Here are a few disjointed memories about my father’s participation in World War II. He didn’t talk a lot about his time in the war, but he had occasional stories, often of a humorous variety. The incidents recorded here come from my own memory, and that of my Aged Parent. We are both trying to be as accurate as possible, but a lot of years have passed for both of us. Don’t expect perfection in how we remember things.
My father had the nickname of the deacon. His clean-cut appearance and wire rim glasses may have inspired his fellow soldiers to name him such. It was not likely to have been in reference to his church attendance, of which there was probably not much. He was more likely to be found gambling than attending church, in those youthful days.
He was a very good gambler. He won a lot of money playing poker in the army. When he and his company (regiment? division?) went to France on about the fifth day of the invasion, the U.S. Army borrowed money from my father to pay for some local supplies, because he had a lot of money from his gambling winnings. They duly paid him back when they had enough cash on hand.
He was a very good gambler. On the trip back to the U.S., after the war was over, he won much of the gambling money on the ship. But there is always someone better, in every category of life. There were two better gamblers on the ship–they eventually ended up with the money my father had won. I remember my disappointment at hearing that he lost it all, or most of it. I was proud of him for being a successful gambler, and sad that he was cleaned out in the long run. (I inherited none of his gambling ability.) He didn’t try to hide the fact that he had been successful, but defeated by two guys better than him.
He was dating my mother before the war. But when he went into the army, he refused to marry her or even to get engaged. He didn’t want her to be saddled with him, if he came back maimed. They remained in close communication during the war. He sometimes sent her money home, which she banked in one account in both their names. She remembers the eventual total as being over $300.00. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but inflation has destroyed the value of our money to such an extent, that it is probable that it represented fairly serious money. My mother used to send him cigarettes (Camels) for $1.65 a carton. A pack of cigarettes today can be over $5.50, or call it $50.00 a carton. Extrapolating from that, my father saved quite a bit during the war–largely from gambling winnings, probably.
He joined the army with his friend Dugan Riley. Dugan, unlike my father, married his girlfriend–Edith Westbay–prior to his trip overseas. She became pregnant. Dugan Riley didn’t come home, however. He lost his life in the Battle of the Bulge (Dec. 16, 1944-Jan. 25, 1945). His daughter was Jeannie Riley; she grew up without her father being there.
Some of my fathers memories were of the English village in which or close to which he and his fellow soldiers were housed. One fellow soldier was the Old Bloke. I don’t know his real name. He seemed ancient to the young men around him–but the Old Bloke may have been no older than his 30s. My father was about 23 or 24 during that period–he went to France at age 24 and 4 months.
My father remembered that the English poulterers hung meat till it started to get a bit riper than Americans were used to–this was called hanging it high.
One holiday–Thanksgiving or Christmas–my father and a few of his friends somehow missed the holiday feast which the army cooked up for the troops. This turned out not to be a sad story–many of the soldiers ate the meal and got very sick. My father and his friends had drawn the lucky–well, providentially blessed–straw that day.
Not all of the soldiers serving in the U.S. army were sterling characters. You will be shocked to hear this, no doubt, but I won’t try to sugarcoat it for you. Some of them were in trouble constantly–drinking, carousing, not showing up where and when they were supposed to show up. One officer was heard, by my father, to say about these ne’er do wells, “You can’t chastise them–they’re only privates.” This phrasing tickled my father greatly. It would make a great title for a book.
The USO put on shows for the troops, with some name brand entertainers no doubt mixed in with talented lesser knowns. My father attended at least one. This may have been in France in the latter days of the war; I’m not sure. Anyway, Mickey Rooney–a name which may mean little or nothing to younger people, but a movie star to be reckoned with in the 1940s–was one of the performers at the show my father attended. At one point in the show, Mickey Rooney took a pie in the face, no doubt to the high hilarity of the assembled troops. Mickey Rooney began wiping his face, and gave his opinion that “That’s about enough of that s***.” No doubt that added to the hilarity even more. I’m guessing that Mickey Rooney voluntarily took countless pies in the face on his European tour, and always to the great appreciation of the troops.
My father’s memories of France included ordering red wine–“vin rose”–in French villages. My mother recalled that he also mentioned eating olives out of brown paper sacks.
When he came home from the war, he got on the bus to go from Gary to Hobart. He was wearing his uniform, and the bus driver told him there was no charge for soldiers. My father told him he was no longer an army man, and insisted upon paying for his fare. This bespoke his gladness to be out of the army.
What about shooting the enemy? This was of course the kind of thing a young boy wanted to know about. I got the impression that my father was fortunate in not having to do a lot of shooting. He was a gifted mechanic (another trait I did not inherit from him), and for a long time was part of the motor pool. However, he wanted to be a part of the shooting army, and eventually finagled a job carrying a rifle in the infantry. He told about one early morning, shooting at what may or may not have been the enemy, and seeking for his glasses while doing so. He wouldn’t have been seeing much without them. (This sort of eyesight I did inherit from him.) I should have questioned him more closely, as I got older. But I didn’t. He didn’t dramatize his experiences. His WWII must have been less horrific than those which many soldiers, living, dead, and maimed, experienced. His friend Dugan Riley did not come back, but my father did, and not horribly traumatized, unlike, say, someone like the brilliant writer J. D. Salinger, whose wartime experiences were physically and psychologically painful, to say the least.
My favorite memory from my father’s World War II, concerned the English village where he and his fellow soldiers were quartered. I wish I knew the name of the place. It turned out that the English people were not all that friendly. Well, how would you like to have several hundred or several thousand young soldiers camped on your doorstep? Some of them may even have had designs on your daughters. Anyway, the reception of the Americans was decidedly somewhere between cool to frosty. My father and his friends accepted that for a while, but pretty soon they struck back. I suspect my father was one of the ringleaders in this. My mother came to the same conclusion independently of me. We both knew his sense of humor, and we both knew his personality. He had an anarchist streak. What he and some of his friends did, was to greet the villagers in a friendly fashion. Then, when there was no response, the American soldiers would say something like, “Good! I’m glad to hear it. I’m doing fine too. Thank you for asking! How is Mrs. Harris? Over her cold, I hope. Well, good day to you, I have to be getting on now.” I am simply guessing at the kind of words they used, but whatever they said, that was sort of the spirit of the thing. The young American soldiers did this constantly–greeted the people in a friendly fashion and pretended that a polite response had come. The English villagers–no doubt well endowed with the famous English sense of humor–soon got the message. And they responded admirably. No doubt they could tell that there was nothing mean-spirited about the persiflage. The madcap Yanks were simply having a bit of fun. The villagers soon thawed, and were more friendly from then on. This is by far my favorite story from my father’s war. One can see it happening. It would film extremely well, I think. Somewhere in England there may be some people who remember this incident in their lives, almost seventy-five years after it happened. The adults would be dead now, of course, but maybe some of the older children might remember.
From the unpromising start, through the farcical greetings, eventually, my father became particularly friendly with one English family in the village. There’s a lesson in all this somewhere. Maybe sometimes we need not to get angry, but instead not be afraid to have a giggle. A sense of humor can come in handy.
Those are a few stories from my father’s World War II. By the blood of Jesus Christ, may he rest in peace.