Three Years of My Life

Russell B. Guerin,
2002
 

After college, I spent three whole years in military service of our country. That was a lot of time; even then it seemed so. Now, as I am midway through the year that will complete my allotted three score and ten, three years might even be something to bargain for.

Other than with a calendar, how does one measure three years? Is it enough time to get a doctorate? How about a law degree?

Three years…. Were they worth the giving? I did not have a lot of choice, as I would have been drafted for two years under the Korean “police action,” which was just ending about that time. And so my brother Roland and I chose to volunteer the extra year for certain privileges, including branch of service and possibly a choice of the “buddy system” if need be.

Were they worth it for me? Yes, in retrospect they were good years. I spent two years in Europe and got to travel all around in my little blue beetle. I learned a lot. I saw a bullfight in Spain, the Sistine Chapel, the Pont du Gard, da Vinci’s Last Supper. I climbed the Leaning Tower and rode the Orient Express. I walked among the blown-out pill boxes of the French shoreline, and drove through the rubble that dotted the Maginot Line. I made friends with some good people, like Derrick Schermerhorn, a Princeton grad whose uncle chaired the board of International Paper and whose father was a Who’s Who architect. Then too there was Walt Pierson, a Brown grad. Both of them were Russian linguists whom I would work with closely. Another Ivy Leaguer was Hank Carlson, the man who replaced me when I rotated; he was from Harvard, and his father also was a Who’s Who architect. Coming from a small college in the South, I was in high cotton.  My best friends, however, were Glenn Lane from California and Charlie Kunz from Minnesota – more on them later.

Was it worth it for my country? Perhaps, but I don’t mean to lionize my contribution. I did my job well and received a quick promotion during the Hungarian Crisis of 1956, jumping over others who had time-in-grade. I remember Col. Knauf, the post commander, calling me on the phone one day when things slowed down. He said he wanted to talk Sgt. Guerin, and I said “This is Cpl. Guerin, Sir.” At that he said that I had been promoted and that he was coming down to operations and I better have those stripes sewn on before he got there.  At the end, I was given several letters of commendation, copies of which I gave years ago to each of my daughters. But as none of them has ever commented on the letters, I assume they never read them or worse yet were not impressed enough to comment.

Was my effort of help to the Hungarian people? Again perhaps, as I believe that what we were uncovering was of interest to those making decisions in Washington. While the Hungarian freedom fighters felt abandoned by the inaction of the U.S. and were viciously run over by Russian tanks, it was perhaps best that we did not come to their support in a military way. That would have risked full-scale war with the USSR. Major cities like Budapest and Czegled were overrun, but Hungary survived. Many escaped, crossing the Austrian border. I saw countless refugees getting off trains at Vienna, most carrying only Pan American Airways overnight bags. Some tried to carry loads of personal belongings.

As I get older, I am conscious of my growing irrelevance. I believe this is a phenomenon shared by most seniors as they walk meekly through their autumn and winter years. I think there are in everyone’s experience a few walking non-entities who are observed dispassionately to eat and sleep.  The story of the little child carving a wooden bowl for his father is not, after all, new. It does occur to me from time to time how little curiosity there is on the part of younger people, including my offspring and their mates, none of whom have been subject to having to do military service. Not once over the years have I heard the question, “What was it like in the army?” It is almost comparable to someone having spent three years that are unaccountable but for which there is no desire on the part of others to fill in that span. It may be that most younger folks simply feel that they already know enough about military life to assume that they need no more information. After all, some read Beetle Bailey regularly and others have seen Mash a hundred times.

Actually, military service was in many ways really dull. Basic training was not dull, as it was rough: long hours, dirt, sweat, some danger in the training methods, and a ton of being told hourly that you were nothing except a robotic machine in training to take orders blindly in the event of combat. Countless times we were told to “give your souls to God, because your ass belongs to the army.” But most of us got through it. For us, basic training was only eight weeks, but it was sixteen for those who would go to infantry or artillery.

Going “over the hill” was not much of a solution. This does not denote aging in army slang; instead it means becoming “absent without leave.” It usually resulted in a short time in the stockade and then being sent to the next basic training cycle, just to start over at the beginning. I remember one kid who was only about 18 and had just married before being drafted. I can’t recall his name, but he was from New Orleans. One night, very late after a long day in the field, we were allowed to rest before being marched back to the bivouac area. I remember that we were exhausted and were lying on the side of a hill with a pretty good sloop. In spite of the angle, we could observe a full sky of stars and it was good. As usual, conversation was idle chatter except for the young kid. He was saying things like, “Oh, if only I could be with my beautiful little wife.”

There is a reason that the army takes roll-call every day of the year in every basic training base in America. The reason in Augusta, Georgia’s Camp Gordon the next morning was that the kid from New Orleans did not answer. A few days later, MP’s found him, back home with his beautiful little wife, and he had to rotate and start over. We never heard from him again. Presumably, he made it and all turned out OK for the rest of his two years, but I know of another case at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. There, an enlisted man had been caught after going AWOL and was being marched across the base by another enlisted man who had been taken out of casual status and given a shotgun with the orders not to let the prisoner escape. I have never ascertained the truth of what we were taught, but we believed that if a soldier lost his prisoner, then he would have to serve the balance of the prisoner’s time until he was caught. Anyway, the prisoner, whose hands were cuffed behind his back began to run. He could not have gone far, the fences being high and the guards at every gate being alert, but the guard raised his gun and shot him once in the back of the head. I heard later that the prisoner’s wife and child had been recently killed and he had gone berserk before going AWOL. A taxi driver who witnessed the shooting contradicted the guard who claimed that he had shouted “halt!” before he raised the gun and fired; the taxi driver said that the guard seemed to have panicked.

There were some plusses to basic. It was good training, for the most part. Physically, I think I was in the best shape of my life, even comparing to high school days. Vic Cieutat, who was in a neighboring company as a draftee, believe it or not could fall down and do 100 pushups! At the end we had to be evaluated on an endurance course which consisted of various tests of racing and stamina. I believe I finished with one of the higher scores in the company, even higher than Roland’s. Of course, there is no need for him to verify that.

Speaking of Roland, I am reminded of a meeting with the recruiting sergeants after we had been tested. They had some nice compliments about our scores, and one actually said something kind about Russell’s scores.  Roland, always alert to competition, had an explanation. One of the tests, probably a kind of IQ test that could be administered to anyone regardless of educational level, consisted of questions that were related to hardware tools. There were questions such as “A hammer is to a nail as a screwdriver is to a (blank).” One then had to pick from a number of symbols, one of which was a screw. Roland explained to the recruiters that I had an advantage, as I had spent one summer running Cyril Traina’s neighborhood hardware store.

The basic training cadre men were for the most part trained professionals. They were good at what they did and they were fair. One in particular was Field First Sergeant Coleman, battle hardened from at least two wars but still physically fit and hard as nails. Sometimes when ordering a GI to drop down and do a certain number of pushups, Coleman would drop down himself and do his rod-straight as he would do the counting. But then there were others, like acting corporal Brock – he was really a buck private who had flunked out of Texas U. and lost his football scholarship and been drafted and he hated the army and everyone in it – who was mean and unprofessional and the cause of at least one man being severely hurt. And there was the occasional 2nd Lieutenant right out of ROTC who would inject himself into an inspection of a company formation. How well I remember when Sgt. Coleman in no uncertain terms told him to leave the men alone so that he could get on with the scheduled training.

I remember how Coleman showed his humanity in another case, that one involving the youngest member of our company. His name, I believe, was Abel, and he was probably only 16. He had lied about his age to join the army and did not yet have a beard. His facial hair was best described as fuzz. But Coleman knew that a soldier had to shave every day, and so once, in formation, he singled out Abel and admonished him about not shaving. What he said was that the next time he saw Abel with fuzz on his chin, he – Coleman – would “whip out my pocket knife and strop it on my combat boot and shave you on the spot.” Or course, to make it more dramatic, Coleman did in fact whip out a pocketknife and strop it on his boot. Coleman and others knew that Abel was not 18, but in the army, the official handling was to look the other way, admiringly.

There were fun times, too, like the occasion when my mother sent a package containing Kool Aid, sugar, and cookies. It must have been a time when we had been unable to do anything for recreation – I remember there were periods in the early weeks of basic when even on weekends we could not go to the post Enlisted Men’s Club for a 3.2 beer. Anyway, Roland and I gathered up several or our new friends – probably the Louisiana boys, Bob Harris and Don Whitman (both now deceased) and probably Dan Mc Mahon, Don’s friend from Lake Charles. We took the Kool Aid and other stuff up to the attic of the barracks and had a ball! One would have thought that we had been imbibing more potent drinks, the way we were acting. And we were drinking the Kool Aid mixed with warm water from our GI tin cups.

Some happenings were also funny to see, like the time the young black kid – I’ll try to recall his name – was called out of an outdoor class on bivouac for a demonstration of the correct usage of an atropine needle. The cadre in charge obviously knew that the kid was easily scared. He was young and had just graduated from high school, and in fact always carried his diploma around with him. I know, for he had shown it to me several times. He was funny: every Saturday night when he could get a pass he would go to a local black honky-tonk, and in the army vernacular, get laid. On Sunday morning, he was the only member of the platoon who would make his bunk, and as he would walk around it – it was an upper – he would pull the covers tight enough so that a thrown quarter would bounce, all the while singing Negro spirituals. Anyway, Bellamy (I’ve just thought of his name) was chosen for the demonstration. An atropine injection is given in the event of nerve gas poisoning, and is performed with a small needle. The demonstration model, however, was magnified about 10 times normal size, and could be broken down into cross sections. The needle itself must have looked like an oversized ice-pick, and when Bellamy was called, he simply got off his bleacher seat and started running. He could have beaten an Olympic sprinter in getting to the fence, which he cleared without the benefit of a vaulting pole. The cadre laughed and sent two men to get him. No punishment was metered out.

And so we progressed through our training. We learned to fire the M-1 Garand rifle. We could hit a target from 500 yards away. It was so far that we could hardly see it, but they taught us to adjust our sights for distance, windage, etc. so well that if need be we could shoot an enemy five blocks away. I got a Sharpshooter medal. We learned to throw live grenades and to find and defuse land minds. We practiced the best way to kill an enemy with a bayonet. We crawled under barbed wire at night with explosives going off all around us and we could watch the fire-red tracer bullets just a few feet over our heads. And only every fifth machinegun bullet was a tracer. We had been impressed with the danger of standing up: the story was told of one GI who did and was virtually cut in two.

All that was part of basic training. Our real job training came next, in Massachusetts. All of us were tested for our ability to learn Morse code. Roland, Don and Dan all passed. I did not have the foggiest idea of the difference between a dot and a dash. I had the same earphones on and listened to the same records as they did, but all I heard were indistinguishable beeps. I was afraid that by not passing, I would not be able to stay in the Army Security Agency, for which we had volunteered the next three years. As it worked out, those who passed were condemned to sit at a funny typewriter called a mill – it had no lower case letters, only capitals – for the next two years, listening to those stupid beeps eight hours without end. Instead, I was chosen to go to cryptanalysis school. I learned the difference between ciphers and codes and how to attack either, all without the benefit of computers which at best were still in infant stage and were each as large as a room. I also learned the Cyrillic alphabet and enough Russian military text to be effective. (It appeared that I had a gift for the field, and I graduated at the top of my class, thus giving me my choice of theatre of assignment. Naturally, I chose Europe.) I finished the final exam with a lot of time to spare, and used it to write a poem. Another student read it and gave it to the teachers, who liked it and gave it to the officer in charge of the school. He had it duplicated and handed out copies, which surprised me as we normally were not allowed to take any piece of paper out of the school, everything being classified. If I can find a copy, I will add it to this document, but for the moment, I remember it started out as follows:

I once was in an army school

Of a subject classified,

Where each instructor seemed a ghoul

For the critiques that he applied.

“Take your seats,” one would say,

“And grab that pencil tight, and work

For there’s no time to play:

The ASA’s begun to fight.”

So have no fear, civilians free,

And keep those fires aglow,

For there is not an enemy whose

Plans we will not know.”

I think it ended:

Fond memories, these,

I’ll have them till I’ve died

Of coffee breaks and matrices

Of the subject classified.

 

Army life, like civilian life, can become very routine after training schools are completed. I well remember some old soldier making the point to us once that when we settled down to regular duty, our lives would be much as they would be in civilian life. It was easily disbelieved at the time, but in fact I came to realize that it was so. Of course, there was always the realization that more than my rear end belonged to the army until a date certain, a couple of years down the road.

Once I was graduated from school at Devens, there were only a couple of incidents that I can recall now wherein my sense of dignity was replaced by a feeling of worthlessness, utterly without power. One such happening took place at Fort Dix, NJ when I was in casual status, awaiting orders to go to Europe. Looking back on it now, I can laugh about, but it was not funny at the time. It involved pulling KP for an all-night shift. That was OK, as casual status can be utter boredom, sometimes for days having nothing to do but to wait for orders. The problem arose the next morning, when I went to the barracks to catch up on a little sleep. That was when some cadreman came in and ordered everyone out to the baseball diamond. There, sides were chosen, and as we had more than enough for two teams, I elected not to play but instead to lie on the grass and sleep. That’s when another cadreman came up and ordered me and others to go with him for another eight hours of KP. I attempted to explain that I had just got off night KP, but it did not matter to him, even though army regulations prohibited two such straight duties.

My protests having fallen on the ears of one who had been given by the army a measure of authority that he might never have had on the outside, I was assigned to clean tables at the largest mess hall I had ever seen. Cavernous as a modern day convention center, there were rows upon rows of tables, forming straight lines, like an orchard, from whichever direction I looked. I asked for something with which to clean the tables, and was handed a rag. With that one of army issue, I cleaned hundreds of tables. When finished, I was given another job: I was to fill every ketchup bottle on every table to about one inch below the lip. The task, I was told, was a two-step job, the second part being that I had to clean that top inch so that no ketchup would show through the glass. I told whoever was giving me orders that I needed some kind of implement to do such precision cleaning, to which request he replied, “You’ve got a rag right there in your hand. Use it.”

I did, and never ate ketchup in the army again.

Fortunately, orders eventually came through and Fort Dix lost its favorite KP jockey. I was assigned to go overseas aboard the USS Geiger. It was a small troop transport left over from duty during WW II. It showed its age, for it was now June 1955, ten years after the war. The crossing was without serious incident, but it was rough in many ways. First, the sea was rough, really rough. Huge waves are the lot in the Atlantic that time of the year. It was not uncommon to see another vessel crossing in the opposite direction, but because the other ship and ours between different mountains of water, the other ship would actually disappear from view. Similarly, tankers could be observed to be completely submerged by the oncoming waves, with the exception of the bridge to the rear of the ship.

The worst part was the seasickness. Almost all of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of troops were sick, in many cases for days at a time. The captain had given us an orientation at the beginning of the voyage, recommending that we eat well and always to keep our belts tight. That did not help many. One of the worst places to be was in the mess hall, where seasick soldiers attempted to get a meal. The food was served cafeteria-style, and if you felt all right as you went through, just wait until the boat rocked and all the trays of food would come zipping down the serving track. Some guys would take one look and their eyes would become as big as sunny-side-up eggs as they would head for the nearest 55-gallon drum.

One of the worst afflicted was one of my fellow grads from cryptanalysis school. I do not remember his first name, but his last name was Lowe. Poor guy was unable to hold down a meal the entire crossing, which I think tool eleven days. Besides being seasick, he had diarrhea, and was so weak that he spent almost the entire day in his hammock. On a few occasions, I went to his quarters to say “hello” and try to cheer him. When I would ask how he was feeling, he would reply, “I’m feeling mighty Lowe.”

I did not get seasick the whole voyage, but most of the time I was close. One experience that for me was almost worse than the conditions described above involved the rhythmic thumping of the drive shaft every few seconds, every hour, twenty-four hours per day. No matter where one might be – below deck, on deck, in the mess hall, everywhere – the turning of the giant screw could be felt, probably exhibiting the age and wear of the old girl.

What a wondrous sight, a relief from the view of endless water, water, everywhere were the White Cliffs of Dover. Going through the English Channel meant we were not far from our port.

Finally, we landed at Bremerhaven in northern Germany. There, I was surprised to see many native Germans wearing wooden shoes, just like the Dutch. From there we were troop-trained down to Frankfurt. I think it was from there that I got my orders to Salzburg, in Austria.

Salzburg was and is wonderful. A beautiful but not too large cosmopolitan city lying in the Salzach valley between two lovely promontories, it is the birthplace of Mozart and the music capital of the world. As it happened, Austria was about to get its independence about the time that I arrived. After the war, Austria, like Germany, was a divided country. Salzburg was in the American zone, Vienna being a divided city like Berlin. When independence came about, we had to move out. Our activity required us to be near the USSR’s satellite countries of Romania and Hungary, and so we did not move far away.

The new location was not far across the German border, just up the autobahn to a little village called Bad Aibling. The nearest town of any size was Rosenheim, and the largest nearby city was Munich, about 40 miles to our north. This was the heart of the state of Bavaria. Every morning when I awoke, I could look out of my window and see the foothills of the Alps in all their splendor. The nearest range was called “Schlaufen die Jung frau,” meaning the “Sleeping Virgin,” because one could see the outline of a woman’s prone figure.

Our new home was Bad Aibling Kaserne. It was a small post which had once been a training base for the Luftwaffe. For most of my stay, I enjoyed a private room with a decided advantage in cold weather. These old buildings were well constructed, with thick plaster walls. Windows were doubled, meaning that there was an air space between for better insulation against the cold. Actually, my windows served as a refrigerator, too, as I usually had some foodstuffs like milk and ham on the window sill, with the outer window left partially open. The biggest plus to my room was that one corner was squared off to house the chimney coming up from the furnace somewhere below. In very cold weather, the old furnaces did not keep most areas comfortable, but my wall was always warm.

When I was promoted to sergeant during the Hungarian crisis, it was offered that I could move to the non-com area. A couple of career non-coms thought that I would jump at that opportunity, telling me that some of the advantages included private rooms and a refrigerator. I tried to be diplomatic and explained that I already enjoyed some of those things, but an underlying reason was that I was comfortable in the company of men like myself. We were not career men, and our thought patterns and ambitions were not always on the same wave length with the career soldiers.

After the move to the new kaserne, we did miss the advantages of Salzburg, but knowing its proximity we could get back easily on weekends. Sometimes – once a month was not unusual – I could manage a three-day pass, and in an hour or two drive down to Salzburg in my little blue beetle. This was a used VW that I bought from a rotating warrant officer for $300. He had told me at the outset that it needed a ring-job, and so it cost me a little more. But I drove that car all over Europe in the next two years and sold it for $300 when I rotated. It was, I believe, a 1950 model called a “standard.” That meant that it did not have some of the niceties of the more expensive models. I remember that some of the differences included the absence of a gas gauge and screw-in bulbs in the headlights. As for the gas gauge, there was usually a stick handy to stick down in the gas tank to get an accurate reading. In addition, there was a well within the tank that held an extra gallon or so that could feed the engine by means of a separate valve. That valve could be activated by a kick of the foot on a lever near the gas pedal. On time when it did not work I was able to fix the linkage by inserting a bent nail which I found in the street. (That nail was still in place when I sold the car.)

Another friend was “Tiny” Sander, from Chicago. He too had gone to the language school at Monterey, either for Hungarian or Romanian. Tiny’s nickname belied his size: he stood about 6 feet five and was big all over. We were both active in the Catholic Men’s Club and were assigned to go to a meeting at Berchtesgaden, a beautiful town high up on the mountains. There is a spectacular view from Berchtesgaden, which is the locus of Hitler’s Eagle’s nest. When visiting the latter, I actually walked through clouds. I was surprised to see how material they were; it was almost as though one could grab a handful. But back to the trip there with Tiny. We went in my VW, and I remember that we were running late. Looking at a map, we determined that there was a secondary road that should prove to be a shortcut. Wrong. That road climbed a mountain on what seemed like a 45, and of course zig-zagged all the way up. At one point, the paving ended and the surface became gravel.. Now is the time to inform those readers of the fact that before automatic transmissions existed, there were manual ones, and that some of those were not synchromesh. My standard model VW was in that class, meaning that to downshift, as from fourth to third, the driver had to double-clutch. A real problem came about when the gravel road became really steep. I did have to shift, to third and then to second. When second failed to keep us moving, I had to go to first. But you cannot downshift to first when there is any movement: you must be stopped to get it into first gear. At that point, I found that I could not get traction, and began to move backward a few feet at a time as I spun the wheels in the loose gravel. There was only one solution: Tiny had to get out and put his weight against my rear bumper until the tires caught, at which time I drove alone until the road leveled a bit. He then had to trudge up the mountain to join me. Yes, another fun day in the Alps.

One of the other differences between the standard and the export models was that the former was equipped with “mox-nix” sticks instead of electric turning signals. Mox-nix sticks were operated by hand, and consisted of little arms that would stick out either right or left to indicate a turn. The name was a corruption for the German phrase “Es ist gemacht nicht,” meaning literally “it makes nothing” and practically “it makes no difference.” I recall a cartoon picturing a Bavarian, lederhosen and all, standing in the middle of a road, a VW bearing down on him with both mox- nix sticks out. Fortunately, I never hit a German national or anyone else, but at the time, it was our understanding that the US government would not take a chance of a GI being subject to German courts. We knew of a case wherein one of our troops had an accident in which a German national was killed. I have always doubted the truth of what we heard through the “grapevine,” but it was said that he was court-martialed, fined a carton of cigarettes, and sent back to the states.

Like the story told above about a guard having to serve the sentence of an escaped prisoner, there was perhaps a grain of truth in the grapevine communications. Certainly, the army did not officially correct any such misapprehensions. In another case that happened at Bad Aibling, in which I actually knew the tragic hero, a young GI had reenlisted for six years in order to get an 30-day leave home (travel time did not count as part of the deal) and get married. Before he could leave, he got a “Dear John” letter. Since he was already committed to the army, he figured he might as well take the leave home, but at Frankfurt was given a prisoner to guard. He lost that prisoner at a movie house in Frankfurt, according to the grapevine. What I do know is that he was never returned to our outfit. I never saw him again.

But I have digressed.

Back to Bad Aibling. It is a pretty little village that has naturally hot springs coming through the ground. The word “Bad,” pronounced “bat,” indicates such a phenomenon, and like other “Bad” locations, Aibling had a “kurhaus,” meaning a place where one could take hot mud baths, reputed to cure all sorts of ailments. I never took one of the treatments, but I enjoyed the restaurant at the kurhaus often. The food there and elsewhere was delicious, and relatively inexpensive. A good meal cost about four marks then, the equivalent of a dollar.

There were many choices for great meals of Bavarian food. One of my favorites was a village across the autobahn and into the foothills of the Alps. I cannot readily recall the name, but it may be Neubeuern. It was walled and had a sign over the entrance gate that read, in German, “The Thousand Year Old City.” In warm weather, we would eat outside at the restaurant, where the fare usually included deer, rabbit or goose.

At this writing, we have just completed Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which reminds me of the German Fasching. What I am recalling specifically is that Lent of that day required fasting in a more stringent way than today. In order not to be hungry, the German Catholic had a special Lenten beer. It was as I remember, 22% alcohol. It was so thick that it poured like molasses. Yes, one could really quell the appetite.

German beer was of course delicious. The beer on post was OK, but it was the pasteurized version in order to meet American requirements. What we drank “on the economy” was the real thing.  Some young  GIs were afraid to go off-post, not even to the “last chance,” just out of the post gate. (I think that just about every post in Germany had a last chance.) They never experienced the quality of authentic German beer.

A favorite place in the village of Bad Aibling was the Gasthaus Engelmeier, run by the family of that name. They were nice people with no ostensible antipathy to the GI. Frau Engelmeier had two children that I remember. One was a daughter, Lottie, whom everyone liked. She was very young and pretty, and engaged to a GI from Texas. Over the years, I have wondered whether she really moved to Texas and how she adjusted. I know that Frau Engelmeier was anxious about her leaving. Many young German girls seemed a bit too willing to marry Americans, in order to get a ticket to the “land of the big PX.” I do not think that Lottie fell into that category, but one must reflect on the differences in the economies of the two countries at that time. Germany was still recovering from the war, and I was told that the average worker’s pay was about 400 DM per month. That was probably a low estimate, because that would have been the equivalent of $100. I do know that my pay as a sergeant was $170 or thereabouts, and I could afford many things that the average worker could not.

Frau Engelmeier had another son who was killed in the war. He had been a pilot who was shot down over southern France and was buried there. She had never been to see his grave. She was, after all, a simple villager who probably had seldom traveled outside of Bavaria. Once, on learning that I was planning to drive to Spain and that my route would be along the French coast, she asked me if I could try to find his grave. I was not able to get adequate directions, and doubted that she knew exactly where his grave was. It was sad. “Krieg ist schlecht,” she said. “War is bad.”

Remarkably, I encountered little or no hatred of Americans. If anything, the Bavarians were generally a friendly, fun-loving group of people. But they had lost a lot, and it was pointed out by an old veteran master sergeant at an orientation that there had been atrocities on both sides, and so we should control our reactions if we were to meet with resentment. Once, on the train from Munich to Rosenheim, a German man who seemed desirous to talk to me informed me calmly that he had lost four brothers in the war. On another train trip, I observed several nationals talking together. Two or three of them seemed to be together, and one asked the stranger where he was from. I heard him say “Berlin, ost,” meaning East Berlin, still behind the Iron Curtain and controlled by the Russians. They fell into immediate acts of friendship, offering him cigarettes and handshakes and excited conversation. There was, after all, a difference in the way Bavaria was occupied compared to East Berlin.

When I refer to the fact that Germany was still recovering, I think about how much rubble still lay on the ground in Munich because of Allied bombing. Some whole blocks were just piles of bricks. The hauptbahnhof, or main train station, had a huge hole in the roof the entire time I was there. It was evident that a bomb had had a direct hit on the station, which was of course in the center of the city. On one trip in which my destination was Cologne, a German national told me that I would have no trouble parking my car on arrival. He explained that Cologne had been so badly bombed that whole sections had been removed and leveled for parking lots. When I got there, it was just as he had said, but I noticed that the magnificent cathedral was in tact. Apparently, the bombadiers must have intentionally missed it. But empty lots lay all around it.

I said above that the people with whom I came into contact were friendly, just solid good people. But even now, I wonder how they supported the German war effort. Were they simply conscripted and forced to fight? What about the Jewish treatment, and the gypsies and the homosexuals? My route from Munich to Bad Aibling went right past the infamous Dachau. That was one of the concentration camps where there was a sign over the gate, “Arbeit macht frei,” meaning, ironically, “Work makes you free.” I still regret that I never stopped to tour Dachau; it always seemed something I could do at another time. But my friend Cundiff, another linguist, had gone through and he reported reading the curses scribbled on the walls in various languages.

Mention of the Catholic Men’s Club above reminds me of  a couple of interesting people I met as program chairmen of that organization. Because we were a small post in an out-of-the-way location, we did not have all the activities and entertainment opportunities of a larger installation in a big city. For this reason, we had to find interesting people who would be willing to come to Bad Aibling and talk at our meetings. One such person was the Baroness von Gutenberg. She was from that city of Bible publication fame, but had a home also in Munich. Together with a career non-com, we visited her there over a glass or two of wine and she consented to tell her story at one of our meetings.

She did have quite a story to tell. Although the baron was a career naval officer, the family were not supporters of the Third Reich. She told of her first experience with Hitler. It was at a packed stadium in Nuremberg, I think, where she wondered about this ordinary- looking man who had risen to power the 1930’s. She said he appeared almost non-descript, small and insignificant. It was when he began to speak, however, that she realized the power he had over his audience. They were cheering every word, and he held that crowd in the palm of his hand. At that point, she said, she was convinced, in her words, that he “was diabolically possessed.”

The nephew of the baroness was Count Claus von Stauffenberg. During the war, he had lost an eye and an arm in the North Africa campaign. When Hitler had become accepted as mad and the war fruitless by some officers, it was he who was assigned to plant the bomb in a briefcase next to Hitler at a meeting. That was done, but unfortunately, someone accidentally kicked over the briefcase and it fell behind a partition under a large oak table. When it exploded, several officers were killed, but Hitler sustained only a broken arm. Von Stauffenberg made his way out of the kaserne, but was quickly captured and executed along with the other conspirators.

The baroness also told first-hand experiences of her friendship with Teresa Neuman, the noted German stigmata. A friend of mine visited the village where she lived, and I considered going later but thought better of it. Teresa Neuman lived very near the Czech border, and because of my sensitive job, I did not want to take a chance and find myself at a dirt road border crossing into a Communist country.

Sometime after the lecture by the baroness, I read her book, which was titled, Holding the Stirrup.

The Vatican Black Paratrooper was another of my speakers. His name was Padre Menard, and he was from the French-speaking part of Canada originally. At this time, he was pastor of an Eastern Orthodox parish in Munich. There, he administered to Russian refugees. His church was a small chapel that looked to me like something right out of the Russian Orthodox, icons and all. His group, however, was under Rome.

Menard was one of a number whose missions had been cut short. They had been trained to parachute jump behind the Iron Curtain, there to practice a skill or trade for which each had also been schooled. The idea was for such priests to be underground Catholic priests while blending into a local community, thereby bringing religion to those who lived in what was seen as a godless state. I seem to remember that the idea was abandoned because it was considered dangerous. Even then, I believed that the best decision of the whole program was the one made last.

One more comes to mind, although I have forgotten his name. He headed Radio Free Russia, similar to but only a smaller scale than Radio Free Europe. About all I can remember was that his house had been shot at, and that I had to drive him back to Munich in a blinding blizzard.

There were many snowstorms in my two years in Europe. The worst was prelude to what was then considered Europe’s coldest winter of the century. Walt Pierson and I had returned from a leave to Italy to spend a few days in Salzburg for its famous music festival. This is an annual music happening, but 1956 was special, as it commemorated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Mozart. Music was everywhere, at every concert hall and opera house and in the churches.(One of the beautiful silver coins that I keep in a wooden frame marked that festival. It is a 25- shilling piece, with all the flags of the cantons of Austria being pictured on the reverse. A similar coin commemorates the reopening of the Vienna Opera House.)

It was a good thing that we had planned to return before the end of our leave, for had we stayed in Italy a couple of more days, we would surely have been unable to cross Brenner Pass, the only route through the Dolomiten Alps separating Italy and Austria. As it was, the snow began to fall and the temperature to drop when we left the festival. Returning to Bad Aibling, we could not tell where the highway was, the whole of the landscape being covered with a white  blanket. There were two ruts in the snow on each side of the highway. We followed the one on the right back home.

The really low temperatures followed, once reaching down to 40 below. It was not possible to get normal cars to run. Of course, the army vehicles were kept in operating condition, but to get around the kaserne one had to walk. In such circumstance, we wore all our protective clothing, including wool face masks. When walking, it was understood by all that if you passed an acquaintance, you did not stop to chat.

I can remember only one time when I really hurt from the cold. It was on a drive back from Munich after a fresh snowfall. I had a flat tire, and changed it on the side of the road. I was wearing civilian clothes, my hands being adorned by a pair of leather gloves from Manco’s in Florence, the finest glove shop in Europe. (I had paid three or four dollars for them!) Not wanting to soil my fine gloves, I took them off just before searching in the deep snow for a tire iron that I had dropped. My warm skin melted the snow, and then the moisture froze on my hands. The pain was intense, right through the bones, but temporary. It was a stupid thing to do for a pair of gloves.

Initially, work at my branch was really routine. We worked regular hours with weekends off and sometimes three-day passes. In addition, we had leave time accumulating at the rate of 30 days per year. At one point I was reluctantly appointed to compete for “Soldier of the month.” I say reluctantly because ASA GIs are suspicious of anyone who appears too soldierly. I guess I was less un-soldierly than others, and I won by default. The nice part was that in addition to a plaque I was given a permanent overnight pass. And so, the off-time was fine, but work was boring. I had even gone along with a movement backed by the outgoing manager of the enlisted men’s club to replace him. That would have meant that I would not have been practicing my MOS, but the job with the EM club had some plusses.

The decision never came to a head, as my commanding officers had my name pulled from the deliberation. They claimed that I had accomplished something that was a breakthrough in our work. I didn’t have the slightest clue as to what I had done. Oh, yes, I was aware of the mechanics of something that I had recently done, but not its significance. Anyway, I think that was when I was promoted to corporal and I was given to understand that I could still go to the EM club, but only to eat and drink, not to manage. With the promotion came more pay, but also it meant that I was now a non-commissioned officer. There is a decided advantage to that status, as most enlisted men were given “specialist” rankings, without the authority of a non-com. It was probably also about that time that I became NCOIC of my branch, second in authority to CWO Bill Wheeler.

I mention all of the above changes because they had a bearing on what happened one night of an otherwise normal day. It was truly in the heart of the night, sometime in the early hours of the morning, when someone from the operations area came and awoke me. He said I should come down immediately. I did, not even taking the time to dress properly. Upon reaching operations, it was not long before I knew that I had to call the chief of operations, regardless of the fact that he was home asleep. From that moment, our lives in C Branch were changed. Work was no longer hum-drum; work was not regular hours any longer; passes became forgotten niceties.

One of my commendation letters says that we worked weeks without end, or words to that effect. That is the way it was. We forgot what it was like to have regular meals, or to go to the last chance, or the EM club. A suit that I was having tailored in Bad Aibling had to wait. It was perhaps the most arduous but also the most fulfilling time of my life.

I still am governed by some strictures imposed on me when I was debriefed before discharge, but I think I would be allowed to say what the operations chief told me at one point. He said that our product was reaching the desk of the president. We really were not just playing soldier for a couple of years anymore. We had an impact on the decisions being made concerning Hungary’s fight for independence and how that revolt figured into world politics relating to the US and the USSR.

One incident might show what fatigue can do. It involved that suit being tailored in Bad Aibling by Herr Eduard Alt. (I still have a sport jacket in my closet made by him, with his label sewn  into a pocket.) My boss Bill Wheeler had told me after many weeks of round-the-clock work that I had to take some time off and get some recreation. I agreed, and mentioned the postponed fitting. I said I’d be back in a few hours. After the fitting, I went to the Engelmeier and had a few beers, not many, but enough to tell my body that I was really tired, and so I went to back to the kaserne and to my room to sleep. Sometime in the night, Wheeler sent someone to get me, but I learned later that I could not be awakened. After a while, he sent two men to rouse me, and as I was told later, I finally got off my bed, and with a flourish waved them away from my locker. I then opened the lock in the dark – interestingly, as it was a combination lock – and thrusting open the door told them to take whatever they wanted and I got back into bed. This having been reported to Wheeler, he decided to let me sleep until morning. How that lock opened is still difficult to explain.

Earlier, I mentioned that Glenn Lane and Charley Kunz were my best friends. In the army, deep friendships are made. In civilian life, surely there are close friendships, but they are formed by relatively scarce interactions when compared with army life, when people live and work and play together twenty-four hours per day. One gets to know others in a way comparable only to family relationships.

The first to fit that bill was Glenn. He preceded me in C Branch by perhaps a year. He was already a “short-timer” compared to me, but it had taken him and others a long time to get that first stripe. Something about categories being frozen. He was pretty bitter about that, but a few months later, he was even more bitter about losing that stripe. That happened after several of our group went to the Octoberfest in Munich in Glenn’s new VW. (I think that his mother may have paid for it. She was divorced from Glenn’s father, who was apparently a rather successful attorney in Glendale, CA.) Anyway, we all had too much beer and Glenn fell asleep while driving back to the post. We were so close to the post gate when we hit that oak tree that the MPs didn’t even get into their jeep. They just ran over. I was in the front passenger seat, and as no one had yet invented seat belts, I knocked out the windshield — with my head. I was taken to the infirmary, where a German doctor stitched up my forehead without benefit of anesthesia: I guess he figured that I didn’t need any.

I had a minor case of amnesia. At the clinic, I kept asking for my brother, and the more they told me he had not been with us, the more I thought that they were guarding me from serious information. Someone asked me whether I knew who I was, and I did, and whether I was in the army, and I did. But I did not know what kind of work I did and other information that I should have known. Knowing that I knew not was frightening, but in a few days, everything came back to me gradually.

Glenn had to go before our commanding officer, Capt. Kozlowski, for a summary court martial. His punishment included the loss of that one PFC stripe that had been so long in coming. He lost his car, too, as it was not insured for collision and the damage was too much to be repaired. His father was less than proud, and as their relationship had been strained before, it was not any closer. Glenn always spoke with more respect of his mother, as I recall.

That last thought causes me to jump ahead many years. About twenty-odd years ago, I was planning to go to a NYL convention in the West, maybe Arizona. I thought that it would be nice to locate Glenn after many years. Once previously he had come through New Orleans on his way to Ireland, and I probably remembered that he was teaching at a California college. I must have tried a number of ways to locate him, eventually calling an organization of retired lawyers, thereby securing a number for Glenn Lane, Sr. It was in fact the number for Glenn’s father, and on reaching him by phone, I explained that I was trying to locate his son with whom I had been in the service. The father was indeed happy to tell me about his son’s successes, including how he was mayor of a large city (Santa Monica, I think). I let him go on, but I was thinking, “that’s not the Glenn I knew.” Somehow, it became apparent to one of us that I was he was referring to another son, and when I said I meant Glenn I could hear the disappointment in the man’s voice. Of course, he did give me the information that I needed, and Merle and I were able to make a side trip after the club meeting to San Diego, where Glenn and his lady friend lived on an old cabin cruiser, still seaworthy enough to float. The location was Shelter Island, a peninsula in San Diego Bay, and they kept a sail boat which was seaworthy.

We had a nice visit, going to dinner with them one night after a minor earthquake. We exchanged old war stories and brought each other up to date. He had not changed much – still the intellectual without a lot of ambition for things that others crave, certainly not he mayor type. He was enjoying life, teaching English Literature at a small college, sometimes flying to Hawaii to help return sailboats to California.

The earthquake occurred while Merle and I were on a bumpy bus returning from the San Diego zoo, and so we were unaware until we arrived back at our hotel. Meanwhile, Glenn had called a restaurant to make reservations for dinner. While on the phone from his boat, the reservationist began screaming as Glenn asked for a reservation for four. He heard the phone at the other end bouncing on the floor and wondered what was so unusual about a reservation for four. He of course had not felt the tremor from his floating house.

Glenn had done some cartooning at Bad Aibling, and it was evident that he had some talent. I had taken from home some of his drawings of the guys at Bad Aibling as a gift for him, which I think he appreciated. He had a habit of naming people in his drawings. I recall that one was the “Oyster”; I was “Creole.”

Returning to the court martial, it turned out that another penalty was imposed at the time of Glenn’s discharge. He was not awarded the good conduct medal. He was not, as one might have guessed, very soldierly, but nor were many others in the ASA. He had done his job well, and had been one of the more knowledgeable in our operations. Most people thought that you would have to murder someone in order not to get the good conduct medal, and so Glenn had been hurt by being passed over. That having been put behind him, he took delight in showing – have you guessed it? – a shiny good conduct medal in a glass case. He had bought it at a flea market.

Not all the men in the ASA were Ivy League or equivalent. Charley Kunz had only finished high school, but the army chose him to go through both the language school (for Russian) and cryptanalysis. I think both were abbreviated courses, but his placement said something of his potential. In addition, Charley also spoke German, having been raised in the German community of New Ulm, MN.

Charley arrived after I had already been in C Branch perhaps a year. I’m not sure whether he and Glenn overlapped at all. Looking back on it all, they probably would not have liked each other. Kunz was not an intellectual like Glenn, and was relatively rough around the edges, but they both drank a lot of beer. Kunz was also a scrapper possessed of a quick temper. I remember at least two incidents – make it three –from which he had to be extricated. In common with Glenn was the presence of a love of living and a good sense of humor.

It was Charley Kunz who called me a few years ago while on a bus tour in New Orleans. He and his wife Rosie were staying at the Grand in Biloxi, and so we arranged that I would meet him there that afternoon. We met in the hotel lobby, immediately recognizing each other, even though he had grown a beard. Maybe it was due to the several beers we had, but our conversation flowed like the foamy liquid for hours. It was as though we blinked and almost four decades had passed. We recalled details of some of the happenings back at Bad Aibling and each brought the other up to date regarding career, family, and the like. Charley had returned to New Ulm and worked for the same company, a national food wholesaler. He had retired, and told me in typical Kunz fashion that he had not done much, just being in charge of the warehouse, but had been given “a nice piece of change” at retirement. He and his wife had raised several children, and I recall that one son was working in Texas.

They had had a daughter, also. He described her as “beautiful, popular, a cheerleader.” But in college, she got into drugs, eventually spending time in rehab. When she had only a month to go in the treatment, she hanged herself. Again in his simple way, he said, “That was a rough time in my life.”

Not all acquaintances bring back good memories. In our outfit, we had a man who did not fit by way of background, education or any of the other attributes that may run common to C Branch members. His name was Buddy Bedard, from Maine. We all liked Buddy, but we questioned how he ever might have been given a Top Secret clearance. More than rough around the edges, I remember him telling us about his several gang fight injuries, and the words, “can opener cut in my side,” come back to mind.

Buddy’s inadequacies became apparent one night at the Hofbrau Haus in Munich. A large number of our group had met there to drink beer and sing songs. Seated at our huge oaken table were two American girls, college girls traveling through Europe. Buddy was not especially a handsome guy, his face pock-marked and his mannerisms somewhat crude, and he apparently was trying to impress the girls. I did not hear him say anything that would be a security breach, but I did later remember that he pointed to me and said something about the importance of the work that we did. During the evening, another friend and I talked at length with the girls, and we made a date for the next evening.

The next morning, I was approached by Terry Gilboy, who had been in the group at the Hofbrau Haus. What he told me was that Buddy had in fact divulged some things that he should not have. This put me in a quandary, as I had not personally heard what Terry reported. But I was the next in command, and I think Terry was doing what he saw as his obligation. I recall mulling these things over in my mind, and even wondering whether the report might represent some hard feelings that Terry might have held for Buddy. I had to dismiss that thought, and made a report of my own to someone above me. The word went up the ladder quickly, and the security officer advised that my other friend and I should not keep the date with the girls. An attempt was made by investigators to contact them a day or two later, but they had already checked out of their hotels.

Sometime either before or after I made my report, I confronted Buddy with the story. He said that he could not remember what he had said, that he had been drunk, and concluded that he “might have said it.”

As a result of the above, Buddy was transferred out of the ASA and was sent to France. I had no further contact with him during my stay, but on returning home after discharge, I sent a Christmas card to his address in Maine. His mother answered, informing me that after Buddy had gone to France he contracted spinal meningitis and died in a few days. His body had been shipped to her. She wanted to know whatever I could tell her, whether we were close friends, and so forth. I wrote back that he was a really nice person, well liked by his fellow soldiers at Bad Aibling. Of course, I did not mention anything about why he had been reassigned.

It has never been any consolation to me to reflect that the army should never have put Buddy in the ASA to begin with.

What can I say and what can I not say about our work? I don’t know. When I visited the National Security Agency (NSA) museum at Fort Meade with Vic, I was surprised to see and read as much as was displayed there. What I can say, I’m sure, is that I was recruited by the NSA in the person of a lady named Velma Klaessy, I believe, who visited in Bad Aibling. We discussed possible rank (I would have started either as a GS7 or 9) and where I might be stationed. She gave me papers to fill out and to mail back, but after coming home I did not feel like leaving my family again.

Besides professionals like Miss Klaessy, I met some of our British counterparts from GCHQ from time to time. What I remember about them is that they were very good and they all wore tweeds.

So what else might be of interest?  I should expand on Salzburg and write of the hotel called the Schwartzes Rossl (the Black Horse) and the American type bar called the Weisses Rossl (the White Horse). I wonder if they are still there. And there was the Paracelsus, a lounge that was a transformed alchemist shop. Then too, down the Salzach River was a wonderful place to drink beer and order servings of ham, cheese, rolls, sausage, from separate cloisters of an old monastery. The story that we heard was that the monks made such great beer that Hitler closed it as a monastery and opened it to the public. It may have been called the Augustiner Keller. I think maybe Mignon and Joseph found their way there.

Salzburg was so compact that sometimes I would park the VW when I arrived and not see it again until leaving. There were enough attractions to fill the day without driving somewhere. To fill the mornings was simple: coffee houses to beat all here in the US were in profusion, years and years ahead of Starbuck’s. The coffee and ;pastry were fine, but in addition, there were newspapers from all over, including English language papers, hanging on the walls. One could sit in such a coffee house all morning and not be disturbed. And I would be remiss if I did not describe kafe mit schlag, which was coffee with a sort of whipped cream floating on the top.

Bad Aibling, though a small village, had its niceties, like the bridge over a small mountain stream where as a pedestrian one could stand on the bridge and watch the trout moving their tails just enough to compensate for the movement downstream of the water. Like other German towns, Aibling had its Christmas equivalent of Santa Claus, but they also had Grampoos, who visited bad children on Christmas Eve and filled their stockings with coal. I actually saw him one night, making his rounds through the town.

Speaking of Christmas, somewhere in a scrapbook I have a pass that is stamped with the name of the little village in Germany where Franz Gruber wrote “Silent Night.” The pass is dated December 24, Christmas Eve. Together with friends Glenn, Walt, and maybe Derrick, we observed the annual celebration in which a procession leads down the main street of the little town to a chapel where the carol was first performed. There was a light snow as we heard the music played on a double-bridged guitar, the same kind of instrument Gruber had used. People sang in a lovely harmony, some of which I remember. To get there we traveled by train from Germany through Austria and then again across the border into Germany.

Another musical experience was the highlight of a trip to Vienna with Glenn and Walt.

My non-Catholic friends like Glenn Lane and Walt Pierson would enjoy going to Mass with me when we would visit Salzburg. Sometimes in the cathedral, there would be what sounded like a small symphony orchestra in the choir loft, and they would play and sing classical masses. At the time, such music was not allowed in American churches because, I think, they were distractions. And so they were.

It was with Glenn and Walt that I went to Vienna once for a few days. Instead of driving, we took the Orient Express but didn’t see a single murder. We stayed in Old Vienna, which I believe is inside of a kind of ring, very near the great old cathedral called Stefan’s Kirche. Among other things, we saw the Danube, the Hapsburg palace of 1400 rooms, and the Lippizaner stables. The highlight, however, and one of a handful of wonderful musical experiences that I will always remember, was a performance by a Hungarian gypsy violinist. His name was something like Antal Kocsze, and we had heard of him before.

We knew that he would be playing at a small restaurant inside the ring and were able to find it on foot. In the front show window were framed articles about this man, telling of his playing before the royal families of Europe. It was said that sometimes his music was so melancholy that it had on occasion pushed some people over the limit to eventual suicide. Glenn, Walt and I were all in good moods and so we were not worried.

At first, once inside the restaurant, we wondered whether Kocsze would play. We did not see anyone around who looked like a great musician. There were of course the waiters and waitresses, one of whom was busy for quite a long time massaging an old cranky man’s shoulder – he must have had arthritis or pleurisy or something.  (I just realized that our word “cranky” comes from the German “kranke,” meaning “sick.”) Finally, the time of the concert was upon us, and the cranky little man picked up a fiddle and began to play. He was transformed, and the music that came from that instrument was beautiful – sad and melancholy but wonderful. I imagined that it spoke of the plight of the gypsies, exiled and detested wherever they chose to rest, even for a little while. Over the years, I have been privileged to hear some of the great violinists, like Isaac Stern, Itzak Perlman, Pincus Zuckerman, Midori, and Zino Francescatti; but many times I have wished to hear again what I heard that night.

There is much else that I could tell, but as I have always been against waste, I think that I have exhausted my allotted share of ink and paper. Besides, the attention of my dutiful daughters should not be strained to the limit, and so I close, like an old vaudevillian, full of expectation of the shouts of “More, more!”


Appendices

  1. I have a copy of one of Glenn’s cartoons. I hope to get it reproduced to add to this document. In case I do, the guy in uniform with the shiny helmet was the Creole as soldier of the month.  Floating on a cloud is warrant officer Wheeler. Suspended from his desk is Walt Pierson, at the time NCOIC, holding onto his underlings, including me, the Tuna (Gilboy), and Skerms, who had purloined my box of Kleenex while I was away. Also pictured was the Oyster, who regularly escorted lesser earthlings to gasthauses.
     
  2. I have found a handwritten copy of the poem, which may or may not be the original:

I once was in an army school

Of a subject classified,

Where each instructor seemed a ghoul

For the critiques that he applied.

 

“Take you seats!” one would say,

“Grab that pencil tight,

And work for there’s no time to play:

The ASA’s begun to fight.”

 

So we’d sweat until we’d drop,

And the mental pains endure,

Till we’d reach the very top

And a victory we’d insure.

 

Have no fear, civilians, free,

And keep those fires aglow,

For there is not an enemy

Whose plans we will not know!

 

This became the motto

Of students one and all,

And brains full of vibrato

Worked against the fall.

 

It’s the instructors we must thank

Daft though they may seem;

They’ll stand on God’s right flank

For the spirit they set agleam.

 

Inspiration from dear Crist,

Gianos for ceaseless toil,

Both are on St. Peter’s list

In a world of gross turmoil.

 

Happy thoughts, these memories –

I’ll have them till I’ve died –

Of coffee breaks and matrices

Of the subject classified.