Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Memorial Day Memory

In early 1945, I arrived at the 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division, part of General George S. Patton's Third Army. "Welcome," said a corporal, invoking the nickname of our commander, "to the world of 'Old Blood and Guts.' Our blood, his guts."

A lieutenant looked at my papers. "This guy can type," he said to a sergeant. "Put him on the SIWs."

So began a weird two weeks. There was only one typewriter, which the sergeant used all day. My job was to man it all night typing officers' notes about enlisted men suspected of Self-Inflicted Wounds.
Fighting in a war is like anything else that matters--ninety percent of it is just showing up. But for a few, it became unbearable. They shot themselves in the arm or leg, slashed a thigh, dislocated a shoulder or wrenched a knee in some improbable fall.  

Night after night, under a Coleman lantern hissing yellow light, I typed their stories in quadruplicate. In deserted barns and bombed-out buildings, I copied officers' notes about soldiers who had maimed themselves out of fear and fatigue, offering up some body part to save the rest. More than once, I was relieved when the investigator gave a soldier the benefit of doubt, refusing to add a court martial to the pain and shame to which he had already sentenced himself.

During a few hours of fitful sleep each morning in a command post corner or the back of a bouncing truck, my dreams were roiled by images of bleeding flesh and half-heard rumble of guns.

Late one afternoon, I came to reclaim the typewriter, and the sergeant, an apple-cheeked farm boy named Duffy who had had little to say to me, started complaining about my lack of nocturnal tidiness. Somewhere in his mutterings were the words "dirty Jew."

Before either of us knew what was happening, I had him by the shirtfront, bent back over a desk, his eyes wide with fear. I was pounding him in blind rage.
There was a witness, Captain James Woodside, who had just arrived to take command of a rifle company. A leathery-faced man with a thick red mustache, he stepped in to loosen my grip and watched as Duffy gathered himself, vowing to get me sent to the front line.
Capt. Woodside took my elbow and edged me into a corner. "If they send you down," he said, "I'd like to have you with me."

Until then, all I knew about him were latrine rumors that he was a West Pointer, a paratroop colonel who had refused an order that would have needlessly endangered his men, been busted to captain and now sent to do penance with Patton.

I never saw him again but, after V-E Day, when I talked to soldiers for a regimental history, he had become a legend. "The man was crazy brave," one of his sergeants said. He led charges against machine-gun positions, ran at snipers and, on one occasion, chased a German tank up a road with a bazooka on his shoulder.  

I knew him only as a man with sad, hard eyes whose few words gave me what amounted to a blessing--permission to fight back when attacked with the full fury of my rage. 

They sent me to a rifle company the next day, not Capt. Woodside's but right up front. Looking back, I could see that my 21st birthday had come and gone without my noticing it.

1 comment:

Ron Davison said...

I always enjoy your posts. This one, in particular.
Interesting commentary about the various types of sacrifice a war provokes in the midst of a great personal story. Thank you.