War movies often provide a spark for my father. When we watch together, it doesn’t take long before he has a story to accompany the action on the screen. The Big Red One, a chronicle of the exploits of the First Division during World War II, sparked lots of commentary.
“If you are going to be one, you might as well be a big red one,” he mimics Lee Marvin’s oft-repeated phrase. “That’s what they used to say . . . The First Division patch was a big red numeral one. The big red one . . .
“You know, I was with the First Division in Germany,” he adds, having waited almost ten minutes into the movie before informing me of this salient fact (of which I had forgotten until this moment).
“The First Division made three major landings during the war: North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy,” he starts again. “I remember in Germany we had a kid in our unit who’d been with the First Division through all their major campaigns, only this kid was really dumb . . . probably one of the dumbest people I ever met . . . Anyway, one day we were having an inspection and this General . . . General Hubner, a three-star, I think, was reviewing the troops. He came upon this kid, Corporal Allison, I think was his name. The general had a command with the First Division during the war, so he asked Corporal Allison how long he’d been with the First Division. This kid said he’d joined them in North Africa, landed with them in Sicily and again in Normandy. The general looked at me and said: ‘I think this man should be a Sergeant.'”
“What’d you do?” I ask after it appeared this was all to the story.
“I promoted him. I was only a first lieutenant, and I didn’t know what else to do. You learn real fast though . . .”
He doesn’t elaborate on what he needed to learn or what he could have done differently. In fact, he barely pauses before launching into another story. He appears to be on a roll now, ignoring the movie completely. “You know, that story reminds me of this other guy, a guy we had in our regiment at Fort Campbell; this guy had won the Medal of Honor during the war. He wasn’t quite as dumb as Corporal Allison, but he had his problems as well. About every six months or so, he’d go on a toot, raise all grades of hell, and get busted back down to PFC. He’d work his way back up to corporal or sergeant and then get in trouble again and get busted again . . . he’d been in the army forever. You could do that back then . . . But the reason I remember this guy was because of inspections. I remember he always looked sharp for inspection, spit shined and everything. And he would show up with just his combat infantry badge, his jump wings, and the Medal of Honor around his neck. He didn’t have any other insignia or medals . . . didn’t even have a good conduct medal.
“These days, they make you get out if you don’t advance quickly enough, but back then it was different; a guy could stay in twenty years and never make Sergeant. It was a totally different army back then.”
You might wonder, as I did, if today’s army is better or worse off without such crusty characters. My father surprised me by saying that the army of today is far better than that old army that saved democracy. “It is better educated, better trained, and better prepared. We are much more selective these days. These days, they won’t take anyone who doesn’t have a high school diploma. Back then we had guys who were functionally illiterate, and a few who couldn’t read at all . . .”
I ponder this one for a minute and then return my attention to the movie. “Why do they have their chinstraps undone all the time?” I ask a moment later, wondering if the Hollywood guys had made a mistake.
“To avoid a concussion if a round goes off too close.” So they hadn’t screwed up after all.
And then, after a moment’s thought, he is off on a helmet tangent. “In Viet Nam, we used our helmets for everything: to wash, to shave, sometimes you even ate out of it. Often times, you even slept with it on. You practically couldn’t live without it.” After a brief interval, he continues in this vein, telling me about the markers on the back of Lee Marvin’s helmet. “That’s so the guys behind could tell who was the squad leader or the platoon leader.”
Before the movie ends, he passes on many additional tid-bits. I learn what a barrage balloon is (a decoy for rockets launched by the Germans). I also learn why planes circled during a jump. “They used the old C-47 and you could jump out of only one side of them. Guys on the ground were a lot more spread out because of that. They’d circle the landing area to try to keep them closer together.”
He also reminds me that cigarettes used to be included in rations, an interesting statement on how our culture has changed. Finally, I also learn a technique for safely discovering and disarming land mines (it’s not as difficult as you might think; you find yourself a very long pole and push it front of you).
He provides more instruction as we watch a soldier clean his rifle. “They used the old M—1 rifle back then. The M—16 was still a few years away . . . I remember the M—1 from West Point. It held eight rounds. Loading it was tough. When you put the rounds in the chamber you had to get your fingers out quickly. I remember people were always having it close on their fingers.”
These days, the M—1 is used as a drill rifle; I remember it from my own experiences. “It seemed like an anachronism to me. It’s heavy as hell and looks more like a Revolutionary War musket than anything else. I can’t imagine it being used in modern times.”
“Actually, it wasn’t until after the Korean War that they switched from the M—1 to the M—16 . . . Viet Nam was the first war that we used the M—16. It was a big improvement over the M—1 . . . but sometimes, change comes slowly. I remember when I was in Germany, we were still using a lot of the War I equipment. I remember we still had the water-cooled machine gun, the A1-19. The Army started using it in 1917 . . . It was a bear to handle.”
Near the end of the movie, Lee Marvin and his company liberate one of the concentration camps, and Dad offers another interesting historical perspective. “I remember my dad telling me about them. ‘gruesome’ was the only word he used to describe them . . . You see, when the war was over, Eisenhower made everyone see the concentration camps. He wanted everyone to know what had happened, wanted them to see for themselves . . . he didn’t want people to forget what happened. He was a pretty smart guy, Eisenhower.” At times like this I feel like I’m sitting with the Smithsonian’s resident historian.
Of course, as the movie ends, our protagonists are all heroes as they liberate towns and pass through cheering crowds. It’s typical Hollywood stuff, I suppose, but it reminds my father of his own experience–not as a conquering hero, but as one of the cheering crowd. “I was seventeen when the war ended. I remember everyone was running around and celebrating when we got the news . . . VE day really wasn’t all that big because we were still fighting in Japan. But then, VJ day came a couple months later . . . That was the big one . . . ” His voice trails off again as it fills with emotion. I am always surprised it affects him so much when he talks about those times.
“I remember the day it ended,” he resumes a moment later. “We had football practice that afternoon. Word traveled around that the war was over and the coach canceled practice and said to go home and celebrate . . . and in town there was this spontaneous celebration. The whole town came out. Everyone was there . . . Never seen anything like it. Nothing was planned, but there was a parade, people dancing in the streets, the old veterans in their uniforms. People drove around honking their horns, kids set off firecrackers. And it just happened. It was completely spontaneous . . . a huge party . . . a huge celebration . . . it was really something.”
“What about the way it ended, using the atomic bomb?” I ask, referring to the controversy which has developed years later.
“Lots of people now say it was a bad idea, but they weren’t there. It is very hard to understand how it was . . . We’d been through a lot in four years. We all remembered Iwo Jima and Okinawa . . . the Bataan death march . . . and the Kamikazes had just started around that time . . . The war had been all-consuming for years. It had been a really difficult time. . .”
After reflecting for a moment, he resumes his discourse. “We thought we were going to have to invade Japan. We thought there would be another D-day just like the one in Europe. After Germany fell, a lot of units were re-deployed to Japan. The idea of invading Japan was scary . . .
“So when they dropped the bomb, we all thought it was good idea . . . the war was finally over! It was an incredible relief! All that mattered was that the war was over. We didn’t think of anything else . . . Plus, we didn’t know anything about atomic weapons back then, not like we do today.” My father has little tolerance for people who try to re-write history, people who try to evaluate decisions made long ago using today’s knowledge and values. “It’s real easy for people to look back and criticize. That kind of thinking just doesn’t work,” he says about as emphatically as he can.
The conversation flags for a moment, but the TV is still on and there is an advertisement for coming attractions, something about the battle of bulge, which, of course, catches his attention. “It is the story of the 106th,” he explains. “They took a bunch of guys from aviation outfits, made a unit out of them, and then tucked them away in a quiet sector–in the Ardennes–and that’s where the Germans hit . . . great story. . .
“You see, when the war started they put a lot of effort into training technical people: pilots, radio operators, and so forth. But after D-day, the losses really started piling up and they realized what they really was needed bodies. So, they started pulling guys out of pilot training and putting ’em on the front line in Germany. I knew a lot of those guys, guys from my home town . . . One day you’re in pilot training. The next day, you make a wrong turn during a flight and you’re on the way to the German front. That was the 106th. . .
“I remember too when all the guys came back to Gardner,” he resumes a moment later, jumping forward in time again. “They all had stories to tell . . . And the next year I started at West Point; all the instructors had stories, too.”
Although not his own, these WWII stories are among the most repeated. One story came from a Navy friend he met somewhere along the way. “This guy told me about falling asleep during the Normandy invasion . . . Everyone knew something big was coming in the days before. They just didn’t know when or where. There was a lot of tension in the days leading up to it. Nobody could sleep for days . . . Anyway, during the invasion, this guy was below decks on damage control detail. Well, nothing happened to them luckily. So, he waited below decks with nothing to do . . . he had a radio, so he could listen to the bridge . . . and he could hear the planes and the bombing . . . and before he knew it he was sound asleep. Slept through the rest of the invasion . . . Can you believe that?”
I think I’ve probably heard the clicker story at least a couple dozen times. “Before the Normandy landing, they gave all the troops these clickers. You used them to identify yourself; they made a little noise that sounded like ‘click-click’. If you heard someone coming you hit your clicker, and if you didn’t get a response, it was probably a bad guy . . . Anyway, this guy heard a noise in the bushes and he hit his clicker. He didn’t get a response, so he hit it again, and waited for a response. And then he heard from the bushes: ‘Click-click damn it.’ The other guy had lost his clicker.” He thinks this is just the funniest story; he never tires of telling it and laughs heartily every time he does. I enjoy hearing it again just to listen to his reaction.
“I heard that one from Maxwell Taylor at the Military Academy . . . Maxwell Taylor . . . He was the commandant at the time.” He appears to be drifting again, but then becomes firm again. “Maxwell Taylor was a genuine American hero. He commanded the 101st during the Normandy invasion . . . We all knew who he was, and there he was in person telling stories about the war. And there I was, an eighteen-year old kid from a small town in the middle of nowhere. I was in awe. Maxwell Taylor was one of my heroes.”
For a moment, I catch a glimpse of why he chose the army as a career. The war heroes were so much larger than anyone else, larger than movie stars or athletes; after all, they had literally saved the country from a horrible and uncertain fate. Everyone knew what they had done and were extremely grateful for the tremendous sacrifices made.
Another commercial follows, and we listen to John Paul Jones recite his famous line: ‘I have not yet begun to fight.’ “I remember one of my instructors at West Point talking about that,” Dad interjects again. “He said there was a marine standing next to John Paul Jones at the time; the marine had been fighting for about twelve hours and was tired as hell, and when John Paul Jones said his famous line, the marine turned to the guy next to him and said: ‘There is always some dumb bastard who doesn’t get the word.'”
Sometimes we continue chatting long after the movies are over; his spigot can run for a quite a while afterwards. The discussion will ramble, completely beyond our control as we drift from topic to topic, from current events to the old times (if we talk long enough, the conversation always gets around to the old times), the stories often ending only because of the lateness of the hour. And so it is tonight; we halt the conversation and wander off to bed. There will be more stories later; there are always more stories.
Sometimes I figure my father should have contracted as a Hollywood consultant after retiring from the army. Whenever we watch together, he continually points out mistakes.
In some movies, like Rambo, the mistakes are too obvious; they can’t possibly have a consultant. “The North Viets had Hueys too,” he comments after Rambo (single-handedly) captures an enemy helicopter, which looks suspiciously like one of our own. “And the parts were interchangeable with ours,” he quips after Rambo makes a quick repair and flies off in the stolen vehicle.
And Rambo, like almost every other Viet Nam movie it seems, can’t get the landscape right; when Rambo travels from the delta to the highlands in just one day, he protests vigorously: “It’s just not possible. They are hundreds of miles apart.” I think little things like this irritate him all the more as it was his war.
Nevertheless, despite such egregious errors, he still enjoys the Rambo movies (unlike most Viet Nam movies which put on a slant that just sends him “into orbit”). In fact, there are many light moments as he pokes fun at Rambo’s extraordinary prowess. “Rambo has twenty-five tons of TNT in his grenades. His grenades are the very best, worth ten of your ordinary grenades. And his M-16 shoots more bullets than anyone else’s. Of course, he’s Rambo. I’d expect no less.”
Although he doesn’t take Rambo too seriously, it still gets under his skin that Rambo never consults his superiors, never consults anyone in fact, before making an important decision. When Rambo has an anxious moment as he contemplates his predicament, Dad hollers at him. “Why don’t you check with the general?” And it really upsets him when they switch back to the war room, and the general is answering phones and looking befuddled.
“Generals in war rooms do not answer phones,” he says rather emphatically. “There will be some captain or major or maybe even a colonel to answer the phone, but a general would never answer the phone.”
“Typical Hollywood,” I comment.
“Typical bullshit,” he clarifies.
After Rambo records his fifth helicopter kill and there is another fiery crash, he straightens things out once again. “Never seen a helicopter blow up like that–and I’ve seen a bunch crash.”
He does make a concession, however, when Rambo brings down yet another helo with an M—16. “Now that can happen . . . I remember one time in a helo, we got hit in the gas tank . . . a guy shooting up at us with a rifle . . . It didn’t blow up, thank God, but we had about five minutes before our fuel ran out . . . we just barely made it.”
In fact, he often tells me what an adventure riding in a helo was. “I usually went up in a helo during a firefight. You need be able to see all the action and direct it; a helo is a good place to be. But, whenever you rode in a helo, you always took two flak jackets with you, one to wear and one to sit on . . . You look underneath one of those choppers and there were bullet holes everywhere . . . I spent a lot of time in a helo, and most of that time we were getting shot at . . .” Four clusters on his Combat Air medal attest to that fact (although even that understates it since he got the medal and the four clusters in first six weeks, and “would have had twenty if I hadn’t told them to quit sending them.”)
Of course, every movie seems to have many of the same mistakes. The most common is putting your troops too close together. “Spread out! Spread out!” he hollers at the TV screen. “You’re gonna get all your guys blown away with one mortar round.” And they are always forgetting their helmets. “Put on your hat! Put on your hat!” he yells during crucial moments of the battle.
For some reason salutes are also important to my father–and most actors’ salutes are not good enough. “That’s a pretty shitty salute,” he often complains. Hollywood also considers details with uniforms unimportant as well, and their mistakes are glaring for a career army man. It might be the right uniform but the wrong time or maybe something is missing or in the wrong place. “He fought in Korea supposedly, but he has the First Division patch on his right arm . . . You could wear a unit patch on your right arm if you were in combat with them,” he explains. “I wore the Ninth Division patch after Viet Nam . . . but the First Division never fought in Korea.”
And, of course, in so many battle scenes, things go like clock work for the good guys. But, of course, it’s not really like that, the situation is usually much more complex as my father readily points out. “When they call in an air strike,” Dad comments, sarcasm in his tone, “the pilots know instinctively where to go, and they always fly right over the good guys and tip their wings on their way to bombing the hell out of the bad guys . . . But battle scenes are generally more confusing . . . I remember the pilots wanted us to mark the friendly positions with smoke. In the jungle, it’s not so easy to tell the good guys from the bad.
“And the air strikes are not usually that decisive,” he adds, trying to dispel another fallacy. “My lieutenants liked to call in air strikes. They’d lay down smoke . . . Go 200 yards to the left of the smoke and hit that bush. But an air strike lasts maybe forty to forty-five seconds . . . Artillery is the way to go. My guys didn’t like it because it wasn’t as accurate. But you could shoot it all day long.” I suppose, it is like he said earlier, sometimes war can be pretty simple. It might be more glamorous to go for the head and draw blood, but it’s the constant body punching that really wears out your opponent.
And, of course, as we all know, Hollywood takes a number of liberties when the battle ends. Soldiers mill around the battle field, either exultant in victory or dismal in defeat. Often there is some stirring soliloquy which is supposed to teach us something about war or about ourselves. “Doesn’t happen like that,” Dad says in a voice that sounds like it’s been there many times. “Usually one side is fleeing–and often the other is pursuing.”
Few movies get off without some criticism; the only one I can remember to completely avoid such treatment was Platoon, the story which followed a platoon in Viet Nam. I thought perhaps it too had stretched the truth a bit in a few places, especially when the soldiers came close to burning a village and stringing up all the villagers–as if this were the wild west. I knew my father would be quick to jump on anyone who unfairly put the army in a negative light, but he surprised me again, saying that kind of thing could happen. “You have to understand the circumstances, however. These guys had all seen their buddies killed, they were scared as hell, and they didn’t know who the enemy was . . . It didn’t take much to set them off, but you couldn’t let it get out of hand though. You had to step in very quickly before it did.” He tells me this as if I should be on the lookout for crazed GIs.
Even Private Ryan, the movie all the critics said was as real as it gets, had a number of mistakes, the basic premise being the biggest one it had to overcome. “We never would have sent a unit off after one guy just after the D-day invasion. Things were too touch and go at that point . . .
“And the blood and the flying body parts flying were a little bit overdone . . . everybody spills a quart and a half of blood … doesn’t always happen. Some guys do die with a lot of blood but a lot don’t . . .
“In fact, sometimes can it be pretty hard to kill. I remember one time when we were in training at Benning. They laid down artillery in this empty field. They wanted to impress us with all this firepower. It was maybe a five minute barrage . . . and when they finally stopped and the smoke cleared, here came this deer bounding out of the woods. I don’t know how it could have survived. But then, I don’t know how some of those guys at Normandy survived either . . .
“And General Marshall,” he continues his critique of the movie as the general appears in a scene, “is wearing a silver star. But General Marshall never won a silver star. He never fought in combat, in fact.” Who else would have known? I wonder.
“But I will say this for Private Ryan, you do get a sense of what war is really like . . . They did a great job capturing that. It is very confusing . . . nobody knows what the hell is going on half the time. Usually there is too much noise to hear. They had that right . . . Plus, Tom Hanks dies in the end, so it’s gotta be real . . .
“You know,” he tells me after a pause, “someone once described war as hours of boredom followed by seconds of terror. It’s not a bad description. You can get a pretty good sense of that from this movie.”
“In the end, I think movies like that are good, movies that show how war really is,” he continues, in a more reflective now. “You know, my father never talked about combat, but I think people need to know what it is like. I think if you are able to talk about your experiences, you should. War teaches you how fragile life really is. You never know when things are going to change; you just never know . . . Things can change so quickly.“
Finally, I have to add one movie omission that bothers me: in all the Viet Nam movies they always forget the APCs–armored personnel carriers. My father mentions them so often, I don’t see how you can have a Viet Nam movie without them. But then, I wonder if Hollywood has even heard of APCs.
Actually, despite all of his descriptions I’ve never been too sure what it is myself. The name makes it sound like a tank, and in fact, it could do tank-like things, but I know an APC isn’t a tank; they couldn’t use tanks or tank-like vehicles in the delta, and unlike tanks, APCs had no problem with the terrain; they could climb river banks and zip right through rice paddies.
“I remember the rice farmers used to build dikes around the paddies. They would be about two or three feet high and made out of mud. The paddies would get as hard as a rock during the dry season; we’d go right over them in an APC, kind of like you would a very large speed bump. And when the monsoons came and the paddies flooded, the APCs would just go right through the dikes; mud would splatter everywhere.”
The APC was also something used to travel around his sector; my father was always talking about taking them down the road (in fact, I believe it was primarily used as a troop transport). “My kids always went too fast,” he often tells me, making it sound like their joy-riding around the neighborhood got a little out of control. “I kept trying to slow them down. I’d tell them there is a big difference if you hit a mine at forty-five miles per hour than at twenty-five. At twenty-five there is a chance you might walk away, but at forty-five, the chances are real slim. But they were scared. They wanted to get off that road as quickly as possible.” He suddenly stops, and then shakes his head as if it was a lesson learned too late for some.
I imagine you’ll never see that depicted in a Hollywood movie either.