For instance, when I was transcribing my interview with James Finn, a veteran of the 294th Combat Engineer Battalion, I was somewhat agitated by the fact that Jim's wife was in the next room talking on the phone. And talking on the phone. And talking on the phone. And the tape recorder was picking it up as background noise, causing too great a distraction for me to use the interview in one of my original oral history audiobooks. To further exacerbate the situation, Jim's wife was not only talking on the phone through much of the interview, she had either a television or radio turned on.
And then, during a lull in the interview, I could hear more clearly the sounds coming from the next room, and I realized that the TV or radio was broadcasting a basketball game. Not only that, but it was a New York Knicks playoff game. One minute while transcribing the tape I was frustrated as heck, and the next I was thinking, a Knicks playoff game, how cool is that!
Or the time I was visiting Forrest Dixon at his home in Munith, Mich., around the time of his 80th birthday, and all over the television was the scene of a fallen Ranger being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, which upset Forrest terribly. And just by happenstance it was around the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that I interviewed Nick Paciullo, a 4th Marine Division veteran of Iwo Jima, and he spoke at length about the episode of post traumatic stress that anniversary brought about.
When I interviewed a group of veterans of the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1998, "Saving Private Ryan" had recently been released. Sure enough, the subject came up in conversation.
Jim Burke: The actual D-Day scene was noisy, that’s all I can remember. I don’t remember anybody saying anything I could hear.
Chuck Hurlbut: He tried to make it (“Saving Private Ryan”) that way because that’s the way it was.
Jim Burke: That’s what I’m saying, it’s pretty typical. That’s what was so authentic about it, that’s all.
Chuck Hurlbut: The first half hour. If anybody asks me I say the first half hour was true ...
Tony DeTomaso: But the rest was all Hollywood after that.
Chuck Hurlbut: I was so sad he got killed. I thought he’s a good egg. If it was a Hollywood film, he would have come home a hero.
Jim Burke: Yeah, but did you notice, he had to put his captain’s bars on his helmet. That’s Hollywood too. Most guys took those emblems off real quick.
Chuck Hurlbut: I remember seeing a lot of them.
Jim Burke: Before the invasion or after? During the invasion you didn’t. They took them off.
Bill Secaur: You know that Ryan, you remember, he’s from Syracuse, his cousin.
Jim Burke: Tommy Niland. We had him at our 50th anniversary.
Bill Secaur: That’s right. From Syracuse.
Jim Burke: He was in the 101st Airborne and was a cousin of the real life Ryan.
Jim DePalma: The real family was from Buffalo, right?
Jim Burke: Tonawanda. And this guy was too. Tommy Niland was basketball coach at LeMoyne College for 25 years, maybe.
Chuck Hurlbut: I thought it was so impressive, what really got me, it opens up in the cemetery with the old guy, then at the end, he becomes ...
Jim Burke: That was pretty clever.
Chuck Hurlbut: This is Private Ryan as an old man. Then at the end you saw the young guy. Now tell me, any of you guys ever hear Fubar?
Jim Burke: No.
Chuck Hurlbut: Fouled up beyond all recognition. They used it in the movie.
Jim Burke: Maybe the Rangers had it.
Chuck Hurlbut: I can’t find a guy that ever heard it. I never heard it. We had snafu. You heard that every ten minutes.
Tony DeTomaso: What was the name, fubar?
Jim Burke: F-U-B-A-R
Tony DeTomaso: Yeah, but that’s just the initials. Well, you know what they were saying, don’t you? He just told you.
Chuck Hurlbut: Fouled up beyond all recognition. Like a snafu. Situation normal all fouled up.
Jim Burke: That’s why they had that little clerk guy running around trying to find, he’s an interpreter for Germany, he says “I never heard a German word like fubar.”
Chuck Hurlbut: I never heard it.
Jim Burke: Nobody did. It might have been a Ranger thing.
Chuck Hurlbut: Now another thing about it. One of the guys gets hit. He’s laying out there and they’re all putting sulfa on him. Then they take the canteens and they wash it all off.
Jim Burke: Getting the blood off.
Chuck Hurlbut: Why wouldn’t that wash the sulfa off? I couldn’t understand that.
Jim Burke: It probably did.
Chuck Hurlbut: Every five minutes, washing him off and putting sulfa. I can’t understand that.
Jim Burke: It was dramatic, wasn’t it? That’s the idea.
Chuck Hurlbut: Yeah, but it seems so foolish, put the sulfa then wash it.
Jim Burke: Yeah, but when you’re trying to simulate combat it’s all screwed up.
Chuck Hurlbut: I guess.
Jim Burke: Everybody’s excited.
Bill Secaur: Actually, what we took off the boat, it never showed them taking little boats off the landing barges either in that movie.
Chuck Hurlbut: Well, they couldn’t do everything.
Jim Burke: You didn’t see any engineers, though, either. Did you notice, those obstacles were up in the water pretty good. This is after the tide’s come in. Quite a bit later. this is the third or fourth wave.
Bill Secaur: You know what I can’t understand? Why they give the combat infantry badge just to the infantry. You know, we did a lot of infantry work.
Chuck Hurlbut: We should have that. Or its equivalent. The medics got it.
Aaron Elson: I can’t imagine the combat engineers not getting combat infantry badges.
Jim Burke: I don’t think we should, though.
Tony DeTomaso: Why?
Jim Burke: You can’t compare your little infantry stint with a guy who’s been there for 30 days in a ...
Tony DeTomaso: We didn’t get the credit we should be getting.
Jim Burke: You don’t deserve a combat infantry badge either. That’s their thing.
Chuck Hurlbut: When the infantry guy in the rear echelon back in Paris gets it ...
Jim Burke: That’s their problem.
Chuck Hurlbut: I want it.
Tony DeTomaso: Look at the glider pilots. They didn’t get no jump ...
Jim Burke: No, but they got a pin. There’s a combat engineer’s badge, probably. I don’t know.
Chuck Hurlbut: There should be. There is none to my knowledge, but there should be.
Tony DeTomaso: We did a lot of infantry work.
Jim Burke: What, a day, two days?
Bill Secaur: Regardless, you’ve got to build bridges and be the last one out and blow them up, too.
Chuck Hurlbut: How about the Prum River? We’re down putting the damn footbridge, the infantry’s lolling up on the bank waiting for us. They’re all getting the combat infantry badge. I’m not.
Jim Burke: No they’re not, not for that. Thirty days on the line. You talk to the guys up there at Aachen, when they can’t talk straight, their eyes are bugging out of their head, they’re so damn tired and disgusted, they’re the guys that deserve the combat infantry badge.
Tony DeTomaso: They deserve it, no question about it, but so do we.
Jim Burke: You know what happened to us up at Aachen? They were posting signs, one mile, two miles, six miles. All of a sudden these guys stopped us. They were the 1st Division. That’s their blockade. Their roadblock. They said “You can’t go in there.”
I said “Why?”
They said “We haven’t taken it yet.” And we’ve got signs, we’re supposed to go down in the middle of town and then start out.
Bill Secaur: That movie with Telly Savalas where he was a tank guy, the guy was dressed like an American soldier and he was German, and all of a sudden they asked him a question, and right away Telly Savalas, he knew darn well the guy was lying. And he changed the signs around.
Jim Burke: They said “You can go in there if you want to, but until they come back, we don’t know what’s down there. And those guys were excited, those infantry men are terribly distraught. I couldn’t get any sense of them.
Tony DeTomaso: Most of them are replacements.
Jim Burke: And they’re just like the cartoons, grizzly and dirty and they haven’t been anyplace except in that friggin line, and they’re sick. They’re really sick. It’s a wonder they don’t shoot each other.
The full conversation, and several others is available in my new book, "Conversations With Veterans of D-Day," which is currently available in a Kindle edition only. I hope to have a print edition soon.
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