There is a vast difference between any popular conception
of a thing and - what really happened. I was reminded of this
when a young friend in today's Third sent me a copy of "Spearhead,"
the current division newspaper published in Frankfurt, Germany.
There is a line-drawing on the front page, purportedly cartooning
a WWII tank crew being feted by liberated French or Belgians,
and it is a nice hunk of work, but it ain't quite the way I remembered
Our artist of 1974 depicts a pretty rough looking crew, and
that's par for the course. All are hearty, well-fed, mature types.
One seems to be wearing a beard and another, sans helmet, much
hair on his headbone. The welcoming girls, plus one liberated
gentleman, are pressing bouquets of flowers on the tankers. What
Well, first things first. The populace certainly offered flowers,
but it was almost unknown for any welcoming committee to lack
bottles of wine, champagne and other booze, plus ripe fruit in
season. There was always a blubbering father holding his tiny
son high in the air to see the liberators.
There were also legions of children, many of them rascally
little demons who weren't bringing a damned thing, but who felt
that the arrival of the Yanks meant tons of cigarettes and chocolate.
"Pliz, cigarette pour papa?"
And, if truth must triumph, a lot of the girls seemed to feel
that chocolate and other rations, including the much-hated K,
were ample payment for certain immortal, immoral favors. Soldiers,
as Kipling noted in an even more Victorian age, are no plaster
I suggest that you Spearhead brats, reading this nonsense
because you have nothing better to do at the moment, ask Dad
what he got in return for those God-awful chocolate bars. If
he's an honest man - he'll probably tell you to buzz off and
quit asking foolish questions.
But I stray! Artists' conceptions of soldiers, together with
the motion picture image, forever show very mature men - big
guys like John Wayne, heavy of shoulder and often a little too
full in the gut. Movies may be excused, because their stars are
all middle-aged, long past the true prime of youth, which is
a soldier's basic ace in the hole.
Studying old pictures of my colleagues in that war, one thing
is immediately apparent: we were all terribly young and skinny!
Maybe the word should be "wirey," because there's no
doubt that we were at peak as athletes. There wasn't much excess
Sure, some of the field and general officers were John Wayne
types, complete with paunch. Occasionally you found a character
like Bert Wootten of Company A, 703rd, who was built like a football
and just as hard to puncture. We were all skinny, the enlisted
men, the shavetails and the worried captains. We got stringier
and tougher as the war went on.
Next, take the hair bit. In that war, high command took a
dim view of hirsute adornment. You could boast a mustache if
you wanted, and a few did. Beards were scarce, and headbone hair
was short - or else! Going in to Normandy, a lot of us featured
Indian scalp locks or V-for-Victory cuts, but the hair was always
When you see a motion picture of WWII, with every star and
extra a big, brawny type crowned with a current mop of razor-cut
hair - count it entertainment. That ain't the way it was.
I know it is impossible to believe, especially if I lay it
on Spearhead brats, but the average tanker was a lean and hungry
man. He was young, say between 20 and 25, and he was both clean-shaven
and close-cropped. Our man hadn't an extra ounce of fat on his
This soldier of the Spearhead had been trained hard; he was
a lean horse for a long race. After a few weeks of combat, the
anvil on which the steel of any soldier's skill is tempered,
he was one of the toughest men in the world. A John Wayne he
Flowers? Come on, now! He chased girls - and caught a lot
of them; he guzzled rotgut booze and he liked to brawl with colleagues
in a bar. It seems pretty stupid now, but troopers of the 3rd
were fond of beating-up GI's of the 2nd Armored "Hell On
Wheels," just because those silly bastards thought they
belonged to the best armored division in the world. We knew better.
I'm sure today's soldiers are good, particularly line officers
and non-coms who have served in Korea and Vietnam - but those
who lack combat experience would be Sunday School boys compared
to the hardened veterans of the wartime 3rd. No other tanker
in the world was better in 1945.
So, Spearhead brat, your old Dad may be getting a mite soft
in the mid-section, and he's undoubtedly a cultured, gentleman
Study him when old comrades arrive for a few drinks and a
lot of tall talk about things that are best forgotten. Unless
you can stand a bit of a shock, don't speculate on the expression
in his eyes.
He was all man before he lost his youth. He was a skinny,
harassed, often dirty centurian who didn't look like a hero -
but was one all the same.
Not me, you understand! I just jockeyed a typewriter.