What's the use remembering?
Those years have grown vague,
shriveled to mere sentiments,
the pup tent shelter-halves folded
in some tax supported dump
rotted by time and mildew
until unsalvageable for sale as surplus
even as playthings
for a new generation of kids to camp beneath.
That fiction in which
we came by accident together
is still referred to as a war
much the same as spears and bows
were once the ordnance
when men died like heroes
defending causes only scholars can recall.
And ours is fading too,
those planes we downed spiraling dark ghosts.
In Texas we memorized the nomenclature of guns.
At Oragrande we aimed at sleeves
towed by B-24s,
those flying boxcars nicknamed "Liberators"
are now as antique as Maxwells.
The sand got in our food and eyes
while the radar never seemed on target.
Thus we missed by miles
the coveted bullseye-fuselage.
To test our stamina
and raise blossoms of blisters on our feet
we trudged thru sand for thirty miles
each week backpacking all our gear.
The sweat trickled down our necks.
Those who fell in this prior battle
the ambulance conveyed like stagnant meat
to rear echelon soft beds.
The survivors congratulated their tired shanks.
Bare as knuckles mountains hemmed us in
with their rattlesnakes much dreaded
whether we blundered like unconverted recruits
or drowned our minds in watered beer
in downtown El Paso or across the bridge
spanning the Rio Grande
in despicable Juarez,
where every pimp drove a taxi
and strummed a monotonous guitar.
Our troop train crossed Texas
like a file of snails,
day and night and day again.
Half a continent it seemed.
In Camp Polk, LA I goofed off
with ivy poison on all my limbs
and watched Van Lingo Mongo
pitch sixty-three strikes
without so much as one foul tip.
In Alexandria, Louisiana
wives turned whores
as soon as hubbies shipped out.
In mud we groveled thru maneuvers.
The open ranges bred hogs in our tents
nosing for garbage and delicacies from home.
Was it blue against grey
when we were practicing war?
The blanks made a dull sound.
Our respite with a swimming pool
proved a short reprieve.
Entrained again we took the seaboard route,
ready now to serve God and country
with our bodies added to our words.
Northward toward a Hudson pier
we rolled thru Philly
two fantastic blocks
from my abandoned home.
My near-septuagenarian comrades,
between your aging aches and rose-colored remembrances
can you conceive
the anonymity of Camp Shanks
filled with anxiety and happy Italianos
from surrendered Africa
who rode in the same tin can on wheels as we
every evening to Manhattan's neon frolics
for three nostalgic weeks?
Was this the high point in our lives,
going overseas more expensively
than most of us could afford
were we to try it on our own?
All the luxuries gutted from the Mauritania,
we bunked in hammocks in the hold
like freight with gnawing rats; the undulations of the sea
rocked us like a lullaby each night
as we zigzagged thru contagions of submarines and whales.
The dolphins entertained like acrobats
more agile than our ship.
On deck the sea stayed green
while nurses in flirtation sashayed.
The captain from the bridge
encouraged haste at our three daily drills
in case we were attacked.
Americans, we mocked his British speech
and cursed the limey grub.
Off Ireland the gulls, rambunctious,
kept soaring from their rocks.
We knew the world was round and not all sea
and soon anchored like a tooth in the Mersey's mouth
debating with a fog until by noon
it lifted like a curtain
astonishing our eyes with emerald hues.
Our liner then was slowly tugged
until it bumped against a dock.
Unarmed as yet in Liverpool,
England was a foreign land
though the language sounded
like our own. The coaches of the train
were smaller, the midland towns
in coal dust smothered, the chimneys
seemed to gurgle with every puff
of smoke from Stoke-on-Trent to Leek,
yet Arnold Bennett wrote novels in this grime.
Re-equipped in a makeshift bivouac,
the mattresses were stuffed with straw,
the shower worked
by pulling on a chain,
and the hills were laced
with stone piled walls.
In town we shared our fish and chips
with tykes and drank dark beer
and ale in family pubs.
Did Shakespeare awaken
from his immortal nap
when our tractor convoy
rumbled thru the Stratford streets?
One night in rainy Dorchester
we heard ourselves called Yanks
by English girls we danced with
in some dilapidated hall.
All along the route they cheered with fingered Vs.
At last on Weymouth's beach
with the menace of barbed wire
facing the Channel's ebb
and reminding us that Keitel's Wehrmacht
planned an invasion here,
the Dorset coast that Cooper Powys loved
and Hardy knew by heart,
we chugged across the sand
to LSTs with lifebelts round our waists.
Loading our tracks with cans
of Navy beans and meat
we lingered off the Norman shore
an extra half a day
awaiting a tide high enough to disembark.
The code name UTAH still applied
to our designated site,
and when we motored down the lowered ramps
the stench of death hit us like poison gas.
Still visible in the low tide
were rusted bows and sterns
of capsized landing crafts
whose contents probably drowned.
We tried imagining
the lethal pellets pouring
like a rain of terror
from those well-placed pillboxes
so white impregnable along the ridge above us.
On that first day the bombs
bounced off the reinforced concrete
and not until our harbingers
crept inside with swirling flame
were those Kraut gunners shorn from the scalding
metal of their 88s. We landed in their wake,
our engines roaring where corpses
on that day by hundreds fed
the sterile soil with gross fertility.
For exercise we beat the daylight
with the heavy butts of our Garands
until the sun removed its face.
Then darkness followed like a sudden blot.
The hedgerows screened the skeletal remains
of the few lingering Huns.
Sante-Mere Eglise, where paratroopers hung from trees
and John Wayne grinned with his fake Brigadier star,
screamed for pity from its unthatched walls.
We waited for St.-Lo and Caen to fall
craning our necks beneath the sky
to watch the flash of silver-winged
B-17s, bomb loaded, flying past.
The buzz enthused us like our national anthem
until a carrier pigeon cooed the word
the German line caved, undone
by a thousand bombing planes
and we hoisted our big 90s on their wheels.
We made the movie World At War.
Actors without knowing what we were
we sped toward Paris
thru narrow village rues,
then down the Champs-Elysées
like heroes which we weren't.
We basked in the sunrays of a million bravos.
The drab occupiers gone, those Parisians
seemed to prance like mustangs on the loose.
Now our turn had really come
with Paris tapered to an echo in our minds.
France was jubilant and free.
We crossed to Belgium winding toward Dinant,
then stopped to dig ourselves in deep
near the west bank of the unpolluted Meuse.
Sporadic fire in the cool darkness of a field
indicated the enemy was near. Trepidations
drove us to stacked sheaves of corn for sleep.
The dawn came early lacquered with a heavy dew
and everything we touched was wet.
Yet the sky was clear and roared
with treetop '47s soaring for a prey;
and we were glad to have them on our side,
and felt some pity for our adversaries
whom we pictured cringing under their assaults.
Now married to these swooping killer birds
the war was ours and theirs to win at last.
It made all life a groveling.
Deeper than graves we gouged the earth that low
and fitted those dirt walls with timbered bunks,
a sliding door for exits and entrances,
and electric lights that functioned day and night.
The sun had no existence now
unless we walked into the pit
where our big gun was sprawled
encircled by a platform of perforated steel.
The moonless nights were grim,
the outpost foxhole a damp and pasty slime
and anything that moved a suspect Kraut.
Thus cows and birds too handily were shot
and shadows called a paratroop attack.
Who was brave? Who was really scared?
One could never tell the hero from the shirker.
Yet once inside the dugout dorm
we nearly choked on cigarette smoke.
One night a Stuka dove to blot us out.
The siren shrieked us from our bunker dreams
except for Sergeant Nick too blenched to budge.
We manned our dials and breech in underwear
and hauled the 40 pound fused ammo round the pit.
In minutes our long fluted barrel
like an irascible wide-mouthed dragon
was spitting tongues of fire at that German
until his screeching dive became a spin of flame.
In snow we stood while Bastogne held
and once the sky had cleared our planes
made smithereens of that anomalous aggression.
Spring came, we learned of Malmedy and wept,
then headed for the Rhine to test
the Sigfried Line. Near Rhineberg
we settled on the Nazi soil
and joined a hub to hub fierce fusillade
toward Düisburg in the factoried Ruhr.
Self-propelled artillery sat behind us,
105 and 155 howitzer projectiles
whistling a few feet above our heads.
They zipped and zanged thru that warm air.
At first they seemed too close until
we ourselves triggered our own trajectories.
The business of war's small details can distract
one's mind from what would otherwise be feared.
The Hun took punishment without response.
The RAF "Mosquitoes" struck at night,
mostly at Berlin. Their going and coming
was an hour's purring overhead.
We wished them luck, that is, a safe return
from our cratered ground. Those crewmen boxed
in lightweight wood had no way of knowing
how much we felt for them. We had come from
our west continent to supplement the fire
storms they raised because their own U.K. was blitzed.
One afternoon in spring, as bright as any
August day, a soft ball game in progress,
the message came, someone shouting
from across the field for volunteers.
We dropped our gloves and bats. But I,
unshirted, was diverted to my dugout pack
to clothe my sunburnt torso and when
I returned to that playing field the jeeps
were gone, my best intentions a small futility.
Our bombers had been striking deep
that afternoon. And even while we played
our heads burned skyward to watch the basebound flight
formations, made now and then uneven
by a missing plane. We wondered where
they went down, who parachuted out,
who stayed inside the crumpled hulk and burned.
One ominous "Liberator" crash-landed
in our ammunition dump.
It had not burst to flame, and yet
the odds were that it would. And thus
the volunteers were called to move the crates
of our inflammable fused-shells a few safe yards
away. But I had missed the call because
I had no shirt and by this accidental
negligence had probably saved my life,
for that smashed plane soon altered to a match
and six G.I.s fragmented into heroes.
The war was soon to end, we knew:
Roosevelt dead, the movies lavish
on an outdoor screen, Gershwin
writing "Somebody Loves Me".
Tchaikovsky wincing in his grave. A pontoon
bridge buoyed us across the Rhine-Red Sea,
the tank traps in the Siegfried cordon
chipped concrete by now, and Battery "C"
became half-sickly drunk on buzz-bomb booze.
In Wuppertal the girders were a paper twist.
No house in Düsseldorf was seen as roofed,
while fields of broken trees and stumps
contained in inert death those horses
who served the swastika for lack of fuel.
This was the cost that made so meaningless
sheer victory or defeat in war.
On V-E Day in Heerlen for a rest
I clasped a Dutch girl in a chivalric hug.
It was in Rhinish Düren, as I look back,
that house after house was bitterly contested.
The rubble which we fingered cautiously
was booby-trapped, for those retreating Jerries,
despite Stalingrad and Caen, retained a penchant
for revenge. But no one tripped a wire
and we motored down the Autobahn
toward the Weser south of Hanover
to Frankhausen as military police.
My time was spent upon a cross of streets
directing a traffic of bicycles and carts.
It was all so friendly I wondered why
we went to war. The girls invited us
into their homes and beds with husbands
uniformed as dead or prisoners in frames
on the mantelpiece. It was a duty
none of us regretted until the British
in their lorries came as our relief.
Now the post-war season had begun
and we moved south into mountainous Bavaria.
"Deutschland Uber Alles" was hardly
so pompous anymore judging from
the haggard POW faces drifting
past on roads we traveled. The uniforms
were stained and torn, and yet the men themselves
fortunate the Russkies had not caught
them in the vises of their pincer strategies.
Near Berchtesgaden we decamped
in a prisoner compound divided
into four distinctly separated sections
for Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, and S.S. men and women.
We were their guards and supervised fatigues,
though the S.S. stayed confined behind
wired walls while the Luftwaffe
had bus service into town each day.
And it was above this town where Hitler lived.
But Hitler by this time had died
his bunker death with terrible Ivans swarming
all around. He died for his own hubris
but took too many millions with him
for even God to forgive or
Mephistopheles to be amused.
I heard the news while in a boat rowing
on scenic Königssee and felt
neither elation nor relief,
since months, happily not years,
still lay ahead before I'd be homeward sent
in that small ship riveted
by Rosie named "Liberty".
Also, I was as yet much too
duty-tied to the darkest A.M. hours
flood-lighted in a wooden tower
to keep those prisoners in docile order
inside their link-fenced plazas.
Those nights I held a carbine loaded
with a clip, but thought about
another world and time as I read
The Education of Henry Adams in
the artificial light. By day, once rested,
I had a Fraulein blond whose Vater
flew one of Goering's planes, my life
a microcosm more or less of yours,
Dear Comrades, in that fairy tale reality we lived.
A thousand feet beneath the Führer's Berghof,
now devastated by an English bomb,
we gathered for a track and field event
in the local stadium. Two rows below
us sat Generals Taylor and George Marshall,
an unexpected sight, a vaunted twosome
of the power-elite, soon joined by
pistol-packing Patton with a flourish of sirens
and motorcycle escort for his limousine.
Patton saluted stiffly and Marshall,
without insignia from V.M.I., merely
shrugged, the difference in their characters
so clearly advertised. And wasn't it
old "blood and guts" in Tunisia
who slapped a neurotic G.I. in a field hospital
and later pushed his infantry towards Metz
without artillery and tank for their support
resulting in their decimated ranks?
From Berchtesgaden to Munchen isn't far.
We crossed the Isar and occupied
the Brown House where the Munich Pact was signed.
(Was Chamberlain a fool and Hitler
simply the century's principal buffoon?)
We slept and ate our chow next door and walked
the Leopoldstrasse with guns beneath our coats
in shoulder holsters because some soldiers
had been mugged amidst the desolate debris.
Yet what is best retained about this glum
Bavarian capital where Mann and Rilke
once lived and Acton went to school after
Cambridge squelched his bid, is the Königsplatz,
still wide and paved where everyday I jogged.
For coffee and doughnuts we preferred
the Hofbrauhaus, so dear to Nazi lore
of the Putsch in '23 snafued and now
innocuously staffed by girls of the U.S.O.
The Junge who worked our kitchen had halitosis,
yet all the kinder were friendly and on
the Brown House steps we had a rendezvous
one Sunday to go to Stadz Stadium
to see a football game which I was
prepared to explain play by play,
or so I judged their interest as we crowded
inside the tram. Americans
were playing and the stadium was full.
But those young Munichers had other
motivations. A small platoon they were
all armed with paper bags I hadn't noticed.
At kick-off time they disappeared. But where?
With minutes left in the fourth quarter
they reappeared joyfully contented,
for their bags were full. The little scavengers
had spent the whole two hours collecting
cigarette butts for their tobacco-famished sires.
One night I felt so damp and cold on duty
in the Brown House I started a fire
with gasoline in a can to keep
warm, not really endangering the building,
yet was reprimanded by the O.D.
who had recently come over from
West Point, I believe, and being new
could not solicit a salute from me
or any of the elder combat vets.
The faces in our battery were changing now.
A point system based on length of service
and battle stars began sending some
of us home. We who stayed could almost
count the days to when we too would leave.
Traveling the Alpine countryside
we traded cigarettes for fresh eggs
and rode captured horses like Gene Autry
past outcrops of stone until our backsides ached.
Yearning for the States, I took a furlough
via the Paris-to-London boat-train.
There I met the red-head Gwendolyn
at the Marble Arch Red Cross whose magic
wand turned me to a three-week boarder at her family home
in Camberwell. We visited Raleigh's cell
in the Tower and rode a taxi to
a play by Daphne du Maurier
on Shaftsbury Street, then slept the whole next day.
Back in Normandy I stayed in Etretat
a week loving the pebbly beach where
the kings and queens of France vacationed.
Now there were fishermen's nets spread out to dry.
In Paris I missed the Folies-Bergères
but spent a whole half hour gazing down
at Napoleon's black tomb, then sought
the hunchback among the gargoyles of Notre Dame.
At Gare de L'Est I boarded my Munich train.
No sooner had I returned than it was time
to leave. Old prune-face, our Cap, was gone.
If he had smiled it would have wounded
his fair cheek and then he would have been
decorated with a Purple Heart. E.,
our gunner, was muscular but weak. I once
tested him in a wrestling match.
T. smoked too much; S. dreamt football laurels,
while B. from northeast Philly was my best friend.
The war we won was over and Japan
was on her knees. Yet Germany
and France still had to be traversed.
Near Le Havre we camped eight to a tent
and one girl with venereal disease
who'd take a bar of soap for any
service she performed. Once aboard
our ship the Atlantic's wintry waves thrilled us
like a roller coaster from Brittany to New York.
At Camp Kilmer and Indiantown Gap
we said goodbye to all that we
had grown accustomed to in those three years.
Goodbye the 90s and the tracks, the fifty
caliber machine guns and Garands,
the Eisenhower jackets and campaign hats
that sat so smartly tilted on our heads,
but kept the Lugers and the memories
polished for reunions in Valley Forge and Cincinnati.