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The Normal Post I’m Not Posting

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Normal as in, consisting of political, religious, educational and/or cultural sniping critiques.

No worries – the usual mélange of podcast reviews, feminist fun, cultural tidbits, sarcasm, insightful commentary, bad puns (and occasional fart jokes) returns next week.

 

 

While going through our attic and other storage spaces I found a military pin belonging to my father, Chet Parnell. I added it to a box of (mostly) WWII memorabilia I keep in a closet, and thought I should write a description/explanation of the items in the box for the inheritors of it, my offspring, K and Belle.  While doing so I began thinking of thousands of families who likely have similar stories – and boxes – and may or may not know some of the stories behind them.  You might not give two snakes’ elbows for a story about my extended family; in that case, kick back and rewatch “Young Frankenstein” and remind yourself of what a great actor we had in Cloris Leachman.  But in hopes of sparking at least one other person to ask a family member about their past…or open a forgotten storage box in their own closet….

What follows is an edited version of the document I wrote for K and Belle.

*   *   *

 

The Combat Infantryman Badge is a U.S. Army military decoration awarded to infantrymen who fought in active ground combat while assigned as members of either an Infantry or Special Forces unit.

Your grandpa Chet was awarded this badge while in Alaska, serving with the 542nd paratroop infantry regiment, in the Aleutian Islands Campaign.

The Aleutian Islands campaign was…conducted by the USA and Japan in the Aleutian Islands, part of the Territory of Alaska, in the American theater and the Pacific theater of World War II.  In the only two invasions of the United States during the war, a small Japanese force occupied the islands of Attu and Kiska. The islands’ strategic value was their ability to control Pacific transportation routes.  Japan reasoned that control of the Aleutians would prevent a possible U.S. attack across the Northern Pacific. Similarly, the U.S. feared that the islands would be used as bases from which to carry out a full-scale aerial attack on U.S. West Coast cities. A battle to reclaim Attu was launched on May 11, 1943, and completed following a final Japanese banzai charge on May 29. On August 15 an invasion force landed on Kiska in the wake of a sustained three-week barrage, only to discover that the Japanese had withdrawn from the island on July 29.

The campaign is known as the “Forgotten Battle,” due to its being overshadowed by other events in the war. Military historians believe the Japanese invasion of the Aleutians was a diversionary or feint attack during the Battle of Midway, meant to draw out the U.S. Pacific Fleet from Midway Atoll, as it was launched simultaneously under the same commander, Isoroku Yamamoto. Some historians have argued against this interpretation, believing that the Japanese invaded the Aleutians to protect their northern flank, and did not intend it as a diversion.
(AIC excerpts from Wikipedia)

Although Chet’s unit was never directly involved the combat, he served in a combat zone.  The paratroopers stationed in Alaska had a dual mission: protecting the Alaskan territory from further Japanese invasion, and preparing for the invasion of Japan…which was stopped when the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Having served in a combat zone, Chet was eligible for “full military honors”  at his funeral.  He was proud of his service as a paratrooper, but told my mother that, when the time came, he wanted her to decline the offer of full honors, as he felt it belonged to soldiers who had actually faced enemy fire. Thus, at his funeral (as you two may remember) he had what is known as “Military Honors,” which consists of two or more uniformed military persons doing a military funeral honors ceremony, including the folding of and presenting to the survivors a United States burial flag, and the playing of Taps.

*   *   *

 

 

This is the enlisted soldier’s Signal Corps Badge.  Chet had that badge as well…and now I can’t remember where it is.

Each paratrooper had training as a rifleman/infantryman, and also in one or more specialties (besides learning how to jump from a plane and not die).  Chet was trained in Signal Corps duties (which he once described to me as, “Scrambling up the nearest tree” to set up long range cables).  After landing in enemy territory, his job would be to work with his unit’s radio operator(s) to set up radio communications.

*   *   *

 

This is a WWII U.S. Army Paratrooper badge (aka “jump wings” pin).  I also have this pin… somewhere.  Chet gave me both pins – the signal corps and jump wings – years before his death. I used to wear them, along with other pins, on a denim jacket (he got a kick out of that), then when the jacket was falling apart I took all the pins off and put them away for safekeeping…and now I have no idea where they are.  ;-(

*   *   *

The jacket in this box is a WWII paratrooper’s dress jacket.  It belonged to my favorite uncle, Bill O’Malley, my aunt Erva’s husband.   [1]   Bill O’Malley (“Billy” to his fellow soldiers) saw heavy combat in WWII – briefly in N. Africa, then in the European Theater of Operation (ETO).

I find what Bill experienced in WWII to be amazing, and I’m going to tell you what I know of it. Bill and Erva had no children to pass this on to, and their generation has all but died out – all gone, actually, on my side of the family.  It seems to me that someone (of a younger generation, ahem) should know his story, you know? My information is incomplete, and I won’t bore you with dates (most of which I don’t have, although I could look them up).  My purpose here is to convey some of what he went through. The words and phrases in quotes are, to the best of my memory, verbatim from what Bill (and in some cases, Chet or Erva or my grandmother) told me.

This information is pieced together from notes I made decades ago, plus many conversations Chet and I had about WWII and Bill O’Malley. The last and longest of these conversations a phone call the night before Chet died, during which I shared what Bill had told me when I’d visited Bill and Erva the summer after my fourth-grade year (I’d made a road trip to Spokane with my Aunt Gwen (Erva’s sister), Uncle Joe, and their son, Joey.  We all stayed at Erva’s & Bill’s Spokane house for two weeks).  I knew Uncle Bill had been a paratrooper, and one afternoon when the others were playing a lawn game in the backyard, I got Bill to sit down with me in his kitchen and talk about it.  Chet was flummoxed by some of the information I’d elicited;  Bill did *not* like to talk about the war and typically refused all entreaties – by adults – to do so (he did have a few war-related conversations over the years with Chet, whom he respected as a fellow paratrooper).  My theory is that, being a 10-year-old kid, I somehow disarmed Bill. My questions were sincere; I had no illusions about war “heroism” – I was just genuinely curious.  Bill didn’t have to impress or reassure me, the way he might have felt pressured to do by other adults.

*   *   *

When Bill enlisted in the paratroopers he was ~ five years older than the others in his unit (they were teens – early twenties; he was in his mid-twenties). His age and skills soon enabled him to hold the rank of sergeant (and he aspired to no higher rank).  After completing his paratrooper training Bill was assigned to the 82nd airborne division.   [2]

In N. Africa, during one of Bill’s first combat drops, the pilot of Bill’s plane made a navigational error and dropped its paratroopers over the wrong site – a fact which was not discussed nor even acknowledged by the army, as Bill later discovered when he made the obligatory report of the incident to his superiors.  One of its planes going in the opposite direction it was supposed to go – yikes.  It was quite an embarrassment to the Army higher-ups. Bad for soldier morale!

As in that jump and all others afterward, Bill jumped with his favorite weapon, his “tommy gun.”   [3]    Bill was the jump master, and after realizing they’d been dropped over the wrong site, he and his squad disagreed as to what to do next.  There was nothing but sand in all directions; Bill spotted an outcropping and insisted they follow it. His squad rebelled and went in the opposite direction without him, even after he (convinced that he was right, and that they were headed to their deaths) pulled his “tommy” on them and ordered them to follow him. The twelve paratroopers were never seen from again; they presumably died in the desert from exposure.

Bill, following the outcropping, wandered for days in the desert until he was rescued by a Brit in a jeep who was patrolling the perimeter of a nearby British military encampment.  By that time quite dehydrated, Bill thought he was hallucinating seeing the jeep, until it drove up to within a few feet of him.  The British officer exited his jeep and said to Bill, in the most stereotypical, slightly perturbed, upper-class British accent,

“I say old boy, what are you doing out here all alone?”

“You son of a bitch!” is how Bill began his reply….

Bill was reassigned to the ETO, to a unit serving in Italy.  In an incident which resulted in the largest “friendly fire” casualties of WWII, U.S. guns at Sicily fired at planes overhead, which were actually U.S. planes carrying U.S. paratroopers. The 504th Parachute Infantry was shot to pieces – two dozen of our own planes, shot down by “us.”  More than 300 U.S. soldiers died.  Bill survived that tragedy, did another jump in Italy (Salerno), and was reassigned again.  [4]   His next unit became part of the massive Allied paratroop drop into Normandy at D-Day.  After that he went on to fight in the Battle of Bulge.

Not surprisingly, Bill was hospitalized in France after the war had ended, for what was then called “shell shock” or “combat fatigue,” but which we now know as PTSD.

Although the army hospital doctors pronounced him “cured” after a few weeks of rest, Bill’s shell shock was not totally under control when he returned to the States.  His first date with Erva was “a humiliating disaster.”  Being out in public made him nervous; he couldn’t shake the feeling of being constantly “on patrol.”  Erva drove on their first date, as Bill had no car.  After picking Bill up, she was driving down the main street of their town when the car in front of hers backfired, the sound of which caused Bill to dive to the passenger’s seat floorboards (“Scared me half to death!” Erva said).  Bill was deeply embarrassed, and even more so when, ten minutes later, he had to ask Erva to take him back to his apartment so he could change clothes.  He had sweated through his clothing – completely soaked the three-piece suit he had worn, the suit he’d “bought special,” to impress Erva.

Gradually, Bill readjusted to civilian life.  When I asked him how he did this he replied, “I never had to pay for a cup of coffee.”   I assume the confused expression on my ten-year-old face is what sparked him to elaborate: After the war ended, soldiers were treated with kindness by everyone.  Although civilians did not want to hear anything about the war that “didn’t involve heroes,” they showered the returning GIs with respect, gratitude, and gifts (including job offers).  Bill also didn’t want to engage in war stories talk.  He found the eagerness of the nation to “get on with it” and look to the future to be helpful to him as he strove to forget/push aside his memories of what he’d seen and done in The War.

One “memory” he brought home with him was a German Shepard. He’d found the dog during one of his last maneuvers before he was hospitalized – somewhere in France, when he and his unit were patrolling a battle site. The dog, dehydrated and starving but still vigilant, was guarding the corpse of its (presumed) handler, a German soldier.

 

A scenario akin to this, only the Nazi was dead.

 

Bill spoke some German to the dog, shared his water and rations with it, and the dog transferred its loyalty to Bill.  The doctors at the hospital where Bill was treated agreed to let him keep it, and he was able to get it shipped back to the States with him.

Bill loved that dog  (I can’t remember what he named it; something ala, “Scout”). However, everyone he met back in the States was wary of it, and for good reason. The dog was huge, and would “greet” anyone who came to see Bill by silently approaching them (it supposedly never barked or growled), rearing up on its hind legs, resting its front paws on the visitor’s shoulders, and baring its teeth and looking them straight in the eyes, as if it were pondering, “Hmmm, should I rip your throat out, or go for the eyes first?”   Bill would speak to the dog in German, then he’d (attempt to) reassure his visitor:

“He won’t hurt you, but don’t make any sudden moves.”

Erva was terrified of the dog, as were Bill’s neighbors, who complained to his landlord about having to live next to a dangerous animal.   [5]  After they’d been dating several weeks, Erva told Bill, “It’s me or the dog,” and Bill found it another home.   [6]

*   *   *

After completing their paratrooper training and before shipping out to Europe, Bill and his paratrooper unit (company? regiment? whatever the terminology, it consisted of 105 men) shared their respective family contact info and made a pact to have a reunion after the war – the original 105 of them, no matter what outfits/companies/regiments they ended up being transferred to.  One of the men made good on that promised and organized the reunion a year after the war ended…but there were only five of the original 105 left alive.  The rest had died, in combat or in paratroop jump “accidents.” Of the five, Bill was the only one who had not been seriously injured (he’d twisted his ankle diving into a foxhole during a mortar attack at the Battle of the Bulge, but had never been shot or stabbed during combat, as the other survivors had been).

Those figures blow my mind, as an illustration of how much “action” Bill and his original company saw: a casualty rate of over 99% and a death rate of 95%.

 

 

Bill O’Malley’s paratrooper dress jacket.

 

 

Chet regretted that he didn’t keep his paratrooper dress jacket.   [7]   When Erva was dying,   [8]  she told my parents that she wanted Chet to have Bill’s jacket.   Bill and Chet had bonded over their paratrooper service, and Erva told me that Chet was Bill’s favorite of his “Hole Sisters” brothers-in-law.    [9]

 

*   *   *

May you have fun going through your attic;
May you remember that you don’t need 90% of what you put in your attic years ago, certain that you might “need it some day;”
May you share your family stories while you still can;
…and may the hijinks ensue.

Thanks for stopping by.  Au Vendredi!

*   *   *

 

[1] Erva O’Malley, nee Hole, was your grandma Marion’s eldest sister.

[2] The 82nd Airborne Division, first formed during WWI as an infantry division, earned the nickname “All-American” because, unlike the other army divisions at the time, its soldiers hailed from all 48 states.  The 82nd’s uniforms had a double “A” design shoulder patch insignia.

[3] A Thompson machine gun.

[4] Chet said Bill kept getting reassigned to regiments and infantries and squads – still within the 82nd division.  After battles with heavy casualties if the army needed you elsewhere, they sent you elsewhere, sometimes without the “proper” documentation, and soldiers went where they were told to go.  Chet was not sure of the numbers/names of the various infantries, companies, etc., Bill served with, and since Bill seldom talked about the war, the few times Bill was willing to offer information Chet just listened and didn’t press for such bureaucratic details.

[5] Presumably the dog, and not Bill.

[6] With another GI who’d served in the ETO.

[7] When Chet was discharged after the war he was given a train ticket home, and had limited luggage capacity – he  was unable to fit the paratrooper jacket into his suitcase (and was already wearing his uniform and two other jackets on top of that) and gave it to a GI buddy at the train station.

[8] From lung cancer, in 1998.  Bill died from a burst aortic aneurysm in 1969. He was 51.

[9] The Hole family sisters, now deceased:  Erva, Gwen, Ruth, and your grandma Marion.

The Service I’m Not Thanking

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Department Of What Are We Thankful For?

Answer: turkey substitutes.

In the past, our family has often hosted a Thanksgiving dinner at our house. We’re missing daughter Belle this year – she’s out of state, working at a wildlife refuge, and gets no holidays off  [1]  And somehow, the day just snuck up on us.  Translation: no one else made any plans, possibly hoping/assuming that someone (read: moiself) would step up and say, Here’s what we’re doing.

But we’d been busy and traveling and now MH and K and I have all come down with something flu-like (fever), and no one seems to have the energy to plan A Big Feast ® . Instead, the non-turkey eater announced that she would make herself an oven roasted steelhead filet, plus a few of of her favorite foods that she’d be “willing” to share, along with the suggestion that MH and K make/purchase a turkey or whatever they’d like to have.  Turns out both of them preferred a roast chicken, which they got at a Whole Foods market, and our dear family friend LAH was up for being spontaneous and joined us, also contributing to the feast. Sometimes, the simple is the best.

 

*   *   *

Speaking Of Turkey Substitutes….

The US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has recalled turkey products linked to a salmonella outbreak. The CDC announced the outbreak linked to raw turkey products in July, but more people have gotten sick, bringing the total to at least 164 in 35 states. One person in California has died, and 63 people have been hospitalized….

Just two days before Thanksgiving, the CDC warned US consumers to not eat romaine lettuce, as it may be contaminated with E. coli.

(“Watching out for these illnesses tied to recalled foods at Thanksgiving,”
CNN, 11-21-18)

I have a feeling I’m not the only plant-based   [2] eater who sees the headlines, laughs (mostly to moiself), and thinks, Hey, meat-munchers, perhaps this might be the time to transition to a plant-based diet... or at least swear off the turkey Caesar salad leftovers.

 

 

*   *   *

Department of EEEEEEEEEEK

Well, at least it was an easy fix.

During the past midterm election season, I noticed I kept getting political mailers, from all parties, addressed to Robyn Gween Parnell.  I know *I’ve* never registered moiself thusly; I know how to spell my own name(s). After the election I checked the online voter’s registry and sure enough, there it was. Funny, what one extra keystroke will do. Now I’m wondering, did I technically commit voter fraud, by voting under that name?

*   *   *

Department Of The Question That Is Apparently On Everyone’s Mind

Dateline: earlier this week, at an Office Depot. I am shipping a package to daughter Belle, who is temporarily living in Arkansas. (Recurring Readers ®  may recall from previous posts why she is there, and that MH and I visited her three weeks ago.) The OD clerk notes the shipping address, says she can’t remember ever having shipped a package to Arkansas, and asks if I’d ever been there. When I reply in the affirmative, she blurts out what seemingly every person does – usually in all sincerity and with genuine confusion – when my visit to Arkansas comes up in conversation:

Why?

 

 

 Why? For the scenery, of course.

 

*   *   *

Department Of Obligatory Apologies

The management would like to apologize for the cultural stereotypes implied in the pictures chosen to illustrate the sentiments expressed in the previous blog segment.  [3]

 

 

*   *   *

Department Of Still Thinking About It

On Veterans’ Day, MH, K and I went to lunch at a local Red Robin.  The restaurant was getting slammed; I’d never seen it so busy. When a server finally got to our table she apologized for the wait, and explained that on Veterans’ Day, soldiers past and present who have their military ID (or show up in uniform) eat for free.

They (RR) have been doing this for several years, our server explained, and the offer  is so popular that Veteran’s Day is the one day when *everyone* works – no RR staff member can ask for the day off unless they make special arrangements six months in advance.  Non-veteran customers in the restaurant, when they find out what RR is doing, praise them for it and don’t seem to mind the extra crowds/wait, the server said, so it makes for a nice atmosphere, and thus she likes working on Veterans’ Day.

That idea – of freebies for vets    [4] – stuck in my head, due to conversations I’d had with my father.  During the end of our meal I told MH and K that although Chet Parnell had been proud of his military service  [5]  and wouldn’t begrudge any other veteran of any age from accepting a restaurant’s offer of a free meal,  I was confident that, were he here with us, he wouldn’t have claimed such an offer for himself.

My confidence about his response stems from talks we’d had over the years, and in particular, our last, long telephone conversation   [6] about his time in the military, as well as that of his brother-in-law, Bill O’Malley. My Uncle Bill, also a WWII paratrooper, and saw action in campaigns from North Africa to Italy to D-Day to the Battle of the Bulge.  He was hospitalized after the war, in Europe, for (what we now know is) PTSD. When he was well enough to be released, his PTSD, or what was called “shell shock” back then, continued to give him emotional problems when he returned to the States. My Uncle Bill never received any stateside counseling or mental health treatment.  [7]   Instead, he’d gradually “recovered,” he’d told me, when he and I talked extensively about his war stories,  [8]  because of how he was treated by his fellow Americans. As a returning GI, everyone was kind to and patient with him.  “If they knew or even suspected that I’d been a soldier,” Bill said, “I never paid for a cup of coffee.”

Chet chuckled when I told him Bill’s story, then said that he himself had always felt …odd…accepting any kind of kudos for his military service. He was an enlistee, not a draftee, and had proudly signed up for the paratroopers. It was an important job he and the other soldiers had to do, he said, but he didn’t want to make “a big deal” out of it.  He got paid for doing it, and never felt that he was owed him anything nor that civilians were beholden to him in any way. Or, as he put it, “I can buy my own damn cuppa coffee.”

 

Chet Parnell (front row far left) and some of his “stick.”  [9]

 

*   *   *

Who doesn’t want to be thanked for their military service?….
Many people, it turns out….To some recent vets…the thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people who, while meaning well, have no clue what soldiers did over there or what motivated them to go, and who would never have gone themselves nor sent their own sons and daughters.
To these vets, thanking soldiers for their service symbolizes the ease of sending a volunteer army to wage war at great distance — physically, spiritually, economically. It raises questions of the meaning of patriotism, shared purpose and, pointedly, what you’re supposed to say to those who put their lives on the line and are uncomfortable about being thanked for it.
(Hunter Garth, 26, former Marine who served in Afghanistan) said that when he gets thanked it can feel self-serving for the thankers, suggesting that he did it for them, and that they somehow understand the sacrifice, night terrors, feelings of loss and bewilderment. Or don’t think about it at all.
“I pulled the trigger,” he said. “You didn’t. Don’t take that away from me.”

(“Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service,” NY Times, 2-21-15)

*   *   *

 

May you have a restful post-Thanksgiving weekend;
May you contemplate the existential reasons why a person might visit Arkansas;
May you appreciate being able to buy your own damn cuppa coffee;
…and may the hijinks ensue.

Thanks for stopping by.  Au Vendredi!

*   *   *

 

 

[1] Lions and tigers and bears want to eat every day, and don’t understand Thanksgiving.

[2] Plant-based eaters generally exclude or minimize consumption of meat and animal products. Some, like moiself, have fish on occasion. And others, also like moiself, are trying to get Tillamook Pepper Jack cheese classified as a fish.

[3] The management would like to apologize, if only she could do it sincerely.

[4] I sincerely hope all veteran’s order of burgers and fries were not delivered to their tables with that phrase I find at once odious and obsequious: Thank you for your service.

[5] He served in WWII as a paratrooper.

[6] The night before he died.

[7] Both treatment for and knowledge about PTSD was practically non-existent, for WWII vets.

[8] Which flabbergasted my parents when I told them, years later, because, other than a few talks with Chet, a fellow paratrooper, “Bill wouldn’t talk about the war with anyone.” My theory was that while Bill wouldn’t talk about the war with other adults, a ten year old (at the time of our conversation) kid disarmed him with my genuine curiosity and guileless questions – and every question I asked, he answered.

[9] A “stick” is a load of paratroopers in one plane, prepared for a drop.