Wednesday, February 25, 2015

WITNESS TO HISTORY – HITLER’S BODYGUARD SPEAKS



            Until the last few years of his long life, Rochus Misch, was just another typical, hard-working German shop-keeper, selling art supplies to a small and specialized market, standing perhaps a few centimeters taller than most men, but otherwise worthy of no special attention in post-war Germany. He had always been known as a quiet, unassuming and very private person, whose wife Gerda, a prominent mid-level political figure and government employee was by far the better-known. The task of being “invisible” was made easier inasmuch as he hadn’t returned to “modern-day” West Germany until 1953 when he was finally released by the Russians after nine years of torture and imprisonment in that country’s infamous Gulag.
            There were a number of good reasons for Misch’s anonymity: not only had he worn the uniform of the Waffen-SS after first being badly wounded in Poland as a Wehrmacht soldier in the first months of war, but had thereafter been assigned as a member of Hitler’s personal Bodyguard. Beyond that, only a few knew he had been one of the last survivors to emerge from the underground Führerbunker, and perhaps the only person still living to have personally seen Hitler before he and his new bride, Eva Braun died by suicide.  (After 1953, and upon the death of one other, he was without question the only survivor.) Once that fact circled the globe, he was barraged by phone calls, visitors and the media looking for interviews and personal accounts. Forced to do what he had vowed never to do, he wrote a memoir of his experiences which was published in German in 2008. With the help of a highly-qualified team of translators and historians, the English language version emerged just months after his death in 2014.(*) To the translated version of the original manuscript, the English language team added a wealth of footnotes and explanations, indicating they had gone to extremes in an effort to coordinate the author’s claims with actual historic fact, and – here and there – some facts that couldn’t be verified in every minute detail; and details are everywhere in Misch’s account. For one who was not a scholar, and who was in no position to make notes, his memory is extraordinary.
            If I had the space in this article, I could easily expend 2000 words in explaining why I find the author and his story to be of extreme credibility; more accurate than the work of a host of more famous and even “storied” historical writers whose books line several shelves in my extensive WWII library.
For one thing he had the innate ability to be present without “being present”. He stood at Hitler’s side almost wherever the man he called “his boss” went, and with whomever among the world’s most famous or infamous figures he might be meeting. Misch was entirely apolitical, was never a party member, and while faultlessly loyal to Germany and its leader, never saw his role to either question or judge the world-shaking events going on around him (although he “knew” the war was lost before most of his comrades”.)
            Despite his official need to “be silent, do everything you’re told, and never question anything ‘the boss’ says”, Misch was a meticulous observer of human behavior. Among the more interesting of his long-term observations is the assertion that everyone’s favorite member of the Führer household was Eva Braun. Always cheerful, infectiously happy and glowing, perfectly dressed and proud of her bearing, she was devoted to Hitler, who twice sent her out of the bunker to save her from capture. She returned on her own.
            One member of the Hitler inner circle much-maligned by all of us in the “Allied World” but uniformly liked and trusted by staff and servants was Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Reichminister of propaganda and an insider since the Munich days.  His love for and comradeship with his six children lent a homelike sense of “family” to bunker life. (It was Goebbels’ wife Magda who insisted on taking them with her in suicide.)  On the other hand, no one among the guard detail and immediate staff employees liked or trusted Heinrich Himmler or Martin Borman, nor could they figure how Albert Speer had managed to insinuate himself so close to the Führer as to be almost his shadow.
            While Rochus Misch, an orphan from Silesia never held a rank higher than Obersharführer (Sgt.), his intimate and detailed memoir of his five years at Hitler’s side is an illuminating insight into Adolph Hitler’s last days in the claustrophobic underground Berlin Bunker where the Third Reich came to an end.


  Although a soldier of modest rank, Obersharführer Rochus Mish took pride in his tailor-made uniforms and turnout gear. At the end, he alone handled all of Hitler’s phone communications.

(*)   HITLER’S LAST WITNESS   Frontline Books, London 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A DAY OF PHEASANTS AND FUNERALS



            For several square miles outside the trip flare-studded barbed concertina wire circling our base camp on Korea’s 38th parallel, we regularly patrolled the former farming country which was designated as a “military zone” in which civilians traveled at their own risk. It was a “free fire zone”, but a handful of Korean Nationals still tended rice paddies there during the day. Most of them were technically North Koreans – not because of ideology so much as geography – and were friendly with us. It was a region still tied to Korea’s ancient farming practices and cultural traditions, and we were under orders always to respect these itinerant villagers. For me this was not difficult, since in so many ways they were much like the descendants of the pioneer heritage of those I had known in “old” New England.
            The spring and summer of 1953 saw some of the most vicious fighting of the war now in its third year, and with peace talks underway, the enemy was intent on extending their territory as far south as possible. Along the 38th, there was really no such thing as a “safe zone”. It was against this uncertainty that a buddy from Illinois with whom I shared a rare day off, suggested we go pheasant hunting in that very countryside. We borrowed two shotguns from our armory and with our M-1 carbines still slung across our shoulders “just in case”, set out and began a stealthy browse through that still-beautiful countryside, enjoying the sense of freedom which made us think of a different time and place. I actually doubted my friend’s assurance that game birds survived in that fought-over area – not least because he was a Chicago-boy; how would he know.
            The landscape in which we found ourselves was in sharp contrast to the rice paddy country near our compound, with rounded and grassy hillocks alternating with shallow valleys. Here and there we would come across hand-made Korean grave stones – usually shaped by nature but graven with epitaphs unreadable to us, but no less eloquent for that. (We had been told that the distance of burial between the valley and the hilltop was indicative of the status that person had attained in life.)
            I can’t recall how long we had been afield when we began to hear voices raised in some kind of chant. Rounding a ridge top, we found ourselves looking down on a strange sight. A group of a dozen or more Koreans dressed in white – the traditional mourning color – circled around a newly-dug grave singing a dirge-like song while hurling shovelfuls of earth into the excavated rectangle, after which three or four of them would climb down onto the fresh soil and begin jumping up and down in time with the singing, repetitively. Reforming the circle, a bottle would be passed around, its’ obvious contents helping to explain the increasing pleasure which seemed to mark the ceremony before the shoveling would resume.
            Airman Cook and I, unseen but grandly entertained put some distance between ourselves and the farm people, and proceeded on the hunt, certain that the Korean method of saying “goodbye” was far more sensible than the American way.
             Heading back the way we had come, we separated so that the hill line was safely between us. Moments after my friend’s shotgun blast broke the silence, a pheasant on my side took off nearly from under foot, and we knew the gods who had been called down by the 2000-year-old reenactment we had witnessed, had rewarded our silent attendance with an unexpected “Thank You!”
            That evening the two of us sat down to orange-glazed pheasant breast (actually three of us including the co-conspiring Mess Sergeant) while our envious compatriots dined on SOS!
            In a time and place where happy experiences were not exactly an everyday event, my memory of that strange day of pheasants and funerals creeps into some two A.M. hour of wakefulness and I am a young warrior again.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

“SMUDGIE” AND THE GOLD BEAD



            Allowing for the difference in average life span, it is said that it is possible for a caring human being to share their time on earth with a succession of nine cats. For me there have only been two; the one who more recently passed away after sharing his home with me for 18 loyal years, and the one who preceded him and lived for a much shorter span.
            That other cat was named Smudgie, in honor of another Siamese adopted by my mother when I was but a small boy, and whose image he reflected to a remarkable degree. My Smudgie was not what one would call a social animal; he tolerated other people without much enthusiasm. He chose friends with intimidating discrimination, treating many with undisguised disdain. But for reasons which could only be explained by animal psychologists, (and possibly not even by them,) he loved me with a devotion unusual to that highly independent and self-contained breed. He was a constant and forgiving companion in whose eyes I could do no wrong. His affection was total and without condition.
            We kept Smudgie’s feed and water dishes beside the refrigerator in our kitchen, and like all cats, this particular place together with the feeding accessories became his property, and he viewed them with a cat-hearted propriortorialness. At about the same time, one of our young sons was working his way through the ranks of the Cub Scouts one assignment of which was to construct a lanyard by weaving gold beads on a blue cord. A surplus bead became first a plaything, and then a possession of our cat. In time we noticed something unusual. Whenever Smudgie’s food dish was empty and in need of a refill, we would find the gold bead resting there – all by itself. We might lose track of where the bead might end up after a day of “cativities” – under a sofa, chair or some neglected corner of the room - but sooner or later it would have mysteriously found its way back to the empty cat food dish, carefully carried and placed there by mouth. We never saw him do it, but it became an article of faith in his routine. And in ours.
            In what should have been the prime of his cat life, Smudgie developed an inner ear infection which became cancerous. Despite all our efforts, including a radical and seldom-performed surgical oblation, the quality of his life deteriorated to a point where our only recourse became painfully apparent. The kindly veterinarian who had become a personal friend, suggested that he perform the final procedure out of my presence. “It will be easier that way”, he assured me. But that just didn’t seem right. I owed Smudgie more than that in return for the years of unmitigated devotion he had shown me. In the end, he died peacefully in my arms.
            I buried Smudgie the cat in our front yard at the base of a scrub oak which had been his favorite haunt. And with him, I buried the gold bead.
            All of that happened more than twenty years ago, and my tender feelings have had all those gently falling years in which to heal. Until our final weeks in the home we left behind to move south. We had decided to replace the worn carpet in our kitchen and nearby stairway with a more trendy and practical floor covering. “After all”, my wife kept telling me, “the new owners will appreciate it.”
            When I returned home from my office the day she and a grandson had removed the old carpet she said, “guess what we found, hidden under the edge of the carpet?” She was holding in her hand a familiar gold bead. Until then I had forgotten all about Smudgie’s “backup” bead, the one he always kept hidden somewhere, for use when he couldn’t locate the first one.
            In the days following that serendipitous discovery, it all came flooding back, into my mind and into my heart, as if it had all happened just yesterday. And in those mystical moments when such thoughts are allowed to intrude on a more ordered and prosaic world, I am still left to wonder if Smudgie intentionally planted that shiny gold bead knowing that at some future time in my own cascading years, I would need to be reminded of the eternal nature of love.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

CAMPING OUT WITH CASTNER’S CUTTHROATS



            As World War II in the Pacific put fear in the hearts of those prepared to defend Hawaii and our west coast, it was commonly believed that the Japanese would have no military interest in far off and frozen Alaska, the unlikely defense of which was casually assigned to the Governor of Washington. If anyone important had been listening, General Billy Mitchell had warned the country years before that “anyone who controls Alaska controls the world”.  He was thinking in terms of a future war and the importance of preserving access to the United States and the northern air and sea routes across the North Pacific.
            Reality finally dawned on the U.S. War Department when, six months into the war, on June 2-4 1942 a Japanese naval force launched an air attack on Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians followed by an invasion of the islands of Attu and Kiska by submarine-borne landing forces. Timed to coincide with the Midway Campaign it would be a thorn in America’s side for much of the year to come.
            Considering the nature of the terrain, weather and distance from logistical support, the deployment of any kind of U.S. ground force seemed impossible any time soon, while air strikes under the same conditions against an enemy already dug in were equally problematical. At the same time intelligence of the enemy’s position, strength and movements was of immediate and ongoing importance.
            The answer to the quandary came in the person of Colonel Lawrence Varsi Castner (1903 – 1949) who was given broad authority in creating a unique Reconnaissance unit known officially as the 1st Alaskan Combat Intelligence Platoon or Alaska Scouts. Consisting of 65 very mobile and highly-experienced men drawn from the very kind of environment they would be working in, they tended to be native Eskimos, Aleuts, fishermen, hunters and trappers who knew how to live off the land and take care of themselves in rough and dangerous circumstances. Those characteristics plus their ability to fight and maneuver in wild country most often “lost” in freezing fogs and chilling temperatures with just the equipment which would fit in their very small packs made them some of the most dangerous guerilla fighters in the world. Inevitably they became known as “Castner’s Cutthroats”. They carried mostly .22 caliber side arms for shooting small game, plus at least one sniper rifle; of course they were all proficient in the use of knives which they preferred. They lived happily on fish, King crab, shell fish, ptarmigan and water fowl. With a surplus of salmon, they would dry and smoke enough to carry with them. (From personal experience I would say that fare was better than C-rations any day!)
            In the months to follow they shadowed enemy activities, noting the arrival of supplies and additional troops by submarines while traveling silently from island to island in their light-weight native canoes, reporting on enemy sites on Attu, Agattu, and Kiska. When building up for future action the Army tasked Castner and his men with finding a place where a landing field might be scratched out for  fighter operations. With mountains of lava rock and the surf-bound shorelines of the Aleutians, that proved impossible at the moment so the “Cutthroats” dammed a lagoon and then drained it to the point they could build a landing strip on the sandy bottom.

                 A handful of “Kastner’s Cutthroats” of whose number only Billy Buck is still alive at last count.

            Like “irregular” fighters worldwide, Castner’s men were a freedom-loving lot not given to any reverence for rank and “authority”, a fighting phenomenon shared by their leader and welcomed by men known as “Aleut Pete”, “Bad Whiskey Red” and “Waterbucket Ben who were given the latitude necessary to carry out their unusual mission. But when the Army arrived and the fighting which would eventually drive the Japanese back to their home Islands began, it was those rugged warriors who led them, carried messages, provided them with food and then fought beside them who more than anyone or anything else saved the Aleutians from occupation and Seattle from attack.
            The message they left for all of us who remember was DON’T MESS WITH AMERICA!