March 31, 2016 Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye

I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried to serenade their Nazi adversaries during World War II. The ones who actually pulled it off must number, precisely, one.

James and Kate Kaminski’s little bundle of joy came into the world on June 26th 1926, in Brooklyn. They named this, their fourth son, Melvin James. James died of tuberculosis at 34, when the boy was only two. A small Jewish kid growing up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, Kaminsky learned the value of being able to crack a joke. “Growing up in Williamsburg”, he said, “I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face”.

The boy had a talent for music. He was taught by another kid from Williamsburg, Buddy Rich.  By 14 he was good enough to be playing drums for money.

Melvin Kaminsky, 1Melvin attended a year at Brooklyn College before being drafted into the Army, in WWII. After attending Army Specialized Training at VMI, Corporal Kaminsky joined the 1104th Combat Engineers Battalion, 78th Infantry Division in the European theater.  There, he served through the end of the war. Most of his work was in finding and defusing explosives, though on five occasions his unit had to drop their tools and fight as Infantry.

At one point Kaminsky’s unit gathered along a River. They were so close they could hear Jolson, BlackfaceGerman soldiers singing a beer hall song, from the other side. Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded the Germans back, singing them an old tune that Al Jolson used to perform in black face, “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”.  Polite applause could be heard from across the river, afterward. I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried to serenade their Nazi adversaries during World War II.  The ones who actually pulled it off must number, precisely, one.

Kaminski went into show business after the war, playing drums and piano in the Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs of the Catskills. It was around this time that he took his professional name, adopting his mother’s maiden name of Brookman and calling himself “Mel Brooks”.

Brooks started doing stand-up, when the regular comedian at one of the clubs was too sick to perform. By ’49 he was “Tummler”, the master entertainer at Grossinger’s, one of the most famous resorts in the Borscht Belt.  He was making $50 a week writing for his buddy Sid Caesar and his NBC “The Admiral Broadway Review”.Mel Brooks

In 1968, Mel Brooks wrote and produced the satirical comedy film “The Producers”, about a theatrical producer and an accountant who set out to fleece their investors. The scheme was to do a play so bad that it was sure to flop on Broadway, then to abscond to Brazil with their money when the play closed. Problem was, the show turned out to be a hit. The fictional play is a musical, called “Springtime for Hitler”. Even before the age of suffocating PC, I don’t know many guys beside Mel Brooks, who could have gotten away with that one.Melvin Kaminsky, 2

There isn’t one of us who doesn’t know his work. From the 2,000 year old man with “over forty-two thousand children, and not one comes to visit me” to Blazing Saddles’ “Candygram for Mongo” (“Mongo likes candy”).

Brooks has risen to the top of his chosen profession, winning the coveted “EGOT”, an acronym for the entertainment industry’s four major awards, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only eleven others have ever risen to this level: Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Young FrankensteinMarvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Rudin, and Robert Lopez.  As of this date, Brooks only needs another Oscar to be the first “Double EGOT” in history.

Melvin Kaminsky will be 92 in a couple of months. Last year, March 31, 2016, the Averhill Park K-12 School District in upstate New York kicked off a three day production of “Young Frankenstein”.  Let me know if you can think of another 92-year-old guy, who remains that current.  I can’t think of one.

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March 9, 1942 The Alcan Highway

Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the officer in charge of the Alaska Defense Command, made the point succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

Discussions of a road to Alaska began as early as 1865, when Western Union contemplated plans to install a telegraph wire from the United States to Siberia. The idea picked up steam with the proliferation of automobiles in the 1920s, but it was a hard sell for Canadian authorities. Such a road would necessarily have to pass through their territory, but the Canadian government felt the project would have little impact, benefiting no more than a few thousand people in the Yukon.

Guam and Wake Island fell to the Japanese in the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, making it clear that parts of the Pacific coast were vulnerable, and changing priorities for both the United States and Canada.

alcan_armyjeep_1942The Alaska Territory was particularly vulnerable. The Aleutian Island chain was only 750 miles from the nearest Japanese base, and there were only 12 medium bombers, 20 pursuit planes, and fewer than 22,000 troops in the entire territory. An area four times the size of Texas.

Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the officer in charge of the Alaska Defense Command, made the point succinctly. “If the Japanese come here, I can’t defend Alaska. I don’t have the resources.”

The US Army approved construction of the Alaska Highway in February, the project receiving the blessing of the Congress and President Roosevelt within the week. Canada agreed to allow the project, provided that the US pay the full cost, and that the roadway and all facilities be turned over to Canadian authorities at the end of the war.

Construction began on March 9 as trains moved hundreds of pieces of construction Alcan Bridgeequipment to Dawson Creek, the last stop on the Northern Alberta Railway. At the other end, 10,670 American troops arrived in Alaska that spring, to begin what their officers called “the biggest and hardest job since the Panama Canal.”

In between lay over 1,500 miles of unmapped, inhospitable wilderness.

The project got a real sense of urgency in June, when Japanese forces landed on the islands of Kiska and Attu, in the Aleutian chain. Adding to the urgency was the fact that there is no more than an eight month construction window, before the return of the deadly Alaskan winter. Construction began at both ends and the middle at once, with nothing but the most rudimentary engineering sketches.

alcan-highwayA route through the Rockies hadn’t even been identified yet.

Radios didn’t work across the mountains and there were only erratic mail and passenger runs on the Yukon Southern airline, what the locals called the “Yukon Seldom”. It was faster for construction battalions at Dawson Creek, Delta Junction and Whitehorse to talk to each other through military officials in Washington, DC.

Moving men to their assigned locations was one thing. Moving 11,000 pieces of construction equipment, to say nothing of the supplies needed by man and machine, was another.

Tent pegs were useless in the permafrost, but the body heat of sleeping soldiers meant they woke up in mud.Alcan Terrain

Partially thawed lakes meant that supply planes could use neither pontoon nor ski, as Black flies swarmed the troops by day, and bears raided camps by night, looking for food.
Engines had to run around the clock, because it was impossible to restart them in the cold.
Engineers waded up to their chests as they built pontoons across freezing lakes, battling mosquitoes in the mud and the moss laden arctic bog. Ground which had been frozen for thousands of years was scraped bare and exposed to sunlight, creating a deadly layer of muddy quicksand in which bulldozers wallowed in what otherwise seemed like stable roadbed.

Alcan_constructionOn October 25, Refines Sims Jr. of Philadelphia, with the all-black 97th Engineers was driving a bulldozer 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon line, when the trees in front of him toppled to the ground. He slammed his machine into reverse as a second bulldozer came into view, driven by Kennedy Texas Private Alfred Jalufka. North had met south, and the two men jumped off their machines, grinning. Their triumphant handshake was photographed by a fellow soldier and published in newspapers across the country, becoming an unintended first step toward desegregating the US military.Sims, Jalufka

They celebrated the route’s completion at Soldier’s Summit on November 21, 1942, though the “highway” remained unusable by most vehicles until 1943.

I remember hearing an interview about this story, back in the eighties. An Inuit elder was recounting his memories about growing up in a world as it had existed for a thousand years, without so much as an idea of internal combustion. He spoke of the day when he first heard the sound of an engine, and went out to see a giant bulldozer making its way over the permafrost. The bulldozer was being driven by a black soldier, probably one of the 97th Engineers Battalion soldiers. “It turned out”, he said, “that the first white person I ever saw, was a black man”.

February 28, 1944 Test Pilot

The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops.  It was the last plane to leave Berlin.  Two days later, Hitler was dead.

Hannah Reitsch earned her wings in the 1930s, as a flying missionary.  The Encyclopedia Britannica describes her as the first female test pilot in Germany.  If she wasn’t the first female test pilot in history, I’d be interested to know who that might be.
Reitsch began flying gliders in 1932, as the treaty of Versailles prohibited anyone flying “war planes” in Germany. In 1934, she broke the world’s altitude record for women (9,184 feet).  Hannah Reitsch was a German Nationalist, and her work brought her into contact with the highest levels of Nazi party officialdom.
hannah-reitschAs a test pilot, Reitsch won an Iron Cross, Second Class, for risking her life trying to cut British barrage-balloon cables. On one test flight of the rocket powered Messerschmitt 163 Komet in 1942, she flew the thing at speeds of 500 mph, a speed nearly unheard of at the time. She spun out of control and crash-landed on her 5th flight, leaving her with severe injuries.  Her nose was all but torn off, her skull fractured in four places.  Two facial bones were broken, and her upper and lower jaws out of alignment.  Even then, she managed to write down what had happened before passing out.
Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring awarded her a special diamond-encrusted version of thehitler_goering_und_hanna_reitsch Gold Medal for Military Flying on this day in 1944. Adolf Hitler personally awarded her an Iron Cross, First Class.
It was while receiving this second Iron Cross in Berchtesgaden, that she suggested the creation of a Luftwaffe suicide squad, “Operation Self Sacrifice”.
Hitler was initially put off by the idea, though she finally persuaded him to look into modifying a Messerschmitt Me-328B fighter for the purpose. Reitsch put together a suicide group, becoming the first to take the pledge, though the idea would never take shape. The pledge read, in part: “I hereby voluntarily apply to be enrolled in the suicide group as a pilot of a human glider-bomb. I fully understand that employment in this capacity will entail my own death.”
The plan came to an abrupt halt when an Allied bombing raid wiped out the factory in which the prototype Me-328s were being built.
In the last days of the war, Hitler dismissed his designated successor Hermann Göring, over a telegram in which the Luftwaffe head requested permission to take control of the crumbling third Reich.  Hitler appointed Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim, ordering Hannah to take him out of Berlin and giving each a vial of cyanide, to be used in the event of capture.   The Arado Ar 96 left the improvised airstrip on the evening of April 28, under small arms fire from Soviet troops.  It was the last plane to leave Berlin.  Two days later, Hitler was dead.berlin-wwii
Taken into American custody on May 9, Reitsch and von Greim repeated the same statement to American interrogators: “It was the blackest day when we could not die at our Führer’s side.” She spent 15 months in prison, giving detailed testimony as to the “complete disintegration’ of Hitler’s personality, during the last months of his life.  She was found not guilty of war crimes, and released in 1946. Von Greim committed suicide, in prison.
In her 1951 memoir “Fliegen – Mein Leben”, (Flying is my life), Reitsch offers no moral judgement on Hitler or the Third Reich.
She resumed flying competitions in 1954, opening a gliding school in Ghana in 1962.  She later traveled to the United States, where she met Igor Sikorsky and Neil Armstrong, and even John F. Kennedy.Hanna Reitsch, Fliegen Mein Leben
Reitsch remained a controversial figure, due to her ties with the Third Reich.  Shortly before her death in 1979, she responded to a description someone had written of her, as `Hitler’s girlfriend’.  “I had been picked for this mission” she wrote, “because I was a pilot…I can only assume that the inventor of these accounts did not realize what the consequences would be for my life.  Ever since then I have been accused of many things in connection with the Third Reich”.
Toward the end of her life, she was interviewed by the Jewish-American photo-journalist, Ron Laytner. Even then she was defiant:  “And what have we now in Germany? A land of bankers and car-makers. Even our great army has gone soft. Soldiers wear beards and question orders. I am not ashamed to say I believed in National Socialism. I still wear the Iron Cross with diamonds Hitler gave me. But today in all Germany you can’t find a single person who voted Adolf Hitler into power … Many Germans feel guilty about the war. But they don’t explain the real guilt we share – that we lost”.
Hannah Reitsch died in Frankfurt on August 24, 1979, of an apparent heart attack.  Former British test pilot and Royal Navy officer Eric Brown received a letter from her earlier that month, in which she wrote, “It began in the bunker, there it shall end.”  There was no autopsy, or at least there is no report of one.  Brown, for one, believes that, after all those years, she had finally used that cyanide capsule.

February 9, 1945  Battle of the Atlantic

The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days, ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean

The impending Nazi invasion of Poland was an open secret in 1939.  That August, the first fourteen “Unterseeboots” (U-boats) left their bases, fanning out across the North submarineAtlantic.  On the 25th the Polish-British Common Defense Pact was added to the Franco-Polish Military Alliance.  Should Poland be invaded by a foreign power, England and France were now committed to intervene.

Hitler’s invasion of Poland began on September 1.  Even then, he believed that war with England and France could be avoided, the “Kriegsmarine” under strict orders to follow the “Prize Regulations” of 1936.  England and France declared war on Nazi Germany on the 3rd. Hours later, U-30 Oberleutnant Fritz Julius Lemp fired a torpedo into the British liner SS Athenia.  Lemp had mistakenly believed it to be an armed merchant vessel and fair game under Prize Regulations, but the damage was done.  The longest and most complex naval battle in history, had begun.atlantic-convoy

As in WWI, both England and Germany were quick to implement blockades on one another.   For good reason.  By the time that WWII was in full swing, England alone would require over a million tons a week of imported goods, in order to survive and to fight the war.

The “Battle of the Atlantic” lasted 5 years, 8 months and 5 days, ranging from the Irish Sea to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Caribbean to the Arctic Ocean.  Winston Churchill would say “The Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air depended ultimately on its outcome”.

Thousands of ships were involved in over a hundred convoy battles, with over 1,000 singleusmm ship encounters unfolding across a theater thousands of miles wide.  According to www.usmm.org, the United States Merchant Marine suffered the highest percentage of fatalities of any service branch, at 1 in 26 compared to one in 38, 44, 114 and 421 respectively, for the Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Coast Guard.

New weapons and tactics would shift the balance in favor of one side and then to the other.  In the end over 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships would be sunk to the bottom, compared with the loss of 783 U-boats.

The most unusual confrontation of the war occurred on this day in 1945, in the form of a combat action between two submerged submarines.  Submarines operate in 3-dimensional space, but their most effective weapon does not.  The torpedo is a surface weapon, operating in two-dimensional space:  left, right and forward.  Firing at a submerged target requires that the torpedo be converted to neutral buoyancy, introducing near-insurmountable complexity into firing calculations.

u-864
U-864

The war was going badly for the Axis Powers in 1945, the allies enjoying near-uncontested supremacy over the world’s shipping lanes.  At this time, any surface delivery between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was likely to be detected and stopped.  The maiden voyage of the 287’, 1,799 ton German submarine U-864 departed on “Operation Caesar” on December 5, delivering Messerschmitt jet engine parts, V-2 missile guidance systems, and 65 tons of mercury to the Imperial Japanese war production industry.

The mission was a failure, U-864 having to retreat to the submarine pens in Bergen, u-864-locationNorway, for repairs after running aground in the Kiel Canal.  The sub was able to clear the island of Fedje off the Norway coast undetected on February 6.  By this time British MI6 had broken the German Enigma code.  They were well aware of Operation Caesar.

The British submarine Venturer, commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Jimmy Launders, was dispatched from the Shetland Islands, to intercept and destroy U-864.

ASDIC, an early name for sonar, would have been far more helpful in locating U-864, but at a price.  That familiar “ping” would have been heard by both sides, alerting the German commander that he was being hunted.  Launders opted for hydrophones, a passive listening device which could alert him to external noises.  Calculating his adversary’s direction, depth and speed was vastly more complicated without ASDIC, but the need for stealth won out.

Developing an engine noise which he feared might give him away, U-864’s commander, Ralf-Reimar Wolfram decided to return to Bergen for repairs.  German submarines of the age were equipped with “snorkels”, heavy tubes which broke the surface, enabling diesel engines and crews to breathe while running submerged.  Venturer was on batteries when the first sounds were detected, giving the British sub the stealth advantage but sharply limiting the time frame in which it could act.

u-864-wreckA four dimensional firing solution accounting for time, distance, bearing and target depth was theoretically possible, but had rarely been attempted under combat conditions.  Plus, there were unknown factors which could only be approximated.

A fast attack sub, Venturer only carried four torpedo tubes, far fewer than her much larger adversary.  Launders calculated his firing solution, ordering all four tubes and firing with a 17½ second delay between each pair.  With four incoming at different depths, the German sub didn’t have time to react.  Wolfram was only just retrieving his snorkel and converting to electric, when the #4 torpedo struck.  U-864 imploded and sank, instantly killing all 73 aboard.

Surface actions were common enough between all manner of vessels, but a fully submerged submarine to submarine kill occurred only once in WWI, on October 18, 1914, when the German U-27 torpedoed and sank the British sub HMS E3 with the loss of all 28 aboard.  To my knowledge, such an action occurred only this one time, in all of WWII.

February 3, 1943  Greater Love Hath No Man

With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die

usat_dorchesterThe Troop Transport USAT Dorchester sailed out of New York Harbor on January 23, 1943, carrying 902 service members, merchant seamen and civilian workers.  They were headed for the Army Command Base in southern Greenland, part of a six-ship convoy designated SG-19, together with two merchant ships and escorted by the Coast Guard Cutters Comanche, Escanaba and Tampa.

Built in 1926 as a coastal liner, Dorchester was anything but graceful, bouncing and shuddering its way through the rough seas of the North Atlantic.    Several ships had already been sunk by German U-Boats in these waters.  One of the Cutters detected a sub late on February 2, flashing the light signal “we’re being followed”.  Dorchester Captain Hans Danielson ordered his ship on high alert that night.  Men were ordered to sleep in their clothes with their life jackets on.  Many disregarded the order.  It was too hot down there in the holds, and those life jackets were anything but comfortable.

4-chaplains
The Four Chaplains

Some of those off-duty tried to sleep that night, while others played cards or threw dice, well into the night.  Nerves were understandably on edge, especially among new recruits, as four Army chaplains passed among them with words of encouragement.  They were the Jewish Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, the Catholic priest John P. Washington, the Dutch Reformed Church Minister Clark V. Poling and the Methodist Minister George L. Fox.

At 12:55am on February 3rd, the German submarine U-223 fired a spread of three torpedoes.  One struck Dorchester amidships, deep below the water line.  A hundred orgerman_submarine_wwii_by_racoonart more were killed in the blast, or in the clouds of steam and ammonia vapor pouring from ruptured boilers.  Suddenly pitched into darkness, untold numbers were trapped below decks.  With boiler power lost, there was no longer enough steam to blow the full 6 whistle signal to abandon ship, while loss of power prevented a radio distress signal.  For whatever reason, there never were any signal flares.

Those who could escape scrambled onto the deck, injured, disoriented, many still in their underwear as they emerged into the sub-arctic cold.

The four chaplains must have been a welcome sight that night, guiding the disoriented and the wounded, offering prayers and words of courage.  They opened a storage locker, and handed out life preservers until there were no more.  “Padre,” said one young soldier, “I’ve lost my life jacket and I can’t swim!”  Witnesses differ as to which of the four it was who gave this man his life jacket, but they all followed suit.  One survivor, John Ladd, said “It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.” Rabbi Goode gave his gloves to Petty Officer John Mahoney, saying “Never mind.  I have two pairs”.  It was only later that Mahoney realized, Rabbi Goode intended to stay with the ship.

Dorchester was listing hard to starboard and taking on water fast, with only 20 minutes to live.  Port side lifeboats were inoperable due to the ship’s angle.  Men jumped across the void into those on the starboard side, overcrowding them to the point of capsize.  Only two of fourteen lifeboats launched successfully.

dorchesterPrivate William Bednar found himself floating in 34° water, surrounded by dead bodies and debris. “I could hear men crying, pleading, praying,” he recalled. “I could also hear the chaplains preaching courage. Their voices were the only thing that kept me going.”

As the ship upended and went down by the bow, survivors floating nearby could see the four chaplains.  With arms linked and leaning against the slanting deck, their voices offered prayers and sang hymns for the dead and for those about to die.

Rushing back to the scene, coast guard cutters found themselves in a sea of bobbing red lights, the water-activated emergency strobe lights of individual life jackets.  Most marked the locations of corpses.  Of the 902 on board, the Coast Guard plucked 230 from the water, alive.

four-chaplainsThe United States Congress attempted to confer the Medal of Honor on the four chaplains for their selfless act of courage, but strict requirements for “heroism under fire” prevented them from doing so.  Congress authorized a one time, posthumous “Chaplain’s Medal for Heroism”, awarded to the next of kin by Secretary of the Army Wilber M. Brucker at Fort Myer, Virginia on January 18, 1961.

John 15:13 says “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.  Rabbi Goode did not call out for a Jew when he gave away his only hope for survival, Father Washington did not ask for a Catholic. Neither minister Fox nor Poling asked for a Protestant, they gave their life jackets to the nearest man.

Carl Sandburg once said that “Valor is a gift.  Those having it never know for sure whether they have it until the test comes.”  If I were ever so tested, I hope that I would prove myself half the man, as those four chaplains.

January 31, 1945  The Execution of Private Slovik

“I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. — Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415”

When he was little, his neighbors must have considered him a bad kid.  His first arrest came at the age of 12, when he and some friends were caught stealing brass from a foundry.  There were other episodes between 1932 and ’37: petty theft, breaking & entering, and disturbing the peace.  In 1939 he was sent to prison, for stealing a car.

slovik-weddingEdward Donald “Eddie” Slovik was paroled in 1942, his criminal record making him 4F.  “Registrant not acceptable for military service”.  He took a job at the Montella Plumbing and Heating company in Dearborn, Michigan, where he met bookkeeper Antoinette Wisniewski, the woman who would later become his wife.

There they might have ridden out WWII, but the war was consuming manpower at a rate unprecedented in history.  Shortly after the couple’s first anniversary, Slovik was re-classified 1A, fit for service, and drafted into the Army.  Arriving in France on August 20, 1944, he was part of a 12-man replacement detachment, assigned to Company G of the 109th Infantry Regiment, US 28th Infantry Division.

Slovik and a buddy from basic training, Private John Tankey, became separated from their detachment during an artillery attack, and spent the next six weeks with Canadian MPs.  It was around this time that Private Slovik decided he “wasn’t cut out for combat”.

The rapid movement of the army during this period caused many replacements difficulty in finding their units.  Edward Slovik and John Tankey finally caught up with the 109th on October 7.  The following day, Slovik asked his company commander Captain Ralph Grotte for reassignment to a rear unit, saying he was “too scared” to be part of a rifle company.  Grotte refused, confirming that, were he to run away, such an act would constitute desertion.

That, he did.  Eddie Slovik deserted his unit on October 9, despite Private Tankey’s protestations that he should stay.  “My mind is made up”, he said.  Slovik walked several miles until he found an enlisted cook, to whom he presented the following note.

“I, Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, 36896415, confess to the desertion of the United States Army. At the time slovik-noteof my desertion we were in Albuff [Elbeuf] in France. I came to Albuff as a replacement. They were shelling the town and we were told to dig in for the night. The following morning they were shelling us again. I was so scared, nerves and trembling, that at the time the other replacements moved out, I couldn’t move. I stayed there in my fox hole till it was quiet and I was able to move. I then walked into town. Not seeing any of our troops, so I stayed over night at a French hospital. The next morning I turned myself over to the Canadian Provost Corp. After being with them six weeks I was turned over to American M.P. They turned me loose. I told my commanding officer my story. I said that if I had to go out there again I’d run away. He said there was nothing he could do for me so I ran away again AND I’LL RUN AWAY AGAIN IF I HAVE TO GO OUT THERE. — Signed Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik A.S.N. 36896415”.

Slovik was repeatedly ordered to tear up the note and rejoin his unit, and there would be no consequences.  Each time, he refused.  The stockade didn’t scare him.  He’d been in prison before, and it was better than the front lines.  Beside that, he was already an ex-con.  A dishonorable discharge was hardly going to change anything, in a life he expected to be filled with manual labor.  Finally, instructed to write a second note on the back of the first acknowledging the legal consequences of his actions, Eddie Slovik was taken into custody.

1.7 million courts-martial were held during WWII, 1/3rd of all the criminal cases tried in the United States during the same period.  The death penalty was rarely imposed.  When it was, it was almost always in cases of rape or murder.

2,864 US Army personnel were tried for desertion between January 1942 and June 1948.  Courts-martial handed down death sentences to 49 of them, including Eddie Slovik.  Division commander Major General Norman Cota approved the sentence. “Given the situation as I knew it in November, 1944,” he said, “I thought it was my duty to this country to approve that sentence. If I hadn’t approved it–if I had let Slovik accomplish his purpose–I don’t know how I could have gone up to the line and looked a good soldier in the face.”

On December 9, Slovik wrote to Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, pleading for clemency.  Desertion was a systemic problem at this time.  Particularly after the surprise German offensive coming out of the frozen Ardennes Forest on December 16, an action that went into history as the Battle of the Bulge.  Eisenhower approved the execution order on December 23, believing it to be the only way to discourage further desertions.

slovik-movie-poster
Slovik movie poster

His uniform stripped of all insignia with an army blanket draped over his shoulders, Slovik was brought to the place of execution near the Vosges Mountains of France. “They’re not shooting me for deserting the United States Army”, he said, “thousands of guys have done that. They just need to make an example out of somebody and I’m it because I’m an ex-con. I used to steal things when I was a kid, and that’s what they are shooting me for. They’re shooting me for the bread and chewing gum I stole when I was 12 years old.”

Army Chaplain Father Carl Patrick Cummings said, “Eddie, when you get up there, say a little prayer for me.” Slovik said, “Okay, Father. I’ll pray that you don’t follow me too soon”. Those were his last words.  A soldier placed the black hood over his head.  The execution was carried out by firing squad.  It was 10:04am local time, January 31, 1945.

Edward Donald Slovik was buried in Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, his marker bearing a number instead of his name.  Antoinette Slovik received a telegram informing her that her husband had died in the European Theater of war, and a letter instructing her to return a $55 allotment check.  She would not learn about the execution for nine years.

eddie-slovik-graveIn 1987, President Ronald Reagan ordered the repatriation of Slovik’s remains.   He was re-interred at Detroit’s Woodmere Cemetery next to Antoinette, who had gone to her final rest eight years earlier.

In all theaters of WWII, the United States military executed 102 of its own, almost always for the unprovoked rape and/or murder of civilians. From the Civil War to this day, Eddie Slovik’s death sentence remains the only one ever carried out for the crime of desertion. At least one member of the tribunal which condemned him to death, would come to see it as a miscarriage of justice.

Nick Gozik of Pittsburg passed away in 2015, at the age of 95.  He was there in 1945, a fellow soldier called to witness the execution.  “Justice or legal murder”, he said, “I don’t know, but I want you to know I think he was the bravest man in that courtyard that day…All I could see was a young soldier, blond-haired, walking as straight as a soldier ever walked.  I thought he was the bravest soldier I ever saw.”

January 27, 1945  The Great Raid

Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”. 72 years ago, it was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII

Today, Cabanatuan calls itself the “Tricycle Capital of the Philippines”, with about 30,000 motorized “auto rickshaws”.  72 years ago, it was home to one of the worst POW camps of WWII.

bataan1942 was a bad year for the allied war in the Pacific.  The Battle of Bataan alone resulted in 72,000 prisoners being taken by the Japanese, marched off to POW camps designed for 10,000 to 25,000.

20,000 of them died from sickness or hunger, or were murdered by Japanese guards on the 60 mile “death march” from Bataan, into captivity at Cabanatuan prison and others.

Cabanatuan held 8,000 prisoners at its peak, though the number dropped considerably as the able-bodied were shipped out to work in Japanese slave labor camps.

Two rice rations per day, fewer than 800 calories, were supplemented by the occasional animal or insect caught and killed inside camp walls, or by the rare food items smuggled in by civilian visitors.  2,400 died in the first eight months at Cabanatuan, animated skeletons brought to “hospital wards”, which were nothing more than 2’x6′ patches of floor where prisoners waited to die.  A Master Sergeant Gaston saw one of these wards in July 1942, saying: “The men in the ward were practically nothing but skin and bones and they had open ulcers on their hips, on their knees and on their shoulders…maggots were eating on the open wounds. There were blow flies…by the millions…men were unable to get off the floor to go to the latrine and their bowels moved as they lay there”.

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Cabanatuan Prisoners

The war was going badly for the Japanese by October 1944, as Imperial Japanese High Command ordered able bodied POWs removed to Japan.  1,600 were taken from Cabanatuan, leaving 500 weak and disabled prisoners.  The guards abandoned camp shortly after, though Japanese soldiers continued to pass through.  POWs were able to steal food from abandoned Japanese quarters; some even captured two water buffalo called “Carabao”, which were killed and eaten.  Many feared a trick and never dared to leave the camp.  Most were too sick and weak to leave in any case, though the extra rations would help them through what was to come.

On December 14, units of the Japanese Fourteenth Area Army in Palawan doused 150 prisoners with gasoline and burned them alive, machine gunning any who tried to escape the flames.   The atrocity sparked a series of raids at Santo Tomas Internment Camp, Bilibid Prison, Los Baños and others.  The first such behind-enemy-lines rescue, was Cabanatuan.

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Alamo Scouts, After Raid

On the evening of January 27, 1945, 14 individuals separated into two teams, beginning the 30 mile march behind enemy lines to liberate Cabanatuan. They were an advance team, formed from the 6th Ranger Battalion and a special reconnaissance group called the Alamo Scouts. The main force of 121 Rangers moved out the following day, meeting up with 200 Filipino guerrillas, who served as guides and helped in the rescue.

Other guerrillas assisted along the way, muzzling dogs and corralling chickens so that Japanese occupiers would hear nothing of their approach.  Japanese soldiers once again occupied the camp, with 1,000 more camped across the Cabo River outside the prison and as many as 7,000 deployed just a few miles away.

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Northrup P-61 Black Widow

On the night of the 30th, a P-61 Black Widow piloted by Captain Kenneth Schrieber and 1st Lt. Bonnie Rucks staged a ruse.  For 45 minutes, the pair conducted a series of aerial acrobatics, cutting and restarting engines with loud backfires while seeming to struggle to maintain altitude. Thousands of Japanese soldiers watched the show, as Rangers belly crawled into positions around the camp.

Guard towers and pillboxes were wiped out in the first fifteen seconds of the assault.  Filipino guerrillas blew the bridge and ambushed the large force across the river while one, trained to use a bazooka only hours earlier, took out four Japanese tanks.

In the camp, all was pandemonium as some prisoners came out and others hid, suspecting some trick to bring them out into the open.  They were so emaciated that Rangers carried them out two at a time.cabanatuan-prison-camp

The raid was over in 35 minutes, POWs brought to pre-arranged meet-up places with dozens of carabao carts.   A long trek yet remained, one POW said “I made the Death March from Bataan, so I can certainly make this one!”  Over three days, up to 106 carts joined the procession, their plodding 2 MPH progress covered by strafing American aircraft.

Two American Rangers and two prisoners were killed, another 4 Americans and 21 Filipinos wounded, compared with 500-1,000 Japanese killed and four tanks put out of action.  464 American military personnel were liberated, along with 22 British and 3 Dutch soldiers, 28 American civilians, 2 Norwegians and one civilian each of British, Canadian and Filipino nationalities.

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Rescued POWs from Cabanatuan

One POW was left behind, a British soldier named Edwin Rose.  Rose heard the firing and thought the Americans were there to stay, so he went back to sleep.  When he woke the next morning and realized he had “Cabanatuan all my own”, he shaved, put on his best clothes, and walked out of camp.  Passing guerrillas found him and passed him to a tank destroyer.  Give the man points for style.  A few days later, Rose strolled into 6th army headquarters, a cane tucked under his arm.

The Cabanatuan raid of January 30, 1945 liberated over 500 allied prisoners, from virtually every state in the Union. Begging pardon for any mistakes in rank and/or spelling, the following represents those from my home state of Massachusetts:

  • Lieutenant Commander Robert Strong, Jr., Arlington
  • Captain John Dugan, Milton
  • 2nd Lieutenant John Temple, Pittsfield
  • Sergeant Richard Neault, Adams
  • Sergeant Stanislaus Malor, Salem
  • Private, 1st Class Joseph Thibeault, Lawrence
  • Private Edward Searkey, Lynn
  • USN C/QM Martin Seliga, Fitchburg
  • USN 1/C PO J.E.A. Morin,Danvers
  • USN AC MM Carl Silverman, Wareham

I hope I didn’t leave anyone out.  These guys have earned the right to be remembered.