The World War II Recollections of Paul W. Fleming
Panama was full of the Sanblas Indians, and you always knew them when you saw one because they were a breed apart, short and very colorfully dressed. They didn't look at all like any ordinary Panamanians. They were quite handsome little people, really. The men were about five foot tall and the women were about four foot something, and they had good features and they were husky and very short legged. I guess something about their lives on the Sanblas Islands made them that way, always sitting down and rowing canoes between the islands. Also, they wove some very pretty rugs and blankets and serapes and things like that and sold them to the people in Panama and of course to us too. I had a number of souvenirs when I came back from there.
Anyhow, I was mess officer for a while out there in the jungle, at that airfield out by Madden Dam. The mess boys were all these Sanblas Indians. Here's the kind of problems I'd run into with them. One of those mess boys would come up to me and tell me that I should get rid of the chief; they always had one guy they called the "chief," and he was supposed to boss the other fellows around and keep them in line. Well, so this guy didn't like the chief, and he thought he could be a better chief. He was telling me that "the chief smoke marijuana and get drunk all the time," and so I should replace him and make this guy the chief. I checked into it and I found out that the guy who was smoking marijuana and getting drunk all the time was the squealer here. You ran into things like that.
There I was, just twenty-four, and I had all this responsibility. It just comes natural. You know where you stand, you know where they stand. I had to make decisions, and do things, and things would come up. One time the commanding officer got madder than hell about something to do with the communications section, and he told me I'd better get it changed in a hurry or else. He had quite a bad temper, this Nathan Abbott his name was. He wasn't a vindictive guy -- he didn't just do mean things to show his authority or anything like that, but when he got mad about something he was mad, and I wasn't about to cross him! And here he was, mad as hell, and so I went back to the section and I typed up a memo about this thing whatever it was, and I made each guy read it and sign it. What I told them is that we were on the spot with the commanding officer, and he wanted us to do this and we better damn well do it, and I wanted everyone to make sure they knew about it. That's how you handled things like that.
I had about thirty guys in my communications section, and there wasn't enough work there for thirty guys. One time I took a poll and said, "If this were run like a civilian business, how many men would it take to run this thing?" As it came out, the average guess was between eight and ten. But of course you don't run things like that in the army, because if we got in combat everybody would be quite busy with one thing or another.
There was one guy from the deep South in my section, a tall, thin, dark-haired fellow about six feet tall, but he only weighed about a hundred and forty pounds. He was really a nice kid, but there was a kid from New Jersey that didn't like him and was always humiliating him and beating up on him. The southern kid came to me one day and said, "Lieutenant, I don't think you know all this, but this fellow," and he mentioned the guy from New Jersey, "he's bigger and stronger than me and he's always humiliating me and threatening to beat me up and slapping me around, and I'm not big enough to take him on physically. But it's gonna stop one way or the other. I think you better transfer one of us because I swear by God, if he keeps it up I'm gonna kill him." He told me that. And so I transferred that other guy out.
There was another guy, Andrews, who considered himself quite a lover boy. He had a little mustache, and I think he had a Panamanian girlfriend; probably she was a prostitute or a blue moon girl. Anyhow, we had some troops out there on the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, and that of course would be an extremely isolated place. I had to send somebody out there. This Andrews really didn't get along with the other guys, so that gave me a good opening. He complained to me that he wasn't getting along too well in the section, so I said, "Well, in that case, Andrews, I got news for you, I'll transfer you out to the Galápagos Islands." Oh, he just went all to pieces! He said, "No, no, not out there, Lieutenant, no, it's hell out there! There's nothing to do, it'll drive me crazy. I couldn't take it out there!" He carried on like that, and then I said, "Oh, and you think somebody else is gonna have a ball out there, and you're gonna sit back here with your girlfriend." I sent him out there anyhow. It wasn't hell at all, it was just boring.
There was another guy in the section, a little Jewish fellow, Katz, from New York City. He had been a schoolteacher, and he was always complaining to me that he couldn't find anyone to fraternize with, because he was used to more educated, more intellectual types of people. None of the guys around there were that way at all, of course, and so he was always complaining that he couldn't find anyone to buddy up with. I told him, "Well, Katz, you know, in a situation like this you should just thank God that you're not out there with a rifle being shot at, like so many others are, and I think it'd be good for you to change your attitude toward the rest of the guys, there's a lot of nice fellows here and they work and get along pretty well, and you can get along well too, but you'll have to change your attitude about you being up there and they're down here." He said, "Well, I don't know if I can." As it worked out, he just stayed there till the war ended.
* * *
I thought I'd be in Panama for about two years, and then they'd send me to the Pacific. But they just kept me there. Actually, in the war, they kept a person wherever they thought he was getting along all right, doing some good, and they just left it that way, and since I was part of that training command, they just left all the guys like me there. People were coming and going all the time, but the guys who were in the training command just sort of stayed put.
I remember three things that happened at France Field after they moved us from Madden. One night we were sitting there in the officers' club, having dinner, and I heard some guy hollering, "Help! Help!" Of course we all thought some guy out there in the bay was just clowning around -- people do that sort of thing. Geez! A little later on we found out that some guy had drowned out there and nobody did anything about it because they thought he was just clowning around. I sure felt bad about that, because I was an excellent swimmer and I had a pin from the Red Cross that said I was a senior lifeguard. I felt really bad about that.
But there were a lot of other incidents that happened down there. Here's one: we had a guy who was the personnel officer for the squadron. In other words, he was doing paperwork, and he was one of these intellectual guys with black-rimmed glasses, not very big, about five feet eight and a hundred and fifty pounds. A pencil pusher. He didn't get along very well with the pilots. He'd been talking around the officers' club, and he was saying that most of these pilots didn't have any brains -- if they did, why, they'd be down here directing things instead of buzzing around up there in those airplanes. He'd talk like that, and so the pilots kind of had it in for him.
Now, we had a raft out at Gatun Lake. We all went swimming one day, and we swam out to the raft and started horsing around. He was along, too, this guy who had passed the word that brains are what count in this world, and not muscle. There was also this one pilot, a real husky guy whose name was Alhouse. I used to think of him as "All-Man," because he was about six-one and quite muscular, husky, and he had a crewcut. I'm not sure if this Alhouse had been directly insulted by this guy or not, but he came up to him and said, "What do you really think? Do you think muscle is what's important, or brains?" So of course this guy spouted off again, "Brains are what count in this world -- muscle, hell, that doesn't count anymore, it's brains that are important." And Alhouse said, "No, I think muscle is more important . . . muscle is what really counts."
So he grabbed him, and pitched him into the drink there, and when the guy swam back to the raft, Alhouse reached down and dunked him under, and he held him down for a little bit, and then let him up. He said, "What do you think now is important, brains or muscle?" "Brains!" Down he went again. And that went on for about three times, and this Alhouse was holding him under a little longer each time. Finally when he let him up for the last time, he said, "What's important? Now what do you really think? What do you really think?" "Muscle!" He let him back up.
Mostly, though, there was nothing to do, so the guys were playing poker all the time. Sometimes a game would get completely out of hand. The table stakes were more than they should have been, and some of the guys were good poker players and some of them were bad. The first thing you know, a little handful of the guys had all the money and the other guys were writing IOUs. One of the guys that wrote the most IOUs was a good friend of mine, a captain and a pilot -- he was gambling with his glands, not his brains, and pretty soon he was in to me for about a couple thousand bucks! His name was Leonard Hammonds. They called him "Lum." He was a real nice fellow. And good Lord a'mighty, one day something went wrong with his plane, and he spun in and was killed. Well, things like that were happening all the time, but he owed me all this money and here he was dead. So, the commanding officer came to me, and he said, "I know all about that poker game" -- he played too once in a while -- "What are you gonna do about it?" I said, "Well, I've seen a picture of his wife and his kids, I'm not gonna do anything about it. I'm gonna forget about it." He said, "He owed some other guys money, too." And I said, "Well, when they see what I've done I hope that they do the same thing because I was his big creditor." And so everybody did agree that they wouldn't pursue the thing, and I wasn't happy about it because I had lost money previously! But here this guy that owed me all the money was gone. Anyway, I was still ahead, so I just let it go.
After that happened they stopped the game, but there were a couple of other guys that still owed me money. One of them was a captain named Mullins. He was supposed to start paying me off on paydays, and the first payday came and went and he didn't, so I told him, "I know that you're a career officer, and you want to keep your name clean, but you better come across with that money." The next payday he did, he paid me off.
And then, even when I was sent back, there were some other guys that owed me money, smaller amounts, and most of them didn't pay me anything, except one guy. Michael Yake, from New Jersey. Now, this guy hated my guts because I always beat him in poker. He never spoke a civil word to me. And I never said anything -- even when I left I didn't say a word to him about anything. And I'll be darned, I got back to Minnesota, and the first thing you know came a check from him. Paid in full. I kind of thought that he would come across and pay me because even though we weren't friends he was a very honest type of guy, and a debt was a debt with him. I always thought that he would pay it, and he did.
Throughout the war I probably won around ten thousand dollars. I say I won that much, I didn't collect that much -- I collected probably about seven thousand bucks. I had quite a reputation there as a poker player. I think the reason was that I did everything I could to keep those guys confused. Sometimes I would bluff, and other times I wouldn't. And they never knew when. And the other thing is, I watched the cards as they fell. We played mostly seven-card stud and I watched the cards. If I had a pair of kings, and then another king came up, I'd realize that I probably wouldn't get that third one. But most of the guys were so emotional about their money, about losing it, that they weren't playing on a practical, scientific basis. They were just playing on an emotional basis. They believed in luck. One night, a bunch of guys came over from one of the other squadrons, and they said, "I heard you got a hotshot poker player over here. We'd like to try our luck." So they came over, and I walked away from that table that night with six hundred bucks!
Except for poker, though, there wasn't much for us to do down there. The longer the war went on, the more friction there was between people, and the discipline was starting to break down too, for that matter. We started to have situations where some of those guys were sick and tired of being in the service and they didn't want to be down in the tropics anyhow, and so they would rebel and refuse to do something they were told to do by an officer, and he'd turn them in, and then we'd have a court martial.
The threat was always that they could send you to North Africa, or to the Pacific. If a pilot screwed up bad, for instance, he always ended up over in the Pacific area. We knew that there were much worse places to be than Panama, but you got so doggone bored down there in that heat and everything that you didn't care anymore. A lot of guys said, "Send me somewhere, send me anywhere, I want out of here." Most of the guys felt that way; they'd volunteer for about any change if they could. Even to go into the combat zone. They didn't like being locked in down there, in Panama, in that training command.
We had one old fellow, though, a guy from St. Louis named Ruben, another middle-aged guy. The guys would say, "Geez, I wish I could get the hell out of Panama," and he'd always say, "Just relax, pretty soon this war'll be over and you'll be all in one piece and then everything'll be fine, and that's a lot more than most of 'em can say." And he was right, you know. We should have just considered ourselves nothing but lucky, but nobody seemed to think that way at the time; they were always griping and wanting to get out. (Remember, this was a war of kids. Most of the guys were in their twenties, or younger. This Olsen seemed like an "old guy," and he was in his early thirties. There was a guy by the name of Primm, "Pappy" as we called him -- he was in his forties. And then the colonels and generals were guys in their fifties, probably.)
In January '45 I got a break, and was sent back to the States for thirty days of rest and recuperation. Again we ended up on a small ship and the weather was extremely bad, so bad that almost all of us were vomiting on the first day and had the dry heaves the rest of the trip. One of my bunkmates had happily told me on the day before the storm that he was so ecstatic about going back and was to be married. After the fourth day of extreme turbulence, a pale and very sick lover boy said, "Remember I told you how glad I was to go back and get married? Well, if I could snap my fingers and be back in Panama right now, I believe I'd do it." I hope his bride didn't hear that! Even some of the crew were sick and they confided that they were worried about the safety of the boat.
Getting back to St. Cloud, back to my family, was a real thrill. We had a very nice visit and took some pictures. Two of my brothers were off in the war. My brother Bob was a medic with Patton's Third Army over in France and he saw a lot of action with the mechanized tank divisions, thundering across Europe. My brother Tom was in the navy, stationed on a little island off the coast of Greenland.
Meanwhile, back in the States, things sure were different for soldiers by then. No more people buying you drinks, nothing like that anymore -- no, they were sick of the war and they were sick of soldiers, sick of the whole mess. I did get to see some of my old buddies, and I heard about the others who were off fighting the war. Quite a number of guys from the band got killed before the war was over; they were the ones, of course, that were kicked out of the band when those hotshot professionals took over. You heard those stories all the time. That's what it was like to be home.
The thirty days were great but soon I was back in Panama. So there we were, just a training command. . . . Sure, we were important, we were doing something that had to be done, besides guarding that canal, when it needed guarding. At first the guys thought they were missing out on the action and the glory, but I didn't hear much talk like that later on when the casualty list started to grow and the guys saw what they were getting into, and decided it was better just to stay put.
You were always really sad when you found out another guy from home had been killed. The news came about every month. A lot of my friends from St. Cloud were killed. A kid by the name of Francis Gray had done infantry OCS at Fort Benning, and he was in on one of the initial shock waves that hit the beaches on D-Day. He got killed very shortly after he was over there. And Billy Sharon -- he was a pilot, and he spun in. I was well acquainted with Denny Booker; he became a pilot and was killed. LaVerne Hart was another guy that went to infantry school and became a second lieutenant at Fort Benning; he had been in my car pool at St. John's when we drove back and forth out there, so I knew him quite well. He was killed shortly after they hit the beaches in France. The same thing happened to Booker Bowes, who grew up right across the street from the old Cathedral Church: he got into the infantry, and was commissioned, and was killed off in the sweep across France. . . . You always felt sad when you found out some guy got killed who was a friend of yours from back home, and you couldn't help but think, I'm so lucky to be out of all that.
In '44 the U.S.S. Benjamin Franklin, an aircraft carrier, came through the canal. We all went down to look at it because it had been in the news so much. It had been hit by those kamikazes -- a couple of them crashed right into it. Boy, they really blasted that baby to pieces. It looked like a wreck! But it was floating. I think what they did was make emergency repairs on it, probably right after it was attacked, but it wasn't a fighting vessel anymore. Too much of it was gone.
I'd already seen some of the bad stuff. Shortly after the war broke out I was still in the Bay Area, of course, and I developed an infection. I had to be sent to Letterman Hospital, in San Francisco, and I spent about ten days there. At that time, all those guys who had been banged up in Pearl Harbor were in that hospital, that being the closest one to Hawaii. I looked at all those guys -- young guys, my age -- hundreds of them, all torn up, with both legs blown off, or both arms gone, and some of them were paraplegics. . . . And they were the lucky ones! The rest of them were down in the water there, in Pearl Harbor. Oh, my heart just bled for those poor guys, because I knew it just as well could have been me. That's when I realized what war was really all about.
The worst horrors, though, are always in the field -- infantry, and combat engineers, and marines. The casualties were just unspeakable when they retook those islands going up the chain there towards Japan, and those battles were ferocious, to the death. We lost thousands and thousands of guys on each one of those islands that we had to recapture. And that's the kind of thing I wouldn't wish on anybody.
* * *
Germany was knocked out of the war in the spring of '45, but nothing really changed too much for us because then we went into training for the Pacific area. Yes, we were all supposed to be going into the Pacific. I remember they sent out a training movie that we all had to go to, and it said, more or less, "All right, all you guys that have been sitting in these places where nothing much is going on, you're gonna go see some action now. We're gonna send you to the Pacific, because the Japanese will fight to the death, and we've got a lot of fighting to do there yet, there's still gonna be a big long war, and we need all the men we can get over in the Pacific area."
This was demoralizing to all of us, especially to Clemmons, our physician. He was important -- he had taken special training to qualify as a flight surgeon, and flight surgeons decided if or when to remove or reinstate flying personnel when there was a question about their physical or mental status. Clemmons was a very popular guy on the base. His parents were first-generation Italians, so maybe they changed their name from Clementi or something; anyhow, he could speak Italian really well, and he would talk with these Panamanians. He could almost switch from his Italian into Spanish, they could almost converse -- not quite, but he understood most of what was going on and he would translate for us. And so I went to town with him a number of times, and we'd run into situations where they would be jabbering something in Spanish, and he'd tell us what they were saying. For example, I already mentioned these blue moon girls in the bars. Clemmons could kid them in something pretty close to their native language. Once in a while we'd buy them a drink but most of the time we'd tell them to get lost, and if they cussed us out he'd tell us what they said, usually something like, "These damn cheapskates."
This physician, though, didn't fit the military mold very well and was anxious to get out of the service. He got pretty drunk one night late at the officers' club, which had walls made of a cardboard-like material. He started punching holes with his fist, about a dozen of them. "This place is full of rat holes," he said, every time he struck another blow. A couple of the fellows finally grabbed him and dragged him off to bed.
The next morning the base colonel saw the carnage and demanded to know who did it. He was a "by-the-book" West Pointer who was not liked because he had arrived early in '45 and was always issuing orders regarding dress code, military discipline, saluting, and so on, orders that we considered "strictly chicken" and unnecessary. When nobody admitted to making the holes, he was furious and started questioning us one by one, but everyone just said they weren't there and didn't know. So to smoke the perpetrator out, he decided to confine all officers to the base until he got his man. None of us were talking, because the colonel was very unpopular, plus the squealer would've been ostracized by all the other officers, and "Doc," who was popular, would have been court martialed. After about ten days, the colonel gave up and rescinded the order. He couldn't court martial everybody on the base, but he made us all attend a meeting where he lectured us about chain of command and duty as an officer in the army.
Shortly after this incident, I was put on a court martial board to decide the fate of a corporal from the motor pool who had told his boss, a warrant officer, to "go to hell," and refused to obey a direct order. The only defense he had was that he had been a carpenter as a civilian, was drafted, and considered himself misclassified, as he hated the motor pool. We found him guilty, but as I recall, all he got was three months in the brig. Early in the war, it would have been different.
So there we were, preparing to go to the Pacific, and then bingo! the Japanese were knocked out of the war. We first heard about the atomic bomb within about a week of the time it went off. The first one went off and that didn't end the war, so they had to send a second one off. Hiroshima first, and then it was Nagasaki. When the second one went off there was still a period of about ten days where nothing happened, and then the Japanese surrendered.
We had an ongoing party for about three days. We had all expected to be sent over there, and now we knew we wouldn't, and now we all had plenty of points for getting out in this system they had. So even though morale had been pretty low, it didn't exactly collapse, because we knew they were going to get us out of there and get rid of us as soon as they could -- they just had to set up the mechanism to do it.
So now the only thing to do was get back to the United States, and they did that on a point system: if you'd been in the army this long, and overseas that long, you got so many points. Of course, all the guys like me on the training camp down there had points running out of their ears, so we were highly eligible to be sent back to the States. But it didn't happen that way, yet. They kept us there for a couple more months.
From then on, of course, discipline was terrible. Terrible! I drew officer of the day one time, and I was making my rounds, and here was this guy lying on a bench, snoozing away. And this was the sentry! Well, technically, we were still at war, and he could have been shot. But I didn't want the poor guy to be shot, so I made a lot of noise and started singing and whistling in the postal place. He got up and shook his head and grabbed his rifle and acted like he was alert -- I watched him till he did that, before I approached.
And that's when we were having other discipline problems, too. One time I was the only officer and I had to take a bunch of guys to visit the brewery down there, in Panama City, and I knew there was gonna be trouble, I just could tell, because they gave the guys all the beer they wanted when they got there. I told them when we started out, "OK, the minute it gets rowdy and you guys start raising hell, we're going back, we're getting out of there." But they did get pretty rowdy and didn't want to leave, and I told them I'd have to put them all on report if they didn't get in line, but. . . . Early in the war you wouldn't have had that kind of trouble -- once you told them to do something, they'd have to do it. But they were getting very undisciplined toward the end of the war. The guys were all sick of it.
© Michael Fleming