Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dwindling Ranks

by Conroy

American ground crew like GMGF Jim
Just this past week America marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; seventy years, a lifetime ago. This weekend my girlfriend’s maternal grandfather, Jim (hereafter referred to as GMGF Jim), will celebrate his 92nd birthday. These two occasions, the first a date of great historical significance, are separated by only a handful of days, and connected by the passing years.

The attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II. Americans responded by throwing themselves into the war effort, including millions of servicemen destined for all parts of the globe, in what would be the most impressive display of military force in history [1]. One of those men was a young GMGF Jim, in his early 20s, who enlisted in the U.S. Army, and was assigned to the new United States Army Air Force (USAAF), the predecessor of the modern USAF. When I met GMGF Jim in the middle of last year I was curious to hear more about his service, having learned only snippets from my girlfriend. Unfortunately, his advancing age has robbed him of most of his hearing, which means that conversations with him proceed in bursts of short shouted questions, often repeated, and followed by equally short shouted replies. All of this leads to a rather halting dialogue frequently waylaid by misunderstandings, incomplete details, and the basic ineffectiveness that disjointed rhythm has on communication. I would relate it to a phone call where there’s a long delay and you constantly have false starts, long pauses, and overlapping talking. It just doesn’t work well.

Two Experiences
I tell you this as a preface to what I’ve gathered of GMGF Jim’s war service; I think I have the broad elements correct, but the details may be iffy. He set sail from wherever basic training was, maybe his home of Baltimore, destined for Panama City, Florida. But due to some sort of mix-up, the ship instead went 1,500 miles too far south, to Panama…the country…in Central America. I know what you’re thinking: That can’t be right? Which was pretty much my reaction, but I pressed the point with GMGF Jim a couple of times and received that same answer (all I could do was shake my head and say “okay”). So, once in Panama, the local American military commanders had to do something with a ship full of recruits. Fortunately, there was a rather important strategic asset in the area, the Panama Canal. The Canal needed guarding and part of that duty fell to the USAAF. After a short stay on land, GMGF Jim and his fellow shipmates were sent through the Canal and sailed southwest to the Galapagos Islands [2]. There the USAAF established abase at Baltra Island. Planes from this base patrolled for enemy submarines and protected Allied (and neutral) shipping on the western approaches to the Canal. GMGF Jim spent the rest of the war as a member of the ground crew servicing planes.

Given the general danger of being in the military during World War II, I consider getting stationed in Darwin’s quiet balmy islands to have been a pretty plum assignment. Not bad considering it was a mistake. But it was work and it was far from home. Most of war is extended boredom and I’m sure GMGF Jim had moments of the tropical doldrums. Still, it’s an interesting story, and raises a few questions: He really ended up in Panama instead of Florida? The vast American military-logistic system was capable of misplacing an entire ship? There were on-site ad hoc solutions that ended up lasting the entire war? Whatever happened in Panama City when his ship didn’t arrive? What about the men originally slotted for Baltra Island, where they there as well? It all strikes me as a semi-comical combination of Catch-22 and Guard of Honor [3]. It’s also something I was never likely to learn without hearing it from the mouth of the man who lived it.

My maternal grandfather, Jack, also served in World War II as an artilleryman in Europe. He died fifteen years ago at the age of 79. In the last six years of his life his mind was decimated by Alzheimer’s, but even late in his life, long after most of his recent memories were lost, he was still able to tell me of his time in Europe. His service was more typical of what we think of as the American experience, war in Europe, fighting Germans through France, etc., though I gathered from him that he didn’t have any close calls on the battlefield.

Dwindling Ranks
A hat that GMGF Jim always wears
Take these two accounts and multiply them by six million. That’s the story of the American soldier in World War II. And sadly, year-by-year, those stories are fading out of living memory. All of the famous men of the War, everyone you are likely to have learned about from history lessons, have long since passed. Today anyone who served in World War II is elderly, and even those who were children during the war are old now. A decade from now there will only be a tiny company of veterans still alive, and a decade after that there will be none. The last veteran of World War I died earlier this year at age 110.

We’re fortunate that World War II occurred in the age of cinema; many thousands of hours of footage were captured from all fronts. Probably no conflict has been more thoroughly covered by journalists and historians. We are lucky to have countless memoirs, interviews, and firsthand accounts from all those involved, from leaders and generals to common soldiers. And the War has been a favorite subject of film, novels, television, and other fiction. For all these reasons the reality of World War II won’t be lost in the fog of history (at least I hope not).

However, the dwindling ranks of veterans, which will inevitably be followed by the demise of anyone who remembers the War, diminishes our perspective. No historian or interested amateur can ask a Civil War soldier what it was like at Gettysburg. No one can ask what it was really like at Verdun. Soon no one will be able to ask, “what was it really like at the Battle of the Bulge?” to anyone who fought in it. Or, “what was the home front like with so many men overseas, with rationing, with the weight of war?” to anyone who lived through it. That will be a loss.

I can’t ask my grandfather Jack for more information on his experience in Europe. All I have is the broad outline of his service. Most of the details were lost with him. But when I see GMGF Jim at his birthday party I’ll ask him more about his wartime experience. I’ll probably hear the same facts I’ve already been told, but maybe I’ll find out new details; details that will be forgotten when he’s gone. Maybe you’ll be seeing a veteran at some point over the coming holidays. If so, I’d suggest talking to them more about their experiences. Keep history alive, at least for a while longer.



[1] The United States successfully fought simultaneous wars against Germany and Japan, the only global power in the war. The British also fought in both theaters, but were reliant on American resources, men, and materiel. The United States also supplied the Soviet Union with vast quantities of war material, from obvious products like trucks, to necessities like boots, and wire. These resources were invaluable to the Soviet war effort. See Chris Bellamy’s Absolute War for more details.

[2] GMGF Jim pronounces Galapagos as –Gal-a-PAY-gos– instead of –Ga-lap-a-gos. After nearly seventy years I doubt I can convince him of the correct pronunciation. Perhaps this was an affected pronunciation adopted by U.S. soldiers stationed there, a communal and coping mechanism. In that case, his pronunciation is both informative and fine with me.

[3] Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens. Both books are highly recommended, especially for those interested in World War II literature.

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