise - Aisne
Meuse - Argonne
Below the clasps Winged Victory hangs with spiked crown, sword in her right hand, shield in her left. Two faded epaulets of his service with the French Second Army frame a picture of a woman, about 20, looking girlish in a sailor suit; I look at a photo of Dad in baseball uniform, a shortstop the St. Louis Cardinals were scouting before he volunteered for war; then at the Pocket Gospel of St. John his mother gave him before he went "Over There," burn spots on it. All these things I sometimes ponder. Who is the girl-woman in the sailor suit? His sweetheart on leave? Just a picture he liked and bought in France? What caused the burn spots on the Gospel? Shellfire? Other fire? All these items glassed-in, frozen in time, fragments of a story that will never be fully told! 2 But what he did tell me about the war I recorded in a notebook years ago and his words follow:
Call to the Colors
We answered the call for soldiers, May 21, 1918. A big group of us was sworn in and Knoxville gave us a rousing send off. There were people cheering and bands playing “Over There” and we went off to war singing. It was a grand adventure. Of course we didn’t know what we were getting into. We were mad at the Huns. They’d sunk our ships and jumped on France. France and England needed a lot of help if the war was to be won.
We had less than a month of training at Camp Jackson [now Fort Jackson] before we shipped off to France. A lot of marching and drilling didn’t prepare us for what we were going to face. Our commanding officer was Lieutenant-Colonel H. H. Rogers, the oil multimillionaire. All I remember of him is that he saluted with his left hand and always carried a gold cigarette case. Most of our outfit was from Tennessee and Kentucky.
At the Front
We hadn’t been at the front long before we got shelled. The first burst hit fairly close to us. I saw a Frenchman running to the rear. I said, “That Frenchman’s been over here four years; we better run too.” A bunch of us jumped out of our trench and ran like the dickens toward a rear trench. Then in came more shells blowing up around us. Nobody got hurt in our immediate area but there were probably casualties.
An American marine receives first aid in the Toul Sector of France, 1918. In the background a French soldier looks on. He appears to be smoking a cigarette. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.
At Camp Jackson they told us we were going to be mechanics repairing and maintaining vehicles. But when we got to France they made us a truck outfit. We hauled artillery parts for a while. Then our main job was hauling shells to our boys and to the French—wherever the big guns needed ammunition. There were times when we were constantly under fire. We hauled day and night, had to roll over bumps and wheel around bomb holes and craters. For a little while the night drives went pretty well, but the Germans caught on we were night-hauling and started shelling us. We had to watch out for everything, including planes. They’d swoop in low and try to hit us, even threw grenades out of the planes at us. We lost a truck and crew, blown to bits. One of our ammunition depots got blown up. When we got on those roads we had to keep going, hoping and praying we’d outrun Hun guns. My mother gave me a Pocket Gospel of St. John which I kept with me through thick and thin. It helped me to carry on.
One time we drove up to this bombed out place. Didn’t know where in the world we were. It was hazy from all the gun smoke. I could make out a man with a rifle on the ground. He was behind a sandbag or something. I asked him where we were. He didn’t say anything. I bent down to look at him. He was a dead German with a hole in his face. Soon realized we’d outrun our infantry and the Germans still held the town. There was so much destruction and confusion I don’t think they knew we were there. We stayed low till we were told the Germans had gone. We were ordered to turn around and go back to our lines.
Dead American Soldiers
The faces look as if they've been blanked out of the photo rather than damaged in combat. The insignia on the soldier’s arm in the foreground looks like the same one my father wore.
Dead German soldiers covered with flies.
There’d been rumors of an armistice. We figured it was just talk because the Germans were hitting us almost daily. We had to keep at them and deal with mud and cooties. Sometimes you slogged around in muddy water up to your knees. Food and dead bodies attract rats. The trench rats were worst at night. Rats and cooties were almost as bad as the enemy.
I think some of our officers cared more about horses than they did the men. When I hear these Second World War boys gripe about their rations, I tell ‘em what we had. Breakfast: beans and pork. Lunch: pork and beans. Supper: pork and bean leftovers. (Laughs) Sometimes we got other food but I don’t remember it. During the fighting, there was little time or place to eat. To sit down and calmly eat three meals a day would’ve been a luxury. We had to keep slogging in mud, mud, mud.
One time I had to do my business. I was standing to wipe and heard the whistling. Didn’t have time to jerk up my pants. Shell hit the other end of the trench, killed some men. I saw a hand in the mud.
The last three photos above are taken from www.radiganneuhalfen.blogspot.com. They probably don’t point to victims of action my father was directly involved in, but are similar to the carnage he saw. For more on Neuhalfen’s sources about World War I see the endnote
Impressed by the French
I liked the French and their language. I’ll never forget some of the French I learned. It’s a beautiful language. “Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes camarades,” (you shall not let them pass, my comrades). That was the French battle cry when they stopped the Boche at Verdun. The French really appreciated our help. In some ways they were more civilized than we were. A lot of our men couldn't handle the simplest French word, wouldn't even try to. Some fools called the Marseillaise "the Mayonnaise." (Laughs) The French were maybe too civilized for the catastrophe that fell on them. Once on furlough I was riding in a streetcar and right across from me was a pretty young woman. I must have stared too long at the skirt above her knee. She said, “Eeez good, eh?” I said, “Oui, oui, mademoiselle!” (Laughs) Another time a few of us doughboys were in a bar. This attractive woman picked me out and said [Dad mimics the French accent], “Will you buy me one champagne?” I did. Made my buddies jealous! (Laughs) She might have been a lady of the evening. Of course there's always that kind, particularly in wartime, along with smut pedlars. One approached me in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. He said in a low voice, "Wanna buy feelthee pictures." (Laughs) I told him, "Non, merci" three times before he let me alone.
After the war, there was a big rumor we'd be home for Christmas after we’d paraded in Washington, D.C. Instead, we spent two months hauling all kinds of debris off the Verdun battlefield: broken weapons, shell fragments, unexploded grenades, ragged clothing, broken equipment, skeletons--you name it, we hauled it off and took it to collecting places. Verdun was full of bones, like a vast graveyard. That duty was as bad as the fighting except we weren’t being shot at. After that we were assigned to Brest and worked there till we left in July of 1919. We did all kinds of labor at Brest: truck drivers, stevedores, pick and shovel men, garbage men, MP’s. I had some rank and they made me Corporal of the Guard. I remember Pat Fogarty got into it with this man from Boston. They’d been drinking. Pat grabbed a shovel, yelled, “I’m gonna chop this bastard’s head off.” I brought my rifle to port arms and got between them and talked Pat out of it. Pat Fogarty was the nicest fella in the world when he wasn’t drinking or mad.
War always takes a toll. Just about everyone I know who saw action in France had shell shock, some worse than others. I was bothered with it off and on for a long time after the war. The man who used to walk by here shaking his head, Bill McCammon: he had shrapnel in his head. He called it “sharpnul.” He told me he had no place to go. He could’ve been staying in one of those caves in the woods. [Dad chokes up momentarily.]
Corporal Robert Bryan Gentry. Pictures taken in France, ca. early 1919. 4
Veterans nowadays have benefits. We came back from war and got nothing but a little Red Cross help. I remember getting off the train and a smart aleck comes up to me and says, “Why’re you still wearing that uniform? The war’s over.” I cussed him out. It was all I could do to keep from hitting him. They finally gave us the bonus they'd promised us long after the war. It wasn’t a lot. Our boys had to camp out in Washington and yell for it before MacArthur drove ’em off. MacArthur did some great things, but he had a nasty way of getting too big for his britches. Truman was right to fire him.5
I hope you never have to experience what I went through.
Here are my father's extant postcards and letters from France to his Knoxville, TN relatives, pieces of a diary he wrote during his part in the last American offensive, and other documents about his World War I service. I typed parts that weren't easily copyable. The original materials will be sent to the University of Tennessee Library Special Collections.
The following postcards have no addressees. Apparently Dad sent them to his family in envelopes. The French captions are of scenes.
Carte Postale Paris—Le Parvis de Notre-Dame. (sometime in 1918)
I went thru “Notre Dame” this afternoon. Built or completed in the thirteenth century. It is wonderful to see the inside. The Germans tried every way they could to shell it. The windows in the cathedral are made of various colors and [it] is the finest in the world. The art in the making of these windows is lost.
Carte Postale Paris—La Madeleine (St. Madeleine’s Church) (sometime in 1918)
“La Madeleine” is a pattern of Greek architecture. It is very beautiful on the inside. A shell of the long range gun hit the statue of St. John at the rear of the church. It is in the heart of the city. When I went inside it this morning there were at least a hundred French people for confession.
Parts of his diary written in late 1918 under dangerous conditions, hence the fragments, run-ons, and other errors which I haven't edited out. Several Knoxvillians mentioned. Bolded insertions are mine.
Sept 26 Four American balloons brought down by Germans. I saw three of them brought down. D.M. Rose's son it was reported was in one of the balloons. Saw spectacular air fight two machines brought down.
Sept 28 Tim Flaherty a [illegible word] got sick on 26 and I have been waiting on him. Heard a real band for the first time in France. Saluted Star Spangled Banner.
Oct. 2 Cooties have been bothering me.
Oct. 13 Rumors all day that the war was over. Papers read that Germany had accepted conditions of Wilson we nevertheless heard violent artillery fire on the front. We doubted that Germany had given up.
Oct. 19 Left [ammunition] dump went about 45 kilos to a place near Very. We pitched tents slept that night under tent in a kind of dugout. Much firing on front.
Oct. 21 Big air raid at night.
Oct. 23 Big air raid at night. Four soldiers killed by bombs. I saw one bomb burst.
Oct. 24 Same place [ammunition dump] work on dump at night. Shells were bursting nearby.
Oct. 25 Worked all day on dump. Received three letters from home. Heavy firing on front at night.
Oct. 28 Saw German plane bring down ally [Allied?] balloon. Observer used parachute and [words illegible]
Oct. 29 Heard that Austria had given up. Big air raid at night. I was in my dugout. Another balloon brought down.
Oct. 30 Another air raid. I was out on the dump unloading ammunition. Heard an armistice has been signed between Austria and the entente.
Oct. 31 Shells have been bursting nearby for the last few days. I could see them bursting in air. There has been heavy fighting on the front for the last week. The weather has been unusually good for the past 10 days. I have been sleeping in a German dugout for the last few days. There has been heavy firing on the front this morning. Moved to within two kilos of the front. We stayed in heavy shellfire.
Nov. 1 Under heavy shellfire. We laid [by?] a road all last night under shellfire. The dump was across the road and was hit by shells. Powder exploded. Shells hit close to us this morning. Caught German who was directing the fire....[several lines illegible] 2 shells hit close to us just as we [illegible words]....drive started at 4 o'clock this a.m.[rest of this entry illegible; entries for Nov. 2 - 6 mostly illegible]
Nov. 7...waiting on train. Train comes about 5 o'clock but I was left there to take charge of a guard of seven men. I turned over guard next morning
Nov. 8 and joined the outfit about 10 kilos away. Pitched tent in rain.
Nov. 9 Haven't done anything today except sit around the camp fire talking about the news of the armistice. Much rain in the morning. Cold.
Nov. 11 Heard the Armistice had been signed and of course it made us feel good. Went to Bartheville about 5 kilos away to a YMCA. New [illegible word] was at Bartheville. We could have fires at night now with out any fear of Fritz.
Nov. 13 Saw Gene Hicks. Our quartete got together to-night and we sang a little. Quartete-Gentry Lead-Vaughn Bass-Hirsch Tenor and Baldwin Baritone.
Nov. 14 We got news from the 1st Sgt to get ready to leave this point on the 17th.
"Homeward Bound," a poem written by my father in the trenches near the end of the war. Its feelings are universal. Two words clarified in the right margin.
Knoxville, TN newspaper clipping containing excerpts from a letter to his mother. I have not found the original letter.
Part of a letter to his sister Reba Gentry in Knoxville, written on Red Cross stationary
November 24, 1918
I received your and Ruth's and Reba's [this Reba is another relative] letters last night and I certainly was glad to hear from you. I am sorry to hear that the influenza is spreading so rapidly there, but I think that it will soon be checked. We haven't been bothered with it at all in this part of France.
We were told today that we could tell places where we have been and that is the reason you see Nixeville at the heading. You will be interested to know that I landed at Brest in the northwestern part of France. We went from Brest to Chateau-Thierry and got there about ten days after the Germans were run out. The Kaiser, it is said, was there before I got there. Ha! Ha! On my way from Brest to Chateau-Thierry I passed thru Paris and stayed there about 5 hours, seeing the Eiffel Tower, "La Hotel De Ville," Seine River, famous buildings and much of the great city. I also passed thru Versailles. We stopped in Versailles, saw the famous Palace of King Louis 14th, 15th and 16th, went thru it, saw the famous ball room, beautiful paintings, saw the balcony where Lafayette talked to the mob that came to kill the King & Queen. Words can not describe the beauty of the palace. It took 42,000 men 28 years to build it. It covers several acres of ground, would probably take an hour to walk around its premises. You will also be interested to know that as I passed thru Paris and all the time I was there the Germans were shooting into it. I could hear the shells burst. Fortunately they didn't hit near us.
I have been on three fronts the Soissons, the Toul and the Argonne. Thus you can see how much I have travelled and seen of France. I have been in three big drives the St. Mihiel, the Champagne and the Argonne. I was right in the thick of the last big Argonne drive [rest of this letter is lost, or it may have been withheld by Army censors]
An appeal for Dad to be released from service to return to his civilian job. His Army unit was not released until July 1919.
Content of a news article on Dad's unit in the Paris issue of the Chicago Tribune. I don't know who typed it.
Front cover of a moral guidance booklet given by the YMCA to American troops in France
Adjusted Service Certificate. Dad could not redeem it until 1945.
1 Dad’s account of his service is close to what is described about his unit in Knox County in the World War, 1917-1918-1919. The book was compiled and published by Knoxville Lithographing Company, Knoxville, TN, 1919. Managing editor: Captain Reese T. Amis. It has pictures and captions of all the Knox County men who were in the military during World War I, including many who died from combat and non-combat causes. There are a number of extant copies, including one in the New York Public Library. It can also be read online.
2 This plaque I donated to the University of Tennessee Foundation and is part of my collection in the UT Library Special Collections.
3 Neuhalfen’s photo sources:
Corbis Images, Getty Images and the War Museum London.
Neuhalfen’s book sources:
Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War by Alan Kramer, 2007.
The Faces of World War I: The Great War in Words and Pictures by Max Arthur, 2007.
The Pity of War: Explaining World War I by Niall Ferguson, 1998.
The Somme: Heroism and Horror in the First World War by Martin Gilbert, 2006.
4 Dad’s expressions in the photos look enigmatic, especially the one on the left.
5 In 1932 Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur used infantry, cavalry, and tanks to drive the bonus marchers out of their encampments. Major George Patton had a major role in this operation. Two marchers were killed by police bullets. Army bayonets and tear gas injured many marchers, and a baby died from the gas. MacArthur disobeyed President Hoover’s order not to pursue the marchers across the Anacostia River. The Army destroyed the marchers’ camps and routed most of them out of Washington. During the Korean War, MacArthur’s public disagreements with President Harry Truman’s war policies bordered on insubordination. Truman relieved him of command.
Robert (Bob) Gentry, Jr. is co-creator and co-editor of this website. He is an educational facilitator and instructor in the Gainesvillle, FL chapter of the Institute for Learning in Retirement. For more information click on Gentry . His memories of growing up during World War II, previously published here, are now in the University of Tennessee Library Special Collections.
Memories of the "Cold" War
Soon after the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, the West and Communism started rattling their sabers at each other. This dangerous tension seemed to erupt almost overnight with amnesia about Russian-American relations during World War II: As if there had never been a Russian-American alliance that saw us shipping tons of supplies to Stalin to fight Hitler and Russians and Americans shaking hands at the Elbe River in conquered Germany.
Actually, powerful people in the West--especially in the United States and Britain-- and in the Soviet Union had anticipated and planned for a conflict between capitalism and communism long before the start of World War II. Economics and materialism largely motivated both sides. So it is little wonder that they switched to a war footing against each other so soon after the war. This situation suggests that at the highest levels of government, whatever its professed ideology, political expediency often takes precedence over the welfare of individual citizens. These are pressured by governments to embrace past enemies in the struggle against new and present enemies that leaders have manufactured over a long stretch of time. Hence, in 1946 Germans are now our friends and Russians our enemies, and the Soviet Union would come to be called very wrongly "The Evil Empire." To Soviet leaders all the help they received from the West to defeat Hitler was just a passing thing and must be forgotten in the pursuit of world revolution and the realization of the Marxist ideal, "the inevitable victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie." Unfortunately, Truman and Churchill moved quickly to isolate the Soviets and nullify Roosevelt's vision of peaceful coexistence between the United States and Russia; Stalin moved just as fast to dominate and oppress Eastern Europe. By 1949 China and Russia, certainly not the most natural of allies, had joined in an effort to defeat capitalism and a year later North Korea would ally with them.
The absurdity and amorality of all this staggers the mind. Cold War tensions and clashes I believe to be major factors in much of the depression and neuroses that have swept through the world since the end of World War II.
By 1950 "our boys" and their U.N. allies were fighting in Korea trying to beat back the Red tide. It would take three bloody years for the Korean War to end in an armistice/stalemate. Bob Baird, a neighbor and former football star we kids looked up to, came home from Marine service in Korea, limping from a leg wound. Years later he was still limping. Technically, we are still at war with North Korea and the Korean Peninsula is as dangerous as ever. The "Cold" War really isn't over. Absurdity and amorality continue ad nauseam.
During the late 40's and early 50's, highly influential politicians like Senators James Eastland and Joseph McCarthy ranted and raved about the "communist threat" and the desperate need to defeat communists abroad and to hunt them down at home and root them out of American life. I believed these zealots then and so did everyone I knew. My parents had lived through the first Red Scare (1919-1920), and they took the second (1947-1957) in stride but not without considerable concern. "I don't know what all the hullabaloo is about McCarthy," Dad said. "If he's got the goods on communists, he ought to get a medal."
I was also strongly influenced by Catholicism and by movies like The Red Menace, The Steel Helmet, and I Was a Communist for the FBI. "Communists are evil atheists," my Catholic teachers said, and I believed them wholeheartedly. The Red Menace with its image of an octopus wrapping tentacles around a world globe is laughable propaganda today; but then I saw it as a sign that communism was spreading like wildfire abroad and using spies and agitators to attack the U. S. from within. From a 1950 pamphlet, this picture with Stalin's face in the octopus head is similar to the octopus image in The Red Menace:
The Steel Helmet with its story of American Army stragglers and a Korean boy holding off a communist force inspired me till I wondered how the main character, played by Gene Evans, got a bullet through his helmet and not a hole in his head. Bob Reese and I saw I Was a Communist for the FBI based on Matt Cvetic's real undercover work in the American Communist Party. Later, when Dad offered to take us to hear Cvetic speak at Knoxville's Fulton High School, we jumped at the chance. Cvetic convinced us that Communism was every bit as dangerous as Nazism. Communism had to be stopped. Bob and I would later become military volunteers: he in the Strategic Air Command, I in the Army Security Agency.
As I got closer to graduation from the University of Tennessee and the end of my draft deferment, two Bobs started clashing in my mind. Gung-ho Bob idolized Sergeant Alvin York, General George Patton, Audie Murphy, Richard Bong, Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, Matt Cvetic, and other heroes (too many to list here). Prudent Bob was more interested in basketball and college courses.
Gung-ho Bob: Probably gonna be another war. Best way I can fight communism is to join the Marines or Army Paratroops.
Prudent Bob: You really want shell shock like Dad got? Want to be a dead hero?
Gung-ho Bob: Freedom's not free. You gotta pay your dues, even if you die tryin'.
Around this time I saw the movie Battle Cry about a Marine unit training hard and fighting heroically on Tarawa and Saipan. The film thrilled Gung-ho Bob and Prudent Bob. Months later I was still singing its marching song, "Honey-Babe." Here's the first stanza: Lift your head and hold it high, honey/ Lift your head and hold it high, babe, babe/ Lift your head and hold it high/ The Fifth Marines are passing by, honey, oh baby mine!/ Gimme your left your right your left! Gimme your left your right your left!
After the two-year mandatory period, I quit Army ROTC and applied for the Marine Platoon Leader Program. Didn't tell my parents. Thought they might object and I wanted to surprise them. On every Marine test I did well and brought a smile to Gunny Sergeant's craggy face. Then came the duck walk, Gunny in my face, shouting "Down, lower! Lower, faster!" He shook his head. "Okay, that's enough!" Told him I hurt my right knee playing basketball, had it operated on two years ago, but it was fine now, just a little stiff sometimes. "Could tell by the pain on your face," Gunny said. Told him I was still playing college ball (actually, I'd reinjured the knee a few months before, and had finished the season on the bench). "Son, a Marine's gotta be tip-top in every way. Sorry!" Gung-ho Bob/ Prudent Bob stumbled out of the recruiting station crestfallen.
Prudent Bob: If the Marines don't want me, the Army can't have me. This knee will beat the draft.
Gung-ho Bob: And you'll be a lousy slacker, let Dad and Mother down.
Prudent Bob: They've never pushed me toward the military, and you know it.
Gung-ho Bob: So you can't duck-walk to Marine speed. Military's got all kinds of challenging jobs.
Prudent Bob: I don't want to be drafted.
Gung-ho Bob: Then get your butt down to the recruiting station. Army's giving volunteers choices.
Prudent Bob: That's a three-year hitch. Knee could get more messed up.
Gung-ho Bob: You got three choices: volunteer for 3 years, draftee for 2 years, or coward for life.
Prudent Bob: Third choice is your shitty opinion, nothing more.
Gung-ho Bob: Dad proved himself under fire. All you're proving is a rotten attitude.
Prudent Bob: Dad's never said war is the highest test of manhood.
Gung-Bob: We're in a desperate struggle with communism. Gotta do your part.
Prudent Bob: Get the hell off my back!
Two months after graduation I volunteered for the Army Security Agency (ASA), a communications intelligence branch and Army arm of the National Security Agency (NSA). "Most ASA jobs require a security clearance, so your background will be investigated to see if you're cleared to handle sensitive material," the recruiter said. "After basic training, you'll be tested to determine which component of ASA you're best suited for." Army entrance tests were a breeze; I didn't have to duck-walk and said nothing about my knee.
By this time Knoxville's Ray Jenkins, a highly respected lawyer, had helped to ferret out the truth in the Army-McCarthy hearings, and Edward R. Murrow had defeated Joseph McCarthy's fanaticism with reason and humane insights. My family and I had finally seen McCarthy as the dangerous demagogue he had been all along. University courses had given me new insights into communism: how and why it appealed to many people. Like Nazism, Communism was totalitarian, but it differed considerably from the German ideology. Though it claimed to be "international," Communism was not a monolithic system. It consisted of different kinds, some at odds with each other. The "Cold" War was much more complicated than I had thought.
To Arms at Fort Jackson
As soon as we stepped off the bus into the company street, we were Company A, 19th Battalion, Second Infantry Training Regiment. In the next eight weeks at 4:45 a. m. they shouted us out of our bunks with "drop your cocks and grab your socks" and other rousing epithets. We started each day with torso turns, toe touches, jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, and other field exercises. At meals NCO's paced back and forth like eagle-eyed fiends, yelling at anyone they thought a "slowpoke." These chow-hall tyrants seem bent on inducing acid reflex in us to, in the shout of one, "prepare ye for combat when the best ye can hope for is eat on the run." Once several of us weren't half through our "shit on a shingle" * when a bullnecked NCO barked, ”You're through! Outa here!" When the sergeant was out of earshot, one wag said, "Sumbitch did us a favor. Never liked that crap anyway." I didn't mind it, was hungry enough to eat all of it.
* aka SOS,GI-nickname for creamed chipped beef on toast
In training we rifle-shot targets, tossed live grenades at a bare field, swung off towers, scaled walls, hurdled obstacles, bayoneted "enemy" bags, crawled under barbed wire while a machine gun sprayed live rounds just above our heads and holes exploded nearby (one such burst caused ringing in my left ear off and on for years). Taken from The United States Army Training Center Infantry, a 1958 Ft. Jackson publication (published by The R. L. Bryan Company, Columbia, SC), the picture below shows trainees crawling under barbed wire during an infiltration course. In the far right a pit explosion.
We masked for the gas house, linked arm to shoulder, tottered nearly blind through fogs of real gas. We constantly disassembled and reassembled and super-cleaned our M-1 rifles; we slapped them to present arms to right shoulder to left shoulder arms; we snapped to "tench-hut" (attention) and "fawherd harch" (forward march). Err and they yelled at you. Screw up and they cursed you in your face, though our company commander and top NCO's never stooped so low. A few cursing squad leaders were the real assholes.
Sometimes recruit tempers flared, fights broke out, NCO's stopped them. A cadre rule said if you and another guy got into it, you both had to put on gloves and headgear and slug it out under NCO supervision. One especially violent match involved a guy from Alabama and a freedom fighter from the Hungarian Revolution of '56 turned GI. When they finally tired of bloodying each other, it looked to me like a draw.
We drilled and drilled into marching robots with 30-inch steps, 120 beats a minute. Rhythm and precision sparked our pride, especially when Sergeant Anthony yelled, SOUND OFF, and we burst into song: Had a good home when you left, you're right/ Had a good home when you left, you're right/ Jodie was there when you left, you're right/ Jodie was there when you left, you're right/ Sound off, one-two! Sound off, three-four!/ Cadence count: one-two-three-four, one-two, three-four!
Gung-ho Bob: My God, this is fun.
Prudent Bob: Our kiddie wars in the Woodbine Woods prepared us well.
Gung-ho Bob: Soundin' off like in Battleground!
Prudent Bob: James Whitmore as the tobacco-spitting Sarge, unforgettable!
Gung-ho Bob: Lt. Hobbs is like Whitmore. I'd follow Hobbs* into hell 'cause I know he'd get us back leaner and meaner 'n ever.
Prudent Bob: He's a soldier's soldier, up through the ranks, Combat Infantry Badge.
Gung-ho Bob: Sgt. Anthony's* a good un, too. No commie's got a chance against guys like him and Hobbs.
Prudent Bob: Anthony likes our shot patterns.
Gung-ho Bob: Crackin' at a Sharpshooter rate.
Prudent Bob: Little better and we got Expert.
Gung-ho Bob: Let's chuck ASA, take advanced basic, go airborne.
Prudent Bob: We're locked into ASA.
Gung-ho Bob: Hell, they'll change us if we ask 'em.
Prudent Bob: Get real!
Gung-ho Bob: C'mon! Paratroops get the action. ASA's ass-sittin' stuff.
Prudent Bob: Since when did you become an ASA expert?
About midway in our training cycle, Lt. Hobbs called a special meeting: Men, you've been doing well. I know it's hot as hell, but battalion's got orders to take 12-mile hikes this week. We'll march at route step, relaxed pace, don't have to keep in step. Sgt. Anthony will provide extra water and salt tablets. We'll take allowed breaks, sneak in an extra one or two if we can. Let's show 'em we're the best in battalion!
For me even worse than the hellish heat of Jackson were enemies of mosquitoes and sand fleas and horse flies that bit and stung any bare skin the infernal pests could find. I think we did two, maybe three long marches. Suddenly no more! We heard that two guys died on 12-milers. We never learned exactly which units they were in. NCO's and officers were mum. There was so much talk about it in the ranks that it mostly had the ring of truth, for example: "They were from New York, lived all their lives in air condition." "One guy's daddy's a big dog lawyer. Hear tell Army's gettin' their ass sued."
The tragedies seemed confirmed when the Army relaxed training the rest of our cycle. We rode mostly in trucks. Some tactics ordinarily simulated hands-on were merely lectured on, like throat-cutting. Temperatures continued in the 90's. The terrific heat in the Ft. Jackson area that summer of 1958 may have set a record. I finished basic training in fine fettle, feeling mighty good that I'd taken the toughest the Army had thrown at me and my knee had held up. I proudly wore my Sharpshooter medal.
* Second Lieutenant Robert J. Hobbs, Jr., Company A Commanding Officer,
* Sergeant First Class John Anthony, Senior Field Non-Commissioned Officer
The Un-Army World of Ft. Devens
From hell-hot, bug-infested Ft. Jackson to the cool "ivory tower" of Ft. Devens, Massachusetts. From "dog-soldiering" with just about every form of humanity to test-taking with men who had either attended or graduated from Harvard, Yale, NYU, Brown, Williams College, and other elite institutions. Ft. Devens, then Orientation Center of the Army Security Agency and home of the 2nd Infantry "Dagger" Brigade, two separate branches that as far as I could tell had absolutely nothing to do with each other.
During the nearly three months I "soldiered" at Devens, I stood reveille, ate chow, cleaned the barracks (when it was my turn), got oriented about ASA, and took tests. ASA, I learned, was worldwide, its personnel stationed at locations wherever the United States had a military presence. ASA used Morse code operators, cryptographers, voice intercepters, and other technicians to monitor and interpret military communications of the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, and their allies and client states around the world. ASA was directly subordinate to the National Security Agency and all field stations had NSA technical experts on site.
Patch, US Army Security Agency
The easy duty and our inaccurate sense of being part military and part civilian were undercut by frequent stabs of anxiety. If you washed out of ASA, you got MP school.
Gung-ho Bob: I wouldn't mind MP's. They're kinda like the infantry.
Prudent Bob: They chase deserters, round up drunks; they patrol off-limits joints, jerk GI's out of whore houses and do other "glorious" tasks.
Gung-ho Bob: Aw they do more 'n that. They go into war-torn areas, settle things down. MP's have done great in combat.
Prudent Bob: I didn't join the Army to be a cop.
Gung-ho Bob: The whole military's cops. That's what they do: keep the peace.
I did best on the esperanto-like language test. One day they got us would-be voice-interpreters in a room and gave us a choice. I'd heard that duty was wonderful in Germany, so I wanted German but it wasn't on the list. Vietnamese and Chinese were and so was Russian. I thought about Russian but heard they sent Russian linguists everywhere. Czech and Polish were on the list (close to Germany.) I flipped a coin; Czech won. I had several weeks left at Devens before the next Czech language cycle started at the Army Language School in Monterey, California.
Except for the reveille NCO, nobody at Devens (that I know of) checked on us. We ate breakfast, cleaned the barracks, and unless something was scheduled for us in orientation, we had the day to ourselves. If a guy had "wheels," everyone instantly liked him. I hitched rides off post every chance I got. We shucked our Army fatigues, dressed in "civies," visited bars and cultural places in Boston and roadhouses in Lowell, MA and Nashua, NH. Always got back in time for reveille! Unlike Columbia, SC with its sleazy Red Rooster Bar and Courthouse lawn that told Dogs and Soldiers Keep Off, the New England I experienced consisted mostly of congenial, insightful folks who liked to discuss important ideas and to party. Heretofore, my reading had consisted mostly of school assignments done under teacher and parental pressures. Now I read challenging literature more for pleasure, no doubt influenced by intellectual guys who spent more off-duty time reading highbrow fiction and nonfiction than watching Bandstand and other pop stuff on the day room TV. I soon learned that an ASA unit is not the place to wear a marksmanship medal (or any other military medal). Two smart asses made cracks about mine. I quit wearing it lest I get more jibes that would likely inflame my temper.
All the ASA one-hitch men I met had chosen this branch as the lesser of two evils: volunteer for three years and get Army duty they could tolerate or be drafted into the infantry, artillery, or tank corps. My situation was different; hence my reason for showing the conflict between Gung-ho Bob and Prudent Bob. Simply put, a side of me liked the Army and wanted the challenges of a combat unit, a major reason that I was proud of my medal. The war culture I'd grown up in, my sense of adventure, the nagging notion that you really haven't lived life till you've lived it on the edge of kill or be killed--all these factors created Gung-ho Bob.
Graham Holding of Charlotte, NC was a friend of mine at Jackson and Devens, but after Devens I lost track of him. Graham, if you're out there, give me a holler.
The Collegiate Presidio of Monterey, California
Presidio, Spanish for "Fortress," sitting high on a hill, its cannon "defending" Monterey harbor. This earthwork was one of the first things I noticed, a lingering connection between the original site and the present site of the Presidio. History has swept over this fortress changing it from Spanish to Mexican and from Mexican to American. In 1946 it became home to the U. S. Army Language School; in 1963 it was renamed the Defense Language Institute, still under the jurisdiction of the U. S. Army. Through the years its faculty have been native-born speakers of the languages they teach, a number of them refugees from oppression in their homelands. My graduation booklet lists graduates in 16 languages. Among us were members from all four branches of the U. S. military and several women who took courses with their officer husbands. My list doesn't include any Bulgarian or Hungarian graduates, but I'm pretty sure those languages were taught then. The only African-American I recall graduated in the Russian class. Today the school teaches over 40 languages, all branches of the U. S. military are represented, and members of other Federal agencies and military services of other countries may also receive training at Monterey.
Czech is a West Slavic language of then Czechoslovakia, a country comprised of Czechs and Slovaks. In 1990 Vaclav Havel, the great playwright, was elected president. He tried to prevent the country's breakup, but a powerful Slovak independence movement prevailed, and in 1993 the nation split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The same year Havel was elected President of the Czech Republic. The languages Czech and Slovak differ considerably but are mutually intelligible. Known in English as "Bohemian" until the late 19th century, Czech is somewhat intelligible with Polish and Sorbian.
For 47 weeks twelve of us in Czech class 12-53 were immersed in this strange, inflected language. Five days a week, six hours a day we attended class. We had a short break in the morning, an hour for lunch, a short break in the afternoon. The first few weeks some instruction was in English to establish objectives and class contexts. We struggled with vowels, consonants, and diphthongs. Vowel-less words like vlk (wolf) and smrt (death) didn't seem real. Diacritical words like těžké dělostřelectvo (heavy artillery) twisted our tongues and strained our eyes. Rare was the night I didn't labor under the study lamp for less than two hours. I even studied dialogues at a downtown Monterey movie theater where I worked as an evening ticket-taker/usher during my last few months at Monterey (dialogues weren't classified info).
Our instructors were refugees from the communist putsch of 1948 and strongly anti-Soviet. All taught well except one, who was lazy but funny and his jokes broke class routines nicely. I especially liked Pan (Mr.) Menšik, Pánové (Messrs.) Balcar and Galko, and Pani (Mrs.) Granvillova. Menšik, our department chairman, had been a high-ranking police official in Prague. I don't recall what the others did in their homeland, but all were multilingual, militarily knowledgeable, historically adept, and culturally keen. I can still see Balcar, dark hair thrown back, strutting like a general, pounding the podium, waving his hands and arms like a music conductor, a mountain of energy trying to get us to pronounce correctly and communicate clearly.
Eventually we students gained enough proficiency to dialogue, which became the chief method of instruction. Emphasis was on speaking and hearing the language; we also gained reading ability through study of printed dialogues. A dialogue between two students usually centered on a military topic. Some dialogues, while primarily military, also included cultural and historical details. We mastered military terms and phrases like kulomet (machine gun), pěchota (infantry), minomet (mortar), houfnice (bazooka), tarasnice (howitzer), letecký útok (air attack), vojska pohybu (troop movement), rota těžkých zbraně (heavy weapons company), 50 těžký kulomet raže (50 caliber machine gun, 7.92 mm). We also learned about the culture and beauty of Praha (Prague), the health-giving waters of Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), the industrial enterprises of the Škodový závody (Skoda Works) and other important locales.
Some instructors often spoke of Prague as jeden překrásný město (a beautiful city), and we sensed their nostalgia for their homeland. Late in our cycle, the faculty led us on a field trip to Los Angeles. There we broke bread with other Czech emigrés, learned more about their customs, enjoyed Czech singing and dancing. I was amazed at how many native-born Czechs now called America home and at how many native Americans were of Czech descent.
The ranking men in our class were Capt. Carlton Fortune, SFC Ansel Rymer, and Sgt. Abraham Stanton. The rest of us (except one) started the cycle as PFC's and graduated as SP4's (Specialist Fourth Class, equivalent in pay grade to a corporal). We related easily in class and during school breaks. Capt. Fortune and the NCO's mixed and mingled and occasionally joked with us lower enlisted types. Rymer and I took some ribbing for our Tennessee accents. I recall best Floyd (Kelly) Kellstrom; Dennis Boxell, my barracks cubicle mate; and Barnes Hickman. A former college football player, Kelly excelled as a singer. Off duty he entertained us with rousing renditions of songs from The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, and other Broadway hits. He was so good he got a role in one or more plays at Monterey's Wharf Theater.
Other Czech students not in my class whom I got to know pretty well at Monterey were Sid Hawlik and Jerry Stimpfle. Once Pan Galko invited Hawlik and me to go deer hunting. He supplied the rifles. It was a fun trip but we saw only one deer and it was out of range. I shot at it anyway. Czech students Steve Gallivan and Bob Monson and German student Pete Sears came to Monterey after me and we became good friends in Germany.
Colonel James Collins, the school commandant, and his cadre tried to keep us Army-minded with full inspections every Friday afternoon after class. We stood inspection in Class-A uniforms in the company street and at attention in the barracks. Our wall and foot lockers had to be impeccably regulation. To ease inspection hassles, on Thursday night we loaded dirty clothes and civilian things in our cars and kept the same military display in our lockers Friday after Friday. The Army either didn't catch on to this ruse or didn't care as long as the billets looked "squared away," probably the latter. Off duty, some guys sported high-styled clothes and shoes and motored around in sport cars. At times I had mixed feelings:
Gung-ho Bob: Can you believe this place? No wonder we're called "the Army Language Country Club."
Prudent Bob: Only because a few rich guys blow up the meaning of conspicuous consumption. Lot of us living hand to mouth! My Studebaker cost $26.
Gung-ho Bob: Damn thing barely chugs up hills. If there's war, this place wouldn't know what to do
Prudent Bob: Fort Ord'll protect us. We got combat vets in classes.
Gung-ho Bob: No PT to keep 'em sharp! No weapons training!
Prudent Bob: Got basketball, softball. Aren't you proud of excelling in these?
Gung-ho Bob: We got it too made. Too many second helpings at chow! Too many class-break doughnuts! You're gaining weight.
Prudent Bob: Speak for yourself!
Gung-ho Bob: Worst thing is being called "Monterey Marys." Damn legs* at Fort Ord started that.
Prudent Bob: Heard the term originated right here. Some retreads* thought a lot of one-hitch guys were gay and called them "Monterey Marys."
Gung-ho Bob: Some retreads are dumb asses.
Prudent Bob: Yeah. Well, the name caught on. It's okay as long as no one gets in my face about it.
* Legs, slang for infantrymen.
* Retreads, slang for career military.
Rebellion Among the "Marys"
Though we could dress in civies off duty, they had to be "appropriate dress" for evening chow, including sport coats. No jeans, no shorts. This rule caused much griping. Several months into our language cycle, another command came down from on high: "ties will be worn for the evening meal." Resistance was swift and loud. One-hitch troops started wearing huge, glaring clown ties; dizzy polka-dotted ties; Bugs Bunny ties; Howdy Doody ties; and other wild things. One resister said, "This tie rule is a classic example of how capitalism oppresses the proletariat. I'm gonna emboss a hammer and sickle on my tie and see how they come down on free speech." This apparent Marxist was more talk than walk. I don't recall seeing him after that. I was surprised to see his name among the Russian graduates. Prudent Bob wanted to rebel with a Three Stooge tie, but Gung-ho Bob talked him out of it with dire visions of court martial and disgrace. So I wore my same old thin Navy blue. Atwood ragged me about it.
Atwood and Callahan soon refused to wear any ties and were denied evening mess hall entrance. This may have been their first act of disobedience. For a while it looked as if they were getting away with turning their backs on approaching officers, shuffling in formation like Steppin Fetchit, mock-marching and pretending to play instruments á la the marchers in the Spirit of 1776. "If some jerk tells you to do something you don't wanna do, just refuse," Atwood snarled, his lips curling upward in triumphant defiance. "Seems like you're asking for a court-martial," I replied. "Good. Let 'em!" he said. A short time later, a career officer blurted, "Those damn bastards are making a mockery of the command structure around here. In World War II we would've shot 'em and buried their lousy asses."
I didn't see it but heard that Atwood and Callahan saluted an officer with heil-hitler straight arms. Suddenly the two rebels disappeared. One rumor said MP's jerked them out of bed on a moonless night, chained and slammed them in the Fort Ord Stockade. Another said CIC* agents took them to a vacant lot, shot them, tied cement blocks to their bodies, and dumped them in Monterey Bay. The latter tale may have come from a jokester, or from a zealous reader of Kafka's The Trial who projected Joseph K's fate onto Atwood and Callahan. The loud-tie rebellion was short-lived. An order from the commandant probably stopped it, but I don't remember such.
* Counter Intelligence Corps (Its functions are now performed by the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command and by the Defense Intelligence Agency.)
Other Monterey memories
• Off duty song and dance parties fueled with beer on nearby Carmel Beach when my Studebaker could make it over there (Just before leaving Monterey, I sold it to another GI for $17).
• In the latrine late one weekend night, groaning in an open stall. He was trying to finish his business, his swollen, purple condition shockingly apparent. "What in the hell happened to you?" I asked. "Fight downtown! Jerk called me a ' Monterey Mary.' Beatin' the shit outa him till he kicked me in the balls." I tried to persuade him to go the clinic but he wouldn't.
• Briefly chatting with Jim Garner, Dean Martin, Dennis Morgan, and other celebs at the "19th Hole" of the Bing Crosby Golf Tournament at Pebble Beach. "You look like a candidate for a screen test," Garner said. "Thanks, but the Army's got me locked in at Monterey," I said. Don't know whether Garner was serious or joking. Cocktails were in abundance; most of us joyously imbibing.
My graduation booklet suggests an elaborate ceremony in the school Sports Arena on December 11, 1959, but I have absolutely no memory of it. Probably it bored me, and I could only think of getting home on a short leave. It was gratifying to spend almost a year of my hitch in school.
On the Front Line of the "Cold" War
Across the Atlantic on the USS Darby rocking and rolling on rough waters: Sgt. Rymer dealing poker cards; at mess I tried to keep pickled beets from polluting my "shit on a shingle"; guy staggering near the galley, outstretched hand grabbing air, barfing beets and SOS on my spit-shined boots. Docking at Bremerhaven; riding to Frankfurt in the back of a three-quarter ton truck; January day cold-gray, stopping at a light near Gutleut Kaserne, heavy-coated Germans crossing the intersection.
Gung-ho Bob: Don't even give us a glance.
Prudent Bob: Busy-minded. German work ethic.
Gung-ho Bob: Hell, we're protecting them from the Russian bear.
Prudent Bob: Expect 'em to serenade us with America the Beautiful?
Gung-ho Bob: Think we'd get at least a welcome nod to the "Cold" War.
Prudent Bob: It may be ending. Ike and Khrushchev have been pretty cozy.
Gung-ho Bob: Khrushchev visits the U.S., eats a hotdog, bullshits with politicians, pets an Iowa pig that looks like him--now he's "peace-loving"--crapola!
Prudent Bob: Gotta have an enemy, don't you?
Gung-ho Bob: "Only the dead have seen the end of war": Plato.
Prudent Bob: Like to think we've progressed since Plato.
Gung-ho Bob: Naive, naive!
The myth: intelligence work is exciting, dangerous, romantic, heroic. The reality: James Bond types are rare. So are Alan Turing* types. Much of the intelligence world drones on with humdrum activities, routine stuff, drudge work, boring but necessary, the world being what it is. You chip away at your actual or potential adversary by gathering details on him, categorizing them, analyzing them for any patterns that might reveal something really major and threatening that you hope you can successfully counter and if necessary neutralize as secretly as possible. Traditionally, many Americans have been terribly deficient in foreign languages and knowledge of foreign cultures, one major reason that relatively few native-born Americans have effectively infiltrated hostile foreign groups. Translations and cloak-and-dagger stuff have often been done for the U. S. by foreign hires, sometimes beneficially, other times not. In light of these situations, so many American-born soldier citizens manning foreign language stations and doing top secret work amid the tension and frequent crises of the "Cold" War was a relatively new, largely positive development in our nation's history.
* English mathematician and scientist who developed ways of cracking the German Enigma code in World War II. He later created one of the first designs for a stored-program computer.
As a Czech linguist with the 318th ASA Battalion at Herzo Base near Herzogenaurach, West Germany (printed in red by me), I was like a cipher in a massive NATO war machine engaged in constant preparation to counter and defeat any attack by the Warsaw Pact. The Pact was comprised of forces from Russia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Albania. Interestingly, as a super-secret, independent agency, NSA operated outside the Army chain of command.
Herzo Base had outstations at Schneeberg (near Tirschenreuth), Mähring, Coburg, and Mount Hoher Bogen (aka Hohenbogen). Most of these are circled on the map below. For more on Tirschenreuth, see Steve Gallivan's story in They Remember War, this website.
At Herzo Base I tried to make English sense out of transcriptions of Czech radio traffic sent to us from the outstations. I also translated some print material, formerly code our technicians had deciphered and broken into Czech text. ASA worked 24/7, round the clock. I alternated between day and night shifts, usually an eight hour shift at Herzo, a longer one at the outstation on Hoher Bogen.
Spring 1961 found me in a small detachment operating on Mount Hoher Bogen. "Hoher Bogen" means high arc or curve. It is a saddle back mountain (3 miles from CZ) with two peaks. The eastern most peak was the highest at 3,520 feet. My detachment operated considerably below this peak on the curve of the mountain with the mountain at our back and a major view of the east. Thus on most days we could intercept clear voices and signals out of Czechoslovakia. Four miles west of Hohenbogen lies Rimbach. We lived in a gasthaus (guest house) at Rimbach owned by a congenial couple named Silberbauer. They served us ample US-paid meals and off-duty beer (I don't recall whether we GI's or the Army paid for the beer). ASA worked 24/7, round the clock. I alternated between day and night shifts, usually an eight-hour shift at Herzo, a longer one on Hohenbogen, sometimes as long as 12 hours.
Our site is inaccurately described by James Bamford in his book Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency From the Cold War through the Dawn of a New Century (152-153), otherwise a well-written, generally informative study of NSA.
After a few months, my internal argument got pretty intense:
Gung-ho Bob: All we get is trivia. Boring and triple boring!
Prudent Bob: Well, let's hope it adds up to something up the line.
Gung-ho Bob: We're just crumb pickers.
Prudent Bob: Probably a reason for that: Pearl Harbor!
Gung-ho Bob: Yeah, I hear ye.
Prudent Bob: Military doesn't want to miss a thing that might point toward war.
Gung-ho Bob: Good point. But it'd be nice to see a little of "the big picture."
Prudent Bob: I wonder if anyone really sees the big picture or even a substantial part of it. Most have only the need to know their own duties.
Gung-ho Bob: If the President doesn't have the big picture, we're in big trouble.
Prudent Bob: The President has only what people choose to give him.
Five kilometers west of the German-Czech border was the 5-K Zone, off limits to US troops. Allegedly, the 5-K Zone rocked with full-service bars and beautiful women of easy virtue who were spies. The 2nd Armored Cav patrolled this zone regularly to make sure no GIs were there. I heard that some of our troops did sneak into 5-K and had one hell of a good time before the 2nd Cav caught them. One was a close friend of ours, grabbed just as he was about to jump out of an open window.
My NSA Guy
He worked mostly at Herzo, occasionally visited the outstations. He was highly intelligent, well read, an expert on Czechoslovakia and European communism. On duty his expressions usually varied from ashen-stone-face to poker-face-with color. Ashen-stone-face, I guessed, meant he was really concerned about something he couldn't quite figure out. Poker-faced with color I took as his coy look, like Aha I know what those commies are up to now. I don't recall him ever being stumped by a problem we brought to him. He always solved it to our satisfaction. Off duty he and his wife (no children) were outgoing; they gave lively parties filled with intellectual gab, jokes, jazz, beer, booze, and very attractive women. NSA Guy and his wife were avid sports fans and attended many battalion games. They especially liked basketball. Before our game against the 183rd Communications Company for the battalion championship, NSA Guy took me aside and with an intense face he said, "Gentry, if you guys beat the 183rd, there's a case of liquor in it." The close game went down to the final seconds when our foe squeaked out a win. NSA Guy and wife took the loss harder than anybody. They were crestfallen.
Most everything we got out of Czechoslovakia was considered important, even civilian activities, like law courts. I recall picking up information from Domažlice, the Czech town circled in red on the map above. It turned the ashen-stone face of NSA Guy to florid cheeks, raised eyebrows and bright eyes. It was common knowledge among ASA soldiers that the military data we intercepted were posted in Order of Battle charts. An Order of Battle showed the organization, command structure, strength, and disposition of personnel and equipment of a communist military unit operating singly or part of Warsaw Pact maneuvers and/or war games. I just heard about this procedure. I never saw an actual Order of Battle chart as we operated on a need-to-know basis and were not allowed to leave our immediate area of operations. I suspect the "hot stuff" I got appeared in an Order of Battle initially developed at Herzo Base then finalized up the NSA line at Fort Meade, Arlington Hall or both working in conjunction.
An Abortive Alert
Even though NATO played two important war games while I was in Germany, I saw no indication that Herzo Base was directly involved in them. The only Herzo full alert I remember occurred one morning. We stumbled around trying to get field gear we rarely used into some kind of intelligible order. Then we staggered out with our loads and milled around in the company street till the "Old Man" (company commander) and "First Shirt" (first sergeant) yelled us into hasty formation and then into assigned three quarters (¾ ton trucks) or deuce-and-a-halfs (2 ½ ton trucks). The CO and First Sergeant led us in jeeps (¼ ton vehicles) a short distance to a rendezvous point where we stopped and sat. Several hours later we were still sitting there, and for the umpteenth time the CO was barking into his walky-talky trying to find out what the hell we were supposed to do. To break stupefying boredom, some of us jokingly sucked our thumbs and got quite giddy. The cross-eyed supply sergeant glared at us and snapped, "Now cut that out!" Finally we were ordered back to the company and resumed our work routines. (This supply sergeant once told some of us: "When commie mortars let up in Korea and the gooks charged us, we enjoyed bashing in their heads. It was relaxation after hunkerin' in a bunker not knowing if the next shell had your name on it.")
What prompted this seemingly absurd alert? An outstation picked up "hot stuff," but it was really a bunch of Czech soldiers horsing around after a military exercise and somebody in our chain of command thought their intent belligerent. These Czechs compare to President Reagan. One time he thought he was off microphone, but he was really on when he started joking about nuking the Soviets. Wars can start from terribly irresponsible, downright dumb jokes.
Whose Call Sign Was It?
We heard it days, we heard it nights, we heard it at no particular time, we heard it so much that one early morning it sent me dosing only to awake moments later to its mind-numbing repetition. The voice of this call sign was usually male, occasionally female and it came from Domažlice, the Czech town circled in red on the map above. After saying the sign over and over again, sometimes for an hour or more, the person started voicing a long list of ciphers. Of course we transcribed it all, filled tapes with it till the voice finally stopped. We sent the tapes up the line, up into to what to us GI's was the mysteriously amorphous realm of the NSA.
In recent years, scuttlebutt among a few old "Cold" Warriors has attributed the call sign to Vladimir Kazan-Komarek, a native-born Czech who headed a travel agency in Cambridge, MA in the 60's. In late 1966 he was kidnapped by communist agents, imprisoned in Prague, and accused of running an American-sponsored spy network in Czechoslovakia. Several months of heavy American pressure on Soviet and Czech authorities resulted in Kazan-Komarek's release in early 1967. In the early 70's he twice disappeared, had puzzling medical emergencies, and moved to Estepona, Spain. In 1972 Spanish authorities concluded that the remains of a badly decomposed body were those of Kazan-Komarek, and he died of natural causes. People close to him, however, believed he was either a murder victim or a suicide. For more on this strange case see Igor Lukes, "Kazan-Komarek, Vladimir Joseph (1924–1972)" http://www.historyandtheheadlines.abc-clio.com.
The Kazan-Komarek case is one of many shocking examples of the heat of the "Cold" War. While I was serving in Germany, the Russians shot down U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and televised parts of his trial for a world audience. At the Bay of Pigs the American-sponsored invasion of Cuba failed in the deaths or capture of numerous anti-Castro insurgents. Both situations had heavy CIA involvement, revealed dangerous miscalculation and aggressive bungling by U. S. policy makers, and were seen by much of the world as military and moral victories for Khrushchev and Castro.
At the time, these crises and Warsaw Pact war games really didn't bother me, nor did I ever get any idea they troubled my fellow one-hitchers. Off duty, we were largely a merry bunch: drinking beer, dating German women, playing sports, taking leaves around Europe, getting good deals at the Army Post Exchange (PX) and on the German economy (the dollar was worth 4 marks; after two years of scrimping and saving, I went to Bamberg and bought a new Volkswagen).
Our happiness, however, occurred amid a twilight world of betrayals, disappearances, kidnappings, lies, murders (many still unsolved), dirty tricks--all the terrible things that fueled the ever-widening "Cold" War. The stark reality of that time in West Germany and West Berlin was that all Americans, particularly American military and especially American intelligence operatives, were vulnerable. It would have been relatively easy for communist agents to stalk an ASA guy on one of his jolly leaves, kidnap him, and grill, even torture him for information. Even in some duty locales security was lax or non-existent, or so it seemed to me. Though the Second Armored Cavalry regularly patrolled around the border, they operated at considerable distance from our site at Hohenbogen. I don't recall any guards around our site. One carbine among intellectual soldiers, most of whom ignored it, would have been useless against a sudden assault by commie commandos. At the time, though, such danger either never occurred to me, or notions of it bubbled up from my subconscious only to be burst by the joys of off-duty life.
It's only in retrospect and after considerable study that I've gained more insight into the dangers and violence of that "Cold" War time. Like today's ominous signs of war between the Koreas that would probably draw the U. S. in, the strong possibility of all-out war between the superpowers always existed then, and it almost erupted over Berlin and Cuba. My hitch ended before the Berlin Wall went up, but Peter Sears (who had been stationed at Herzo Base and at Schneeberg) was in West Berlin then and recently said this about the situation:
"Hey, you [German] linguists, we might just be telling you guys to put on your civvies and start walking." That is what some guys said they heard. The joke came off the fact that the only people assured U.S. assistance for getting out of Berlin, should it ignite, were women and children and muckety-mucks. Fortunately, I was worrying about the Russians, figuring the propaganda and war machinery of the West was enough to keep the Russian battalions at bay. What I didn't consider is that the East Germans were doing all they could to push the Russians to allow them, the East Germans, to take over Berlin. This was after the Wall went up. I learned this in a book I recently read called "The Berlin Wall,"sent on to me by Bill Semmes, with whom I was stationed there. I am glad I was naive enough to be fairly relaxed. We were more concerned about being tailed by M.I. Still, when you went through on the train to Berlin, you truly sensed the massive power of the Russians.
Looking back on them, I believe these
Cold War crises of the early 60's intensified fears, hardened attitudes, increased weaponry and war thinking on both sides of the "Cold" War that led to America's agony in Vietnam and the defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. By 1979 after Vietnam had bloodied the nose of its former ally China and forced the Red giant to withdraw from Vietnamese soil, China posted over a million troops on its border with the USSR and was fully prepared for war against the Soviet Union. Then it finally struck home to many Americans what much of the world had long perceived: monolithic communism was a gross illusion.
The Cold War, then, was never really "cold," and to misname it so egregiously does enormous damage to the truth. The long period of the "Cold" War has seen both sides develop a full arsenal of hydrogen bombs and chemical and biological weapons, the testings of which have infected and killed many. While intermittent efforts to reduce these weapons have met with meager success, the grave dangers to world peace have lessened little. During the "Cold" War every conventional weapon has been used in terrible wars and millions have been slaughtered. To say that the "Cold" War is over now is to ignore the terrific tensions and actual skirmishes between the Koreas, ignore the heated rhetoric and largely ineffective negotiations between the U. S. and North Korea, ignore the increasingly frightful rivalry between the United States and Communist China, ignore the ominous brinkmanship of Russia and the West over Russian intrusions in Ukraine.
Coming back from a leave I left the Autobahn and took a two-lane road--short cut. I needed to make good time to get back to Herzo Base before my 3-day pass expired at 1700. I wasn't terribly worried about being late. Unlike some outfits, in mine you didn't have clock in when you returned from leave. Still, you always took a chance being off post without official permission. An MP might pull you over for some minor thing, see your expired pass, and write you up AWOL.
I soon had to slow up in a blanket of fog. Squinting to see ahead, I saw no vehicles. Figured I didn't have to crawl, so I gunned it a little--suddenly she loomed--Bump! We both pulled onto the shoulder and got out. I flicked my lighter. Dent on her Opel bumper. Dent on my VW bumper. Not too big but noticeable. She was nice. We exchanged addresses. In German I offered her 40 marks ($10, 1961 exchange rate). Said I'd cover whatever her repair cost was.
Danke aber das Auto ist versichert, she said.
I said the insurance company would surely contact the U.S. Army and I'd be in big trouble. I tried to persuade her to keep the matter just between us. But she said the Opel was in her husband's name and he'd want insurance to cover it. The CO's dire words boomed again in my mind, This battalion's setting a record in off-duty wrecks. Next guy has one, even a fender bender, I'm gonna throw the book at him.
Out of the fog two German cops, huge in their VW. One stayed in the car while the other questioned us. Of course we told him what happened. He told the other cop to call the MP's. I pleaded with them not to. Rules are rules, one said, and we all must obey them. Thirty minutes later I was written up in German and American accident reports. My fault!
When I got back to base several hours later, it was already on my bunk: Report to the CO, 0700. That night I went sleepless and sweaty, my mind roiling. I'd surely be court martialed, busted, kicked out of the Army, disgraced. Dad was a decorated combat veteran. I'd soon be a civilian bum, jobless. I wondered if garbage companies ever hired dishonored military.
At dawn I felt a flicker of hope: the First Shirt. Had to find the First Sergeant. Occasionally he'd get thirsty in the day. One time after my night shift, he rapped on my door and woke me:
Gentry, got anything in your locker? he whispered, his eyes always slightly crossed.
Out of Jack Daniels. How about Chevas Regal?
That'll do. Sorry to wake you.
I'll join you. It'll put me back to sleep.
I poured Chevas in Dixie cups. We sat on the bunk and talked booze. Good deals at the PX. Chevas on sale. By the weekend there'd be a special on Black Jack. Like a number of guys, I hid liquor in my locker and carefully removed it to my car before an inspection. Luckily, we never had any shake-downs. As far as we knew, Sarge was the only big dog on to the booze ruse. Now he gulped two big shots while I savored one. Bright-eyed, he said thanks, and with a spring in his step slipped out the door.
I figured he owed me one. But this morning I couldn't find him apart from the CO. There he stood beside the Lieutenant's desk. I saw nothing in either face--two stones. I thought, Hell, they're both gonna shaft me.
Specialist Gentry reporting, sir, and I snapped the CO a salute. He returned a snappier one. Steely-eyed, this regular Army officer. A year in his command and I'd never seen him smile. One guy said he had only two expressions: blank and grim. Perhaps he was insecure commanding a company of mostly one-hitchers, but it was hard to figure him. Fortunately, most of us didn't have to work with him. On the job we reported to our respective NSA section chiefs. Otherwise we only had to stay off his radar. But here I stood in his cold glare.
Specialist, I have two papers here, your name on each. This one is a Court Martial, this one an Article 15. My choice is Court Martial. The Sergeant has argued for Article 15, but of course I can overrule him and court martial you.
Well? Was he giving me a choice?
May I request the Article 15, sir?
Another agonizing pause.
You may. Now get outa here. I saluted, did a jerky about face and rubber-legged it to chow, wiping my brow of cold sweat.
Confined to the billets and mess hall for a month!. No visitors except base GIs. No EM Club. No PX. No German-American Discussion Club where my lovely lady would surely miss me. About the time she sent me a love note, I heard N__ was getting very cozy with her. Green-eyed jealousy clawed at my heart. Black Jack gave little consolation. I vowed to kick N__'s ass when I got out of jail. Soon the fool that gave me the N report said he was joking and guffawed. I grabbed Farewell to Arms, threw a strike on his butt as he ran out the door.
Ah but relief: Love untainted. That month I read Doctor Zhivago and a lot of Hemingway.
Other Enduring Memories of People and Places
• Pete Sears (now Peter Sears, prize-winning poet who recently was named Poet Laureate of Oregon) reading some his poetry at Herzo Base. Years later, I told him I still remembered one of his lines, Tonight we lie in a brownstone attic, washed by the moon into cool panic. Some of Peter's poetry is reviewed and featured on this website.
• Sears the arranger of and a major figure in Herzo barracks quiz games on the humanities (sort of like today's Jeopardy show.) Loser bought the beer. At the time I had less background in liberaI arts than my fellow players, but mostly held my own. A sign of the reading level of this group: one guy tried rain on my enthusiasm for Hemingway: "Some of us have outgrown Hemingway," he sneered. I shot him a bird. His name is Walter Kendall Myers III, later convicted of spying for Cuba.
• The German-American Discussion Club at Herzo Base where I met a lovely woman and other studious young Germans. This woman and I had a year of wonderful times together. We talked seriously of marriage. But I left Germany without her. I still had a lot of growing up to do.
• Double dating with John Mitchell. For a time, John's German woman friend was chaperoned by her uncle. Once with tears in his eyes, he told us about fighting the Russians who sent a frauen [women's] battalion against the German lines. Wir hatten keine Wahl als sie zu schiessen, he said. (We had no choice but to shoot them.)
• The influence of Othello Oatman, an African-American and my first roommate at Herzo Base (where troops lived in rooms for two or more). He convinced me that my gradualist approach to racial integration put me on the wrong side of history. Martin Luther King, Jr. would later condemn "gradualism," a view that most Southern white moderates held then. Interestingly, Oatman, from the northeast, and Jess Easley, a white man from Mississippi, became good friends at Herzo. (I'm not sure of the spelling of Jess' last name)
• Visiting Dachau with its manicured lawn, a few pictures of emaciated inmates, and two or three ovens. It looked sanitized. I expected to see more indications of Holocaust horror. I understand they later expanded it to show more evidence of the atrocities that happened there.
• Playing company basketball with Pete Sears and Lawrence (Hook) Dietemann, two of the best ball handlers I ever played with.
• A really bad thing I saw in the Army was good food (even on one occasion steaks) thrown in the garbage because a stupid Army reg said if the mess hall didn't use all its rations that day, the remainder had to be thrown out. Once at Herzo, I saw a German base employee digging in a garbage can for meat that had just been dumped there. Sad!
• Unforgettable leave experiences in Germany, Austria and France. For example: visiting Richard Wagner's home and library at Bayreuth (what a reader Wagner was); enjoying real Wiener Schnitzel and real strudel in cafes along Vienna's Ringstrasse amid the strains of Strauss and Mozart, seeing a performance of Carmen at the Paris Opera House, then people-watching at an outdoor table at Le Cafe De La Paix. Sit long enough at an outdoor cafe in Vienna or Paris and the world walks right by you.
• Drinking beer, having laughs and insightful discussions with Steve Gallivan and Bob Monson. Both men married German women. Bob's first wife died of cancer. For a number of years he's been married to lovely wife Pat. Gallivan is fluent in Czech and German and regularly listens to Prague radio. Monson and I kid him, "Gallivan, you're still a spook at heart." Steve and wife Erika live in Gainesville and Sue and I get together with them occasionally for Metcasts at a local theatre and often for dinner. Erika is an excellent hostess and cook.
In 2008 Sue and I took a train trip to Oregon and visited Bob and Pat Monson and Pete Sears. One of the highlights was hearing Sears read his poetry at Annie Bloom's Bookstore in Portland. Another was visiting Bob Reese (mentioned earlier in this memoir), my friend since 1942, and his wife Irene in Albany, Oregon. In 2011 Bob Monson and Pat came from Oregon for a five-day visit with the Gallivans and us and we all had a great time. In 2012 Pete Sears read his poetry to enthusiastic audiences at Oak Hammock at the University of Florida and at UF's Smathers Library. Pete's visit and readings were sponsored by Writecorner Press. Significantly, Gallivan, Monson, Sears, and I all had rewarding careers in education. I suspect a number of other former ASAers also went into education.
In the Army Reserve
I finished my enlisted hitch with the rank of Specialist 5 (equivalent in pay grade to a buck sergeant). After almost two years as a sales rep for Humble Oil Co. (now Exxon--worst job I ever had), I resigned and worked a few odd jobs. Prodded by Gung-ho Bob and financial necessity, I joined an Army Reserve intelligence unit in Knoxville, TN. A few months later I enrolled in graduate school at the Univ. of Tennessee as an English major. During a 4½ year period I served in Army Reserve units in Tennessee and Georgia, trained in counter-intelligence, and did active duty stints at Ft. Campbell and Ft. Bragg. During this time I also got my M.A. and taught two years at Georgia State University in Atlanta. I advanced to Specialist 6 (equivalent to a staff sergeant), got a direct commission, eventually attained the rank of first lieutenant, and got qualified in German. For a while, uncertain about a life career, nagged again by Gung-ho Bob, I thought hard about returning to full-time Army service with hopes of another tour in Germany. But fortunately I settled on a career in academia, and it proved to be most fulfilling. After years of concentration on English as a community college teacher and a freelance writer, I've forgotten most of my Czech and my German is rusty and fading.
Decorations: Expert, Carbine Rifle; Sharpshooter, M-1 Rifle; Good Conduct Medal
Around 1971 Gung-ho Bob died. The reasons for this would require many more words here, and I've already written a longer memoir than I intended. Suffice it to say that over the years I have developed what I hope is a unified mind about war and peace. At times I've been something of a peace activist, not in the streets or on television, but with my pen and e-mails, writing with alarm and protest about what I see as a United States taking on more and more trappings of a corporate military state. President Eisenhower warned us about the dangers of "the military-industrial complex." Unfortunately, this dangerous "complex" operates today in an America engaged in what appears to be a permanent state of war. It's been said (metaphorically) by wise minds that in war the devil fights on both sides. Perhaps the best you can hope for in any war that you feel you must fight is to come out of it with your mind and body intact and less evil than your enemy. I think it would be good at Veterans' Day and Memorial Day celebrations to have moments of silence and reflect on peaceful alternatives to our increasing proclivity to wage war as a solution to crucial world problems.
Ever since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which brought the world to the brink of annihilation, many people in the U.S. and around the world have been greatly concerned that governments work together to achieve a more peaceful planet. Unfortunately, some regimes would not allow a letter like the following. I wrote it Dec 14, 1987, when Robert Dole was running for president and looked as if he might win. I won a modest monetary prize for it. Misplaced for many years, the letter recently surfaced in one of my old files. I offer it as a coda to my Cold War story. I think it especially timely, given the dangerous tension between the Russian Federation and the U.S. over the crisis in Ukraine (spring, 2014).
My special thanks to Steve Gallivan for his close reading of this memoir and for providing some important details.