Tuesday, November 18, 2014

TEA TIME IN THE TRENCHES


            While it is true that the United States supplied the bulk of fighting men and resources to save South Korea from a Communist takeover in the 1950-53 war, there were 21 other United Nations partners that made contributions. Among the first allies to join us from the very beginning were the British. If the Korean War was long felt among its U.S. veterans to be the “Forgotten War”, the same image befell the British in spades. Still recovering at home from the terrible carnage of WWII, England had other things to worry about. As a matter of fact though, British Commonwealth forces sent nearly 100,000 men to serve alongside us in that faraway land, including the Royal Gloucestershire Regiment in 1951 which suffered heavy casualties as the newly-committed Chinese armies swept southward.
            Before making the final stage of my own journey to the Land of The Morning Calm, I processed through the U.S. Air Force base at Iwakuni in Japan’s south, where I was treated to the sight of P-51D Mustang fighters “celebrating” their return from a victorious mission over North Korea in some of the most spectacular low-altitude precision flying I have ever seen. This was 77 squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force, one of whose pilots became the first non-American fatality of the conflict.
            In the year to follow, I had the privilege of serving with and getting to know a good many Brits, including a top secret undercover assignment with two “spooks” from SAS (Special Air Service.) My first associations were with NCO’s of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, several of whom became regular visitors to my outfit’s well stocked bar. Three of these “Tommies” usually stopped by my tent to visit and trade  stories-of-home until one night when there were only two. Missing was one very young corporal who always wanted me to open up my hand-made locker-box so he could enjoy a peek at my sweetheart’s (now my wife) photo taped to the inside of the hinged cover. I was saddened to learn he would not be coming back. He became the first friend I would lose over there.
            Frequently I would have a chance to visit with these and other friends at their own command post as I delivered close-air bombing plans, and often I would ride with them on a jeep patrol. At around 1400 hours though, wherever we might be or however close the gun fire, it was Tea Time! It seemed that in every small group of fighting Brits, at least one of them had the fixin’s, and everything else stopped while we took time for a “brew-up” with careful attention to detail, red-hot tin cups and all. Either that, or we might find a NAAFI (Navy, Army & Air Force Institutes) roadside canteen – usually a big tent with collapsible tables and chairs – where there would be two tea lines: those who took their tea with milk, and the odd-balls who didn’t.



  Soldiers of the famed Gloucestershire Regiment of the British Army take time out for tea in Korea, where they won a Presidential unit citation from the U.S. after the Imjin River campaign.                                                                              Defense Dept. Photo

            The days I spent in the constant company of the two “Special Air Service” guys (I’m sure that the first names by which I knew them were not real,) were quite different. Depending on where our inquiries had taken us, we would end up at their “headquarters”, a large squad tent, but with wood floors covered by plush Turkish rugs, stuffed easy chairs, and an Indian waiter in immaculate whites with a clean tea cloth draped over one arm. The tea would be served in fine china with freshly made cakes and crumpets on a matching dish; and we were within ten miles of the front! Even though these elite and very professional men had served a long stretch in India without even a visit to “Old Blighty”, they were the most British Brits. I ever met.
            America became a “coffee-drinking” country in the 18th century as a symbol of our independence and a backlash against British taxation, and so Americans might find the English obsession a bit strange. What I noticed in Korea though was the strong sense of tradition and ability to slow down, relax, and take “time out” in the midst of chaos when it came to tea time in the trenches. (I LOVE our Commonwealth friends!)

Saturday, November 8, 2014

NOVEMBER ON A HILLSIDE FARM



            An author friend of mine described the month of November as “The Time Between”; summer has unarguably come to an end, but full winter has not quite arrived. In northern New England it is a time of cold nights, but often clear crisp sunny days. On a typical hillside dairy farm such as the one I grew up on in the late 1940s, the “time between” was crowded with a long list of things that had to be completed before the woods and fields became filled with deep snow. It was a time of hay-filled barns fortified with overflowing grain bins, barrels of molasses and sacks of feed-beets (mangles.)
            The time in which our family moved onto “The Home Place” was a time when electrification and indoor toilets had only recently arrived in rural, backroad Vermont, and many farms – like ours – had not yet transitioned from horse-power to tractor-power. Cutting, splitting and hauling firewood was more than just a necessity, but a matter of survival. In our case we required 20 cords for the largely un-insulated farm home, and another 20 cords needed to produce the maple syrup which was a key component of our income come February and March. Hundreds of man-hours (and boy-hours) were spent in the 126 acres of forest land carrying out this enterprise, and before the coming of chain saws, the tools included two-man buck saws, splitting wedges, Peavey cant dogs and double-bladed axes. While young age was no excuse from any of this hand work, I was usually the family member assigned to snake the fallen logs from the woods where they had been seasoning for months, always careful to walk on the uphill side of one of our Percheron work horses, (especially a skittish 2000 pound gelding named Dan whose fear of water often caused him to take a log-scattering leap over the smallest trickle crossing our path!)
            November also brought “pork chop day” to the Home Place, a time of special excitement for a teen age boy who had daily fed and eagerly watched the weight go on our pair of Chester White hogs. On a suitably cold late November day the split halves, looking very much like white shiny hollowed out canoes, would be slid from the processor’s pick-up and carried into the cold room off the kitchen, on whose paper-clad family dinner table the magic wrought by meat saws and razor-sharp knives would take place. For a day or two my hours would see the cutting of loins, ribs and roasts, and the separation of hams, hocks and sow belly, with “salt” pork and “head cheese sausage” to round things out. The hams and bacon would go into a sugar/salt dry cure before heading to our home-made smoker stoked with apple wood and corn cobs, later to hang in a dark corner of our cellar room right next to several wheels of our own Cheddars. Before the day when home freezers were common, our pork cuts were wrapped and stored on shelves in a small addition to our woodshed where nature did the freezing.
            Our cold, moist, dirt-floored root cellar was home to crates of newly-dug “Green Mountain” potatoes, onions, turnips and rutabagas, and heads of late cabbage hung by their intact roots from overhead beams. Removed by several feet from all those vegetables would be bushel baskets of apples from our hill-top orchards: Northern Spies, Wolf Rivers, Winesaps, Baldwins and Rhode Island Greenings. (By that time of course, the Yellow Transparents, Winter Bananas and other early varieties would be but a wondrous memory.)


            Winter squash, from huge Hubbards to Buttercups and Butternuts would be sleeping in upstairs bedrooms where it was warm and dry, while some of the best winter eating of all would not even have come indoors; left in the deep loamy garden soil would be carrots, beets and parsnip roots, covered with a foot of hay and straw which could be pulled back throughout winter, as snow cover made insulation complete in the coldest weather.
            It was a time of hard work and I would never have guessed that in just a few years, I would find peace and sleep in a tent surrounded by the sound of constant gunfire and uncertainty thanks to the deep satisfaction of those wonder-filled memories of the sense of security anchored in life on the November Home Place.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

GO FOR BROKE! - ANNALS OF THE 442nd REGIMENTAL COMBAT TEAM



            The indignation of those 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent who found themselves imprisoned behind barbed wire in 1942 was only heightened by the knowledge that their patriotism was so arbitrarily dismissed simply because of their ancestry; especially when a much larger group of people who were of German and Italian ancestry were treated differently. This frustration is captured by a verse written by an anonymous internee at the Poston camp near Yuma City, Arizona:
            We all love life/and our country best/Our misfortune to be here in the West/To keep us penned behind that damned fence/Is someone’s notion of National defense!
            Well, National defense did come into play when Congressional leaders began to wonder if young Nisei shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the military. It began with 1,000 volunteers from Hawaii and grew quickly with volunteers from the Mainland camps, most of whom would eventually be organized into the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army Reserve. Although a few would serve in the Pacific as language and intelligence people, the bulk of the 442nd  and 100th, along with several associated artillery and support units would end up in Europe fighting Germans and Italians for obvious reasons.
            They would distinguish themselves in every campaign in which they took part receiving eight Presidential Unit Citations and sustaining some of the highest casualty rates of any infantry unit in WWII. In fact the original compliment of 4000 would have to be augmented two-and-one-half times in replacements, with a total of 14,000 men serving before it was all over. Commanded by white officers for the most part, those who led them would soon learn that the fighting Nisei – with their war cry GO FOR BROKE - possessed an unusual unit cohesiveness and absolutely refused to leave any individual behind, no matter the cost, and that the best way to handle them was to explain the mission but then stand back and allow the NCOs and their troops to work out their own tactical details.
            In late October, 1944, the 141st Infantry Regiment of the 36th Texas Division became encircled and trapped by German troops in the densely wooded Vosges mountains near the German border in Northern France. General John Dahlquist commanding the 36th Division, selected the 442nd RCT to go to the rescue of what came to be known as The Lost Battalion in what everyone realized was a “suicide mission” behind enemy lines; an operation which came to be one of the most costly but celebrated of WWII. On October 29th and 30th fighting became virtually hand-to-hand, or as one survivor wrote afterward, “tree-to-tree and yard-by-yard”. Incredibly, they finally broke through to the dwindling survivors of the Lost Battalion and led them back through German lines and “home” again.
            In that one contest, the 442nd suffered more than 1,000 casualties including three companies which started out with a total of 200 and came back with only 20 still standing.
            By wars’ end, these American warriors of Japanese descent became the most decorated infantry unit in U.S. Army history for their size and length of service with 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, 1 Distinguished Service Medal, 560 Silver Stars (with 28 Oak Leaves), 22Legion of Merit Medals, 15 Soldier’s Medals, and 4,000 Bronze Stars (with 1200 Oak Leaves); and as a testament to the cost involved, 9,486 Purple Hearts; in all, 18,143 decorations including in 2010, the Congressional Gold Medal.
            I wish I could say that these brave and courageous soldiers came home to a grateful and welcoming nation, but that wouldn’t be true. It would be years before the old prejudices would mellow enough to blur the color line with those who had suffered the ignominy of imprisonment and separation. Despite all that had been taken from them, the alumni of those internment camps produced more U.S. Congress members, mayors, poets, composers, playwrights, talented actors and actresses, college presidents and leaders of industry than perhaps any so-called “minority group” in American history. And high on that list of honored citizens-in-uniform who have marched off to all our wars, I hold my hand in proud salute to those whose story I can only briefly acknowledge in these two columns.


  Soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team receive citations from a U.S. Lieutenant General in Europe.
                                                                                                                                                                         U.S. Army Photo