Memorial day war stories

Tomorrow is memorial day, so it’s time for some stories about how various wars have affected family and friends.

First a still living 92 year old vet I met at Harvard Graduate Alumni day a few years ago.  He piloted a landing craft at the Normandy invasion.  After the war he entered Harvard Law, didn’t like it and got a masters in History.  Last seen a month ago, and in great shape having retired from a career that you’d never guess.

OK guess !  What do you think he did?

He was a successful football coach in the NFL — Marv Levy of the Buffalo Bills.

Second, third, fourth and fifth — family members.

Uncle #1 kept it quiet that he was on the Rutgers rifle team, was an officer in the MPs. He was stationed in India and China.  He had a weekly?/monthly? beer ration to distribute to his men and figured out a way to get them cold beer in India in the 1940’s.  Can you guess what he did?

Pilots in India would fly materiel over the hump (Himalayas) to China, in unheated airplanes.  For a cut they’d fly the beer over and back cooling it.  My wife told this story to a friend of hers at a workshop.  Her eyes got wider and wider, saying ‘the beer story’.  Her father had been one of the pilots.

Uncle #2 became an artillery officer, stationed in New Guinea and the Philippines, and later Japan.  In New Guinea one of the men thought he saw something move and fired his rifle (not a gun).  The bullet bounced off a rock coming back, and he and his men fought an hours long battle against the rocks.  He didn’t there was a Japanese soldier within miles.

He was absolutely convinced that the atomic bomb saved his life, as next up was the invasion of Japan. It would have been bloody, even 6 years ago in Kyoto and Osaka I saw little old men wearing caps of the Japanese defense forces.

Uncle #3 was a doc pushed through med school in 3 years (as they all were back then).  He was at the battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa.  Despite what you may read about it, he said that the generals were quite frightened of Rommel, as reconnaissance was minimal and they had no idea where he was.

As is typical of men who have been in war they didn’t talk about it much.  Uncle #2 also went to Rutgers, and I saw him there in the 90s at a reunion with his roommate a very small man.  Later uncle #2 told me that the little guy had been in the Battle of the Bulge.  I found this amazing and later told uncle #3 about it, who said that he was also in the Battle of the Bulge — this 50 years or so later and the first time I’d heard of it.

The fourth family member was possibly the bravest of all.  He was a German Jew who managed to escape Europe landing in England where he was given a new identity.  He became a commando and was dropped behind enemy lines in France before the Normandy invasion.  Of course he spoke perfect German, but you can only imagine what might have happened had he been caught and they found out what he was.  He became a family member after the war as he married my father’s cousin. A very mild mannered individual.

All four led productive lives after the service, with no PTSD disability etc. etc. I think one used the GI bill.  Just as the war changed the orientation of Herman Wouk, so did it change uncle #3 who lies buried in a military cemetery.

Which brings me up to the Vietnam war.  A high school classmate who became a dentist was over there in the early years.  The country has a hot dry season and a hot wet season.  They had open air showers to remain comfortable, but it was disconcerting to him to have villagers standing around looking at how hairy he was.  Lots of hair is not a survival value in such a place and the Vietnamese are a relatively hairless lot.

I was an Air Force Captain in the Medical Corps stationed at one of the best army hospitals (Fitzsimons in Denver) because they were short of neurologists.  Now Vietnam is like Chile, a long strip of a country along a coast.  As a result, no wounded soldier was more than 20 minutes away by chopper from a fully equipped surgical field hospital, so the people surviving were far more gravely injured than those in world war II.

I thought we took very good care of our patients, far better than at the University of Colorado Medical Center where I finished up my residency after discharge.  They were fat and happy with the nearest academic medical center 500 miles away (St. Lake City, Omaha etc. etc.) resulting in no competition.

The only brave thing I did  while in the service was writing a letter to the General resigning from the officer’s club, because some little Nazi there refused to let a psych resident from Colorado who was helping us out into the club because he had a beard.  I can still see the little bastard’s smirk as he said he was ‘just following orders’.  I was sure I’d be shipped out to Plok Tic or something like it the next day, but the general (who was in the medical Corps) wrote to the resident apologizing and the rule was changed.

Now I don’t want to fight the Vietnam war again, but there is one further thing you should know.  The tour of duty in Vietnam was 1 year, but the term of service for docs was two.  (Back then I asked one of my uncles what the term of service was in WWII — what do you think it was?   Answer — until the war was over). The people coming back after one year pretty much had their pick of the best places, and many wound up at Fitzsimons.  I talked (and worked with) a lot of them.  These were not career military with an axe to grind.  Not one of them thought we were winning.  This was ’68 – ’70 when I was in.

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