The Cold War on the Rhine. A writer-journalist's day book--sort of. If you've found this place, you know the way.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving 1958

Nike Ajax at White Sands
Battery A had been stationed in Germersheim for almost a year and the guided missile battery was performing with extraordinary reliability and precision.  As Thanksgiving approached, a number of us had just returned from a practice and test firing of Nikes at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.  A full crew from the assembly, fire control, and launching sections had been flown over to the range to assemble and fire four missiles.  It was kind of a proficiency test.  It was flawless.

The battery commander, Capt. Earnest Tietke, was elated and wanted to give the battery personnel and their dependents a special Thanksgiving.  He arranged for the mess hall to prepare a lavish turkey dinner for the men with special attention to the families of the career soldiers in our unit.  Most of us were draftees who were not married and had no dependents.  Our battery happened to be on full alert that Thanksgiving Day.  The four batteries in the missile battalion were on full alert on a rotating basis, which meant that men were on the equipment and could fire missiles within five minutes of receiving a prepare to fire command. 

The launching control console where I ate Thanksgiving dinner.
For me, it meant sitting with a headset on monitoring the status of the four launching section on a console and with communications checks.  We pulled 24-hour shifts during full alert status, so there was a lot of unauthorized chatter to drive off the boredom and some unauthorized dozing.  Although, the slightest noise over the headset or blink of light on the console brought one to full attention.  It is a skill acquired by many, many hours of practice.

This is the kind of van in which I had Thanksgiving dinner
On this Thanksgiving Day, crews that were not working the equipment were assigned to come down and relieve the men on alert duty so that they could go to the mess hall and enjoy the dinner for an hour.  I waited and waited that day, and it became apparent that no one was coming to relieve me.  I called the orderly room and asked if someone was coming to relieve, and the duty sergeant discovered that someone forgot to  make the arrangement.   He connected me with the mess hall to see if someone could bring a plate of food down to the control van. The cooks said they had run out of food because so many people showed up, but that they'd see that I got a nice, hot meal.

Two of the cooks for our mess hall were draftees, also.  One of them was a baker and pastry chef from Brooklyn.  The other was a man whose family ran a restaurant.  They both were using their Army experience to hone their professional skills.  The baker had made an arrangement for the mess hall to get flour, yeast, and fresh eggs instead of the bread and powdered eggs that were shipped in.  He made fresh bread every day.  The other  man, who had supervised the roasting of the turkeys and the preparation of the Thanksgiving dinner, was always trying something different for the  troops.  When we had German-American Day once when Germans were invited onto the post, he barbecued an entire beef.  Both of the men were convinced that good, carefully prepared food was essential to the morale of the troops, particularly at an isolated post such as ours. 

Eventually a runner from the orderly room showed up at the launching area gate with some mess trays wrapped in towels.  He said here is your dinner.  The cooks had heated up some left-over roast beef, put it on some of that fresh-baked bread, and covered it with gravy.  It was probably the best hot beef sandwich I ever had.  They included cranberry sauce which they had cooked, a big plate of pickles and other relishes, and a thermos of freshly made coffee.

I may have been forgotten out there in the launching area, but the special  effort of those cooks was something for which I was very thankful.   That meal on that Thanksgiving is one of the warmest memories I have of that outpost  on the Rhine.

A side note:  As I said the cooks had arranged to get fresh eggs instead of powdered ones.  Sometimes they had more than they could use, so they hard boiled them and pickled them, and sent them over to the enlisted men's club for the men to have something to go with their beer.  This was also a special treat to the men, who quickly devoured them.  However, beer and pickled eggs create certain gastric conditions in  the human which can make a squad room where 24 men sleep a hazard area.  What is hazardous is the struggle between those who open the windows and those who shut them because they get cold.  You can imagine the circumstances for yourselves. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The night the Gypsies invaded

Over my lifetime,  I have encountered Gypsies, or Roma, if you prefer, numerous times, but I find it hard to get a factual grasp of what comprises Gypsydom.  They inspire a kind of romantic sense of freedom and joy and they helped create flamenco music and dance.   Homecoming at Northern State University in South Dakota, where I taught for 20 years, is Gypsy Days, and the celebration takes up a Gypsy motif.  On the other hand, some people have said they pick pockets, kidnap babies, and do other things that ain't couth in western culture. 

My fondest memory of Gypsies came in regard to Sgt. Jody.  (That is not his real name, but it is close enough.)  Sgt. Jody was a young non-commissioned officer from the South who was  assigned to the launching platoon  of our missile battery in Germany.  We were never sure what function he was to serve, but he annoyed the hell out of the men because he insisted on marching them from the headquarters area to the launching area in formation and in cadence.  This was annoying because when the morning formation in the company street was dismissed, the men had all sorts of administrative tasks to attend in conjunction with maintaining the missiles.  Dismissal of the formation meant they would go to the orderly room, or the missile assembly and maintenance area, or the motor pool and pick up paper work and tools needed for what they had to do with the missiles that day.   They went about their business and just sort of sauntered down to the launching area with their materials.  Sgt. Jody thought this was very unsoldierly, so he marched them down to the launching area, and then they had to walk back to the places they needed to go for their materials, and then saunter back down to the launchers when they had the necessary information and equipment.  Sgt. Jody was convinced that men sauntering around with clip boards, brief cases, and tool boxes in their hands were screwing off.   He was only half right, 

The men harassed Sgt. Jody.  While marching, they would chant  under their breath "Jo-dee,  Jo-dee, Jo-dee" in time with the marching cadence just below the hearing threshold.  Sgt. Jody would yell "halt." stop and listen,  and the chant would stop, then resume the march.  The men, of course, had no idea what he was talking about when he asked, "Who is saying that?"  He also revealed that he had witnessed ghosts, so the men were constantly plotting ways to give him spooky experiences.  I relate this to establish that Sgt. Jody was a bit flighty of mind.

Our missile site was at a remote military base on the Rhine River at a town called Germersheim.  To get to town from the post gate, there were two possibilities.  One could walk along the roads.  Or one could take a shortcut, a path that ran through some pine groves and ran along some vacant land.  That land was a place where Gypsy caravans camped at times.  When they were present, we looked at them with curiosity but kept to our business, which was with students at the women's college and cognac at the gasthouses. 

One night a group of us were returning to post via the short cut when someone checked his watch and said we were pushing the deadline.  Our off-duty passes automatically expired at midnight, when the gates were officially closed, and anyone trying to get on post after that would be taken into custody by the military police and held for disciplinary action.  We quickened our pace from a stroll to a jog to beat the deadline, and were jogging past the Gypsy encampment.  Ahead of us about a block, we saw Sgt. Jody walking.  He glanced back when he heard a bunch of men running and broke into a sprint.  We thought his running meant we must really be late, so we broke into a dead run.

When we got to the gate, an MP was standing outside the guard shack looking bewildered.  When we came up to the gate, he asked what was going on out there.  He said Sgt. Jody ran through the gate yelling that the Gypsies were after him.  When we got to the orderly room to sign in, Sgt. Jody was there trying to explain to the officer of the day that a bunch of Gypsies was chasing him and seemed about to attack the post.  We signed in and with suppressed snickers and chuckles went to our bunk rooms.

The next day those of uswho signed in from pass together were called in  to a meeting with the battery commander, the executive officer, and the first sergeant.  They asked what we knew about the events involving Sgt. Jody the previous night.  We explained how he took off running when we  came jogging up behind him.  The executive officer asked why we did not provide that information when we signed in, because Sgt. Jody's account caused a joint investigation  by the Army and the local authorities, and some tense and confusing moments with the Gypsy camp.

We were given a talking to about harassing Sgt. Jody.  The executive officer explained that Jody had been raised with stories about ghosts and Gypsies taking babies and the like, and he had run to the orderly room to alert the guard mount that there seemed to be an attack. Our Platoon Sgt. Bradley summarized point of the meeting in his succinct way:   "Don't f++k with Jody anymore."

Sgt. Jody was a good soldier.  But Sgt. Bradley (who had been raised in an orphanage) explained that he came from very poor circumstances and was working hard to better his lot and make a career in the military.   "Don't f++k with a good man you may have to depend on someday," Sgt. Bradley said.

The harassment of Jody stopped, but we still told the story of Jody's sprint and laughed.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Clouded memories of Kristal Nacht

On the 20th anniversary of Kristal Nacht, an aged priest led a group of Americans on a tour of a town on the Rhine and recounted the attacks against Jews that he witnessed and knew about in that town on that night. Kristal Nacht (the Night of Broken Glass)occurred on 9 November 1938 marked the beginning of the Holocaust in Germany. During that night and the one following, 91 Jews were killed, 267 synagogues were set afire, Jewish businesses were ransacked and vandalized, and 200,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps.The attacks were led and carried out by the Gestapo, but citizens joined in and formed mobs which did the most destructive work of the night.

I was among those on that tour in Germersheim, where I was stationed.  My problem is that it has been 50 years since that tour, and while the images and events of that tour are clearly impressed on my memory,  it was one of two outings we took to remember and understand Kristal Nacht.  i have forgot some of the details of the stories we were told. 

Our post was isolated and small.  For those who wished to attend religious services, there was scant opportunity.  We were served by a chaplain who came periodically, but he was a protestant, a Missouri Synod Lutheran.  The Catholic and Jewish soldiers had to attend services off post if they wished to worship.  We had a number of devout Catholic men for whom attending mass was essential.  The area where we were stationed was heavily Catholic, but the church members exuded a coolness and disapproval when G.I.s filed into the church pews.  A number of us who were Protestant--or merely curious--accompanied the Catholic men to church to provide them moral support and to make friendly overtures to the townspeople.

There was a small Catholic women's college in Germersheim, and we sometimes arranged to have some students accompany us to mass, in exchange for accompanying them on post to see American movies we showed in the Special Services club.  Admittedly,  our overtures to the young women were not totally ecumenical.  A priest from the church who spoke 
English and served as a chaplain at the college was friendly to the G.I.s and he encouraged the Catholic soldiers to attend the church and he invited the rest of us to various events.  

He suggested that we might find it edifying to join a  20th anniversary of Kristal Nacht tour led by an older priest who witnessed mob actions against the Jews in the community.  The invitation came after a discussion some of we Protestant soldiers had with some college students and the priest.  I am a Lutheran.  I was in town on Reformation Sunday that year and commented that there were no services to observe that important day in the Protestant liturgical calendar.  The priest pointed out something I had not been aware of.  
The organizers of Kristal Nacht had used a tract written by Martin Luther to motivate the public into accepting and helping with the attacks on the Jewish communities.  They cited and quoted Luther's On the Jews and Their Lies (Von den Juden und ihren L├╝gen).  Among the things Luther said in that 65,000-word tract were:

  • the Jews are "full of the devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine."
  • the synagogue is an "incorrigible whore and an evil slut."
  • synagogues and schools [should] be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. 
  • the Jews  should be shown no mercy or kindness and  afforded no legal protection.
  • these "poisonous envenomed worms" should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time.
  • "[w]e are at fault in not slaying them."
 Earlier in his career, Luther had defended and commiserated with the Jews for the ill treatment they have received in the Middle Ages. What led to his vicious anti-Semitism is much commented on by historians and theologians, but Hitler cited him as superb reformer, and   On the Jews and Their Lies was used at Nazi rallies to enflame the German populace against the Jews. The book was used as a justification for Kristal Nacht, which is cited as the initial action of the Holocaust. Kristal Nacht was Martin Luther's birthday.

 There were actually two tours involved.  On a Sunday afternoon before the Kristal Nacht anniversary,  we traveled to towns neighboring Germersheim where synagogues had been burned:  Speyer, Landau, and Karlsruhe.  The Germersheim synagogue was spared.  We visited that on a dark and dank evening of the anniversary day.  The elderly priest said that there were fewer than ten Jews in Germersheim at the time.  Their synagogue was appropriated by some Storm Troopers and the people were shipped out of Germersheim shortly after.  The story of that Jewish community was that some people from the neighboring towns where synagogues were set ablaze and Jewish men were being arrested came to the town looking for refuge and safety from the raging Storm Troopers. They were told that the synagogue was not a safe haven, and what happened to them was not explained.  The elderly priest told some stories about the night, and we got the impression that he was involved in hiding the refugees.  It was a spooky night, and the stories of families torn apart and men sent off to concentration camps never to be seen again had a fitting setting.  The priest explained that some of the people arrested in Speyer and Karlsruhe were released under the promise that they were making arrangements to leave Germany.  However, many did not make the deadline and were sent to the death camps.  

Some years ago, a man I served with at Germersheim sent me a photo of a plaque that had been erected on the building where the synagogue was.  It doesn't tell the story of why that synagogue is longer there.