Remembrances: Gerry Stearns--Souvenirs and Memorabillia

When I joined the 83rd Division in Linz, Austria conditions were a bit different from Camp Lucky Strike. From being housed in tents, we were back in private homes just like our frequent overnights in combat. We were a little ways out of town, but we frequently went by the massive factory of the Hermann Goering Auto Werke. Most impressive was the Headquarters building downtown decorated with an enormous rainbow, the model for the 32nd Division's shoulder patch, the "Rainbow Division" which General Douglas MacArthur set up and commanded during WWI. The 83rd had apparently relieved the WWII Rainbow in Linz and the old hands in my new outfit had a poetic saying about the standard deployment of the 32nd: "Two shootin', two lootin' and all the rest paintin' rainbows." To tell the truth, I don't remember seeing all that many rainbows, but the 32nd had been gone for a while, and the "shootin'" and "lootin'" was not intended as disrespect of the Rainbow, but was typical cynical GI talk.

"Looting" seems like too harsh a word for the souvenir hunting we GI's indulged in, and what we did was not part of a political design like the wholesale looting done by German and Russian troops. But whatever contributed to the well-being or comfort of soldiers was fair game. I remember seeing a 6X6 go past during the waning days of war, with a sofa on it. (Was it one of the 89th's vehicles?) I remember at least one jar of home-preserved cherries I confiscated to add a little excitement to my K and C rations. And certainly a lot of cameras disappeared into field jackets and back packs. Except for the cameras, they represented temporary relief, and nowadays those pre-war German cameras are not even in the same league as modern picture makers.

I took a "tour" of the memorabilia room in Tacoma and was reminded of some of the wonderful footnotes of history, which our people collected in the US (didn't we call that the Zone of the Interior?) and in Europe. When I got home I did a little digging for the stuff I'd accumulated through the years. I have civilian materials like cards from my draft board, before and after service, and greetings from the President, and the Ruptured Duck pins we were supposed to wear in our civvies to show we'd served. (By the time we middle-pointers got home most everybody had served and I never wore mine.) Cloth items include: corporal stripe's for OD's and suntans; shoulder patches for 9th Service Command, ASTP, the 89th, the 83rd; an embroidered Combat Infantry Badge; even a GI shoelace which was wonderful for tying up letters from home and things. Metal dog tags, which stained my chest and undershirt, clinked unless you fitted a segment of a gasmask tube for a silencer gasket, and lengths of those beaded dog tag chains, which would come in handy again someday despite always breaking at the wrong time. One of those once shiny, now tarnished, hinged can openers, which I think, came with C rations was in a small carton along with some not so usual stuff.

Before ASTP and the 89th I was a limited service MP in a reception center, which had turned into a VD treatment facility for newly inducted GI's. I came across three matchbooks, which were part of the military's fight against disease. One had a drawing of a woman beckoning to someone to light her cigarette with the words, "You're no match..." (and you turn it over)..."for V.D." Then, " No is the best tactic. The next prophylactic." Another read, "EASY TO PICK-UP". On the opposite side it said "V.D." and had a cartoon of a dumb-looking GI eyeing a good-looking woman. On the front side was a warning: "Don't Get Burned... Use Cover." Below that, of course, the classic matchbook statement: "Close Cover Before Striking". The third had to be opened to get the full impact of the lesson, reading from left to right, "EVEN SNAFU KNOWS...V.D." and below, a scared GI running toward what seems to be the light over a pro station entrance. And below that, "CAN BE PREVENTED". It also carried the warning about not getting burned. Strong medicine. I wish I'd saved the Dave Berger cartoon in YANK Magazine, which showed his Sad Sack character watching the VD movies with the appropriate horror. After the film he is introduced to his buddy's girl friend. Before he shook hands with her he pulled on a rubber glove. Talk about your overkill! (If any of our readers could send me a copy of the comic strip, or knows where to get one, please let me know. I'm in the roster and in the e-mail listing.)

Other items in that carton: a German military ribbon, only a little longer from left to right than from top to bottom, with vertical stripes of black, white, black, red, white, black with a pair of coppery, crossed swords in the center. Where did I get it? What does it mean? Another was an oblong pot-metal silvery buckle with the legend "GOTT MIT UNS" above and a wreath below, encircling the arrogant Nazi eagle dangling a swastika in his claws provenance unknown, although it is the standard Wehrmacht belt buckle. It may have come from a warehouse piled with all sorts of things helter-skelter including a suntan Afrika Korps cap with the Deaths Head SS badge sewn on it, (which I think I still have), and a pair of hand-knit gray stockings which I later wore out. The last items in the carton were two photo "albums" 1 7/8 by 1 3/8 inches. Each has a light thread attached, as if for hanging on a Christmas tree and seems to be a souvenir for Germans of the Winter Relief Program of the German People 1937-1938. (Winterhilf swerk des Deutschen Volkes) they are full of pictures of you-know-who and adoring crowds. One, "Der Fuhrer and His Homeland", shows pictures of his mother and his father and ends with a short speech from the balcony of the City Hall in Linz, Austria (his home town) 13 March 1938. It begins "Germans! German Comrades and Comradesses..." (my translation). This is significant (I just looked it up) because the Germans took over Austria in March '38 and Hitler is telling the people that like it or not - and a lot did, some didn't - it was Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer time. The other is interesting because it opens with a 1934 picture of Goebbels announcing the beginning of the Winter Relief and one later of Goering with a stuff-eating grin holding out a tin can in which a uniformed Nazi is dropping a coin. I'm pretty sure I picked up these albums in a private home in Germany during the war.