While we were sitting on our hands in England, waiting for
the big show to start in that memorable springtime of 1944, planners
decided that it would be profitable to train GI's in the use
of booby-traps. Therefore, a bunch of seminars were scheduled
and we all learned the horrifying fact that - in enemy territory
- you might well blow your gourd into the next county by touching
any strange object.
Since a practical demonstration is worth a week of lectures,
703rd TD Battalion's Col. Prentice E. Yeomans (a great soldier
who was killed during the last campaign) issued a liberal supply
of "Thunderflash" explosives, plus pressure and release
devices to trigger these spiteful little toys.
The Thunderflash wasn't lethal, but it made a big flash, a
lot of noise and a cloud of blue-white smoke. If you happened
to be very close it could burn you a bit, but not seriously.
Quite naturally we all revelled in the business of booby-trapping
our buddies, and it got to the point where you hesitated to zip
a zipper - for fear that something would go bang and scorch the
There is reason to doubt that Col. Yeomans (later C.O. of
the 83rd Recon) really intended the things to be used this way
- but he just might have been elated, because he was a very tough
cookie who believed in strenuous training. Officially, booby-trapping
was a field exercise to teach us the wisdom of looking before
touching, and the folly of lifting a land mine prior to careful
probing for the odd bug that could send you to your ancestors.
Lots of us had scorched eyebrows in those days.
In the 703rd there was a shavetail named Harold Paulson. He
came out of metropolitan New York and he never lost the unique
patois of that all-American landkreis. Paulson was a very popular
officer whose sole handicap was a tremendous sense of humor.
He walked with an exaggerated swagger, but he couldn't help breaking
up at the antics of some enlisted clown.
Lt. Paulson often played the martinet - to our intense glee.
He would stride into barracks (the term is used very loosely,
for "barracks" at Mere, Wiltshire meant a Nissen hut
with wooden bunks and straw palliasses) and bring everyone to
rigid attention while he inspected the premises to see whether
we were outwardly shipshape and sanitary, if uncouth and raucous
as he knew us to be.
Paulson was a good soldier and he'd been most thorough in
this matter of booby-trap training, so it is difficult to say
why he was caught like a rookie. Undoubtedly his mind was on
other things, like some delightful English WAAF or a transient
Red Cross butterfly, for he was fully accoutred in pinks and
obviously frustrated with delay occasioned by duty. (If Lt. Paulson's
wife reads this, I admit to being one of the world's great liars.)
Scornfully keeping us at attention, he stalked down a long
row of olive-drab bunks, seeking the lumpy conformation that
might suggest slack bedmaking, peering at the shine on field
boots - absolutely determined to find something inexcusable.
And, by God, some nitwit had left a dirty mess kit sitting
right on the end of a bunk!
Paulson never changed expression. He walked by, performed
a classic double-take, turned and came back. He stood close to
the hateful object and he gazed at each of us in turn - like
Public Enemy Number One selecting a victim.
"Whose mess kit is this?" he asked sweetly.
Danny St. John, still rigid, said laconically - "Mine,
Paulson was an absolute master of the combined smile and sneer.
Carefully, lovingly, he reached down and swept the offending
mess kit to the floor.
There was a hell of an explosion, a blinding flash and a cloud
of blue smoke. St. John, typically, had rigged two Thunderflash
units in a pounded-out hollow under the mess kit.
The lieutenant took one involuntary step back - or maybe he
was blown back. Still poker-faced, he examined those neatly pressed
pink trousers, now marred by a sooty scorch mark just below the
We were spellbound, torn between a wild desire to roar with
laughter - and aware that Paulson might confine us to quarters.
We had promising dates too.
Dead silence - but only for a moment. The lieutenant's scarred
lip twitched, and then he chuckled like an idiot.
"At ease! I should have known better than to inspect
a nut-house!" And he turned and stomped out of the hut.
And some one of our number, gasping between bursts of laughter,
said: "That crazy bastard is one of the best officers in