The World War II Recollections of Paul W. Fleming
Naturally enough, when people think of war they think of battles, of "blood and guts." The Second World War conjures up images of the U.S.S. Arizona under attack in Pearl Harbor, or G.I.'s scrambling ashore at Omaha Beach through withering machine-gun fire, or victorious marines raising the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima. Only as an afterthought do most of us think of the all-out national effort that made victory possible. Every American soldier who hit the beach represented dozens of other Americans: the radio operator relaying him instructions, the cook who fed him, the drill sergeant who taught him how to handle his rifle, the munitions worker who forged the casings for his bullets, the recording secretary for the local draft board that put him into uniform in the first place. More than any other war in American history, World War II involved everybody; it mobilized not just a fighting army and navy but all the industrial and even cultural resources of the nation. The war was fought and won on every front.
Sometimes we "won" just by being there. The vigilance of the Coast Guard kept the U-boats out of New York harbor. The Luftwaffe wouldn't risk its bombers in daylight raids against American air bases in England, knowing that they would be met by swarms of fighter planes. The Japanese could have crippled the Allied war effort by seizing the Panama Canal, but they didn't dare try; the daunting American air force and naval garrisons there would have made any Japanese attack far too costly. In the long run, all those spectacular American victories on the battlefields of Europe and North Africa and the Pacific may have been less significant than the victories that came without battles. America won the war by protecting its resources and projecting its power, whether or not shots had to be fired.
When I grew up, in the 1960s, the Second World War was still an everyday part of American life. And why not? After all, the real result of that war was that America won and the rest of the world lost. Even the other Allied nations were still struggling to rebuild. In the United States, meanwhile, we lived with all the fruits of victory -- vast international prestige, economic dominance, cultural self-glorification -- without having to live with the bitter reminders of war's real costs. The American heartland wasn't salted with unexploded shells; there were no bomb-blasted cathedrals in Casper, Wyoming. There were movies, however, and television. All of my favorite shows were about the Americans winning the war: Combat had us winning on the ground, Twelve O'Clock High had us winning in the air, McHale's Navy had us winning on the sea, and Hogan's Heroes even had us winning in the P.O.W. camps. Being an American meant winning, and it meant being proud.
One of the movies of that time was called What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? I never saw it, but I remember the title because every American kid was asking his father just that question, and I did, too. Dad was always a little reluctant to tell me his war stories in any systematic way; maybe he thought that the mostly mundane realities of his army life could never compete in my imagination with all the photogenic junk he saw me watching on TV. Little by little, though, I got the basic facts: Army Air Corps, lieutenant, communications, Panama. Maybe he didn't know it (because maybe I didn't tell him), but the basic facts were more than enough to make him my hero. Dad had served his country when his country needed him -- could any American have done more than that? What I loved best in his stories were the glimpses of real life, all the quirks and oddities that Hollywood, in its preoccupation with bombs and blood and battles, never showed me. His poker victories were as vivid to me as any medals, and he got positively misty-eyed when he told me about the taste of those tropical bananas. I was so proud that my dad had been in the war!
For years I wanted to collect his war stories, and finally, in the summer of 1994, I sat him down in the backyard and started the tape recorder running. Soon we had hours of material on cassette, all the stories I'd heard or half heard when I was a kid and many more that Dad probably hadn't thought of since the war. I wanted to put together an edited transcript and fashion it into a coherent narrative. So on July 12, 1995, I presented a preliminary copy to my father for his seventy-fifth birthday. I assumed that he'd have a few changes for me to make (the sequence of his postings in Panama, the correct spelling of "Stasiak," and so forth), but I was overwhelmed when his reading of this narrative sparked an additional flood of memories and led to more long sessions with the tape recorder.
A Story Like Mine is the product of these interviews and represents my best efforts at shaping them into a single story. It may not be Hollywood's idea of blood and guts, but it has the blood of real life pulsing through it, and the guts of fifty years' worth of reflection; I find it far more compelling and instructive than any fictional war tale. Near the end of this memoir my father proffers the opinion that nobody cares about stories like his. He's wrong about this; the fact is that I care and I always have, and so will anyone else interested in learning what war is really like for most of the people caught up in it.
I'm happy to acknowledge all the invaluable help from my two "editor gals," Mimi Kusch and Cathy de Heer -- real pros who read and corrected the manuscript with great sensitivity, and who taught me a lot about the process of translating thoughts into printed words. Suki O'Kane, computer wizard extraordinaire, helped me add the photos to the book. Above all, I'd like to thank my father for being so generous with his time and his memory. You're a hero, Dad.
© Michael Fleming