Back in 1944 there were a lot of times when we needed a sense
of humor to survive. You remember how it was - a bombastic declaration:
"WE got 'em surrounded!" And you illustrated by placing
the index finger of one hand in the palm of another. "Here
WE are," and then - drawing a wide circle around the palm
- "and here THEY are. WE got 'em surrounded!"
For a couple of days it was like that at Ranes and Fromental.
Patton was getting all of the headlines and Monty was claiming
immortality, as usual. Our Spearhead just happened to be in the
middle and it didn't do us a lot of good to hear about "allied
armies mopping up defeated Germans." Some of those "defeated
Germans" were shooting the loving hell out of us.
Moreover, if it won't give you bad dreams after all of these
years, you might recall that we'd had some trouble with our own
P-38 fighter-bomber support. Unlike the beloved P-47's, they
seemed intent on bombing two hedgerows short. On us, that is.
I still duck every time I see a twin-boomed airplane.
At that time our "defeated Germans" were engaged
in the business of killing and maiming a lot of good Spearheaders.
Officers were getting clobbered faster than they could be replaced,
and some kind soul decided that ol' buck sergeant Woolner could
serve as a "temporary liaison officer." No rank, of
course - just the honor of the thing.
I didn't mind, although it was always kind of scary - scuttling
around from company to battalion and up to headquarters. Not
a thing moved in the deep night, and the tanks loomed like prehistoric
monsters when you reached a leaguer. There was always a nagging
suspicion that some trigger-happy guard might fire first and
ask for a password later. It was even more likely that German
combat patrols might be prowling around in the murk.
That night the fireworks were considerable. I'd guided a company
of light tanks through our area and, some time about dawn, had
orders to skip up to Combat Command "A" where Lt. Colonel
William G. Barnwell would thrust into my arms a sheaf of maps
and orders detailing immediate operations.
To a buck sergeant, Barnwell was fierce enough. He was a harried,
industrious soldier, undoubtedly made more irritable by lack
of sleep and a tremendous work load. But I can't complain; he
was always reasonable with those of us who ran liaison, forgiving
almost anything but abject stupidity.
Trouble is, I came in that dim, befuddled hour before dawn,
and I was tired and scared. The shells were whistling in and
the burp guns were ripping. The sky was rippling with that indescribable
white lightning of artillery. So I picked the wrong tent and
busted right in, fully expecting to salute the frowning, overworked
Barnwell and get down to the business of collecting maps (with
There was some sort of light. I don't know what it was - gasoline
lantern, probably - but there stood Brigadier General Doyle 0.
Hickey. He was in his underwear and he looked like a stocky,
middle aged little bank president preparing for another day at
the office. So help me, he was smoking his pipe (I never saw
him without it), and he appeared hardly surprised.
But to me - and remember I was a lousy buck sergeant - he
was THE GENERAL! Hickey didn't need a star on his shoulder to
command respect. Frankly, I was terrified - hating myself for
a blunder, and wondering how I'd ever get out of that tent with
a whole skin, let alone stripes.
Certainly, after saluting sharply, I sputtered apologies.
The general muttered "At ease," and inquired about
my mission. He padded around in bare feet and told me where to
find Colonel Barnwell. He was a gentle man and he never ticked
me off, as he could have. I backed out, gulping, saluting - while
the general responded with an airy wave of the hand and a smile.
Barnwell was gruff, but fair as always. Concussion ghosts
rattled the canvas overhead. I brought some new maps and directives
back to Battalion, and I scrounged some coffee and C-rations
from the mess sergeant and I climbed into a hole to sleep.
That's all - excepting the fact that I have the highest regard
for General Doyle 0. Hickey as a soldier in that war. Later,
I saw him fully accoutred and imperturbable under fire.
But, sue me if you so desire; when I think of Hickey, I see
a tough old guy in his skivvies on a morning when the front was
flaming and he was kind enough to reassure a dogface who had
lost his way.