02 April 2010


Beginning in the late 1990’s, in the afterglow of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the landings in Normandy, the American people re-awakened to the valor of the American fighting man. The motion picture, Saving Private Ryan, with its savagely accurate, bloody 20 minute opening depiction of the landings on Omaha Beach, was a turning point. World War II veterans who had remained silent for decades were finally encouraged to speak about their experiences in what Studs Terkel christened The Good War.

For some time before that, author Steven Ambrose had been collecting oral histories from WWII vets of Company D, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiment (Ox and Bucks) and E/506/101 Airborne, which he then converted into Pegasus Bridge and Band of Brothers .

[Some interesting trivia: On 6 June 1944, Captain Richard Todd, 7th (Light Infantry) Parachute Battalion, dropped in after glider-borne Company D/Ox and Bucks, had landed and captured Pegasus Bridge. In 1962, he appeared in the movie The Longest Day as Major John Howard, Officer Commanding, Company D. Talk about art imitating life.]

After the success of Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg collaborated to bring Band of Brothers ("BOB") to television with a ten-hour adaptation that aired beginning on September 9, 2001. Unlike “popular” movies about the Vietnam War, including Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, which portrayed the fighting men as either cartoon characters or as stoned murderers and misfits, BOB and Ryan depicted honorable men who did their duty with class. In particular, the dialog in both WWII films caught the native wit and wisdom of the American soldier at war.

After the success of Ryan and BOB, two additional war films were made and distributed that capture the essence of the American warrior: We Were Soldiers (2002), about 1/7/1 Cav in the Battle of the Ia Drang in 1965 and Flags of Our Fathers (2006) about the Battle of Iwo Jima, focusing on the men who were involved in the iconic flag raising on Mount Suribachi. Once again, the writers captured the feel of how soldiers and Marines in combat think and talk to one another.

Finally, in 2010, Spielberg and Hanks produced The Pacific for HBO. This time the focus is the ground war in the Pacific in WWII. Spielberg frankly admits that the impetus for The Pacific was the post-BOB requests from vets of “that other little fracas” on the other side of the globe from France and Germany. And again, the writers have done a good job.

Marines in combat are still young men, young American men, with the wit and repartee that makes them Americans. The dialog in all of the positive films I mention above captures the men I know and served with.

In the second or third episode of BOB (I have loaned out my copy and cannot check), Lieutenant Winters mentions to a fellow platoon commander that “General Taylor is pleased with Easy Company’s performance yesterday.”

His exhausted comrade, leaning against a door frame, mutters sleepily, “That’s why I came to France—to please General Taylor.”

More recently, in The Pacific, on Guadalcanal, after experiencing intense combat and suffering significant casualties, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines has finally gotten mail. Robert Leckie reads a letter from home to his shipmates, including a post script from his father: “Your Mother wants to know if we should send you your dress blue uniform.”

Leckies says, “I guess she thinks we are having a lot of fancy dress balls out here.”

Another Marine says, “If we do, ‘Lucky,’ will you ask me?”

“Nah, you’re too ugly. I’ll ask Hoosier.”

Without missing a beat, Hoosier, who is cleaning his rifle, in a droll drawl says “Take a number.” He never stops working on his weapon.

And that led me to think of some of my Marines.

John Gibson, my radio operator, was a poet and a philosopher—at 18. A radio operator and his officer are inseparable, never further apart than two arms lengths, so that the radio handset can be passed from one to another. They share a fighting hole, chow, and time.

Once, we were discussing our favorite cold beverages, how many we would down when we got “back to the World,” and the relative value of ice.

“You know, Lieutenant, this war is gonna turn out a whole generation of Americans who will go to a backyard barbeque and if somebody drops a ice cube, he’ll pick it up, pop it in his mouth, and never even look to see if anybody’s watching.”

When I was teaching the Law of War at TBS in 1983-85, one teaching point was that the lieutenant must be on the lookout for Marines who are in danger of going over the edge emotionally. I called it “terminal weirdness.”

All Marines in combat are weird. But when someone is terminally weird—cutting ears off bodies or extracting gold teeth from corpses—you need to get him out of their before he does something so seriously wrong that he can end up in the brig.”

To differentiate between weird and terminally weird, I told them about Gibson and Spot.

As I mentioned earlier, the Skipper had a standing order that we were not to adopt dogs as pets, or even play with them. It was an appropriate order; any Marine bitten by a local dog would be evacuated for an obligatory 14 day series of anti-rabies shots.

When we were in the Arizona, and morale was low, Gibby turned to me one afternoon and said, “You know what would perk the guys up, Sir?”

"Please, Gibby, inform me.”

“A dog, Lieutenant. We need a dog.”

“Well, that’s not a bad idea, except that the Skipper has said ‘No.’”

“Oh, I got a way to fix that, Sir. We’ll get an invisible dog that only Charlie 3 can see.”

For the next couple of hours, he walked around the perimeter, taking “Spot” for a walk. Most of the troops from Third Platoon played along. Then a runner came from the CP. “Skipper wants you, Sir.”
I reported to the Company Commander. He was stirring a can of C-rats over a home-made C-4 stove.

“What the hell is with your radio operator?”


“The Gunny is ready to kill him. He was talking to my radio operator and all of a sudden he yells ‘Gunny, look out!’ The Gunny almost broke his neck taking cover. Gibson says, ‘You almost stepped on Spot, Gunny.’ I don’t think the Gunny caught him yet, but you better keep him out of sight for a day or two. Fix this!”

I walked back to my hole. Gibson was in the hole, laying low so to speak.

“We got to get rid of Spot.”

“Why, Sir? The guys like him.”

What now, Lieutenant? “Ah, the Skipper is worried that because no one else can see him, he might get hurt.” That ought to do it.

“Oh, I can fix that.” He jumped up and headed for the bomb crater that we were using as a trash pit. A few minutes later, he returned holding what appeared to be a leash. He had scrounged some parachute cord and then stiffened it with baling wire from a couple of C-ration cases. There was a loop for a collar and another as a handle.

“Now that I got him under control, he’ll be safe!”

At TBS, I would end the story by saying, “Gibson was weird, but not terminally weird. See the difference?”

It was a popular parable, but the class that took it most to heart was the last group I taught, Warrant Officer Basic Course 1-85. Warrant Officers are enlisted men who have been selected by a board convened by the Commandant. They tend to have some technical specialty and are appointed to fill the need for officers in that specialty without using up a slot for a commissioned officer. (Warrant Officers in the grade of W-1 are “appointed" officers; Chief Warrant Officers 2 through 5 are commissioned.)

When they were about to graduate, they presented me with a photograph taken during one of my last classes with them. As I was about to finish, the classroom became exceptionally tense. Suddenly there was movement to my left rear. I spun, to see a Warrant Officer, wearing “bug-eyed” glasses and carrying a very reasonable facsimile of Spot’s leash. The rest of the class was on its feet, cheering.

I still have and treasure that photo.

2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

Reformed Catholic said...

You've got to scan that photo Mac, and get it up here ;)