bit of history
(including my history)
Dow Theory Letters
April 3, 2006
from the March 31, 2006 edition of Richard's Remarks
It's strange, but of all the
stuff I've written over 48 years of writing, I get more requests
for stories about World War II than any other subject. World
War II has been called the greatest single event in human history.
I'm no historian, but I suspect that this is true. World War
II enveloped the globe in an endless series of the most monstrous
battles and tragedies in recorded history. The story of the five
years of 1940 to 1945 reads like one long nightmare.
People died by the tens of
millions during those horrific years. But strangely, in the end,
the War changed everything. After the War, the world was never
the same. I know that, because I was there before the war, and
I was there when the War ended. And I saw with my own eyes and
ears how everything had changed. By 1946 it was a different world
than the one I grew up in.
I always thought that the war
started in 1937 with the bloody Spanish Revolution. Germany used
the Spanish Revolution as a training ground for its Luftwaffe,
it's Stuka dive bombers, and it's feared Condor Legion. American
volunteers fought in the Spanish Revolution under the aegis of
the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Spaniards fought against Spaniards.
Mussolini sent Italians troops to Spain, Brits fought. Spain
was the opening round, and it was clear that we were heading
for World War II. If there was any doubt regarding the coming
catastrophe, Adolph Hitler saw to it that the planet was about
to receive its earthly vision of hell.
During the war period of 1940
to 1945 over 62 million people died as a result of the war --
some through rifle bullets, some by flame-throwers, some by bombs,
some by hand to hand combat, some by disease, some by execution,
some by starvation, some in concentration camps. The US fought
on two huge fronts -- in Europe and in the Pacific.
Almost every nation on earth
was involved and all counted their dead. The US suffered 407,000
military deaths and 418,000 deaths of all kinds. The Soviets
took 10.6 million military deaths and 23 million total deaths.
The UK took 307,000 military deaths and 360,000 total deaths.
China took 4 million military deaths and 10 million total deaths.
Nothing like this slaughter had ever been seen before. Every
nation had its lists of the wounded, the maimed and the dead.
I was attending Rutgers in
New Jersey in 1943. The news was all about the war. I was young,
and I was anxious to get into the fight. At the age of 18 and
still in my freshman year, I enlisted in the Army. I was told
that I could choose my service and that I would be allowed to
finish my freshman year. It didn't work out quite that way. I
chose the Army Signal Corp. But in the middle of my freshman
year I was called to active duty. The Army said "Sorry,
son, forget about finishing your freshman year, forget about
the Signal Corp. We need men badly in the Infantry." And
that's where I was sent.
Thirteen grueling weeks of
basic infantry training at Camp Wheeler, Georgia. At Wheeler,
they told us that the Air Force, which was taking a huge number
of casualties, needed more flyers, and did any of us want to
transfer? Against my parents cries of "Please, don't do
it," I took the necessary physical and mental tests. Two
of us out of the entire company were transferred to the Army
Air Force. I was told that the great majority of requests were
for pilot training, but it was bombardiers that were badly needed.
I decided to be a bombardier. Cadet school, gunnery school, bombardier
school. And finally, assignment to a crew -- we would go to combat
in the famed Mitchell B-25 medium bombers. And so it was on to
the war in Europe.
I got to Italy in early '43,
and the fighting there was fierce. The Allies were taking massive
casualties from the better-trained Germans. On our arrival in
Italy, we were told that we would get three weeks of special
training and then on to combat. Again, it didn't work out quite
that way. I was assigned to the 321st Bomb Squadron, where a
tough young colonel told us, "Sorry gentlemen, no time for
special training. The Air Force is losing too many men, and your
crew is needed for combat immediately." Two days later I
was flying my first mission. It was over the Brenner Pass, bombing
and strafing. The Brenner was one of the most heavily defended
spots in Italy, and that's where I got my first taste of flak
from the feared German 88 anti-aircraft guns, which were radar
controlled. Those damn guns would follow us like dogs following
a piece of meat.
On my first mission I saw the
flak come up in measured bursts, looking like puffs of black
powder. I could hear pieces of metal rattling against the body
of our plane. I got on the intercom and called Art Herron, my
pilot, who was a cool cat and a great pilot -- he was from Grand
Rapids, Michigan. I choked, "Flak all around us, Artie,
and more directly ahead." Art answered back, "Shut
up, I see it, and there's not a damn thing I can do about it.
Do you know how to pray?" And that was my introduction to
On this first mission, I saw
my good friend, Bobby Janovski, shot out of the sky. He was in
the plane directly in front of our plane. I saw his left engine
knocked out from a flak burst. His plane dropped out of our formation
and headed down with a full load of hundred pound bombs. I saw
his plane hit the ground and miraculously there was no explosion.
Later I learned that the top gun turret broke through the roof
of his plane and shattered Bobby's leg. He was out of the war
for good -- the so-called million-dollar wound.
That was the beginning of fear
for me. I learned all about fear from that point on. You start
wondering how long or how many missions you can fly before you
get maimed or killed. I compared it to "Russian Roulette"
in which you substitute a plane for a pistol pointed at your
head. After my third mission my hair started to fall out, and
my gums started to bleed. I'm sure that was because of fear.
I was lucky -- the War in Europe ended after my 23rd mission.
I spent my 21st birthday in
North Africa. I didn't tell anyone it was my birthday, mainly
because nobody would have given a damn. But I still remember
that day as if it was yesterday. I thought, "Here you are,
Russell, you poor dumb bastard. Your family has no idea where
you are, you're 21, and today you're supposed to be a man. Man
hell, I'm lucky to be alive."
We flew back to the states
via Ascension Island; Natal, Brazil; then north to Dutch Guinea;
on to Puerto Rico, and finally to South Carolina. The Army told
me that I would get a 30 day leave, and then I'd be transferred
from B-25s to the new faster A-26 attack bomber. From there I
was to head for the Pacific to fight the Japanese. To tell the
truth, I wasn't thrilled, and neither were my poor parents.
On my second week of "vacation,"
the atomic bombs were set off and Japan surrendered. I was out
of the service two weeks later. I immediately signed up at NYU,
because I wanted to finish college in a hurry, and I wanted to
stay in New York. I hadn't seen my parents for more than a few
days over the last four years, and I was happy to be home all
in one piece.
And that, dear subscribers,
is how I spent my youth. Call it a learning experience. I learned
about death and I learned about surviving. And I guess more than
anything, I learned about naked fear. In combat they say you're
either bored to death or scared to death. But hey, I'm still
here at the tender age of 81. And I'll tell you a secret -- there
isn't a blessed day that I don't think about the War.
lots more follows for subscribers...
Mar 31, 2006
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