The World War II Recollections of Paul W. Fleming
Late in the war I got dysentery, and I was kind of ashamed to tell anybody about it. Finally, in late October or early November of '45 when I got back to the States, to that camp in Wisconsin, Camp McCoy, I went to see the squadron flight surgeon there, but he couldn't seem to do much for me. When you were discharged, if you had some physical complaint, you had to sign a lot of forms and then they'd put you on hold and just keep you there. Well, here you were, just back to the States and anxious to visit your parents or wife or whatever, and here they'd keep you there week after week after week, with nothing happening, until finally you'd sign another form and say "I'm all right" and to hell with it, and get to leave. So I could have had it taken care of, of course, but I was just anxious to get out of the service. I had that for years afterward, twenty years, till finally Doc Corbett fixed it for me.
Anyhow, by now I was a first lieutenant, but a week before they discharged me they promoted me to captain. That was done for two reasons. They looked at all these guys who had been frozen and had no chance of promotion, and they said, "This guy got screwed, so let's give him a terminal leave promotion." Also, of course, that gave you more incentive to sign up for the Reserves, which I did. At that time I thought the wars were over for a while; I wasn't worried about that at all. . . . Actually, I had mixed emotions about leaving the army. Here I'd fought my way up to a pretty good rank, and now I knew I didn't want to make the army my career, for several reasons. First of all, I didn't like the army that well, and second, a guy like me, not being a West Pointer, and not having a degree in electrical engineering or something, would be one of the first to be riffed out of the service. See, when an officer is eligible for a promotion over a period of time and doesn't get one, they kick him out. There'd be no point in my staying for five years or ten years, and getting riffed out -- that wouldn't make any sense. So I let my army career go. I think it was the right move. . . .
By the end of the war, things were different in the United States; everybody was sick and tired of soldiers. Of course we were all sick of it too, just anxious to get out of there and get up to our discharge place, and get out. In fact, when we got back to New Orleans, we didn't go tearing into town and looking for girls or anything like that. We just shot the bull and played cards a little bit. We spent about three or four days there before they put us on trains and we headed north.
* * *
Back in St. Cloud, after I was discharged in '46, I kept meeting my old buddies from high school and the Guard, and we all talked about the war, of course. That went on for quite some time. The guys would all say, "Well, where were you?" and "What did you do there?" You did a lot of talking along those lines, not really bragging or making excuses, because by then we all knew how it really was. It was all very matter of fact. They just told you where they were and what they did there.
My brother Tom told me the craziest story you ever heard after he got out of the service. Here's what happened to him. He was about to be drafted, so he volunteered for the navy -- see, that's what you could do. And after he took his basic training, they made him some kind of a radar technician, I believe, or something to do with communications, and then he went over to England along with about twenty other men. They got there shortly before the Normandy invasion and weren't allowed to get off the boat, so he never actually set foot in England. I remember him saying that there was all this feverish activity there, but they just couldn't get off the boat. Anyhow, then they took off for this little island off the coast of Greenland, Jan Mayen Island, and set up a communications center of some kind and a place to refuel fighter planes. They had one or two sailors assigned to an antiaircraft gun. Once a German reconnaissance plane came overhead and circled the island, and they fired at it, and missed, and of course that was the most exciting thing that ever happened there. Nothing ever happened again.
And there was nothing much to do there; I remember Tom talking about climbing up on these ladders and knocking the ice off the antennas. Evidently they had quite a long, cold winter there, and the men got quite close. They would play cards, and I suppose they had reading material that was brought in from time to time, but the highlight of the entertainment was the movies that they flew in. You can imagine how important movies were to those guys.
There was one commissioned officer with them, and the rule was that the movie couldn't start until the commanding officer arrived. (In the navy, they had much more of a class system than we did in the army.) This guy was what they called a "mustang" -- that's a guy that came up through the ranks. He had been a chief petty officer and then they commissioned him during the war. Well, they had this mustang in charge of them there, and this guy just turned into a little Hitler. He demanded that the head noncommissioned officer wake him up every morning at eight o'clock and bring him a cup of hot coffee -- that was just one of the little nasty things he did. He was very condescending and contemptuous of the men.
When it was time for a movie, this guy would play a little cat-and-mouse game with them. Sometimes he'd arrive on time, and they'd get to see the movie, and everything was fine, and sometimes he'd stall for about a half an hour, maybe even an hour, and then he'd arrive, and of course the movie couldn't start till he got there. These guys never knew if he'd be there on time or what, so they'd always come on time, since they were anxious to see the movie, but he'd just come when he felt like it.
These enlisted men were furious about this, of course, and so they secretly met and formed a pact, and this is how it was: they would not speak to him under any circumstances unless spoken to, and then they would cut their conversation as short as possible and just say "Yes, sir" or "No, sir," as little to him as possible. If any one of the men violated that, he would be immediately and completely ostracized by all of the other men. They typed all this out on a piece of paper and then they all pricked their fingers and signed it in blood.
So they made a blood pact! This guy didn't know what to make of it at first, and he tried to ingratiate himself with the guys, to act friendly, but they wouldn't have anything to do with him whatsoever. That probably lasted about eighteen months, until the war ended, and then they made a further statement. There's some kind of a custom in the navy that when you land at port and you get off the ship, you shake hands with your officer and thank him and so on. They agreed they were not going to do that, not a one of them, so he put out his hand, and they just turned away, and marched down the gangplank without speaking to him or saying "good luck" or anything like that. Oh, they just hated that guy. To me that was the most fascinating story in the whole war -- it wasn't about blood and guts or anything, it was just about human relations.
A few guys had it terrible, though, because they were up there facing Joe Enemy. Later on I found out that some of the guys were real heroes, but they didn't talk about that much -- no, they just told you where they were and what they did. They were all just glad to be out of it. Way back when we first signed up, everybody had expected that we'd get out after a year -- that was the agreement -- but we ended up in a war and then we couldn't get out. The guys all had stories. Another band member, a guy named Tribble, a clarinet player, was one of the ones who was kicked out to make room for those hotshot players. He said he was told to go to OCS or be sent to the infantry as a private -- that was the threat they were always giving these guys. He finished OCS but had his leg blown off by a mine in Italy. My brother Bob told me that one time he was lost behind the German lines for about three days, but he managed to find his way back without incident. He hid from the Germans in a farmer's pigpen.
Then there was this old friend of mine, Dave Beacom. He and I were the same age and had been friends all through school. He had been in the infantry over there too, in the sweep across France. He said that one day they were out in the middle of a field and approached a little frame building, where they were getting sniper fire from the Germans. So, they fired a mortar in the direction of the thing, just barely missing it. They figured the Germans would know they could just wipe them out, so they picked one of the guys, a corporal who was a good friend of the lieutenant in charge of the platoon, and sent him forward with a white flag. They figured it was just a routine thing to bring them in. They didn't know how many there were or anything, but they had no chance of getting away -- they had them zeroed in there. Then, to everybody's utter amazement, as soon as the guy with the white flag got close to the thing, the Germans shot and killed him.
Well, this young platoon lieutenant was just furious, because he liked that corporal very much. They tossed another mortar round and this one hit the building and about five Germans came running out of there with their hands up. He took them into custody, and he lined them up. In World War II there were a heck of a lot of American guys around that were first- or second-generation immigrants, so he turned to a guy in his platoon that could speak German, and said, "Ask which one of them shot the corporal." None of them would speak up, and he said, "All right, I'm gonna start down the line here and I'm gonna find out which one of you did it," and he whipped out his .45 pistol. He was just furiously angry. He started with the first guy, and he wouldn't talk, so he shot him. He went on to the next guy, and he wouldn't talk, so he shot him. He went on to the next guy, the same thing happened, and so on down the line; they were so well trained they wouldn't talk. Finally he was down to the last guy, who started trembling like crazy, and wet his pants, just lost control of himself, and pulled out his wallet and showed a picture of his wife and kids, and got down on his knees and cried. The lieutenant shot him anyhow. I thought that was an awfully sad story, enough to make you cry, but that's the kind of thing that happens in a war.
He told me another story. He said they were fighting their way through this little town in Germany and he tore into a house to see if anybody was in there. The Germans lobbed a grenade into it, but he wasn't in the room where it went off. Then this German woman who lived there came in and said, "Ach! Mein Zimmer!" And he said, "Ah, to hell with your damn Zimmer."
Then, another time when these GIs were taking this town over, they walked into a German bar, and this guy that ran the place got so befuddled that he raised his arm and said, "Heil Hitler!" I don't think he was trying to defy the guys; he just was frightened to death, he did that instinctively. But one of the guys took his pistol and shot him through the hand!
We all had our stories -- all of us, that is, who were lucky enough not to have been killed. Every time I'd go back to St. Cloud I'd hear about all the guys who had gone down in that war. You always felt very sad about these guys, a whole bunch of guys from my high school -- I could name off all kinds of them who were killed. It turned out that most of us, though, had a story pretty much similar to mine: I was real gung-ho when I first got commissioned, but the war passed me by and I was sent to an outpost and ended up in a training center, and that's how it was . . . so I was a very lucky one, really. Same thing for most of these other guys; they were in a training or support group of some kind.
* * *
Well, of course you got together with your old buddies, and we were always going out celebrating at night, quite a lot of drinking, and that went on for about the first two weeks I was there. Then it was time to get on with my life. I was anxious to start dental school, and now we had the G.I. Bill. I went down to the university and got squared away. They were already about halfway through the fall semester, so I got right into that university stuff and I had a really full schedule, because I was taking chemistry and some other things -- I was very busy.
Sure, back before the war I had taken some pre-dental courses, physics and some of the things I needed. However, I had only taken one quarter of college chemistry -- I had neglected that, and I had neglected zoology. So when I got to the university in '46, I had to take all the chemistry courses they offered, as fast as they offered them, and I had to take a year of zoology. I had to have a special tutor for the first quarter of zoology, and then I had to take a test on that before they would let me go into the second quarter, and then the third. I really didn't have any time for anticlimax.
Before I went into the service I couldn't go on with my pre-dental because I didn't have any money. That was one of the reasons I joined the army. So when I was overseas, I was about half mad, because all these guys back in the States had got a chance to go under that program they had at the time -- all they had to do was say they wanted to study dental or medicine, and the government sent them to school, and they spent the whole war going to school. The big universities like Minnesota were just full of those guys, getting their education that way.
But that was just for guys in the States. Nobody who was overseas had a chance at that. All through the war I had the thought of getting back to school in the back of my mind. It was all so different when I got there! Of course I met a lot of guys down there that I knew from the war -- mostly that I'd known before the war, I should say. (In fact, I never even ran into anybody from Minnesota down there -- no, all the guys were from Joisey, or New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles, or places like that, and I never saw any of those guys from St. Cloud Battery A again during the whole war.) I remember that when I got back on the campus of the University of Minnesota, there were some colonels strutting around there -- I guess they taught ROTC or something. I thought to myself, Thank God I don't have to look up at your shoulder to see how I'm gonna treat you. I'll treat you the way you deserve to be treated, not because I'm scared of you. I will say this about getting back into civilian life, though: it took me a while to get used to it! The beauty of the army was that you look at a guy, and you see what he's wearing, and then you know how you're gonna treat him. Civilian life is not like that -- thank God!
Anyhow, now I was much more focused, much more mature. My whole attitude was completely different. I could walk into a lecture room then, and I could tell what the professor considered important just by his mannerisms and what he accentuated and what he put on the board. I didn't have any trouble getting high marks -- well, I had to work at it, you always have to in a place like that, a big university where they don't give you anything for not working . . . but I knew the score.
That carried on all through my whole attitude -- I think I had a more realistic view of things than I'd had before. I'd seen all this stuff, and now I knew that there was a vast world beyond St. Cloud, Minnesota, that I hadn't known anything about when I was a kid. You get south of the border from the United States and things are very different.
* * *
The war gave me kind of an accelerated growing up -- I went in there a kid and was a man when I came back five years later. I had a very different way of looking at everything after I got out of the army. I was much more cynical at the end of the war than I was before it, as far as "our leaders doing the right thing," and "they're smart enough to keep us out of trouble," or anything like that. I didn't believe much in that anymore. And that's not all. The war made me realize that these things that occur are more economic than anything else. The Japanese struck out at us because they felt that they were being isolated and kept away from any potential for growth in their area, that we had shut off their oil from Indonesia, and things like that, and that's what got them into the conflict, really, although they were very aggressive anyhow. And it was the same way with Hitler -- he thought he was going to take over all of Europe and most of Russia, and be the big wheel. You're always going to have this sort of thing going on.
And as far as this "save the world for democracy" stuff, that just left me cold anymore, that's about as ridiculous as you can get. To begin with, there are a lot of places that shouldn't even have democracy, because they've got so many damn dumb people there they wouldn't know what to do with it if they had it. So the only thing they can have is a strong leader, and that's the way those places are, of course.
The service also gave me a different light on my Catholic faith. Perhaps I wasn't as accepting of some of the Church dogma as I had been before, but I was more convinced than ever that the Catholic Church is the way to go, and especially that Christianity is the only way to go, because I saw the way people behave. They need the Ten Commandments, and they need the basic Christian beliefs to govern their lives properly -- they do. Otherwise, we're just a bunch of animals running around killing each other, and having no principles about anything, just clawing at each other to get ahead in the world.
After I came back I started reading up on the Catholic faith, particularly the New Testament, and the more I read, the more impressed I was. The Old Testament is kind of a fairy tale to me, most of it, but the New Testament had quite a deep effect on me, especially when I realized that, up until the Pentecost, the teachings of Jesus would have died, even though Jesus worked all these miracles in front of the people (and evidently many of them are not recorded, because the Apostles all spoke about "many other deeds and miracles which we do not record, but these are told, in order that you may believe").
But even the Apostles themselves were mortal men, and they didn't want to get killed and that's why they deserted Jesus at the crucifixion. They were hiding in Jerusalem up until the time of Pentecost, not doing anything whatsoever about their faith or about the teachings of Jesus -- until Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended upon them and turned them into a bunch of "roaring lions" for Christianity. They all walked out of there willing to give up their lives. And I've felt that if there hadn't been a resurrection, and especially if there hadn't been a Pentecost, the teachings of Jesus would have died right then and there. There would have been no more. So it took that divine intervention to get the Church started, and to spread all over the world.
During the war, in Europe anyway, the combatants were mostly Christians, and it's extremely unfortunate that the leaders of those countries, being of Christian background, could not have gotten together and settled their differences without resorting to war. However, the Germans felt that they had been stripped of everything after World War I, and they were going to get revenge and get some of their stuff back, and the other guys weren't interested in giving them anything.
Wars are fought for economic reasons, mostly. Certainly that was the case of the Japanese -- they were trying to take over Asia, and kick the white man out, and then they would be the big cheese there . . . and Hitler wanted to be the big cheese in Europe, the whole of Europe. He wasn't satisfied with Germany -- "Today Germany, tomorrow the world!" They had big ambitions that way. It's greed and ambition and economics that bring about these terrible tragedies, and it's just terrible that people can't sit down in an honest Christian way and discuss these things and settle them, but it doesn't seem to be possible somehow.
* * *
We were kids when we marched off to war. Oh, yeah, we were gung-ho then! "This is gonna be great!" Of course, we only expected to be in a year at that time, but we were going to make the most of that. And we did everything we could to do so. When historians tell the story of a war, it all looks so neat on the maps -- here's a line of one army and here's a line of another army. Well, it's not like that. It's just chaos -- murderous chaos is all it turns out to be. Of those three hundred young St. Cloud fellows who marched to the train in February of 1941, I'd say probably a fourth of them were killed, in both Europe and the Pacific.
Everybody has a different story. Nobody's interested in stories like mine. They want to hear about blood and guts, and I don't have any of that. I don't have any act of heroism or anything like that to be proud of. In a way I've always regretted that I didn't see some more action, but I have mixed emotions about it, too. If I'd got my head blown off, or my arm, or turned into a paraplegic, I wouldn't have been very happy about that, and when the war was over I was just glad that I was all in one piece. As a matter of fact, though, if the truth be told, three out of four guys have a story just like mine.
© Michael Fleming