Saturday, December 10, 2011
to Mark, Carlos, Laura, Anita, Bill, Bill, Estelle, Dante, Robert, Hal, John, drew
I was a good bugler during Basic Training and again after the war had ended and I was chosen to record the bugle calls so they could be played over the camp loudspeakers. “Ta ta ka tat ta ta ka tat, tat ta ta kat tat, ta ta ka tat.” My jazzed up rendition of first call woke the whole camp up every morning. I memorized every call in the bugler’s manual and was ready to play any required call.
Once I saved face for the whole band and even the band leader was grateful to me.
The (pardon the tautology) “Idiot General” (I swear) got his jollies off by calling out the whole Division, including Artillery and all other dependent units and contemplating the vast sea of loving GI faces spread out before him at his beck and call. I could sense he felt himself a real general on these occasions. As a matter of fact, he was known for having been sent with some troops to Alaska, where they arrived in the middle of winter still dressed in summer tans from their stay in the tropics. His excuse was that the operation was so secret that furnishing winter uniforms would have tipped off the enemy, or some such silly excuse. This wasn’t something that would daunt a “real general” and we inherited him - fortunately after the war was over. I hate to think of our fate had he commanded us in battle.
I was third trumpet in the band, but my shady past as a bugler was known to the leader and to the first Sargeant, who happened to be first trumpet.
Our ecstatic general’s visions of grandeur had no limits. Now he decided he wanted all the officers at his feet, as in an old Regular Army ritual initiated by “Officer’s Call.” He directed the band leader to “Play Officer’s Call.”
Mr. Croteau, the Warrant Officer that led the band, quickly called for the First Sergeant to play “Officer’s Call.” He didn’t know it. After all, he was the band’s First sergeant, not a bugler. I bided my time, watching how they sweat under pressure and frustration. Sarge finally remembered he possessed a real honest to goodness bugler and turned to me. He inquired in desperation: “Valderrama, do you know Officer’s Call?” I figured it was time for some fun, so I appeared to consider the question for a few moments before answering that “yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” Well play it! Play it! Both the band leader and the First Sergeant desperately urged. I stepped forward and raised my instrument toward the sea of faces: Tat, ta ta kat tat, ta ta kat tat, tat ta ka tut, I played loud and clear till the whole call had resounded over the field, heard by everyone yet recognized by no one in this post war civilian Army. I was so pleased with my crisp clear rendition that I decided to observe the repeat sign that marks the end of all the bugle calls. Calmly I repeated: “Tat, ta ta kat tat, etc.” The whole division was rumbling in wonderment as to what action was called for. Somehow word got around and first one or two officers and then a little stream of them started walking to the front and gathering at the feet of the great one. Eventually all the officers had gathered where the general could address them directly. I lost interest in the proceedings after my thrilling intervention, so I have no recollection as to how the general derived his satisfaction from the proceedings or what further stunts he came up with.
There was a favorable (to me) repercussion to the incident. A few days later, during an inspection, an officer restricted the whole band to its barracks for the weekend because his white glove got dirty on the rafters. I wasn’t about to stay in camp for the whole weekend while my new wife waited for me in town so I hitch hiked into town. Who else was riding in the car but Mr. Croteau, the band leader. He did the decent thing and ignored me and the fact that I was technically going “AWOL” (Absent Without Leave) and could have been in a lot of trouble for having so blatantly ignored the restriction.
Robert Hilliard Aug 31
Ed, > > Another excellent vignette. It took me 50 years after the war to fina...
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Edgar Valderrama Sep 15
not sure I sent this Yeah, more or less.
resending in case I didn't send.
I had radio training in Ft. Benning Ga. and if I hadn't broken my glasses I would have been sent to Fort Hood in Tx with my class for integration into a new division that never left the States because the War ended. I was left behind while my glasses were being replaced. That made me a loose replacement and I arrived as cannon fodder during the Battle of the Bulge. I've got a couple of stories written about my misadventures at the front and will try to write some more. I joined the band as third trumpet and became regimental bugler after playing "Officer's Call."
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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Thursday, January 14, 2010
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that forced the United States into WWII occurred in December 1941 while my brother and I accompanied our parents on a music tour to several Mexican State Capitals. Puebla’s State Conservatory of Music, where my parents taught, sponsored the tour. My father had been my mother’s piano teacher. They had fallen in love and eloped to New York, hoping to conquer the city with their piano playing. Playing piano accompaniment for silent films and as dinner entertainment in New York restaurants didn’t pay enough to raise a family on, so they had to return to Mexico when I was six months old. My parents continued struggling to make a musical living in Puebla and I developed a nearly fatal intestinal infection. My maternal grandparents helped out by taking me into their household where I was nursed back to health. Every time I lived with my father and mother, I would get sick and had to be taken to my grandparents to recuperate. When they moved to Daytona Beach, Florida the family consensus was that I would die for sure if I stayed with my parents, so they took me with them. This was the beginning of a life long habit of commuting between the U. S. and Mexico every two or three years. It was during one of these visits, two months after my nineteenth birthday while the Conservatory tour was in Guadalajara, state of Jalisco, that WWII began and the world changed forever.
I could have stayed in Mexico during the war, but I didn’t. Mind you, I didn’t volunteer to fight, but after turning nineteen and the bombing of Pearl Harbor I came up and turned myself in, so to speak. I decided to come back to the States mainly because I didn’t want my school mates in Florida to think I had chickened out. Long distance peer pressure put me in the Army. I registered for the draft and chose the uncomfortable Army over the relatively comfortable Navy simply because they offered a three week hiatus before reporting for duty. The Navy only offered one week before you had to present yourself. I figured every day of freedom was worth a fortune and my upbringing as a spoiled grandma’s boy blinded me from considering anything else. To me, three weeks in the hand were worth more than a Navy career in the bush. I really enjoyed those last three weeks of beach and sand and surf before surrendering my tender soul and young body to the Army.
I use my family history to illustrate the “degeneration of the generations,” as I call it. Methodist missionaries discovered my father’s father in the silver mining town of Pachuca, Hidalgo, in the late eighteen hundreds. They considered him a diamond in the rough and educated him and developed his talents. Don Pedro Valderrama repaid his benefactors by founding a first class Methodist school in Puebla. It still teaches from kindergarten to twelfth grade. He became a Methodist preacher and a 33rd degree Mason; all in all a prominent citizen. His wife was the daughter of an English mining engineer from Pachuca. They had four sons and three daughters. These uncles and aunts of mine all did fairly well except for my father, who was the musician of the batch. He and my mother were both wonderful pianists, but music is a tough racket and Mexico wasn’t the ideal place for classical pianists to make a living, which explains their futile attempt at conquering New York. By 1944 the Methodist school had gone through several Directors and had degenerated into a shell of its original self. My father was offered the directorship and our family was installed in the principal’s house. My father was no exception to the rule that musicians are notoriously bad administrators. He barely managed to keep the school going till his death at sixty from a stroke, only a year after my mother died of cancer at forty two. Compared to his father’s brilliant performance in founding a flourishing school, his achievements seemed, and were, quite lackluster. The last of our line to make his mark at the school was my brother. He cut up, caroused and disrupted so much that a later director expelled him from the school our grandfather founded! It went from founder to being kicked out in three short generations. Makes me sad, but it illustrates how a family can quickly slide into mediocrity in a couple of generations.
The first day at Camp Blanding, Florida was a little like a recurring dream I had as a boy. I would stride down the street in Daytona Beach. Suddenly, I would fall through the side walk to a lower level where there was a new and different world to explore. I fell from my comfortable "Grandma’s boy" world into a completely different mad and topsy-turvy under world ruled by people in tan uniforms with little chevrons on their sleeves, yelling orders that HAD to be obeyed; promptly and smartly, or else... My first day in the Army, I was awakened before four AM to go on KP (Kitchen police) duty. When I finally got to go to bed again a good 19 hours had passed and I had to get up early again next day. I have not, to this day, been able to find my way back to the normal and orderly world I used to know. Things just went from bad to worse. We had to crawl in the sand under machinegun fire. That wasn't too bad except for the story about a pair of recruits, who happened to come face to face with a rattler while crawling in the sand. They allegedly jumped up from the fright. Too bad, so sad; the machinegun was just then sweeping over them and practically cut them in two, or so goes the camp legend. A Captain was demonstrating the use of explosives. Watching him embarrass himself in front of the class by accidentally blowing himself up didn't help restore my sense of reality. Digging holes to lie in while tanks pass over you might be all right in some places, but our little nests in the Florida sand did NOT feel unsquashable. That slide into the surreal continues unabated, as you can verify by the daily news. “Don’t think. React!” was the memorable phrase our second lieutenant tried to drill into our brains. Although his reasoning was impeccably correct when it came to diving for cover versus conducting a mental debate in the presence of incoming artillery shells, the lieutenant’s little phrase opened my mind forever to questioning authority and its pronouncements.
Trying to spear wild pigs by throwing a bayonet equipped rifle at them while on "pig guard" provided more work cleaning rifles than it did entertainment. Those damn pigs would stick their snouts into the tents and rip open our duffle bags so they could eat the soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, candy and anything else they could find. They would even dig the trash out of ten foot burials. My compensation came one night as we camped and slept in tents among the trees. I felt an “expansion” while looking out of the tent over my feet at the sky one night. I felt my being expand into the heavens till the very stars became atoms of my body! Ever since I occasionally dream I am in a space ship on a never ending trip through infinity.
Monday, November 30, 2009
Thursday, November 26, 2009
As a Reluctant Warrior
Sgt. Barret and I met in the back of an uncovered army truck on the way to the front. We were replacements en route to the Ardennes; slated to take part in the Battle of the Bulge. Hitler had made his last desperate gamble of the war, hoping to alleviate his situation by pushing us all the way back to the sea.
It was supposed to be a two hour trip but our convoy was as lost as a goose in a snow storm, or maybe the drivers knew which way the front was but they wanted to stay as far from it as they could for as long as possible. The trucks were open to the snow so as to facilitate our frequent dives for cover. Whenever an occasional low flying German plane passed over us, the convoy would stop and we would all jump out and dive into frozen ditches by the side of the road. Our hands were stiff with cold and our feet felt frozen. Sgt. Barret and I whiled the endless uncomfortable time away talking about whatever came to mind. During those long hours, despite the really freezing cold and the many interruptions, he told me about his family in California; showed me pictures of his wife and kids. He said he had been stationed in Hawaii, where he had been a radio operator, same as I had trained to be. He had felt guilty about having it so good while there was serious fighting going on, so he (really) requested a transfer to "the front!" He got it pretty fast.
After riding for over 12 hours, we finally arrived at our destination. This turned out to be an underground bunker in the middle of the Ardennes forest. Our day ended in that bunker. The Germans had meticulously dug it out and roofed it with logs covered with dirt; it was much better than the dugouts we made, but then, by the time I got there, it was all attack and advance. We only dug in during an occasional counterattack and then it was not for long. Fortunately for me, the German resistance had been weakened by the time I got there. (With one exception: when we were almost pushed back into the Rhine after having crossed it without casualties) The Germans had been chased out of that area, then they had retaken it during Von Rundsted's attack; the one that created the “bulge” in the first place. We had re-retaken it during the slimming down of the Bulge. This was the battle during which English speaking German soldiers infiltrated our lines dressed as G. I.’s. Their orders were to do everything they could to misdirect us and sow confusion by moving and altering road signs so we would get lost. They would even expose themselves, brazenly standing in the middle of a crossroad and pointing us in the wrong direction, away from the front. Our big counter offensive was about to begin and we were right on the front line, just as Barret had hoped for when he turned his back on sunny Hawaii.
Our cozy underground home was lit by gasoline filled wine bottles topped with smoky rag wicks. They barely lit but definitely fouled the air of our catacomb. Our lungs were filled with soot. Lights out was at ten O’clock. Barret and I were buddies by then, having spent the day and part of the night in conversation. Early in the morning, when we went a little ways through the woods to pick our breakfast up from the chow truck I noticed Barret was nervous; he even spilt stuff from his canteen and plate on the way back to our dungeon, simply because German mortar fire exploded all around us, splitting and snapping little branches and twigs. In my blissful ignorance, I saw them as interesting special effects not worth worrying about. I did notice, though, that the soldiers that had been the most gung ho before arriving at the front seemed to be the most worried and nervous once we were there. I thought Barret should feel satisfied to finally find himself at “the front” he had longed for back in Hawaii. We were barely finished licking our plates when our little hillbilly Sergeant (great soldier, but I can’t for the life of me, remember his name) came by and hauled Barret off on patrol towards the German line. Less than an hour had passed when I see the sergeant walking past my home in the forest all by himself. "Where's Barret?" I innocently inquired. "He got hit," was the answer. "What do you mean, "hit?" I wanted to know. "Was he wounded or what?" You know, said the sergeant, "he's dead." I did some quick math. If two of us arrive together and one gets killed first thing in the morning, the other - me - is subject to being killed the next or on any subsequent day. On one level I understood this, and even wrote farewell letters, which the censors returned to me so I "wouldn't worry the people back home." I told the censors my folks wouldn't be half as worried as I was, but they still made me omit the farewells. Even so, my letters would arrive with pieces cut out where I revealed too much.
Another part of me was, and still is, dissociated from reality. In fact, things were so topsy turvy, absurd and ridiculous that I couldn't believe they were true or real. I suppose my search for reality began when, as a little boy, I wondered why there was something instead of nothing. I'm still wondering, and events are still so absurd as to make it difficult for me to accept their reality. If you don’t know what I mean, imagine you are an alien and are looking at the TV or reading our newspapers for the first time. If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, I advise you to take it as a sign you’re probably taking too much for granted.
Missing in Action
Oh yes, as soon as it was dark the little Sergeant came by our dugout again and took me on patrol with him. He was using up his new replacements fast. By that time, I had already cut strips off a blanket and wrapped it around my freezing warmth loving feet and was wearing my overshoes over the blankets – without my socks or boots. This, I discovered, made walking in the snow rather difficult, and I was soon falling behind the relentlessly fast walking Sergeant. Pretty soon he walked right out of my life and I found myself all alone in the dark, flopping around in my overshoes in the middle of the Ardennes forest. I wondered if Hansel and Gretel had felt the way I did. I don't think the Sergeant ever looked backwards. I’ve never retold this little chapter since I told it to an uncle and he wouldn’t believe that I had oriented myself by walking in one direction till I approached the sound of men talking. Careful listening told me they were talking German. Of course I immediately knew that the way "home" was in the opposite direction. When I approached the American lines, I was afraid someone would ask me a stupid question as in the movies, to make sure I was friend, not foe. I figured I was a dead 19 yr. old if they asked me the standard question as to who was the pitcher for the Dodgers, so when I got near and was sure they were Americans; I cupped my hands and yelled out my half of the password before they had a chance to shoot or challenge me. I eventually made it to the 2nd Lieutenant’s bunker. He seemed bothered by having me show up. He said he had already written his report and it showed me as “missing in action.” I think he wanted me to feel guilty for making him work extra, writing an updated version, having to delete me as a casualty.
The officers must have realized I would be worthless in actual combat. I was assigned to Company Headquarters, which was hell compared to the quartermasters, but heaven compared to the very front line, a whole few yards ahead. They gave me a little “handie talkie” radio to carry around and made me Platoon Runner. I still had to “run” back and forth between Co. HQ. and the front line all day long, but even with the exposure that gave me to all kinds of flying pieces of metal, it was still one hell of a lot preferable to being stuck in the front line all the time.
My great talent was soon recognized and I became the captain’s radio operator and runner. This was one fast moving captain. Name was Leasch, German descent, and again I have to beg for belief, because that same uncle wouldn’t believe this either. (He had been in the Signal Corps, safe in the Philippines as an M.P.) When th Company was in attack mode, I had to practically run to keep up with the captain. He would wear me out and I had to jettison weight to be able to keep up with him. The first thing to go would be the useless gas mask pouch. The gas mask had been long gone, but I threw the pouch away with my toothpaste and brush and shaving equipment. I swear to God that I could feel the drag of an extra toothbrush or a pen and felt greatly relieved when I got rid of them. Imagine what I felt when I threw my WET (and cold) OVERCOAT away! For a moment I almost felt happy in the middle of the war. Please tell me you believe me. (about the difference a tooth brush made, I mean)
Post Script. There was a whole Quartermaster Regiment following us when we were on attack. They would pick up all the gas masks and equipment we threw away and collect and order it. Once we had reached our objective and stopped for a day or two, they would reissue all that equipment back to us real formally, like we were assuming responsibility of valuable government property. Of course we’d drop every bit of extra weight all over again on the next attack.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
As I crouched in one end of a shallow coffin length foxhole, an older GI (I was 19) sat on a box at the other end concentrating on reading the bible. Unfortunate childhood interactions with religions and some bible reading of my own had culminated in my having lost respect for the book so I chided him saying: “Why are you wasting your time reading that?” or words conveying that sentiment. He responded gravely, "you know, Valderrama that we are liable to die at any moment. We should be prepared for that." I thought or said something to the effect of "Oh baloney."
The cigarettes handed out by the pretty Red Cross girls when they occasionally caught up with us during a lull in the fighting partially assuaged the nervous tension we were constantly under. Most of us smoked quite a lot. The nearby explosion of a German artillery shell shook me so that the cigarette I was smoking slipped from between my fingers. I leaned deeper into the hole to retrieve it. At that precise moment another German artillery shell exploded near our little home in the
I could have decided the newly departed had been doing the right thing by reading the bible, or I might have come to the conclusion that smoking (and dropping one’s cigarette) saved lives and was therefore good for me. I did not garner an immediate lesson, though, as my whole army career was carried out in an unfocused daze that began with two days of fourteen straight hours Kitchen Police duty the moment I fell into the army’s tender jurisdiction.
We have not reached the point of this story. That comes further on, after another incident took place. I realize it is hard to believe, but the next incident was so like the first that although I am completely sure there were two of them, they are blended generically in my mind as one; the bible reading, my comment, the falling cigarette, (I must have dropped a lot of cigarettes in foxholes) rising to discover the sudden forced departure of my holemate’s life essence.
Several people I've asked agree that they would have taken this as a sure sign that "it pays to be ready," and they would have embarked on a bible reading marathon. If they had strong faith in a personal God with a fixation on the details of our lives, they might have even taken the repetition to mean God was singling me out with a personal warning message. Never mind expending two other soldiers to save one soul, the bible is replete with innocents sacrificed for the benefit of the chosen. Why not imagine myself as one of the fortunate few?
I wasn't able to squelch my contrarian streak. Instead of being impelled towards bible reading and preparations for death, I concluded that bible reading and being ready to die would be followed by little holes in my head through which the life essence would be forced to escape.
I was offended by this constant pressure to expect a big daddy in the sky to solve our problems and all the transpositions and juggling of facts necessary to explain his tender mercies while all around me human beings were dropping like flies. I resented the craven attitude of humbling oneself to beg for mercy from above and saw it as a debasement of what little human dignity was left in the world.
I became an anomaly. According to common wisdom, there was no such thing as an Atheist in a Fox Hole. I even resented the well known declaration by WWII news icon Ernie Pyle and assorted chaplains that went: "There are no Atheists in a fox hole." Whenever I heard it I wanted to shout: "Here's one!" or “Don’t speak for me, speak for yourself.”