...And a Cast of Characters by Gerry Stearns
Shakespeare said, "All the world's a stage and all the men and women are merely players." You know, characters. Some of the guys I speak about here are what we think of as "characters", but all of them are individuals I remember. You decide whether they're also "characters".
When I arrived in G Company of the 354th in Hunter Liggett I was assigned to hook my shelter half up with Tom Cullen in Gene Leach's second platoon. Tom was like me, from Southern California. where he had been raised. His family and mine both lived in the Long Beach area. He was easy to get along with and he invited me to meet his wife, Winifred, when she visited North Carolina. Tom was a big guy, just about the same size as our Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Henry Benson. Tom was chosen to play the part of Colonel Cuestick at Camp Butner in a skit put on by G Company. My memory isn't clear but I think Tom loped around carrying a broomstick under his arm just like Colonel Benson carried his sawed-off pool cue. Tom did more than just that and he was pretty funny. I guess Benson didn't hole grudges, because Tom ended the war as a Staff Sergeant rifle squad leader. I didn't see him too often after I joined the new H Company. Did run into him at Lucky Strike after VE Day. He was hobbling around with a walking cast. I thought he said he'd fallen down on a rocky beach after an evening of drinking with his new buddies of the French Resistance. He pulled up his pant leg to show me how they'd honored him by decorating the cast; there was a broad band of red at the top, just below the knee, then white, then blue. The colors of the French flag. There was also an artistic gold Cross of Lorraine (General De Gaulle's special symbol) painted on. I almost envied him his busted leg. (Years later I learned that one of the three battle streamers of the 354th, World War One, was for the area of Lorraine. The encyclopedia says WWI US troops in September 1918 "liberated" Lorraine from being part of Germany and returned it to France for the first time since the end of the Franco-Prussian War. I guess, in commemoration, there is a Cross of Lorraine on the shield of the 354th.
Tom was really into the French...he applied for and went from Lucky Strike to the US Army's Biarritz University studying French language and culture. I lost track of him when I was sent to the 83rd in Austria. After I was discharged, back in L.A., I contacted his wife. She said he had taken his discharge in Europe, now living in Paris and she was about to visit him. He had been a newspaperman in Long Beach; believe he was working on a newspaper in Paris. Winifred kept up her regular visits to him. I lost their addresses after I left L.A.
Norm Spivock had the lower bunk (to my upper) upstairs with the second platoon of H Co. He liked to sing a song to the tune of Wig's Mademoiselle from Armentiere: "Oh, the polymorphonuclear leukocytes will win the war, so what the hell are we fighting for? Hinky Dinky Parleyvoo." All these years I remember those words. I just checked the spelling; it has to do with blood transfusions. I never learned where Spivock learned the song. He never suggested that he wrote the words, but I like it. Norm carried ammunition for our heavy machine guns during the war. I don't remember where he was when we went to Austria but he was on the George Washington as we sailed home. I interviewed him for the ship's paper for my "The First Thing I'm Gonna Do When I Get Home" story. Months later he showed up at the University Bookstore, USC in L.A., where I was working 10-12 hours a day. (My GI bill was held up for nine months). Outside he showed me a new Chevy convertible, top down, which he'd promised to drive down to Mexico shirtless at the first opportunity. He still had his shirt on as he drove around the corner. I haven't heard from him since. I believe he lived in San Francisco, never found a listing in the phone book when I lived in the Bay Area.
Another second platoon ammunition mule who showed up at the bookstore was ex-PFC Homer Chaney, Jr. Homer drove me nuts with his stories, which reflected a much different life than I had known. He told me his father was a high-up executive in a big insurance company. Before the war, many U.S. Corporations had willingly or otherwise helped the buildup of the German war machine, accepting payment of debts in cuckoo clocks, grand piano, etc. according to his dad. The Germans used their hard cash for military needs. In the late 40's my professors were telling me the same stories and providing documentation. Homer also carried in his wallet a page of advertising from what looked like Time Magazine. It showed a good-looking girl and said, "She's beautiful, she's engaged, she uses soap." or something like that. You remember those ads! Only thing was, Homer claimed she was his girl friend. No comment. What sticks in my mind though is something he never talked about. In the lid of his footlocker was a certificate appointing Homer C. Chaney, Jr. a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army of the United States. It was signed by a Lieutenant General Chaney. It looked authentic to me, even though I'd never seen such a document. As far as I know, nobody ever questioned it on inspections. Call me naive; I don't remember what Homer was doing in L.A. Haven't heard from him since.
PFC W.J. Hoene (pronounced Haney, unless you wanted to tease him you called him Noe-een) had been the Notre Dame Freshman Football Team Manager. When we got into the barracks, tired and sweaty from a day in the field and T.O's because of an unexpected GI party or other extra chore laid on us at the last minute, Hoene did his imitation of Coach Frank Leahy rallying his troops. "All right now then, lads, let's put our backs into it," etc. I can't do it like Hoene did it but we were always Leahy's "Lads". I don't think Hoene was ever hit by a shoe, plenty were thrown at him.
Dean Hemphill was from Pasadena, CA. One sunny day in the German spring I was seated beside him along a country road, our feet in the ditch. We only had our side arms, so the machine guns must have been mounted on the jeeps, wherever they were. He interrupted our talk to refer to the pillbox across the road. What pillbox? But there it was, easy to see once he identified it, despite its camouflage paint. It wasn't far away, it seemed to melt into the woods lying some distance behind it. I learned for the first time that Hemphill was colorblind and saw the blocky outline of the concrete structure without being confused by the camouflage. It must have been one of the reasons he was his squad's first gunner, the guy who aimed the gun and fired it.
I met George E Haynes, First Sgt. of G Co early when I joined at Hunter Liggett. I came to his attention shortly after the end of the last problem when they were trying to make an infantryman of me and the sorry lads from ASTP. A last minute announcement of a change in an afternoon's training plans found me prepared for something else. Exercising the prerogative of every EM, I bitched about it. Haynes came over toward me and stopped. "The next time I hear you mouthing off at one of my noncoms I'll break you!" he said. Although I stood several inches taller than Haynes, his vehemence left no doubt that he meant what he said. Years later I learned that this stocky, diminutive man, maybe 5'4"/5'5", had been an intercollegiate wrestling champ at University of Iowa. Haynes was never very fond of me but don't think he went out of his way to make my life especially harsh. This was nice since when we went from a Light to a standard three-cornered division and I went to the new H Co, so did George Haynes.
The three most important administrative noncoms in an infantry company, probably any Army unit of this size, were the lst Sgt., Supply Sgt., and Mess Sgt. I don't remember the last but Haynes and the Supply Sgt. James Hampton seemed always to be together. This was interesting because Hampton was, I guess, 6'4" tall, wide and taciturn. Whereas Haynes was talky, stocky and short. Not at all Mutt and Jeff, were all business, not humorous.
In the year 2001, TRW reported the death of Brooks Russell. I believe H Co machine gun squad leader buck Sgt. Russell and his sidekick Corporal Jim Franceski had been on the training staff at Fort Benning OCS. They had been transferred to a combat unit in anticipation of the widening of the war effort. Back in 1995, Russ asked TRW about the whereabouts of Franceski. My kid brother had a CD-ROM called "The Seventy Million Household Phonebook" and I phoned, later wrote Russ several citations of F's in Forest City, Pennsylvania. No luck. These two guys used to sing together and made some pretty good sounds. I tried to make it a trio, but they didn't need me. One thing we did together, either aboard the General Edwards at Le Havre or at Lucky Strike was shave our heads in anticipation of possible head wounds. Russ had a beautiful crop of wavy hair and dithered, but did it. (After the war, after studying music for a while, Russell built and operated an AM/FM radio station for 30 years, married and raised a daughter.)
In second platoon, H Co, there was a guy whose initials were K.S. I think K.S. was a "character". One example, the poor guy became not only seasick but also constipated on the General Edwards, which carried us overseas. Every day, he'd tell us how long it had been, etc. The medics at Lucky Strike dosed him regularly with some kind of "brown pills" without results. One dark morning at Lucky Strike we were at reveille, standing in ankle-deep snow for roll call. K.S. was chanting, "Oh cold, Oh cold, Oh, cold" Then suddenly, "Oh, sh*//?." and off he dashed. He didn't have to tell us, we knew.
There were others, I'm thankful to first platoon squad leader Dom D'Alessandro, from Jersey, who taught me to appreciate his "homey" Frank Sinatra. Another first platoon Sgt. Harvey Herbst kept me from looking stupid when he'd join me in a long and heartfelt bellow of boredom in our tourist-class Pullman every mid-afternoon on the long and tedious trip to Butner. Nobody complained. Maybe we were voicing the feelings of all. (Harvey and his wife live in Austin, Texas, where he retired. Taught English for years at the University.) I've talked in other places about ex-Congressman, Tom Rees, H Co, 354th cannoneer, later Atty, Fighting Bob Zang; L Co rifleman, 354th dance band drummer, later educator, Dr. M.P. Wilson whose California Bear flag frightened Germans into thinking the Russians were coming. (I learned in Tacoma that MP knew over a thousand campfire songs. I'd known for years that his doctoral thesis was about the jokes that amused eighth grade boys but he never let me read it.) There was K Co's Roger Lydon, PhD polyglot, who with me explored what our studies in French and interest in small boats could mean to our futures in Europe. The death of GI truck driver, ASTP student, F Co mortar man Jerry Stambuk at Friedrichroda ended a long Army friendship. There were others, all memorable, some "characters", and many, happily, still around.