My father was not a hero. At least not in the sense that my friend's father, Ernie Basso, was a hero. Ernie was in the thick of the fighting at the Battle of the Bulge. I knew him later as a gentle man, a loving family man and a man who was always ready for a joke and laughter. But at night the war came back to him and he would regularly wake up screaming. During the day talking to his customers at the barber shop, and in the evenings surrounded by his family he could keep the war away, but at night his defenses came down and the war came back to him again and again and again. It was a heavy price to pay and Ernie never got a medal for it.
My father wasn't a hero, but that is not to say that he did not have courage. When his country needed him, he did not hesitate to answer the call. He trained for war and expected to fight in the war. He faced that expectation with courage, just like millions of other GI's.
Once, when I asked him what he did in the war, he told me that he was the greatest waste of manpower in the history of the US Army. By that, he meant that he followed orders and did all that was asked of him. After joining up he was sent to Ft. Bragg and trained as a tail gunner. His small stature, 5' 3”, made him ideal for the cramped quarters in the rear of the Mitchell B-25 bombers. I am sure that during that training he imagined himself folded into the gun emplacement, staring down the muzzle of the machine guns on the incoming German fighters that were trying to take down his bomber from the rear. He faced that prospect with courage but he could not have known then that he would never be called upon to do combat with the Luftwaffe.
Early in the war as he was in transit to the battle zone, he wrote several letters to his brother. Many of the sentences began, “If I ever make it back home..” There is no doubt that he fully expected to be in harm's way.
He might have had at least one hint that this war, for him, was not going to be an ordinary war. During basic training at Ft. Bragg his sergeant realized that Dad was Jewish. The sergeant was a child of ol'Dixie, but knew of the Jew's reputation for being good businessmen. As luck would have it the sergeant's wife was trying to run a grocery store in town while her husband was training troops. The sergeant more or less assigned my father to help out in the grocery store as opposed to receiving much of the more traditional military training.
My father once told me that it took 8 soldiers behind the lines to support one solder in combat. Dad was one of those eight soldiers. He was attached to the Headquarters of the 340th Bomb Group 487th Squadron as a sergeant.
Before the war he worked in Baltimore, Maryland as a taxi driver. Due to an unusual chain of unlikely events, I actually came into possession of his personnel card some 60 years later. He hired on at Sun Cab Company on November 28, 1936. The last entry on his employment record reads, “6/30/41 Drafted in Army.” Note that this was a full 5 months before Pearl Harbor.
After being inducted into the army he was sent to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina for basic training.
A massive influx of recruits were straining the base's resources as well as the resources of the nearby town of Fayetteville. Given the huge numbers of soldiers flooding into the area and the relatively small number of eligible young ladies of dating age in little Fayetteville, competition was fierce. As soldiers have done in centuries past when the essentials of life were in short supply, there was nothing for it but to expand their foraging area.
Somehow, one of Dad's friends made the acquaintance of a young lady from Sanford, NC, about 40 miles away. Being a true comrade-in-arms, he rounded up a group of his buddies for an expedition to the distant town. It was there that my father met my mother, the then Hazel Lane Brown.
The young southern belles were fascinated and charmed by these Yankees from the big northern cities. They were confronted with accents, attitudes and personal experiences that they had only glimpsed in the movies.
Historian Dominique Taddei in his book, “USS Corsica, the Island Aircraft Carrier,” (See the 'Other Links' page) he states that for most of the thousands of Americans arriving at the airfields of Corsica, “..it was their first contact with the old Europe.” But actually, encounters with strange new customs and exotic cultures began long before the soldiers embarked for foreign shores.
My father grew up in the heart of Baltimore City. Before the war, I do not think that he ventured much farther away from there than a foray to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The mobilization of thousands of young men resulted in a mixing of regional populations that was quite unprecedented in it's magnitude and scope. As an example, my father once told me that he had never, ever heard Country & Western music until he arrived at Ft. Bragg.
For my mother and for her parents, I believe that my father was the first Jew that they had ever spoken to or met. My father swore that my grandmother asked to feel his forehead to see if she could detect the horns that she heard each Jew had.
Dad bought a wreck of a car for $40. It was so prone to breakdowns and other treacherous behavior that he named it “Hitler.” Somehow it got him back and forth from Fayetteville to Sanford so he could court my mother. The car was a source of great comedy. Every time he cursed the car for its perfidy and betrayal the curse also carried far-ranging political implications.
After finishing basic training at Ft. Bragg, Dad was joined to the 340th Bomber Group in Columbia, South Carolina for technical training.
Once my father was trained and ready for deployment, the War Department had a dilemma. They were concerned that if they sent my Father directly to the European Theater, Hitler might find out about it and run to cover. So they devised a cunning plan. They attempted to fool the Axis by sending my Father in the opposite direction! The idea seemed to be that by doing this Dad might be able to sneak up behind Hitler and get a shot at him.
In January of 1943 he boarded a train for the west coast then embarked on the U.S.S West Point to cross the Pacific Ocean. His crossing of the International Date Line was duly noted by Neptunus Rex. I know that he stopped in New Zealand, Australia and India before going on through the Suez Canal to the airfield at El Kabrit, Egypt.
Thus began his overseas tour of duty. He would still be there when the war ended.
Being a part of HQ he did not have much opportunity for combat. It was known that he was a professional taxi driver back home and he spent much of the war driving officers around. When the unit moved to a new assignment, he would drive in the truck convoys moving the squadron's equipment.
Once, on another occasion, when I asked him about his war experiences he told me that during the entire war he never heard a shot fired in anger. I detected a certain disappointment in his voice. It is typical of soldiers who have lost friends and comrades in battle to feel guilty about somehow not doing enough to help and protect them. Of course his comment about never hearing a shot fired was not quite accurate. I know that he was under fire during the German air raid on Alesani, Corsica. On another occasion he told me that he flew five battle missions as a tail gunner. Planes were required to carry a minimum compliment of crew members. He either volunteered or was selected to fill out the crew on those missions. He described them as milk runs.
As I said, my father was not a hero. He went to war when his country needed him. He faced the prospect of combat and dealt with the uncertainty and apprehension that comes with that prospect. He obeyed orders and did his duty. He mourned the loss of the airmen he lived with in camp. It was a story common to millions of citizen-soldiers. He was not a hero like the infantry men who fought hand-to-hand against the might of the German army at the Battle of the Bulge. He was just an ordinary hero.
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