On November 5, the United States Army Field Band & Soldiers’ Chorus gave a terrific concert in Kennett. While there was a variety of music, the overall mood was certainly patriotic. They played “Armed Forces Salute”, a collection of the theme songs of all the service branches. The director asked that veterans of each branch stand to be recognized during their theme. He also asked that any family members of a veteran stand, so that you also should have been standing if a spouse, father, mother, sibling or child had been in the service.
I didn’t stand, as I would have felt a little like a fraud, standing up for something my father did before I was born. That doesn’t mean I’m not proud of it, though.
Dad didn’t talk much about his war experiences. Most of what I know came out in little bits related to some other conversations, or came second-hand from Mom and other relatives.
Dad graduated from Kennett High School in 1936, in the depths of the Great Depression. The family was well-off enough to send him to college, even so. He graduated from Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College). From there he spent a year in law school at Texas A&M. Then it was 1941.
He joined the Army (then the Army-Air Force, a concept I was never clear on as a kid). The only thing he ever mentioned about his training was his experience in Officer Candidate School. “You’d ask the instructor a question, and he’d say, ‘Good question, candidate. See me after class.’ Only there was never any time after class.” He finished OCS and became a lieutenant, commanding a platoon of tanks.
He probably looked just about like this picture when he made one last visit to Kennett before shipping out overseas. He went around town and the farm and his other favorite places, saying goodbye, as he might never see them again.
Most of his combat service was in the deserts of north Africa. Of this experience he said that it was the only time in his life that he didn’t have post-nasal drip (having spent the rest of his life in the swampy south). He had also been impressed with the savagery of the flies. “You couldn’t just fan them away. You had to make a deliberate effort to catch and kill them, or they would just keep biting you.”
He talked about an officer who strode through the gunfire exhorting them to leave their foxholes, saying, “Do you want to live forever?” “We called him Fearless Fosdick.”
It was in Africa (somewhere) that he was shot. He was riding exposed in the conning tower of his tank and was shot through the muscle of his right arm. It left him with the minor disability of being unable to perform “jumping jacks” properly. The only time he ever said anything to me about it was while we were watching a Western movie. I made a remark about some cowboy taking it awfully hard when “it was just a flesh wound”. He got hot in a hurry, saying, “Let me tell you something: a flesh wound hurts like hell!”
When Italy surrendered, his unit went to southern Italy as part of an occupying force. According to Mom, one of his jobs there was to verify that the camp-followers had current health inspections before they were allowed to “visit” the soldiers.
As far as the rigors of combat, the only advice I remember was that you should thoroughly rinse your mess-kit when washing it. If you leave soap in it, you’ll get dysentery the next time you eat. That’s what he thought, anyway. The dysentery may have been more from incomplete washing (though my speculation on that comes more from watching Boy Scouts).
While in Italy, he frequented a café where a young singer regularly performed “Come Back to Sorrento”. “She could tear your heart-strings out.”, he said. He brought sheet-music back with him. I learned to play it for him when I was a kid, though I personally couldn’t do much with anybody’s heart-strings (good or bad). I still have it, tattered and crumbling.
Our legacy of that posting was him telling us “Andiamo!” sometimes instead of “Hurry up!”, plus an Italian flag and a couple of Italian police sabers that he “liberated”. He brought an alabaster vase back to Granny.
I went with him to an Army reunion at Fort Knox, Kentucky when I was eleven. All I really remember is that I climbed around on a tank (it was cramped and hot inside), and we went to a big dinner one night. I didn’t hear any war stories.
That’s what I know about the war experience of my own “Greatest Generation”, and precious little it is, too. But it’s worth knowing and remembering.