Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Forever A Soldier: Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service

Forever A Soldier: Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service by Tom Wiener (2005) is a collection of 41 war stories as told by veterans of several wars. The stories were selected out of 35,000 individual stories as part of the Veterans History Project.

My Rating: Good (***). The numerous points that follow show the quality of some of the selections. However, in general, oral histories are problematic. They provide the self-report by the participant, and express his or her first hand view of history. However, often, an individual's memory is affected by time or simply by the narrow view they may have had of events. This often differs with reality. The perfect example is Dick Winters' (Band of Brothers) comments regarding events told to the author (Stephen Ambrose) by various soldiers which were totally inaccurate. Winters, who wrote the after-action reports, was most familiar with the events and corrected the misconceptions. I question the author's choice of some of the stories, since out of 35,000 stories, I think more relevant choices could have been made to present the 41 most compelling oral histories in a book.

Strategies and themes presented in the readings include:

  • Leadership Lacking: At Pearl Harbor, the damaged battleship West Virginia was filled with water that almost filled the officers' quarters. The Annapolis graduates asked sailors from the Tennessee, moored next to it, to retrieve their swords that they graduated with. (p. 11) Why didn't the officers go get their swords themselves? Sailors, doing the officers a favor, were later thought to be stealing items from the quarters and an armed guard had to be posted.
  • With the 18th Field Artillery, John Sudyk's lieutenant volunteered Sudyk and a few others to ambush tanks with a bazooka which was as dangerous as a suicide mission. The lieutenant watched from 200 yards away. The lieutenant received a commendation while Sudyk and his fellow soldiers received nothing. (p. 28)

    In Viet Nam, Ken Rodgers "characterized the military leadership he saw there as weak. The messages the enlisted men got were mixed and contradictory. Some leaders were more gung-ho than others; they demanded a spit-and-polish approach that Rodgers thought didn't make sense in the jungle. There was little camaraderie among officers ... We treated everybody over there as the enemy, and not everybody was... I could never ever tell anybody to do some of the things we had to do to survive over there..." When preparation began for Desert Storm, everything seemed well organized and thought out. "It was a piece of cake from what I had seen in the past. "(pp. 44-47)

    The Germans had the superior defensive position in the Hurtgen Forest, but the Americans were told to attack. The battle became "a killing field for both sides ... We lost so many troops in there, we often wondered why we tried to advance in an area like that." (p. 30)

    During Viet Nam, Head Nurse Frances Liberty and her staff used a hose to wash off casualties. A high ranking woman officer from Washington was visiting and said "Oh my, do you have to use a hose." Liberty responded "Well now, you go back to Washington and sit behind your nice desk, and when you think of something you tell us." (p. 132)

    "In Korea, when another officer came down hard on a recruit just arrived in camp who had accidentally fired his weapon--the captain wanted him court-martialed--Lieutenant Bertran Wallace came to the recruit's defense. Shortly after that, he was relieved of duty and sent back to the States." (p. 164)

    After losing 832 sailors from being bombed off Okinawa, the Franklin returned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for repairs. Harold Lippard gave up "making a career out of the Navy ... [because] a new ensign came in and just tore things up and Lippard didn't want to deal with the political repercussions." (p. 187)

    Marine sharpshooter Giles McCoy, on the island of Pelelieu, "almost got court-martialed a couple of times, once for not shooting two Japanese boys. They weren't any more than ten or twelve years old." (p. 189)

    One of the most obvious examples of a lack of leadership was exhibited by General MacArthur. Yet historians almost universally fail to cite this most egregious act. First, he withdrew and "set up his headquarters on Corregidor ... [and] On March 11, MacArthur and his staff abandoned Corregidor for Australia to assume command of the Allied Forces in that area." (p. 264)

    MacArthur failed miserably as a commander. His troops were poorly trained and equipped. He was unable to stem the advances of the Japanese even though, as the evading force, they were very susceptible to extremely high casualties from a dug-in defensive army. MacArthur failed to create such a defense which would have strained the Japanese supply lines and allowed time for the US to resupply the troops. The effort to resupply was abandoned because it did not look like the defense would succeed. MacArthur also could have placed his troops in the jungles and mountainous regions were they could have effectively fought a guerrilla war with the aid the locals. His troops saw first hand his lack of commitment to stopping the Japanese when he ran from the mainland to safety on the fortress of Corregidor. And when that looked bleak, he kept to form and sneaked away on a PT boat under the cover of darkness, like a meek night creature avoiding its carnivorous predator. MacArthur should have been demoted and placed stateside for the remainder of the war. His subsequent "accomplishments" were also questionable, since they were at very high cost of life, and any other commander could have achieved the same results, and probably with less losses and better overall results. A real leader would never abandon his troops and also never leave a second in command to face the music.

    In Viet Nam, Denton Crocker with the 173rd Airborne found that "The officer types were mainly decent in their technical duties but over 50 percent are not intelligent enough, or perhaps I should say ambitious enough, to comprehend the political and deeper military aspects of the conflict. As for the NCOs, "many of whom are tops, I believe if it were not for them the unit could not function, and they have my real respect." (p. 311) A persistent theme, throughout all conflicts is that the quality of NCOs is far greater than the officers, and the success of the army is the result of their ability. Since that is obviously true, can anyone tell me why there is such a disparity in compensation between NCOs and officers. Also, why are officers needed to command if have not throughout history succeeded in their role which had to be taken over by the NCOs.

  • Innovating: "the artillerymen invented a way to warm up their sleeping quarters. They took some unused powder charges, tossed them into their sleeping hole, lit a match, and Whoosh! We get a nice warm hole to sleep in." (p. 30)

    "...money [was] to be made on POWs. Every Kraut had a very good Swiss or German watch, which was usually grabbed... and thousands of dollars were made by POW guards" (p. 73).

    Nurse Frances Liberty found supplies were not adequate in Korea so "she used the bulky flight jacket like a shoplifter to conceal armloads of supplies" (p. 130)

  • Flawed Policy: "The Division could still do its job and fight but would not willingly accept the casualty rate that it once could. When things got too tough or hopeless, there were ways, learned from bitter experience, to slow things down and reduce casualties. The cycle was typical of just about every division that fought in Europe in World War II and was a result of the American practice of keeping a division in the line and on the attack continuously even though it no longer had enough riflemen left to do any effective fighting." (p. 68)

    "More than thirty years after participating in the [Viet Nam] war, the typically blunt McCain was still expressing frustration at the way it was waged from the air" (p. 234)

    "The only bad thing about the infantry is you know you're going to be there until you're wounded and/or you get killed." (p. 285)

  • Flawed Equipment: In Viet Nam, Phil Randazzo "couldn't depend on his M16 because it would jam on him, but that his machine gun was another matter. Those guns could really do a lot of talking." (p. 78)

    During Operation Iraqi Freedom, combat medic Wendy Taines' "biggest frustration was not having the equipment to deal with the various injuries they saw, especially those afflicting burn victims." (p. 139)

Some interesting points documented in the stories:

  • "'...when we [101st Airborne, 506th Regiment] first approached Landsberg, you could smell it. ... [we] saw those poor, godforsaken human beings and the shape that they were in, they were walking skeletons.' The US soldiers went into town, rousted out all the old men, women, and children, and made them dig three common graves in which to put all the corpses. .. I believed everything now that I had heard in the past about the German atrocities. They did it, and they were responsible for it. How one human being can do that to another one, I don't have the answer.'" (pp. 15-16)
  • Regarding a POW camp near Munich, "'The smell is what lingers with you.' Sudyk couldn't believe the German citizens when they said they didn't know what was going on." (p. 31)
  • Sudyk served as an interpreter in Patton's entourage, and knowing Patton was a spit-and-polish guy, Sudyk had a local citizen put about ten coats of lacquer on his helmet. Sudyk allowed a trio of German nurses through his checkpoint so they didn't have to surrender to the Russian army. (p. 31)
  • For a week or two several German shells were duds, saving many casualties. This was attributed to slave labor factory-workers sabotaging the fuses, as would later be documented in the book and movie Schindler's List. "Some Jewish factory worker probably saved my life." (p. 32)
  • Arriving in Korea with the First Cavalry, Ball wondered "why he saw in the streets thousands of men younger than us who weren't fighting for their own country." "After his year of constant fear and primitive living conditions, Bud Ball found that people here didn't care about the war, that many Americans he talked to barely knew that he and his buddies were risking their lives in Korea." (pp. 53-55)
  • Infantry in WWII were called Doughboys or Dogfaces. "They were not called GIs, an insulting term to a combat soldier. ...the only GI soldiers were those in the states that hung around service clubs, appeared in Hollywood movies, or had cushy rear area jobs." (p. 69)
  • Charles Rembsburg, during WWII, noted "After seeing so much of France and observing its people of all walks of life, I can readily see why she fell. The nation itself is rotten to the core" (p. 87).
  • Eugene Curtin, during WWI, found that whenever they took a new town, "everyone from the very old and bent women to the small kids saluted an officer when he passed, and when they were asked about it they said if they did not salute the German officers they were beaten or otherwise punished." (p. 117)
  • During Operation Iraqi Freedom, "With liquor impossible to find, some of the men started drinking gasoline from trucks for the alcohol content." (p. 140)
  • The 442nd Regimental Combat Team which was supposedly an all-Nisei (Japanese-American) outfit, "even selected men who were only one-eighth Japanese" (p. 169).
  • Omaha Beach veteran, Johann Kasten "lauded the film Saving Private Ryan for recreating an accurate picture of that day's bloody mess. The first fifteen minutes [of that film] were so real that I was seriously affected for three days. Today, for the life of me, I still don't remember how we made it up the cliffs." (p. 226)
  • In WWI, "The Frogs were the instructors and they were in no more hurry about flying than they were about anything else, so progress was slow." (p. 253)
  • B-17 Navigator Milton Stern, parachuting from his damaged plane in Holland, "was fortunate that the first people he encountered when he hit the ground were not only Dutch citizens but Dutch citizens willing to risk their lives to help him." (p. 273) Stern was eventually turned in by a secret Nazi collaborator, but the Dutch figured out who it was and "That man was hung at the end of the war." (p. 274) While a POW, he watched as "14 of my Belgian friends were shot, one at a time, by a firing squad" for refusing to reveal information about the underground resistance (p. 276).

      Click here to buy "Forever A Soldier: Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service"

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