Sunday, October 6, 2013

A Thimbleful of Moldy Sugar

Lou Putnoky

   Lou Putnoky called me on Saturday afternoon. Since his wife passed away a few years ago Lou tends to call every three weeks or so, usually on a Sunday or on Memorial or Veterans Day. He always asks me if it's a bad time to call, and I always tell him it's never a bad time to call. Those of you who've read my book "A Mile in Their Shoes" should be familiar with Lou, a World War II veteran of the Coast Guard who was a radio operator on the USS Bayfield, the flagship of the Utah Beach invasion fleet.
   It was rare for him to call on a Saturday, but Lou suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and perhaps depression as well. He wanted to tell me his birthday is going to be in a few days, I forget how many days he said, but he's going to be 90. I told him to hold on while I placed an order for several shares of stock in a candle company. Then he asked me if he'd ever told me the story about Andy Baumgartner.
   I told him he hadn't.
   Before he enlisted in the Coast Guard, Lou said, he took part in some kind of a four-year program in which he trained during the summer, and if you succeeded in the program, at the end you would receive a commission. The program was cancelled in 1940 after Lou had spent two summers in it.
   He said there were two units that took part in the training, one was the 18th Infantry and I forget what the other one was. And he said Andy Baumgartner, who ran a hardware store in Carteret, where Lou grew up, was in the 18th Infantry on Corregidor when it fell and that Andy took part in the Bataan death march
   He said Andy lived across the street from a very good friend of his, so he would see Andy from time to time, although Andy was a little bit older and they were never that close. But one day Lou called Eli Holtzman, a writer for a local paper with whom he was friendly, and asked if Eli would be interested in doing a story about Andy.
   Andy had suffered a stroke, and was not in good condition. He sat hunched over in his chair and could barely make himself understood when he spoke, and his daughter Nancy helped out and filled in a lot of his story.
   Andy was a cook while he was a prisoner, preparing what little food there was for his fellow prisoners. When they captured Corregidor, the Japanese confiscated a supply of Carnation evaporated milk. Andy would carefully remove the paper labels from the cans, and he used the blank inside part of the labels as a diary.
   Lou noticed that there were several names in the diary with diagonal lines drawn through them. He asked what they meant.
   I don't know if Andy told the story or his daughter told it for him, but Andy had discovered a bag of moldy sugar, and he hid it from the Japanese. He also had a thimble from a sewing kit. He would fill the thimble with moldy sugar, and one at a time he would take it to his fellow prisoners. He would tell them to hold out their hand, and he would empty the thimble full of moldy sugar into it. They would ask him what it was, and when he told them, they would hurriedly raise their opened hand to their mouth and gulp down the thimbleful of sugar. Then Andy would put a little chit by their name.
   What was the chit for, Lou asked.
   He said Andy struggled to get the words out, but he said that he told the prisoners that if they ever got out alive, they would owe him a dollar for each thimble full of moldy sugar.
   Lou said he could see a tear rolling down Andy's cheek. And then he kind of smiled, and said that after the war, at a reunion of the survivors of the Bataan death march, one of the other former prisoners came up to him and gave him two dollars.
   Happy birthday, Lou Putnoky!

Lou Putnoky aboard the USS Bayfield
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