27 April, 2012

A Mile In Their Boots

Many "armchair generals" will wonder what combat is like. Many never experience combat, or even anything resembling combat. I am included amongst them. I've read many, many books on WWII and a few on WWI and Vietnam. I'm no expert by any means, but I consider myself an amateur WWII historian. My favorite books aren't really books at all, but memoirs. Written by the people who were there. My original interest was WWII aviation, but it branched out to the guys on the ground. Soldiers and Marines. When I was a young child, my next door neighbor was a WWI veteran. His son served in WWII in the USN and was killed. My Father and his brother both served in the USN between Korea and Vietnam. Another uncle was a Marine during WWII serving as a radio operator aboard Marine transport aircraft. Yet another uncle was an Army doctor in the early days of Vietnam. So, as you can see, my exposure to US Military started at birth. My days of elementary school exposed me to even more veterans. A few teachers at my school were Vietnam veterans. One of them was a Marine. I had this man as a teacher two years in a row, not because I flunked a grade but because he simply moved to teach another grade and I happened to be in his class again. It was a big bonus for me because he was/is a fine human being. However, the second year I had this man as my teacher, the Vietnam war memorial was opened in Washington. My teacher and the other veterans from my town took some time off so they could visit the memorial. I can't remember if it was before or after my teacher had visited the memorial, but he thought it necessary to discuss Vietnam with his students. Probably as a way to get things out in the open so no rumors could start. It was a bold move on his part considering he was going to discuss a rather sore point in US history with a room full of ignorant fifth graders, but he did it anyway. I, along with previous generations of boys, had a fascination with war from a young age. I checked out a book from the school's library on multiple occasions that covered the instruments of death. Small arms, tanks, grenades etc. Basically, it was a picture book. I frequented the Army/Navy surplus stores and had some hats, fatigues and a pistol belt with canteen. It was still acceptable to play "war" when I was a child. It was a game because I didn't know any better. I remember my teacher showing me how to properly roll up the sleeves of the olive drab shirt I wore every now and again. I had no idea at the time that it may have been bringing up memories for him that he'd rather forget. In hindsight, I feel very stupid for having taken war as lightly as I did, but I didn't know any better. I had some sense that war was not a good thing and that was about it. In my teacher's discussion about Vietnam, he kept it very basic and told us what he did during his tour and some of the problems he had after coming home. One such problem I remember him describing was not being able to sleep on a bed. He would sleep on the floor and had to tell his parents not to barge in saying "Time to get up!" He had to tell them to simply whisper into his ear and he would instantly be awake. Combat experience did not instantly leave him. It was gradual. He also showed us the more mundane things like what kind of food he ate. Cans of peanut butter, beans etc. When my teacher opened the discussion to questions from us, one girl raised her hand (I can still see it like it was yesterday) and asked "Did you shoot anybody?" A totally innocent question, but even at that young of age I knew that it wasn't an appropriate thing to ask. My teacher, in a fine example of the person he was, calmly declined to answer the question. I sensed that having been in combat, he probably had killed people. It wasn't important anyway. He survived his tour, came back to this country and became an excellent teacher. My favorite teacher in fact. Hands down. From that time on, I didn't really play "war" anymore, but I think that's when I started reading about it, wanting to learn more so I wasn't ignorant about war. The first book I read was "War and Rumors of War." I got it in sixth grade during one of the book sales schools used to have. The other kids were like kids all over, the majority of them got a book about Michael Jackson. I thought it a stupid decision on their part. However, even though I had been a "reader" from an earlier than normal age (thanks Mom and Dad!) the book I got was a bit beyond me at the time. I read it a couple of times later in life (still have it) and it made more sense. It was written by a junior officer who ended up being captured by the Germans during the battle of the Bulge. My collection has only grown from that point. The biggest revelation was when I was at my Uncle's place for a family event. This is the Uncle who was sitting at the radio set of Marine aircraft during WWII. Keep in mind that up to this point I had absolutely NO idea that he was a WWII veteran. He was simply "Uncle Bob." I was in their living room with him and some other family when I saw a book "Making the Corps." It was a book that followed recruits through USMC boot camp. I was immediately enthralled by it and quickly disappeared into my imagination.  Then it happened. My Uncle quietly said "I was a Marine." To me it was as if someone had reached out and bitch-slapped me in the face. I was floored. Within seconds I had understood. He was the right age to have been in WWII, was always in good physical condition... My previous experience with my classmate asking my teacher if he shot anybody flashed into my mind. I automatically assumed that if my Uncle hadn't mentioned his time in the Marines for all those years, he probably didn't want to talk about it. So, I kept it simple. "What did you do?" He then told me that he was a radio operator on Marine transport aircraft and had been to places like Peleliu, Kwajalein and the like. He told me that he enlisted at a young age and had to get his parent's permission. I got a few other pieces of information in later years, but I never asked anything. He had to volunteer the information. One such time was after I was at a surplus rifle shoot in Iowa. I had the opportunity to fire an M1 rifle and even got a short video clip of me firing it. I showed it to my Uncle and told him about it. He recited the serial number from the rifle he was issued during boot camp. Without hesitation. I asked him how he could remember something like that and his reply was classic "We were expected to know those kind of things." I initially found out about him being a Marine about 13 years ago and I still only know a little about his service. I really, really want to know more, but am afraid to ask. Other veterans have entered my life at different points. Some combat veterans, some not combat veterans. I have the same respect for all of them. At this point in my life, I know quite a lot more than the average person when it comes to war, specifically WWII, but I have not been in the military nor have I ever been on the "wrong" end of a rifle. However, like most people who revere veterans, I can't help but wonder if I would have what it takes to serve my country in combat. I'll never know and, frankly, I hope I never find out. That is because I have just an inkling of what it might be like. I also have a fear of talking about war and appearing as if I'm talking out of my ass in the process. So, I took some measures to learn a little about what it was like for our veterans. The first experience was when I was predominantly interested in WWII aviation. I worked in another town and had to commute about 85 miles each day, round trip. Knowing that WWII bomber crews flew day after day in unpressurized, unheated aircraft at 17,000 to 23,000 feet with only electrically heated suits to protect them, I hatched a plan. On one of the coldest winter days of that year, I suited up in my insulated coveralls, gloves, fur lined hat, goggles, insulated boots... Every piece of winter clothing I had at my disposal. I then drove the 40-ish miles home in my truck. Every window and vent opened, heat turned off, speeding down the interstate at 70mph (the bombers would have been cruising at around 130 to 140mph indicated air speed). Let me tell you, even with every piece of cold weather gear I could round up it was fucking COLD!! And I was only going about half as fast as a bomber and nobody was shooting at me. Those bomber crews did that day after day after day... That little experiment of mine only increased the respect I had for combat veterans. Just to make sure, I did the same thing the next night. Years later after my reading had ventured to infantry memoirs, I had another idea. I picked one of the most humid and hot days of summer for this experiment. I put on a set of modern BDUs, then loaded a pack with random stuff until it was about 80lbs, loaded all the magazines I had (six total), put on a helmet (an old steel WWII vintage was the best I could do), grabbed my AR15 and spent an entire weekend with all that equipment. It started when I got home on a Friday evening and I didn't remove anything until I had to leave for work Monday afternoon. All the food I needed for the weekend was carried on my person in the form of MREs and I only allowed one refill of my canteen. I never let the rifle be out of arms' reach either. I slept on the floor with all the gear and the BDUs only came off when I had to take care of nature's business. I also jumped in the shower briefly with all the gear on just to add to the misery. Let me tell you, it was a miserable weekend. If I didn't have such nosy neighbors, I would have dug a foxhole in my yard and spent the weekend there. Still, I had a glimpse of the hardships infantrymen have to deal with. As with the "bomber" experiment, my respect for veterans increased exponentially. I wouldn't call it walking a mile in their boots. It wasn't even a quarter of a mile. Again, I could stop when I wanted to and nobody was trying to kill me. Still, as miserable as I found those two experiences, I would do them again. I don't complain about the cold in winter and the heat in summer as much as I used to. When temperatures seem to be getting bad, I only have to think of the veterans and then I realize my situation isn't bad at all. The reason I don't have to suffer foxholes in winter and deserts in summer is because our veterans already have. I'm not going to end this by saying something cheesy like "My hat is off to you!" or "I salute you!" because it would only accentuate the fact I have no clue what you veterans have gone through. I will simply say "Thank you." and hope that you will know that you have my undying respect. Thank you.

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