Reader Reactions & Anecdotes

09 February 2008

Remembering the Nutty Stuff

Iím deep into a project requiring me to revisit World War II, and itís a real trip, Iíll tell you. Talk about Memory Lane and total recall. More than half a century has passed since I packed away the old pinks and greens and combat boots, yet I come upon a faded snapshot, or a yellowed clipping, or the title of an old song, and itís as if it all happened this morning.

Nostalgia has its merciful side, too, allowing me to slip readily from recollected grimness into auld lang syne drollery. For instance, I was returning my 1943 Class A cap to its box, and as I made sure the visor wasnít bending, my mind went directly to that evening in Nebraska when Lt. Bill Ramsey (not his real name, because if heís still living heíd probably track me down and beat me roundly with his cane for bringing this up) fingered the visor of his cap and pulled it down over his face in abject despair.

Ramsey was Special Services Officer at a huge B-17 (and later B-29) staging base west of Omaha. He was in charge of "Base and Transient Personnel Morale" and anything that obviously played to that idea — arranging GI dances, organizing parties at the officersí club, gathering up and showing Hollywood movies, and luring USO shows and celebrities to the base for special presentations. It was a good assignment for him, since before the war heíd made his living as a nightclub theatrical agent.

Bill was very much into his job, and he was always inventing things that inevitably annoyed the Base Commander — a West Point bird colonel who was said to chew nails and spit battleships — such as staging contests to name the GI with the cutest legs, raffling off free passes to an Omaha nightery, inviting the town fathers to a ride in a B-17 flown by Jimmie Stewart, the movie star turned bomber pilot, and the like. More than once the Base Commander advised Ramsey sternly to remember this was a military organization, not a county fair.

As my job at the time was to serve as Base Public Relations Officer, Ramsey and I were often working slightly parallel shticks on the same side of the street — he providing whatever fun he could stir up for the guys, I soothing civilians inevitably riled by the presence of several thousand lusty, hell-raising young soldiers camped outside their sleepy High Noon cow town. Ramsey and I got to know and like each other. He was fond of telling me, "You and I are not warriors, Hunter. We are lovers of mankind. We make the fighting more enjoyable and peaceful."

One day he and I were hunkered in the shade of Hangar A, chewing candy bars and swilling Coca-Cola. I asked him what he was working on this week, and he gave me a big grin. He was sophisticating a great idea heíd got from a pal doing Special Services at another airbase. He was, he gloated, working with the base electrician to connect all the loudspeakers in all the enlisted menís mess halls with a record turntable in his office at Base Headquarters. Come meal times, the GIs would have their beans with the latest Big Band hits.

Knowing Ramsey as I did, and knowing the electricianís reputation for cutting corners, I had indefinable misgivings. But, what the hell. . .

Ramsey introduced his morale builder a half-hour before a Monday noontime chow call. He had played only three platters when, according to Ramseyís WAC secretary, the Base Commander burst into the Special Services Office, his face the color of a concord grape, his teeth bared in a King Kong snarl, demanding that Ramsey turn off that **** thing and get his **** ass down to the ***** Provost Marshallís office where he (the colonel) would **** well find a **** legal way to put Ramsey in his ***** place, once and for * * * * * all.

The problem, it turned out, was that the electrician had somehow wired the turntable into the rather elaborate command phone system, and just as the colonel had picked up the phone with a cheery "Good morning, General, how are things in Washington?" the phone erupted with the Andrews Sisters belting out "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen." It took the flustered Colonel and his exec all the way through the Ink Spotsí "Mean to Me" and most of T. Dorseyís "Sentimental over You" before they looked at each other and, in their outraged enlightenment, ran down the hall, shouting in unison, "RAMSEY!!"

That evening I asked Ramsey about his future. He pulled his cap down over his face and moaned, "I donít have a future. Iím dead."

"No kidding. Whatís going on with you?"

"The Colonelís working on my transfer outa here."

"Well, that canít be all that bad. Change of scenery, and like that. . ."

"But Tierra del ***** Fuego?"

I myself was transferred to the War Department Intelligence Training Center several days later, and I lost track of Ramsey in the shuffle. But if the USO ever did a show in Terra del Fuego, you can bet your shoelaces Ramsey figured in it somehow.

* * *

Then there was the post-hostilities no-fraternization order laid on us troops trying to keep order among the unrepentant Nazis in newly conquered Nazi Germany. The order came out of Eisenhower's headquarters, and it was dead serious:

Under existing non-fraternization orders, U.S. armed forces personnel of all ranks in all branches are hereby forbidden to engage in conversations with German nationals for whatever purpose. This specifically includes unofficial discussions in any language and in any locale. Violations of this order will be dealt with severely.

Naturally, most of us, from Gen. George Patton on down to the lowliest yardbird, were simultaneously outraged and incredulous. How in hell could we clean up the mess without talking to the people still living in it?

Within days the inevitable happened. According to the report making the rounds, a Third Army corporal, surprised by his company commander while bedding a voluptuous Bavarian barmaid, stood at a naked and trembling attention before his irate C.O., sputtering, "Honest ta God, sir — I never said a word to her."

The order was rescinded in less than a week.

Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.