David Bruce: War Stories

During the Civil War, soldiers occasionally showed great kindness to soldiers fighting on the other side. At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the battle on July 1-3, 1863, resulted in great loss of life on both sides. A private fighting for the Union as a member of Co. E, 153rd Pennsylvania Regiment, lay wounded on the battlefield between some Union soldiers and some Confederate soldiers they were firing upon. The wounded private was afraid that he would be killed by friendly fire, so he asked one of the Rebels to move a large, loose stump in front of him, saying, “I don’t like the idea of being hit by my own own regiment.” The Rebel did as the man requested, and after the Rebel had gotten back to his own soldiers, the stump was hit by three shots. The Rebel yelled, “Young man, I saved your life.” The young man acknowledged the truth of the statement, and gave the Rebel many thanks.

During World War II, British civilians were trained to be members of the Home Guard. Soprano Joan Hammond was out for a walk one evening when a well-dressed man wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella pointed his umbrella at her and said, “Boom! Boom! Boom!” Ms. Hammond thought that he was harmless, so she said, “I’m dead.” The well-dressed man raised his bowler and said politely, “I beg your pardon, Madam, but there is a Home Guard exercise here this evening, and I thought you were one of the enemy.” Ms. Hammond writes, “I was delighted with this bit of whimsey as there was an air raid in progress at the time, and here we were preparing for the invasion of Eaton Square, bowler hats and all.”

Sonja Henie was photographed shaking hands with Adolf Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games. This came in handy when the Nazis were bearing down on her house in Norway. Knowing that the Nazis were coming, Ms. Henie ordered for the photograph to be displayed prominently in her house. When the Nazis saw the photograph, they refrained from looting her house. (Although the photograph came in handy at that time, many Norwegians resented it, especially after Ms. Henie declined to contribute money to the Norwegian Resistance, saying that she was no longer a Norwegian but an American. Many Norwegians never forgave her for her lack of support during the war.)

When children’s mystery writer Joan Lowery Nixon was a teenager, World War II was raging, and one night while she was asleep the Coast Guard fired at what they thought was a Japanese submarine. The next day, her grandmother told her, “I stood here at our bedroom window and watched the bullets trace red lines across the sky. I was terrified. I didn’t know if we were being attacked or we were defending ourselves.” Ms. Nixon was disappointed at not being woken up because she had missed an exciting part of history, but her grandmother explained, “It was a school night. I wouldn’t wake you on a school night. You’re young. You need your sleep.”

The grandfather of Meg Cabot, author of the best-selling Princess Diaries books, fought during World War II. He was a young soldier who was shot quickly after arrival in France. This sounds like bad news, but the result turned out to be good for him. Soon after he was shot, the other soldiers in his platoon raided the wine cellar of an abandoned farmhouse. Unfortunately, German soldiers had poisoned all of the bottles of wine, and so all the soldiers in the platoon died. According to Meg’s grandfather, “Even being shot in the butt can have a silver lining.” Meg’s grandfather is the model for Princess Mia’s grandfather on her father’s side.

Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, believed in sharing the pain and keeping a stiff upper lip when necessary. During World War II, she did not send her daughters—Elizabeth and Margaret—to the relative safety of the English countryside or to another country. Instead, she kept them in London even while the Nazis were dropping bombs frequently on the city and killing civilians. In addition, due to shortages the members of the royal family bathed in only four inches of water during the worst parts of the war. The Queen Mother even used tape on the bathtub to let her daughters know to what height they could fill the bathtub.

During World War I, Sir Thomas Beecham was conducting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at Drury Lane when an air-raid took place and bombs started falling and exploding. Sir Thomas thought that panicked audience members would be as much or more of a danger than the bombs, so he stayed calm and continued conducting despite the explosions coming from outside the theater. The audience members also stayed calm and stayed in their seats. The theater was not hit by bombs, and no one was injured.

On September 23, 1779, off the coast of England, the American ship Bonhommie Richard, captained by John Paul Jones, battled the British ship Serapis. At one point, the Bonhommie Richard seemed about to sink, and the captain of the Serapisasked Captain Jones if he wanted to surrender. He roared in reply, “I have not yet begun to fight!” Eventually, he Bonhommie Richard captured the British ship.

During World War I, tenor Henry Wendon was with a fellow British soldier in Palestine when his companion suddenly fell to the ground during one of their walks. He thought something was wrong, but his friend had seen some black tulips growing in the wild, and he asked Mr. Wendon to help him dig some bulbs for his garden back home in England.

During World War II, soprano Kirsten Flagstad was in Norway, so that she could be with her husband. A friend asked her what she would do if the Nazis asked her to sing. She replied, “I am not going to sing for them. You know a singer can always be ill.”

The Roman general Marius equipped his troops with a new kind of pilum, or javelin. This pilum had a wooden rivet that broke when it hit after being thrown, thus preventing enemy soldiers from re-using the pilum and throwing it at the Romans.

“War is Not Pro-Life.”—bumper sticker.

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David Bruce: War Anecdotes

Bahlool the wise fool was drafted to serve as a soldier although he wished very much for peace. However, when one king decides to go to war against another king, sometimes even a peace-loving person is forced to serve as a soldier in an army. Why? True fact: In a war, someone has to fight and die, and kings don’t want to fight and die, so they need soldiers to fight and die. An enemy champion challenged any of Bahlool’s king’s soldiers to step forward for a one-on-one fight to the death. Bahlool’s king ordered him to fight the enemy champion, and so Bahlool went out to meet the enemy champion. The enemy champion drew his sword and rushed at Bahlool, who stood still, holding a basket. Because Bahlool did not draw a weapon or run away, but simply stood still, the enemy soldier was puzzled. Bahlool then explained that he had a few questions to ask the enemy champion: Do you wish to kill me because of a blood feud? Do you wish to kill me because I owe you money that I have not repaid? Have we ever met before? Have you ever heard of me? The enemy soldier was forced to answer each question with, “No.” Bahlool then said, “I have food in my basket. Why don’t we have a picnic and see if we can come up with a good reason for you to kill me?” The enemy champion agreed to the picnic, the warring kings saw that Bahlool and the enemy champion were eating together, and for that day at least the two kings called for a truce and no fighting occurred. In addition, Bahlool’s king decided that Bahlool was a bad influence on his soldiers and that thereafter Bahlool would be allowed to go home and not be forced to fight in the war.

Could a British POW in Auschwitz save the lives of Jews? Yes. Major-Sergeant Charles Coward was a brave man. He was a liaison with the International Red Cross, a position that helped give him access to things he could use to bribe Nazi soldiers. He once traded valuables for the corpses of three Jews so he could use them to save the lives of three Jews. Here’s how it worked. Each day Jews who could no longer work were marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau to be murdered. Some of these Jews died along the way, and their corpses were collected later. Major-Sergeant Coward had three Jews pretend to die and lie by the road, and then he arrived and gave them civilian clothing so that they could escape into the forest. He and fellow POW “Tich” Keenan then left the three Jewish corpses that he had bribed a Nazi for along the road; that way, the Nazis would not know that any Jews were missing. Major-Sergeant Coward did this over and over.

During World War I, German soldier Heinrich Weindorf was fighting on very muddy terrain in December of 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. At one point, he sank in the mud and water up to his armpits, and his fellow soldiers could not help him because of the fighting all around them. Fortunately, an English sergeant-major pitied the German soldier and rescued him, although he knew that he was rescuing an enemy soldier. He stood on a plank of wood so that he would not sink in the mud and water, then he grabbed Mr. Weindorf and pulled him out of the mud. He then kicked Mr. Weindorf in the butt—after all, Mr. Weindorf was an enemy soldier—and both ran back to safety to their respective sides. Mr. Weindorf says, “I owe him my life.”

United States Marines used Reckless the horse to carry artillery shells during the Korean War. After training, Reckless arrived in Korea during the winter of 1952, and the Marines she worked with battled for a hill they named Outpost Vegas. During the battle, Reckless made 51 trips carrying artillery shells across an open field with falling bombs and flying shrapnel. She was wounded twice—in the head and in the side. After the battle, Marine Corps general Randolph Pate recognized her bravery, reading a special citation to honor her and pinning a set of bars to her blanket to show that she had just been promoted to Sergeant Reckless.

Mark Kurlansky, the author of Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, once spoke to a couple of World War II veterans about the book Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command in Future War, in which author and historian Samuel Marshall stated that most soldiers never fired their weapons at the enemy during World War II. In fact, Mr. Marshall thought that only one in four soldiers had fired at the enemy—at best. One of the veterans Mr. Kurlansky spoke to said, “I had a machine gun. I never fired the thing.” The other veteran asked, “Why not?” The first veteran replied, “If you fired it, they’d shoot back at you.”

During World War II, United States Army nurses stationed in New Guinea were given two helmets of water a day. The helmet was put in a stand and used as a sink. One helmet of water was used for washing their body, and the other helmet of water was used for washing their undies. Many of these nurses ended up in Tacloban, Philippines, where they were still given two helmets of water a day. Alice Weinstein remembers that if an air raid occurred while someone was washing, “Zip! There went your water! You had to put your helmet on your head!”

Youthful attitudes toward war can be very naïve. For example, during World War II, German young people were excited when bombs fell on Cologne for the first time, even though people were hurt. Geerte Murmann writes about kids looking for pieces of shrapnel and regarding them as prized possessions. She was in Bavaria, away from Cologne, when the first Allied bombs fell, and she was disappointed that she wasn’t in Cologne. She wrote a friend, “Finally something terrific is happening in Cologne, and I’m not there.”

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David Bruce: War Anecdotes

 

Sergeant York

Sergeant York

From The Project Gutenberg EBook of Sergeant York And His People, by Sam Cowan

During World War I, Alvin York was a conscientious objector, based on his strongly held religious beliefs. Drafted into the United States Army, he tried four times to be classified as a conscientious objector, but failed each time. Finally, he talked to Major George Buxton, a devout Christian who recognized Mr. York’s sincerity. He asked Mr. York if he believed the Bible, and Mr. York replied, “Every sentence, every word.” Major Buxton then quoted Luke 22.36: “He that hath no sword, let him sell his cloak and buy one.” He also reminded Mr. York about what Jesus had done when he found money lenders in the temple. Finally, he asked what Jesus would do when friends and families were threatened by the enemy. Mr. York asked for a pass to think things through, and he went home to rural Tennessee on March 21, 1918. Near Pall Mall, Tennessee, he climbed a mountain and stayed there to pray for two days and two nights. Then he went to war overseas. On October 8, 1918, Corporal York and a small group of American soldiers were fired on by German machine gunners. Corporal York used his hunting skills to shoot several German machine gunners. When he and his men were attacked by a German officer and a dozen soldiers who charged them with bayonets, he killed all of them with an automatic pistol, the furthest away one first and the nearest one last. This was the same order he shot wild turkeys at home, since he didn’t want the ones in front to know that the others had been killed. Then he began shooting machine gunners again. After Corporal York had shot approximately twenty of the machine gunners, the remaining Germans gave up and surrendered — except for one soldier who threw a grenade at Corporal York. The soldier missed, and Corporal York shot him. On the way back to the Allied lines, Corporal York and his men captured more and more Germans, ending up with a total of 132 soldiers, including four officers. Once everyone was safely in camp, an Allied officer told him, “Well, York, I hear you have captured the whole damned German army.” For his efforts, Corporal York was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor.

During World War II, Malka Csizmadia helped many Jews in Hungary by taking their letters out from behind a barbed wire-enclosed space and mailing them. She also brought them such items as newspapers, paper, and envelopes. Her entire family became involved in bribing the guard, so that Jews could go through a hole under the fence and come to her house to listen to the radio. (As long as the Jews returned that night, it was OK with the bribed guard.) Some people figured out what she was doing, and once a German even told the four-and-a-half-foot-tall Malka, “You’re small in size, but not up here [pointing to his head]. War is terrible. I haven’t seen my children in five years. You should keep helping people.”

When the United States was fighting in the Vietnam War, controversial filmmaker John Waters was drafted. He didn’t want to go to war, and he was relieved when he saw the forms he had to fill out, knowing then that the Army would never be interested in having him serve as a soldier. On the forms, he checked the boxes for such things as “drug addict,” “alcoholic,” “bed wetter,” and “homosexual,” and the shocked head Army sergeant asked him, “Is this all true?” Mr. Waters said it was. Perhaps it is needless to say this, but Mr. Waters did not go to Vietnam.

Country comedian Jerry Clower has a brother named Sonny who is a retired Navy war hero. Once, Sonny complained about hearing “Rambo! Rambo!” all the time from his grandson. He asked who Rambo was, and in answer to the question, he and his grandson went to a movie starring Sylvester Stallone as Rambo. Jerry asked his brother what he thought about Rambo, and Sonny replied, “I was in a pretty tough outfit when I fought a war. If Rambo had a been in my unit in the Navy, he’d a been a cook.”

General George McClellan was removed as head of the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War because of a lack of aggressiveness. Once, President Lincoln complained of General McClellan’s inactivity, then said, “If McClellan doesn’t want to use the army for a while, I’d like to borrow it from him for a while and see if I can’t do something or other with it.”

In ancient Greece, the Olympic Games were very important, and war was halted so that the Olympic Games could be held. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Olympic Games in the late 19th century, he hoped that they would help stop war, but that has not been the case. Instead, World War II prevented the Olympic Games from being held in 1940 and 1944.

“When it was learned months after the fact that thousands of Panamanian civilians were killed or injured when we invaded their country in order to capture and punish Mañuel Noriega, some of our national leaders were embarrassed and sorry. Others continued to think our frustration and rage toward Noriega justified those deaths.” — Tom Mullen.

During World War II, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Winston Churchill had a meeting with God, who told them that whoever emptied the Atlantic Ocean first would win the war. Both Hitler and Stalin said that such a task was impossible, but Churchill got a bucket and filled it up, saying, “It may take a long, long time, but we are going to win this war.”

While performing on Broadway in My Fair Lady, British actor Rex Harrison narrowly missed being killed by a huge and heavy piece of scenery that fell to the floor; however, Mr. Harrison ignored the near disaster and continued acting and singing. A stagehand watched Mr. Harrison, then said, “Now I know why the British won the war.”

In 1947, just before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in professional baseball, baseball commissioner “Happy” Chandler was asked whether Mr. Robinson could make it in baseball. Mr. Chandler replied, “If a black boy can make it on Okinawa and Guadalcanal [scenes of fierce fighting in World War II], hell, he can make it in baseball.”

A very young Catholic girl was shown around a Protestant Church in which a service flag was hung. She asked what the flag was, and she was informed that the flag was hung in honor of those who died in the service. She asked, “The 9:30 a.m. service or the 11 a.m. service?”

Back in the administration of George Bush, Sr., Defense Secretary Dick Cheney once flaunted a Bart Simpson doll dressed in camouflage. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, responded by saying, “It’s always sad when a 10-year-old gets drawn into war.”

“They got guns. We got guns. All God’s children got guns.” — The Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.

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