Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day 2012

Paul Farrell, Harold Gentle, Eugene Tannler and Abe Taylor were four of the five crew members of a tank that was knocked out, going up in flames, on July 11, 1944, during the battle for Hill 122 in Normandy.

The tombstone says "infantry" but the four crew members buried in a common grave in the Astoria section of Queens, N.Y., were members of the 712th Tank Battalion. Their tank was knocked out, going up in flames. The fifth crew member, Laverne Patton, was also killed.

Of the four tanks in Lt. Jim Flowers' platoon that were destroyed that day, this was the only one that lost its entire crew. Of the 20 crew members in the four tanks, nine were killed, several wounded, and two both wounded and captured.

Today being Memorial Day, a lot of people are enjoying barbecues. Me, I'm reminded of a line from a 1993 interview with Jim Flowers in his motel room in Bradenton, Fla., during one of the 712th Tank Battalion's "mini" reunions, which were held every January for the veterans who retired to or wintered in Florida, but the war was such an important part of some of the veterans' lives that they came to the mini-reunions from all over the country to spend a few extra days with their buddies. The "minis" were less formal than the annual battalion reunion, which drew a larger crowd and was usually held somewhere in the Midwest, as it seemed most battalion veterans came from somewhere in the central corridor of the country, stretching from Chicago to Texas and Louisiana.

Flowers was telling me the story of Hill 122, I had the tape recorder going, and Jeanette Flowers was also in the room. When Flowers' tank was hit, the shell that penetrated it tore off his right forefoot, an injury that would eventually lead to amputation of part of his leg. As he was climbing out of the tank, he said he fell back into the turret basket, and that he didn't know if it was because he "had nothing to climb with," or whether it was his loader, Edward Dzienis, climbing over his back to get out of the tank.

"You told him to abandon tank," Jeanette Flowers said.

"Well, don't drag me down into this barbecue pit," Flowers said.

Abe Taylor was the platoon sergeant, and normally would have been in a different tank. But Judd Wiley, the tank commander of that particular tank, was injured the day before when the hatch cover slammed down on his hand as the tank backed over a hedgerow. Jack Sheppard, the company commander, filled in, and Flowers wanted Sheppard in the No. 4 tank, which had a two-way radio, so he juggled the crews. It would be several months before Wiley, who was hospitalized, learned his entire crew had perished. "I only wish I could have died with my men," he said when I interviewed him at his home in Seal Beach, Calif., in 1994.

The threat of fire was a notoriously common danger in the Sherman tanks of World War II. I recently came upon a passage in the "original" Tanks for the Memories -- not the book I wrote in 1994 but the collection of stories put together by battalion veteran Ray Griffin -- in which he described the day his tank was knocked out during the battle of Mairy (See "Destruction of the 106th Panzer Brigade). Ray's tank was knocked out by a German tank and went up in Flames, but except for a few minor injuries, the entire crew made it out of the tank and to the relative safety of a nearby ditch.

While the tank was burning, Griffin saw his platoon sergeant, Frank Bores, run up and climb onto it so that he could see if anyone was still inside that he might assist. Griffin ran over to the tank and yelled to him that everyone was out, so Bores jumped off and joined the crew in the ditch.

Griffin wrote that he put Sergeant Bores in for a decoration -- probably a Bronze or Silver Star -- because it was a very brave act to climb onto a burning tank. He wrote that the decoration was turned down because there were no demonstrable results,

I hope you're having a good, somber Memorial Day. I heard on the radio that some general started a speech by saying people often say to him "Happy Memorial Day" and he wished they wouldn't do that because it isn't supposed to be a happy occasion. He's right, but on the other hand, I can't remember anybody ever saying to me "Happy Memorial Day."

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Preface to Tanks for the Memories

It's one thing to laugh at your own jokes, which I've been guilty of more times than I care to admit. It's another to read for perhaps the hundredth time the preface to a book you wrote, and still get choked up. Such is the case with my preface to the Kindle edition of "Tanks for the Memories." So for anyone who hasn't read it ...

Preface (Tanks for the Memories, Kindle Edition)

 When I was a child, I loved listening to my father’s stories about the war. He made the act of getting wounded sound funny. “I had never been in a battle,” he said, “so I stuck my head up to see what was going on.”
Among other things, he said, a bullet penetrated his helmet and some tissue paper wadded inside saved his life.
He was wounded on July 28, 1944, in Normandy, and again on December 10, in Germany. I was born five years later to the day, on December 10, 1949, the second of his five children.
Maurice Elson died of a heart attack in 1980. In 1987 I found a newsletter addressed to him from the 712th Tank Battalion Association. It chronicled the ordinary, but hardly mundane, lives of the battalion’s veterans. There were grandchildren, impending retirements, visits, surgeries, recollections of battles fought and buddies lost, and a reminder that nobody was growing any younger.
I wrote to the newsletter’s editor, Ray Griffin of Aurora, Neb., informing him that my father passed away and asking him to put a notice in the next newsletter saying that if anyone remembered Lieutenant Elson would they please contact me.
Ray called Sam MacFarland, a veteran of A Company. Sam wrote and said  my father was in his company and while he didn’t remember my dad, the battalion was having a reunion in Niagara Falls in a couple of weeks. If I came, he would take me around and see what we could find.
I went, and I met three people – Jule Braatz, Charlie Vinson and Ellsworth Howard – who remembered my dad. The stories I only vaguely remembered – a name here, a place there – suddenly came back to life. Not only that, but because I was my father’s son, and my father had been one of them, the veterans welcomed me as if I were a part of a large, extended family.
I missed the 1988 reunion, at which the battalion’s monument was dedicated at Fort Knox, but I went to the 1989 reunion with a tape recorder.
Some of the stories I recorded over the next two decades are presented in  this book. I never was in the military, and have never been shot at, so except for some brief introductions and explanations I chose to let the veterans tell their stories in their own words. The stories are presented both chronologically and thematically, with a chapter about food, for example, sandwiched between chapters about two different battles.
The 712th Tank Battalion landed in Normandy on June 28, 1944, three weeks after D-Day, and was on the front lines in France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia for 11 months. Although it was an independent tank battalion, it was attached almost exclusively to the 90th “Texas-Oklahoma” Infantry Division, which suffered the third-highest rate of casualties of any division in the European Theater of Operations.
The 712th  fought in the hedgerows of Normandy and the breakout at St. Lo. It helped encircle the German 7th Army at the Falaise Gap. It dashed across France with General George S. Patton’s vaunted 3rd Army. It crossed a flooded Moselle River in November of 1944 and the Saar in December, and the Moselle again and then the Rhine in March of 1945. It fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the Siegfried Line. It guarded the treasures of the Merkers Salt Mine and liberated the Flossenburg concentration camp.
Of the 1,235 men who passed through the battalion’s ranks, 101 were killed in action. Its members were awarded one Legion of Honor, three Distinguished Service Crosses, eight Croixs de Guerre, 56 Silver Stars, 362 Bronze Stars, two Presidential Unit Citations, and 498 Purple Hearts. And of the medals for valor, those were only the incidents that were witnessed and properly written up.
As I am interviewing Bob Hagerty in a hallway at the Harrisburg, Pa., Sheraton during the battalion’s 1992 reunion, one of the tankers’ wives emerges from the hospitality room, with its well-stocked bar, and passes by. She leans toward the microphone and says a little giddily, “Every year they fight the war all over again, and every year it comes out the same.”
Now, as its youngest surviving members approach 90, the battalion no longer holds reunions. But when it did, for a few days twice a year, these  veterans did indeed fight the war all over again, clambering in Sherman and Stuart tanks over fields and crossing rivers on pontoon bridges, sliding precariously along ice-slicked mountain roads, and bringing back to life, for a few flickering moments, the memories of buddies who are buried in the cemeteries of France and Holland and Belgium, or whose remains were repatriated into cemeteries all across America, or whose ashes remain in the fields and orchards where they burned inside their tanks.
Shortly after I began writing “Tanks for the Memories” nearly two decades ago, I visited the battalion’s monument in the memorial garden of the Patton Museum. It was a sobering moment. I had interviewed so many tankers and heard so many stories that I thought I knew a lot about the history of the 712th. But when I started going through the names on two bronze plaques of the battalion members killed in action, I recognized less than half of them.
“Somebody should write a book about an outfit that was on the front lines for what, 298 of the 311 days it was in combat?” Andy Schiffler said when he called me in April of 1995. Andy was on the toll-free phone line I used to market the first edition of this book. He was unaware of the book, but saw the number in the newsletter and wanted to update Paul Wannemacher, the battalion association secretary, on his health.
Which wasn’t pretty. Andy said he went into the hospital for cancer surgery. Two hours after he came home, he said, his wife died. Then his doctors found a tumor in his head. They operated, and he lost his sight. Eventually, 28 percent of the sight came back.
I couldn’t take much more.
“What company were you in?” I interrupted.
“D Company,” he said.
 “Were you in the horse cavalry?”
“Oh, yesss.” He sounded medicated, understandably. I asked him where he lived.
I asked if I could pay him a visit.
“Sure,” he said. “Call before you come, to make sure I’m still alive.”
When I visited him three weeks later, we spoke for six hours over two days, on May 6 and 7, 1995. He told me about the draft board that was convicted of taking bribes, and about learning to drive a truck while working for a moonshiner during Prohibition. He told me about the cavalry in the California desert, about the time Art Horn fell off his horse and accidentally shot the animal in the neck (the horse lived, but more about that later), about the light tank he drove in combat from Normandy to Czechoslovakia, about the Silver Star he was awarded for racing out under fire to his parked tank and driving it back to the house where his crew was staying. And he told me about the member of his platoon who was killed by friendly fire.
His son Andy Junior, who is about my age, came over with one of his two teenage sons. Andy Junior remarked that his father never told him a thing about the war.
In researching this book, if you can call listening wide-eyed to a bunch of old men – old men, hell, I’m almost as old now as they were when I started doing this – and women talk about a time when they were young and adventurous, if you can consider that research, I found that although some of the veterans were reluctant to talk, many opened up and told stories that were so detailed they might have happened yesterday instead of 45 to 60 years before.
Sometimes a veteran’s wife sat in on an interview, and heard things she never heard before. Such was the case with Joe Bernardino of Rochester, N.Y. I looked Joe up in 1994 because he figured in a story told by Sam Cropanese: It was early in the morning and Sam was outside his tank having coffee when an artillery shell suddenly burst in the air and rained shrapnel on him and several infantrymen. Sam wound up in a field hospital minus a piece of his jaw. Joe, who was inside the tank, was wounded in the same barrage and wound up in the same field hospital. Sam’s face was bandaged and his jaw wired shut, and Joe didn’t recognize him. Sam said “Jw-Jw-tsm-Sm!” – loosely translated, “Joe, Joe, it’s me, Sam!”
Five decades later Joe got choked up when he recalled how guilty he felt that it took him those few moments to recognize Sam, because as crewmates in a tank they were closer than brothers.
Sam and Joe were wounded in the Falaise Gap, a significant event in the battalion's history when the 90th Infantry Division, to which the battalion was attached, took part in the encirclement and destruction of a large part of the German 7th Army. While much of the battalion was on a ridge firing into the valley in which the Germans were trapped, the Sherman tanks of A Company were guarding a field through which the Germans might try to escape. During the night, the tankers could hear movement in the woods. Edmund Pilz, the driver of Sam and Joe’s tank, was biting his fingernails. Joe told him to stop because it was making him nervous. They had words, Joe recalled, and he decided he would apologize in the morning.
Shortly after 10 a.m., an armor-piercing shell penetrated the tank in front of the driver's compartment, killing Pilz instantly. Joe never got the chance to apologize.
"Those things stay with you," he said.
Joe Bernardino died on March 14, 1995, of pancreatic cancer. Otha Martin was going to send me the names and positions of all of the crew members in each of the five tanks that fought the 6th SS Mountain Division in the village of Pfaffenheck, Germany, on March 16, 1945; however, just before Christmas in 1994, he died of a stroke while working on his ranch in Macalester, Okla. Andy Schiffler died on March 5, 1996, barely 10 months after I interviewed him. Clifford Merrill, who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and who upon being wounded in Normandy handed his Thompson submachine gun to tank commander Morse Johnson and said “Take it into Berlin,” died peacefully at his home in Fort Collins, Colo., on June 10, 2008. He was 94 years old.
To paraphrase Sam MacFarland, who in 1987 introduced me to the 712th Tank Battalion and who died of cancer the following year, time is succeeding where Adolph Hitler failed.
I don't know what it's like to experience combat – the fear, the fatalism, the grief, the suspension of morality, the numbness of feelings of which I've often been told. Nor have I had any formal education as a historian. But I hope with this book to preserve a chapter of history that was headed for a hundred different graves. It is a chapter about young men who laughed and loved, who were cocky and feisty and spirited, who drank hard and fought harder – and that, some of them would tell you, was even before they met the enemy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The destruction of the 106th Panzer Brigade

Forrest Dixon and Fred Lemm (not sure which is which) with a
knocked-out German tank from the 106th Panzer Brigade

   Early in the morning of Sept. 8, 1944, at about 2 a.m., a fight broke out between the 712th Tank Battalion, which was guarding the 90th Infantry Division artillery command post, and the German 106th Panzer Brigade.
   Of the many tank battalion veterans I interviewed over the years, most of them believed that the German armored column was simply traveling at night and had no idea that it had stumbled upon the artillery command post. The firing in the middle of the night eventually died down, and resumed at first light.
   It's a shame that so many of the tankers have passed away thinking this was the case. This is for you, Don Knapp, a veteran of the battle of Mairy. Apparently the 106th Panzer Brigade knew exactly what it was doing, and just got whupped, at great cost to the 712th, which lost several tanks and men in the battle.
   Not only has the destruction of the 106th Panzer Brigade made into a French board game, but I recently discovered this article, written by a German historian. The article is excerpted below, but the full article can be found at:

The Destruction of the 106th Panzer Brigade


Surprising the enemy, Panzer-Brigade 106

Panzer-Brigade 106 was made up in July 1944 from the remnants of the Panzergrenadier-Division "Feldherrnhalle", which was routed during the Russian offensive in June 1944, and shaped into condition near the eastern city of Danzig. Nobody less than the famous Colonel Dr. Franz Bäke commanded this early unit of the succession of Panzer-Brigades. He was supported by experienced and highly decorated commanders, but the bulk of the troops consisted of inexperienced men and due to lack of fuel there had been little practice with the tanks. The training area could suggest deployment in the East, but in early September the brigade found itself as a reserve in the First Army sector in Lorraine. It was destined for the Lorraine counterattack against Patton's Third Army later that month.

In the beginning of September the frontline in Lorraine was stretching along the river Moselle from Nancy to Thionville. The Americans tried to establish bridgeheads over the river Moselle in weak sectors of the German defence. Their plan was to advance to the industrial area in the Saar. Although the German First Army's line of defence was thin it managed to fend off most of the American probing attempts to cross the river on 5th and 6th of September.

After this little success the commander of the First Army, Colonel-General Otto von Knobelsdorff, felt confident enough for a counterstroke on the stalled American forces. When the headquarters of Hitler gave away Panzer-Brigade 106 for 48 hours, Knobelsdorff had his armoured fist. His plan was to attack the exposed flank of the U.S. 90th Infantry Division north of Thionville. Knobelsdorff and Bäke were both seasoned officers who gained a lot of experience in Russia. They were confident that an armoured blow on the exposed flank and deep infiltration within American ranks would cause enough panic to make their units collapse and run, like the Russians would in similar circumstances.

Panzer-Brigade 106 found itself already in the sector of Luxembourg from the beginning of September. After the arrival of supporting infantry Panzer-Brigade 106 was send into action in the early morning of September 8th. There had been no beforehand reconnaissance, nor did the Germans know the exactly whereabouts of the American positions. Bäke split up his force in two parallel moving armoured columns infiltrating into the Americans position without actually knowing where to strike. The western column began to spread out just as the Americans start to spot the German intruders. Instead of fleeing in confusion when confronted with this German night attack with tanks the Americans rallied and start to counter the threat.

Now the German forces were scattered in the countryside while the Americans began to rally their forces to strike back. The American infantry was armed with numerous kinds of anti-tank weapons and closely supported by divisional tanks and artillery. Scattered American tanks fired upon the column, while infantry was taking positions at road crossings to block German movement. Now the Germans were harassed by tanks and pounded with artillery.

At dawn the net of American forces around the western column started to get tight and escape was impossible. Bäke lost control over his units as they desperately tried to escape from the deadly trap which was closing around them. Villages and dense woods formed an excellent killing ground, because the Americans could knock out the mighty German tanks from close range. The eastern column tried to come to assistance of the western column, but this move was too late as the Americans were alerted and awaiting the attack. The eastern column was ambushed, suffering heavy casualties and the attack was soon broken off.

At the end of its first day of combat Panzer-Brigade 106 was routed and had lost most of its tanks and infantry in the process. At least 750 men were taken prisoner by the Americans and 21 tanks and tank destroyers of the initial 47 were permanently lost, next to more than 60 half-track carriers – it lost three-quarter of its combat effectiveness and actually ceased to exist as a unit capable of any offensive operations.

This case showed the weaknesses in the deployment and the tactics of the Panzer-Brigades. Firstly, the attack was carried out without proper reconnaissance or knowledge about the American positions. Secondly, the Panzer-Brigade was send into battle without clear objectives. These two mistakes were the result of the wrong assumption that a night attack with tanks would surprise the Americans and made them run. This major underestimation of the morale and fighting capabilities of the American forces proved fatal, because the Americans not only had the will but also the means to counter the attack. Besides these mistakes it was not a wise decision to commit inexperienced troops of an untested unit in a night attack against seasoned and well-organised troops.

- - -

  I'm currently working on two books simultaneously. One, tentatively titled "War As My Father's Tank Battalion Knew It," will include a substantial chapter on the battle at Mairy based on the many accounts I've recorded. Watch for more details. Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

'I gotta tell you guys a story'

   Lately I've been reviewing transcripts of interviews I did in the 1990s, while I'm working on a narrative book about the 712th Tank Battalion, with which my father served. The story at the end of this blog entry inspired me to self-publish my first book, "Tanks for the Memories: An Oral History of the 712th Tank Battalion," not because it's a great story, which it is, but because in the newsletter that followed the 1993 reunion, at which it was recorded, I learned that Budd Squires had passed away. Upon returning home to Minnesota from the reunion he learned that he was in the advanced stages of cancer.
   Budd was a replacement in A Company and Neal Vaughn was an original member of A Company. I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I think this particular tape was recorded while I was out to lunch with four A Company veterans. I had asked them if they liberated any concentration camps.

Budd Squires

Not our platoon. There'd be a platoon here, a platoon there. But we had a lot of D.P. (displaced persons)  camps, they were bad enough. But not the concentration camps.
I remember one D.P. camp, I don't know where the hell it was, but when we liberated it, they had those big water reservoirs built around the camp, where they retained water, for fire purposes. And these D.P.s were out there digging the dike, to drain it, because there were a lot of big carp in there. And I remember saying, "You guys just back off, I'll get the carp for you." So I went to the tank and got some concussion grenades and threw them in there. The carp all came up. They were getting carp. But that was a D.P. camp, it wasn't a concentration camp. It was damn bad, it wasn't good. But I threw those concussion grenades in and all them damn carp came up on top, and they didn't have to dig all that bank out. And they were grabbing the carp and going with them, because they were hungry. ..

I went back and got a new tank, and came back up. And then when I came back up that's when you got hit, and Steuck's tank got hit. And I didn't know anything about that, because I was back getting a tank. And when I came back up, there were only, I think, two tanks in the platoon. And then when I came up we had three again. We came up with a 90-millimeter, I think it was the first one in the outfit. I wish George Sutton was here, because he could probably remember more than I do about it, because me and George went back for the tank. When I was back there, there was a mail call, I must have been back there a couple of weeks, how the hell there was a mail call I don't know, but anyway, they call out Squires. So here, I went and I got my mail, how the hell they knew I was there. So anyway, another guy came over to me, and he was a tech sergeant, he said "Do you know a master sergeant named Squires?" I said, "Yeah, that's my brother." "Jesus Christ, him and I were together all the while. I knew him well." That's the only guy I knew over there or met that knew anybody.

Where was your brother?

He was in the engineers. But he never got overseas. Before the outfit shipped over, they were putting up some cables across the river, and he went up a tree with spurs, and the whole sheet of bark and everything came off. He broke his legs and back and I don't know what the hell all. He was in before the war, he was a master sergeant, he had a permanent rank of master sergeant. But he never got overseas because of that. There were five of us in the service, five boys, we were like the five Sullivan boys. And we were all sergeants, we all came home sergeants.
Brother Jack was beat up pretty bad. The other three were all in the Pacific. Brother Bob was a first sergeant; brother George was a staff sergeant in the telephone communications or something in the artillery; Dave was in artillery, too, post artillery. He was a buck sergeant. My mother had five stars in the window. I often wonder where they went, I would like to have that. There were eight boys in our family. Five of us were in the service. The older boys were too old.
I was the only one in the ETO, the rest of them went to the Pacific.

Neal Vaughn

Well, I don't believe I'd have wanted to have been in the Pacific theater, either.

Budd Squires

The worst, to me, the worst part of that goddamn war was the cold. Those tanks were so goddamn cold, you can't imagine how cold they were to sit there. You sit there, you'd kick your feet, you couldn't feel your feet or your hands, and there'd be frost that would be how thick? Like that (a couple of inches) on the inside of the tank. It was like sitting in an igloo. Cold. That was the worst part of the, for me, I don't know about you. And then when it got warm, the sonofabitch would melt and rain on you, get you wet. They didn't give us the right clothing. We should have had clothing like the Air Force had, that sheepskin-lined stuff. That's what we should have had. We sit there, we don't move, you know. That's what we should have had. You'd sit there and just cold, Jesus Christ, that was the worst. And then at night, you'd sit in there and try to sleep when you're cold. Trying to sleep...

Did you sleep inside the tank?

Well, you stayed right in the tank. Sometimes for days you never got out. We used to shit in a box and throw it out the turret.
It was cold. That was the worst to me, I think, well, then the nights were bad.

Neal Vaughn

That Battle of the Bulge, there was one period of time, I think, as I recall, about 16 days and nights we didn't hardly ever get out of the tank. We had these shell casings, we'd pass one of them around to all of the crew members to urinate in, and then throw it out.

Budd Squires

One time there we had to go back and carry the ammunition up by hand.

Neal Vaughn

Sometimes you had to carry gasoline, too.

Budd Squires

I gotta tell you guys a story, though, you'll enjoy this. We were in a little town, I don't remember where the hell it was, just a little town we fought to get in, and took the town. And we were behind a building with our tanks. And the gas trucks came up and we were gassing up the tanks. But the infantry was still going through the buildings, sorting out stuff. And there was this one infantryman, he went in what was like a basement entrance, when you open it up and go into. And I was filling my tank, I was holding the gas can, and I watched him go in there. I watched him for quite a while, pretty soon he came out, and he had his helmet in his hand and he was dragging his rifle like the goddamn was was over. I thought he was hit, so I jumped off the tank and I said "Are you okay? Are you okay?" He said, "You wouldn't believe it. You'll never believe it. You would never believe it!" Just like the goddamn war was over, there was shooting going on and stuff, and we were behind the building there, and I pulled him in. I said, "What the hell happened?" He said "You wouldn't believe it," and he just kept shaking his head. I said, "What the hell's the matter, what happened, are you hurt?" "No." But he went down in this building, and he came back out, and there was a couple of nuns down there, and a woman having a baby. Now that was an experience, you know, for a guy, and he was just out of it when he came out of there. He was just out of it. He didn't give a damn if the war was over or what.
That was something, and I thought he was hit or something, but he wasn't hurt. But he had his helmet off and he was dragging his rifle like the war was over. And shooting was going on all over, snipers, and going through empty buildings. There were a couple of nuns and this woman down there having a baby. It was a hell of a time to have a baby. I remember that clearly, it's something you don't forget. I was standing there pouring gas in the tank, from cans.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A word about cenXXXXhip in World War II

While going through some old interviews with the veterans of the 712th Tank Battalion and researching a chapter on the Falaise Gap for a book I'm writing, I came upon a passage from a somewhat impromptu interview I conducted in the hospitality room of a 1994 reunion with Ellsworth Howard. Howard was the executive officer of A Company but became the company commander when Clifford Merrill was wounded on July 13, 1944, in Normandy. Howard was wounded on August 18 in the Falaise Gap, and while in the hospital, being an officer, he was assigned the duty of censoring letters.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of my interview with Howard in which he discusses censorship:

Interview with Ellsworth Howard
    Bradenton, Fla.
    January 1994

Ellsworth Howard: All the mail that was coming back to the States had to be censored, not for what personal things people had on their mind but what conceivably could be military things, so that the way it was done, it was taken to wards in the hospital that had wounded officers in them. So as we were in bed,  we'd have a stack of mail dumped on us, and you had to read through all of it. You had to look over it for, a lot of times people tried to code things, had a little secret message of some kind. So you scan those things. And then you're looking for anything that has to do with military action or people being killed or wounded or anything; nothing personal could be said.
   In order to find it you had to read the whole letter, and I'll tell you, the things people put in some of those letters. it's just repulsive. You couldn't censor that because it was personal, I mean it had nothing to do with the military whatsoever, but, intimate things. And in the most unbelievable ways that they'd express it.

Aaron Elson: Almost like pornography?

Ellsworth Howard: Oh, golly. Pornography's mild compared to this sort of thing. And, yes, they were just unbelievable, you just don't realize that there's as many people whose minds think like that, I guess. But it was an experience for me. Of course, people would think that they have no business reading that, but it goes in one ear and out the other, you don't retain any of that, you don't even know who the people are. If on the rare occasion you'd get a letter from who you might identify a name, you'd give to somebody else, so that you're dealing with unknown, at least that was our experience. I don't know how other people did it, but if I would ever run across a piece of mail from somebody that I knew I would let somebody else handle it, I wouldn't look at it.
   But then we would just have to X out or blot out those things that had to do with what division or unit or anything that had to do with the military.

Aaron Elson: Did you see examples of disillusionment? I know Jim Rothschadl said he wrote a letter home from the hospital to his brother and his brother wanted to sign up, his kid brother, and he said in his letter that he tried to tell him what hell it was and that half the letter was blotted out. But the message got through. Did you see examples of...

Ellsworth Howard: Oh yeah, you could expect anything in there. There's, people would try to disguise their locations, and they would make some kind of a reference point, or something, and a lot of times you let it go on through, it didn't have any particular meaning. But if it got down to where it was a pretty specific thing or explicit, why, we'd cut that out.

Aaron Elson: Can you remember finding any things that looked like code?

Ellsworth Howard: No, it wouldn't be code regarding military action or anything like that.

Aaron Elson: Like a secret code.

Ellsworth Howard: Yes, somebody trying to tell their wife something, or this, that and the other. Those kind of things. Judging by the contents of the letter, you'd decide whether to X it out or what to do with it, but no, it was rare that we had to do any real censoring, because most of the letters that we saw didn't go into anything specific that would be of any value to anybody if they intercepted a letter.

Aaron Elson: What did they talk about in the letters?

Ellsworth Howard: Oh, everything. They'd talk about everything from their food and how it's fixed and how they prepare it, and what their 10-in-1 rations are like, or they might have had a letter from somebody else and they talk about family affairs and like that, even to the point of one guy telling his wife that I've found somebody over here that I'm having sex with so I hope you've found somebody. Stuff like this.

Aaron Elson: That's oddly honest.

Ellsworth Howard: Sure. Of course that didn't have any concern to us.

Aaron Elson: You didn't censor that?

Ellsworth Howard: No.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A long time between drinks

I'm going to try and revive this blog, or journal, as it were.

Back in my days as a clerk in the sports department of the New York Post, I worked a shift from roughly midnight until 8 in the morning. Around 3:30 or 4 a.m., we would get a break, somewhere between a half hour and 45 minutes, I don't think it was quite that long, it might have been 37 minutes, one of those contractual things. I wouldn't be surprised if someone with a knowledge of newspaper union history writes to correct me, the way Paul Sann's son corrected me recently about the reason his father retired from the Post after Rupert Murdoch bought it.

Getting back to that lunch break, the composing room had a separate area called "the chapel," although it had no altar and no stained glass windows. It didn't even have any pews, just some tables, and some kind soul brought in donuts and those big round jelly filled linzer tarts that were like a buck apiece, no, it had to be less, this was circa 1968, so let's say they were 50 cents.

And the composing room was full of linotype machines. I never counted them, but there were probably 15 of them, like big, clunky typewriters on steroids and man they were noisy, so it was not uncommon for hearing-impaired operators to be working them.

It being 3:30 in the morning, some workers listened to their biological clocks and went into the business department, lay down on a desk and took a nap. I even did that myself sometimes. I was going to school and working nearly full time after all. But most nights, if there was a lull in the sports department, since we didn't officially get a lunch break, that was a printers union thing, I would go into the composing room chapel and, if there was room, I would join in the poker game that was under way. I believe the stakes were ten cents and a quarter, with a three raise limit. And at least one of the hearing-impaired linotype operators was a regular in the game, I used to love the way he played cards -- if he wanted to raise, he would slam the palm of his hand on the table and then raise his hand in the air.

Another of the regulars in the game was a white-haired former sailor named Adolph Ghurka. He had a lot of tattoos and was a World War II veteran, but I wasn't terribly interested in World War II at the time, for which I could kick myself today if I weren't afraid of stubbing my toe. Adolph had some tattoos on his arms, I can't quite remember what they were of, so let's say they were tattoos. And I remember whenever he hit a dry spell in the poker game, he would say "It's been a long time between drinks."

That's what it's been here, except instead of drinks we're talking entries here, and it's not like a lot hasn't happened. I've tried in the past to write more regularly, and now I'm trying again. So please check back often, and if this entry is at the top of the page, then you'll know I didn't succeed. You and I both!