Let me begin by quoting one of our nation's most famous and
decorated soldiers in Army history, Colonel David Hackworth,
who said, "War stories present two problems to authors striving
for the truth. First of all, if you live long enough
to tell them, and have an audience to practice telling them to
through the years, war stories becomes just that -- stories.
Just as time distances the storyteller from the events themselves,
so do repeated tellings. Gradually the stories are embellished
in places, honed down in others until they are perfect tales,
even if they bear little resemblance to what actually happened.
Yet the storyteller is completely unaware of how far he may have
strayed from the facts. Those countless tellings have made the
stories "The Truth."
The second problem with war stories is that they have their
genesis in the "fog of war." In battle, your perception
is often only as wide as your battle sights. Five participants
in the same action, fighting side by side, will often tell entirely
different stories of what happened, even within hours of the
fight. The story that each man tells might be virtually unrecognizable
to the others, but that does not make it less "true."
I happen to be in complete agreement with Hack's philosophy.
Permit me to tell you a personal war story that happened to me
without a shot being fired. It happened in England in 1943 during
WWII, so it is technically a "war story" in name only.
There wasn't an enemy within 100 miles of where it occurred.
As a matter of fact, it happened as the result of what can be
construed as friendly fire. The fire was a verbal blast
from a 3rd Armored Division 143rd Armored Signal Company First
Three-Grader by the name of Staff Sergeant Ignatius Scarlotta
from Chicago, who blind-sided me one rainy night at the company
I believe it was either the first or second night after I
had joined the company as a replacement fresh from the States.
The Signal Company was quartered on a former British peace-time
mushroom farm and used the former sheds and out buildings for
various purposes. The mess hall so designated was one long building
with a concrete floor wide enough for two six-man tables on each
side with a narrow aisle down the center. The shell of the building
was covered with corrugated sheet metal and the frequent British
rains drummed on the roof with a staccato tattoo effect.
The building's size limited the seating capacity to perhaps
half the battalion-sized company at any given meal. So timing
was important; get in line early while waiting in the rain and
you get a seat. Arrive late and you would be forced to stand
outside in the rain until a seat opened from those who ate fast.
Either way, chances are you got wet and had to wait in the rain.
It was dark and raining as I carried my mess kit and got in
line to wait. As I moved from the chow serving line, I was unaware
of a restricted seating policy. Carrying the lid and the bottom
half containing the meal in one hand and a cup of coffee in the
other, I walked to the open mess hall facing me, past the first
section of tables occupied at the time by a group of sergeants.
At the doorway into the main mess hall, I saw that all seats
in the main hall were occupied, so I turned and sat at the first
empty table behind me. I had no sooner sat my mess kit and cup
of coffee on the table and sat down when I was tapped on the
shoulder none too gently by someone standing behind me. Turning
to see who it was, I saw this scowling face that snarled at me,
"Soldier, get your ass out of that seat and out of our dining
area! This is reserved for the Top Three!"
In the reserved dining area, watching Staff Sergeant Scarlotta,
the Signal Company's pit bull, ripping me a new asshole were
the company's privileged few, including First Sergeant Leonard
Mainiero, Technical Sergeant John R. Myers (my wire section chief)
and several others with four chevrons or more. All were enjoying
the spectacle of my embarrassment for having violated their sacred
tradition created by this small group of war-time army draftee
NCO's. I was the rookie and fair game for the evening "show
In no uncertain terms I got the message that this was a gung-ho
GI outfit with strict adherence to the non-fraternization of
the Top Three with those of lesser ranks. This was a policy demanded
by the regulation-minded Company Commander, Captain John L. Wilson,
Jr. For it was he who busted NCO's to private for associating
or gambling with privates, as he did Staff Sergeant Glenn E.
Springer, and later Staff Sergeant Russell Kane to private --
for "due cause." The same rigid non-fraternization
conduct was observed off duty in town at the pubs. Captain Wilson's
firm belief that familiarity breeds contempt was drilled into
every man down the line. Wilson ran his company "by the
Consequently, the Top Three were negligent in forming a bond
between the old men and the new men in their sections. In peace
time, it didn't matter that much, but in the time of war when
the shooting begins you want the cohesiveness of a smooth running
section without the bitterness and resentment of those above
who pulled rank without cause.
Later in combat, when Sergeant Myers got into a firefight
with a German soldier firing a Schmeisser machine pistol, Myers
was shot in the neck; but then Private Len Wilson came to his
rescue and shot and killed the German soldier with his Thompson
automatic. Private Wilson then assisted in saving Sergeant Myers'
life. Rank didn't matter when a life was at stake.
I rose from the table and juggling the mess kit of fast congealing
food in one hand and the cup of coffee in the other, avoiding
looking at my adversaries as their laughter followed me out of
the room. I managed to find a table with someone getting up.
As I sat down to take his place, I wondered what kind of a chickenshit
outfit had I landed in? I soon found that I had lost my appetite.
After a few moments I got up and headed for the trash can outside
and dumped the contents and then washed the mess kit in the galvanized
cans filled with hot soapy water and the next can with what had
once been clear rinse water.
That dinner made a life-long lasting impression on me -- on
how not to act as a top NCO. Later in life as I earned my first
rocker as a Staff Sergeant, I vowed I would never abuse my rank
at the expense of another soldier of a lesser grade. In my remaining
years of my 20-year active duty career, I drummed that message
into my subordinate junior NCO's.
When I was promoted to Technical Sergeant, I thought back to
that night in England when Technical Sergeant John Myers remained
seated there without saying a word; whereas he should have jumped
on Sergeant Scarlotta and told him to back off as I was one of
his wiremen and not one of Scarlotta's radio mechanics.
As a replacement, and a new man, I never felt that they accepted
us into their old boys club that they formed in the swamps of
Louisiana, trained in the sands of the California desert, and
departed from Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. At the company formations,
we were constantly referred to as "the new men"
-- as though we needed a reminder of the distinction.
Fortunately for me, I soon transferred out of this "by
the book" unit and into the seasoned 2nd Armored Division,
which had seen combat in North Africa and Sicily and had learned
that, when their lives were on the line, you look out for the
man next to you, regardless of rank.
So this is my friendly fire "war story", if it can
be called that. Nobody got shot, no flesh wounds, no loss of
blood, but the "injury" ran deep and the memory lasted
Publication or reproduction, in part or whole,
is prohibited without written permission from the author, Don
R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property of The Marsh Family