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Month: May 2016

Hi, soldier . . .

“A typical transaction cost three packs of Chesterfields, and a survey found that among soldiers who spent two days or more in Paris, two-thirds had intercourse at least once, often in what were called ‘Where am I?’ rooms. . . . Soldiers excused from duty while being treated for syphilis or gonorrhea were said to be ‘whores de combat,’ and the Good Conduct Ribbon became known as the ‘No-Clap Medal.’ Women who swapped sex for rations or chocolate were called ‘Hershey bars,’ while a brothel was a ‘house of horizontal refreshment.’ ” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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Worn out, torn down, broken, shattered, wasted away

“Most [combat exhaustion] patients were treated as temporarily disabled and kept close to the front, to preserve their self-respect and emotional links to their unit. Division clearing stations now usually included a psychiatrist . . . exhausted patients often were put into a deep sleep, sometimes for days, with ‘Blue 88s,’ sodium amytal or nembutal capsules. Of every one hundred exhaustion patients hospitalized in the European theater, ninety returned to duty in some capacity, although many were finished as killer riflemen. . . . neither competent treatment nor all the Blue 88s in Europe could efface war’s capacity to fracture men’s psyches. . . . Most experts concluded that soldiers wore out for good after 200 to 240 days of battle, although two psychologists monitoring the advance into Germany posited that a GI’s combat skills began to decline after a month of fighting, with many ‘close to a vegetative state’ after forty-five days.” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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None left behind

“Great pains were taken to identify remains whenever possible. Innovative techniques allowed fingerprints to be lifted from bodies long buried and for hidden laundry marks to be extracted from shredded uniforms. Graves Registration artisans meticulously reconstructed mutilated faces with cosmetic wax so that Signal Corps photographs could be taken to help identify those without dogtags.” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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Haunted

“To a soldier named Frank Maddalena, who went missing in the [Hürtgen] forest in mid-November [1944], his wife, Natalie, mother of his two children, wrote from New York: ‘I see you everywhere—in the chair, behind me, in the shadows of the room.’ In another note she added, ‘Still no mail from you. I really don’t know what to think anymore. . . . When I walk alone, I seem to feel you sneaking up on me and putting your arms around me.’ ” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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Would you like another cup of tea, dear?

“A dignified American woman with close-cropped gray hair, whose living room in Culoz was dominated by a large portrait of her painted by Picasso, sent a note to Seventh Army headquarters along with a fruitcake baked by her companion, Alice B. Toklas. ‘We have waited for you all so long and here you are,’ wrote Gertrude Stein. ‘I cannot tell you enough what it means to see you to hear you to have you here with us.’ (Of Stein’s prose, an American officer wrote: ‘I understand that she puts together a lot of repetitions which have significance only to those whose minds are in a higher sphere than mine.’)” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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Paris was not burning

“Warm summer rain drenched the motley legions of liberation at dawn on Thursday, August 24 [1944], as three columns from the French 2nd Armored Division made ready for battle twenty miles southwest of Paris. Village women scurried through the bivouacs carrying urns of coffee and platters heaped with fried eggs and breakfast rolls. Soldiers finished shaving with ritualistic precision, then shouldered their weapons and swaggered into formation, ‘booming like bitterns throughout the wood,’ as an American colonel later wrote, ‘pounding their chests and screaming, “En avant!” ’ Tricolor pennants flew from three thousand vehicles named for Napoleonic triumphs or for French towns now unshackled, like Caen and Cherbourg. Each tank and scout car bore a white silhouette of France with the cross of Lorraine superimposed. The twelve thousand troops comprised not only French regulars, but sailors far from the sea, Lebanese Christian engineers, and Senegalese riflemen who until three weeks earlier had never set foot on European France. Also in the ranks could be found Spanish Republicans, Gaullists, monarchists, Jews, Muslims, Catholic reactionaries, animists, anarchists, antipapists, communists, socialists, freethinkers, and militant Quakers.” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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The misunderstood military multitude

“On they marched, south, east, and west: past stone barns and mules hauling milk in copper urns, past shops that still peddled perfume and silk scarves, past collaborators with crude swastikas swabbed onto their shaved heads. When the trucks halted for a moment and GIs tumbled out to urinate in squirming echelons on the road shoulders, civilians rushed up to plead for cigarettes with two fingers pressed to the lips, a gesture described by Forrest Pogue as the French national salute. Others offered tricolor nosegays made from blue hydrangeas, red roses, and white asters. ‘Heep, heep, whoo-ray!’ the Frenchmen yelled, repeating phrases learned from doughboys a generation earlier. ‘I speeg Engless. Jees-Christ, cot-damn!’ Soldiers replied in schoolboy French or with handy phrases published in Stars and Stripes, among which was the French for ‘My wife doesn’t understand me.’ ” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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Death in the forenoon

“In the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk, across from the former pig meadow and leper colony currently known as St. James’s Park, a full-throated congregation belted out the ‘Te Deum’ and prepared to take communion from the bishop of Maidstone. ‘To Thee all angels cry aloud,’ they sang, ‘the heavens and all the powers therein.’ At 11:10 a.m. [June 18, 1944] an annoying growl from those same heavens grew louder. Ernest Hemingway heard it in his Dorchester Hotel suite, where he was making pancakes with buckwheat flour and bourbon; from the window he looked for the telltale ‘white-hot bunghole’ of a jet engine. Pedestrians in Parliament Square heard it and fell flat, covering their heads. Clementine Churchill, the prime minister’s wife, heard it in Hyde Park, where she was visiting the gun battery in which her daughter Mary volunteered. The Guards Chapel congregation heard it and kept singing. Then they heard nothing—that most terrifying of all sounds—as the engine quit, the bunghole winked out, and the black cruciform [V-1 missile] fell. Through the chapel’s reinforced concrete roof it plummeted before detonating in a white blast that blew out walls, blew down support pillars, and stripped the leaves from St. James’s plane trees. A funnel of smoke curled fifteen hundred feet above the wrecked nave; rubble ten feet deep buried the pews even as six candles still guttered on the altar and the bishop stood unharmed. One hundred and twenty-one others were dead and as many more injured. Two thousand memorial plaques accumulated by Guards regiments during eons of war lay pulverized, although a mosaic donated by Queen Victoria remained intact: ‘Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.’ ” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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A lion in winter

“The Führer and his entourage flew from Berchtesgaden in four Focke-Wulf Condors to Metz, then drove 175 miles in armored cars to Margival. . . . This was Hitler’s first return to France since 1940, and he looked like a man who was losing a world war: eyes bloodshot and puffy from insomnia, skin sallow, the toothbrush mustache a bit bedraggled. Aides reported that even his passion for music had waned. ‘It is tragic that the Führer has so cut himself off from life and is leading an excessively unhealthy life,’ wrote his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels. Often he checked his own pulse, as if fingering mortality; a quack dubbed the Reich Injection Minister frequently administered sedatives or shots of a glandular concoction. He shunned bright lights and wore a cap with an enlarged visor to shield his eyes. ‘I always have the feeling of tipping to the right,’ he complained. He spoke of retirement, of a life devoted to reading, or meditating, or running a museum.” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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Darling little bastards

“Despite War Department assurances that ‘men who refrain from sexual acts are frequently stronger, owing to their conservation of energy,’ so many GIs impregnated British women that the U.S. government agreed to give local courts jurisdiction in ‘bastardy proceedings’; child support was fixed at £1 per week until the little Anglo-American turned thirteen, and 5 to 20 shillings weekly for teenagers. Road signs cautioned, ‘To all GIs: please drive carefully, that child may be yours.’ ” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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The dirty dozens

“In April 1944, the War Department decreed that inductees need have only a ‘reasonable chance’ of adjusting to military life, although psychiatric examiners were advised to watch for two dozen ‘personality deviations,’ including silly laughter, sulkiness, resentfulness of discipline, and other traits that would seemingly disqualify every teenager in the United States. In addition, the Army began drafting ‘moderate’ obsessive-compulsives, as well as stutterers. Men with malignant tumors, leprosy, or certifiable psychosis still were deemed ‘nonacceptable,’ but by early 1944, twelve thousand venereal disease patients, most of them syphilitic, were inducted each month and rendered fit for service with a new miracle drug called penicillin.” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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The average Joe

“The typical soldier stood five feet eight inches tall and weighed 144 pounds, but physical standards had been lowered to accept defects that once would have kept many young men out of uniform. A man with 20/400 vision could now be conscripted if his sight was correctable to at least 20/40 in one eye; toward that end, the armed forces would make 2.3 million pairs of eyeglasses for the troops. The old jest that the Army no longer examined eyes but just counted them had come true. A man could be drafted if he had only one eye, or was completely deaf in one ear, or had lost both external ears, or was missing a thumb or three fingers on either hand, including a trigger finger. Earlier in the war, a draftee had to possess at least twelve of his original thirty-two teeth, but now he could be utterly toothless.” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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G.I. Joe

“The average GI was twenty-six, born the year that the war to end all wars had ended, but manpower demands in this global struggle meant the force was growing younger: henceforth nearly half of all American troops arriving to fight in Europe in 1944 would be teenagers. One in three GIs had only a grade school education, one in four held a high school diploma, and slightly more than one in ten had attended college for at least a semester.” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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Over there, again

“Down the gangplanks they tromped, names checked from a clipboard, each soldier wearing his helmet, his field jacket, and a large celluloid button color-coded by the section of the ship to which he had been confined during the passage. Troops carried four blankets apiece to save cargo space, while deluded officers could be seen lugging folding chairs, pillow-cases, and tennis rackets. A brass band and Highland Pipers greeted them on the dock; Scottish children raised their arms in a V for Victory. Combat pilots who had fulfilled their mission quotas, and were waiting to board ship for the return voyage, bellowed, ‘Go back before it’s too late!’ or ‘What’s your wife’s telephone number?’ ” – Rick Atkinson, The Guns at Last Light

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