Note: I wrote this a couple years ago. I’m just posting it as is.
Tales told to a child while my Dad and two of my uncles played three handed double deck pinochle
I just got back from the cemetary. While there, memories surge into unexpected places, pulling pieces of the past forward to the near present. On Memorial Day, they flow into the stories of WWII told by Dad, and by my uncles, sitting around a linoleum topped dining room table.
For family get-togethers, evenings always seem to end with cards around the dining room table: penny-a-point three handed double deck pinochle. There I am, a sleepy eyed kid, inhaling the second hand smoke of unfiltered Pall Malls and Lucky Strikes that mark the 60’s family get togethers. My dad and two uncles swapping jokes, commenting on goddamn Goldwater this and sonofabitch Johnson that and asshole whomever politician fell under their review. I think they were all life long republican voters, but you’d never know it from who was a bastard in their eyes.To them, it’s OK I’m hanging around despite the occasional mom yelling from the living room to knock off the swearing in front of the kids. I try to follow the card game between getting replacement cans of Schlitz and Hamm’s.
After the review of politicians comes the military. My Dad served in the Navy in WWII, as did his brother. My other uncle was infantry. They enlisted like a lot of veterans, after things got hot in ’42.
Mose never talked specifically about fighting in Europe. He says he got to ride across some of Europe, and slog across most of the rest. He says it wasn’t worth walking across, shelled out and stark, color drained out. He says he and his fellow grunts never quite knew where they were, why they were there, and what they were supposed to do. He tells of how adept he became at digging holes, but says he never really saw much the few times he actually fired his rifle. He does say people shot at him sometimes. and that’s why he became such a good hole digger. He was popular in his squad because of this skill.
He tells a story again near the end of the war, as the Bulge is finally eliminated, of sorting through prisoners. Regular German army- Wehrmacht- are taken over to high side of the road. They’re given coffee, food, cigarettes, some chocolate. Several of the midwest farmer boys understand some German, even speak a few simple bits. There’s some shoulder slapping, there’s even some smiles, on both sides.
Waffen SS-they’re taken to the low side of the road. Sometimes they get one with the area where their SS tattoo would be cut out or their skin. Low side of the road. Sometimes, quite a bit, regular Wehrmacht rat out SS trying to pass as regular army- they too are taken to the low side of the road.
Here at the dining room table, a clipped short laugh and smile, and he says at the end of the day other grunts come by and gather up the prisoners from the high side of the road and take them away to the rear. He makes no mention of the loud crack of a 45 report every time someone is taken to the low side of the road; my Dad tells me this years later.
The war is over, and my uncle Mose is told he’s too old to try out for the Cardinals football team. He’s too skinny, not in football shape anymore. He pushes and they let him try out anyway, and tell him he’s too skinny and not in football shape. He gets a job in a furniture factory and works for the next 40 years at his trade.
Jake, my other uncle at the table, learns to fly in college. He’s the only one of my dad’s family to go to college, and he’s going to become a pilot. When he enlists in the Navy, they immediately assign him to flight school; being a college grad, he becomes an officer.
There he learns he is to pilot a Brewster Buffalo SB2A Dive Bomber. Even then, Jake knows flying a Buffalo into combat is sure death. He asks to be slotted for the Curtiss SB2C Helldiver, or the sleek new Grumman SBD Dauntless, and is turned down. Well and truly screwed, he completes his training just in time for the Navy to take over the Brewster factory and shut down production of the Buffalo. Jake is elated until he finds out he is now assigned to fly the Douglas TBD Devastator, a plane worse than the Buffalo.
While training, one of his superior officers notes his skill in handling the bulky awkward plane and asks if he’s interested in heading a crew for anti-sub patrol in a PBY Catalina. Hell yes, he says, and spends the balance of the war flying up and down the Florida coast from Jacksonville to the Keys looking for German submarines. He says they never found a one, but he learns to love Florida. He stays there after the war, never fulfilling his dream of becoming and airline pilot, but becoming a school teacher.
My Dad enlists in the Navy and is put into a Construction Battalion (The Fighting SeaBees of movie fame). He serves in New Guinea the entire time he is in the Navy, an island that goes straight up on one side and straight down on the other. For most of the war, “the Japs” are less than 200 miles away as the crow flies. His CB and an Aussie CB build and operate the power plant at a water purification facility, making drinking water. He gets tattooed by the natives, chicken on one ankle to guarantee prosperity, and a pig on the other ankle because no pig has ever drowned, and they like Dad, and because he’s in the Navy they want to protect him from drowning at sea. Never mind he never serves aboard a ship.
The natives bring heads of Japanese soldiers for bounty, and he plays a lot or baseball, teaching the natives the game. The only time anyone gets hurt is when one of the Aussie’s crack under the boredom and stabs an officer. Dad and his mates warn the knife wielder away with their 4′ wrenches, telling him they’ll smash his skull in if he comes at them.
His unit gets two house sized containers of Arctic parkas and boots. They sit on a beach for several months while the Navy works out why they were sent. They end up pushing the containers into the sea.
His unit baseball team he plays first base for wins the South Pacific championship, where he contributes an RBI single, solo home run, and a stolen base. Upon returning to the states he tries out for the baseball Cardinals, and is told he’s too old, too skinny and not in baseball shape. He goes on to work in a Western Electric power plant for the next 37 years, working rotating shifts the entire time.
No fame. No glory. One of three in active combat. Heroes all.