What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?

What Did You Do In the War, Daddy?

Memorial Day 2014

I grew up in the Fifties, when memories of WWII and Korea were fresh and wounds had not completely healed. Everybody's daddy had done something in the war, not that everybody's daddy liked to talk about it. A lot of men had seen horrible things that they did not share with their families around the dinner table. They found it easier to forget themselves in their work and kill the residual aches and pains of body and mind with alcohol. It was only when Vietnam rolled around in the Sixties that I began to hear stories about the Forties and Fifties, and usually they were told to illustrate the big differences between fighting in a declared war and "advising" in a policing operation; that's when the stories started coming out from the WWII vets.

When I was in the fifth grade, my friend Paul Horovitz bragged that his daddy had flown bombers over Germany during WWII. He wore a red shirt to school with his daddy's service patches stitched on its sleeves and showed us an 8mm film of a German fighter being shot down. It was a fragment of a few frames that wouldn't fit in a projector so we had to hold it up to the light and squint to see it. Then when we moved to Jekyll Island in '65, I had a friend named Ricky McLaughlin whose daddy had been in the army unit that had liberated Hitler's Eagles Nest in Berchtesgaden and torn off the front door knob as a souvenir. When we played army, we played for reals with Ricky's daddy's helmets and daggers and walkie talkies and medals. It distressed my mother– who was raised by her ultra-orthodox Jewish grandparents– to see me running around the neighborhood wearing a German helmet. All of which prompted me to ask my daddy what he did in the war.

My daddy graduated from Benedictine in 1947, too late to take part in WWII with Arthur Horovitz and Ricky McLaughlin's daddy. But when the Korean Conflict rolled around, he and a bunch of his pals enlisted in the Air Force, since the Mighty 8th was the most prevalent military presence in Chatham County at the time. My father never set foot on Korean soil, mind you; he was shipped out to Sewart AFB in Smyrna, Tennessee, just outside Nashville, where his newly wedded bride was bivouacked in an apartment. If the North Koreans should make it as far as our eastern seaboard, my father and his pals were ready to cut them off at the Grand Ole Opry.

When they arrived at Sewart– which had been built in 1941 to train B-24 crews– my father did not find the accommodations to his liking. He and ten thousand other airmen were living in conditions that weren't fit for chain gangs: huts without any heating or fans, no electricity, rotted wooden cots and shoddy plumbing. They hadn't a proverbial pot nor window to throw it out of, and complaining was useless– unless you wanted to find yourself in even worse accommodations: a surplus tent left over from the war. When he could stand it no longer, my father put in a call to Walter Winchell and suggested he come down to Sewart to see the deplorable manner in which America's fighting men were being treated.

Walter Winchell reporterWalter Winchell was a newspaper and radio gossip commentator who was syndicated in more than 2,000 newspapers with a daily reading audience of more than 50 million people. His radio program was the top-rated show in 1948, ahead of Jack Benny and Fred Allen. Walter was considered by his foes and targets as arrogant, ruthless and cruel, which was a bad combination if you came down on the wrong side of Walter. He was infamous for betraying confidences, of which he once said: "I get my stuff from people who promised somebody else that they would keep it a secret." In his day, Walter Winchell was a greater influence than Oprah Winfrey, Rush Limbaugh, CNN and Fox put together. When Walter spoke, America listened.

So my father calls Walter Winchell to rat out the rat-infested dump otherwise known as Sewart AFB and Winchell launches an all-out attack against the disgraceful manner in which servicemen were being mistreated by the federal government, saying on-air that he had it on the authority of men on the ground that their situation was in dire need of improvement. And the next day the Air Force brass are runnin' around bumpin' into one another trying to shield themselves from the shitstorm of abuse being rained down by congressmen and at the same time trying to find the source of the leak. No one wants to look bad, no one wants to be left holding the bag, and no one wants enlisted men complaining about anything.

That's what my daddy did in the war: he ratted out the command of Sewart AFB. Not that he won his comrades anything in the process other than an extra blanket, mind you. All the government did was run around waving their arms and making loud proclamations and more empty promises.

Thinking about my father's escapades during the Korean Conflict strikes a familiar note with the burgeoning  over the mistreatment of ailing veterans who've been left to die by one of the most corrupt and incompetent agencies in this nation. It is a goddamned national disgrace the manner in which veterans are treated. Heads should roll, flunkies should be imprisoned, and the people of this nation should demand that this broken system be fixed. It's Memorial Day: Remembering the dead is important; remembering the wounded is even more so. 

Where the hell is Walter Winchell when we really need him?

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