The Good War by Studs Terkel
This is a book about the gullible, the power-mad, and those with something to lose. Enjoy it while you can.
Snipers were a big problem. When we'd get into an area that had been occupied by the Germans, they usually left a couple of guys up in the trees. (laughs) They shot a major right out from under me. This was another case of the military mind. It was always protocol for the lower rank to walk on the left of an officer, so he insisted I walk on his left. (laughs)
You lost your Italianness. There uesd to be four, five Italian bakeries in the neighborhood. You'd speak Italian. When I was a little kid, I was ashamed to speak Italian, but I did. On hot days in New York, they sat in front of the apartment houses and spoke Italian. At a certain point, something happened. With the Bond bread, with the white bread, they started to speak English to each other. At the end of the war, the supermarket came. We made some money... Guys my age had really become Americanized. They moved to the suburbs.
When they got to me, htey said, "He'll live. he just seems to shot in several places." I was shot three times. Then they looked at my friend. They threw a flashlight on him. They said, "He'll make it. Niggers don't die when you shoot 'em in the head." This was a Red Cross worker.
He (Major Sloan) kept at me for about a month. I got up to fifty-five words a minute. He called me back: "Have you ever worked in a store?" "No, sir." He said, "I want you to work in the post exchange as a clerk." In about three months, he said, "We're gonna make you assistant manager." Within two months, I was the manager. This was a black PX. But that was not enough for him. He decided that he wants me to manage the white PX as well. This was early '45, just before Roosevelt died. They were beginning to integrate the facilities. So I was the first guy to become manager of an integrated PX in the state of Maryland.
The bomb did not end the Japanese War. This was something that was carefully studied by our bombing survey. Paul Nitze headed it in Japan, so there was hardly any bias in this matter. It's ironic that he has since become fascinated with the whole culture of destruction. The conclusion of the monnograph called Japans's Struggle to End the War was that it was a difference, at most, of two or three weeks. The decision had already been taken to get out of the war, to seek a peace negotiation.
World War Two for me is a sore asshole. World War Two for me is four years of nervous diarrhea. World War Two for me is a chance to look back on it, even now, and tell sea stories: to take what happened and enlarge it, embroider it, and come out maybe not smelling like a rose, but smelling a bit better than I do.
When I was eighteen, I was gung ho, completely a creature of my country's propaganda machine. There was right and there was wrong and I wore the white hat. (To Ursula) Your folks and the Japanese wore the black hats. Some of my best friends are Germans, but I still feel uneasy about the Germans as a people. I feel uneasy about rednecks, too. I really distrust Bavarians. They are the Texans of the Teutons. They have a great sense of style and they're very crude. What a silly thing. I don't know many Bavarians, maybe half a dozen. These are the guys who wear regional costumes in exactly the same way that a guy from Dallas will wear a cowboy hat and boots. They're the guys with nicknames who take you around and bullshit you and bribe you and are despicable. If they were Americans, they would chew tobacco and hang blacks.
The first time I heard about concentration camps was when I found a book called Yellow Star. I was twenty-one, alone in this room, I'll never forget. I'm part of that generation that grew up with silence. Don't forget, Germany did not start to talk about these things in schools till into the sixties. I remember going to England and staying with educated people. They couldn't believe how ignorant I was.
At that time, you were lucky if you had a corner in somebody else's room. There were no houses (in London) for people to come back to...
The housing was terrible. When the men came back from service and found their wives sleeping in these subway shelters and weeks went on, they took over the Savoy Hotel and became squatters. It was the best hotel in London at the time. The working people rallied around them. They went to these big hotels and the servicemen would let down buckets on ropes and we all put what bits of food we had in them. They occupied those hotels for ages. The authorities were petrified...
The squatting went on spasmodically for about six months.
My father was a big splurger, a sort of Bohemian. He was thirty at the time and quite frivolous. With his first movie hit, he had bought a villa. We even hired a cook. My first political memory: he came into the kitchen of this great big house and said, "Pack a bag, we're taking a night train to Paris." We took the Pullman, of course.
My father was a light-hearted fellow. He liked women more than he liked politics, but he was very clear-headed, too. Most of his family who were rich German Jews with department stores all over, all wound up in Auschwitz.
He (Patton) viewed us for quite some time. Finally he said, "You're the first Negro tankers ever to be used in the American army in combat. I want you to establish a record for yourselves and a record for your race. I want you to make a liar out of me. When you get into combat -- and you will be in combat -- when you see those kraut s.o.b.'s, don't spare the ammunition." Of course, The Negroes whooped because here was a white man tellin' the Negroes to shoot white people. Well, that really tore us up. (laughs.)
As time went by, I kind of took on suicide-type jobs. Hadda have action. There was never enough action. Gambling didn't do it. I figured I'll get something where there'll be some danger. So I became a police officer. There wasn't really enough action there, either. Not as I knew action. Oh, I had a few gun battles as a policeman, but heck, this is kid's play. This is not the real thing. (laughs.)
This was the clincher for me. If this could happen here, it could happen anywhere. I could happen to me. It could happen to black folk in America. I guess more than any single event, it was this sight (Buchenwald) that crystallized my determination to do as much as I could to bring about some sanity in a very insane world...
We were coming up the Hudson River. You could see the shore. The white soldiers upon the deck said, "There she is!" They're talking about the Statue of Liberty. There's a great outburst. I'm down below and I'm saying, Hell, I'm not goin' up there. Damn that. All of a sudden, I found myself with tears, cryin' and saying the same thing they were saying. Glad to be home, proud of my country, as irregular as it is. Determined that it could be better. Just happy that I had survived and buoyed up by the enthusiasm of the moment. I could no longer push my loyalty back, even with all the bitterness I had.
Americans have never known what war really is. No matter how much they saw it on television or pictures or magazines. Because there is one feature they never appreciated: the smell. When you go through a village and you suddenly get this horrible smell. Everybody's walking around with masks on their faces, cause it's just intolerable. You look out and you see those bloated bodies. You no longer see humans, because they've been pretty well cleaned up by now. You see bloated horses and cows and the smell of death.
When I took that train, I heard there was a crap game in which a lot of money changed hands...
Word came down that there was a limit on the money you could take out (back to the States). Every officer could take out $1500 and every GI could take out $500. Here these two guys had won $68,000...
I'm trying hard to figure out how I can put together a couple of bucks when I hit the States. All of a sudden the lights go on. I ask a GI where I can find the guys who made the score. I went into their tent. I said, "Look, you're gonna have trouble gettin' the money out. I'll give you sixty cents on the dollar and I'll get it out for ya." They were tickled. They turned over about $30,000 to me. Didn't give them a receipt. I went to every officer who was busted and I said, "Carry $1500 and I'll give you twenty points." I kept twenty. They got $300 and I got $300 and I handed $900 back to the guys for each $1500.
When I crossed the parade ground to find 'em, they were a bit teed off. Apparently, the Red Cross was willing to do it for twenty points instead of forty.
In June of that year (1941), I got a call from my boss, Wayne Coy: "Get your ass over here, we got a problem." I must've run ten blocks. I come in all out of breath and Coy says, "Some guy named Randolph is going to march on Washington unless we put out a fair employment practices order. Do you know how to write an executive order?" I said, "Sure, any idiot can write an executive order, but what do you want me to say?" He said, "All I know is the President says you gotta stop Randolph from marching." "What's it all about?" He says, "We got defense factories going up all over this goddamn country, but no blacks are bein' hired. Go down to the Budget Bureau and work something out."
... It was issues as Order 8802. This was the first real executive blow for civil rights. It was the war that caused it.
As a result of that incident (separate officer's clubs for whites and blacks), they published a war department memorandum, 450-50, which was the beginning of integration in the army.
On his way back to the presidential train, a black policeman accosts him (Steve Early, FDR's press secretary), because this is his duty. Early, instead of identifying himself, gets into an argument and kicks the policeman in the groin. They story made headlines in the black papers. Mr. Roosevelt, a genius at public relations, immediately appointed the first black general in the history of the United States.
The war brought some changes for the good: blacks in defense industries, training they might not otherwise have received. Social gains. We've come a long way. But racism is just as alive today, maybe even more virulent. It was the war to end fascism, okay? Do you realize that most blacks don't believe the atom bomb would have been dropped on Hiroshima had it been a white city?
When we took over Rangoon, I had a couple of hand grenades, a Thompson submachine gun, a .38 police special, and my cameras. It's an interesting feeling. You want a car, you take it, 'cause you've got a submachine gun. We were friendly, liberating troops, mind you. You want a house? Which house shall we live in? Let's take that one. The family moves out or they move into the servants' quarters and they become your servants. They're very friendly, and you begin to like having a Thompson submachine gun.
Suddenly, I experience a double reality. The first: a parent said, "It's all over for us. Take our children." We (the French underground) would move anybody under fifteen without papers. You sat there and realized these parents were giving their children away to strangers. The second: I could go downstairs into the streets and find perfectly decent men who went right on rationalizing racism.
Some Jews who were killed didn't believe it, because they knew European culture. They knew Goethe's Faust, Heine's lyrics. They did not beleve that in one nation it is possible to have Heine, Goethe, and Hitler. Beethoven and Himmler. I know Jews, who lived near us, who tried to speak Yiddish to the German soldiers. They thought they'd understand, because it is quite near in language.
The Germans (scientists from Peenemuende) considered me a pretty stupid fellow, which I was supposed to be. I remember their trying to convince me that the only reason they mucked around with these rockets is that they wanted to improve the airmail service between Berlin and London. They wanted to get it down to eight minutes. (laughs.)
Cold War Mark Two?
The new model of the same war. Cold War Mark One is what happened after World War One: the intervention in Russia by the Allied powers and the quarantine that was set up. I think the two are umbilically connected.
Barbie (Klaus Barbie) got exit permits from us, went to Genoa, reported to the Bolivian consul in Italy, got a permit, bought himself a ticket on a steamer to Argentina, with his wife and two kids. From there, he went to Bolivia. He lived there twenty-seven years.
When we first went in, we got civilian pay. We were made enlisted men, but we still would've gotten civilian pay. We wrote a letter to the Treasury: We're in the army, we want army pay. We got a letter from the Treasury: Are you guys crazy? he couldn't understand that we're in to fight, not to make a buck. We didn't want it said we were mercenary. If you're on civilian pay, you can come out of the war with thirty thousand bucks on ya.
Quite to the contrary, within a very short time we saw these same people who terrorized the neighborhoods were in charge again. The wardens, the block leaders, all these Gruppenfuehrer, all the ex-functionaries, were back in the saddle. A lot of my friends were so disillusioned they left Germany. One particularly brutal Nazi I worked for at a rubber plant was put back in charge of that same plant. This went on everywhere.
At the height of its mobilization in World War Two, the United States could manage to make six or eight hundred big bombers. They could visit a city and do big damage in one night. If these eight hundred came to a city several nights, the could do the damage of an atomic bomb. So, you could manage to knock off, with all your forces, a city a week. But now, a thousand cities in a night! It's the numbers. It's the cheapness.
My instantaneous reaction was elation. Then there was a second reaction. (Whispers) Oh, my God! On a city! I went in and talked to my boss. (whisper builds to a shout) They dropped an A-bomb on a big city, a hundred thousand or so. Why didn't they drop it on Tokyo Harbor or on that great naval base at Truk? Why on a civilian population? My boss was Jewish and knew about the Holocaust. He said, "What the hell, they're just Japs. Dumb animals."
The doctor said, "This is impossible. We can't do anything." He said, "Sterilize their wounds with salt water." So we boiled water in a large pot and put in a whole jug of salt. Since the entire bodies were infected (with maggots) we just used a broom. We couldn't possibly do each part of the body with our fingers. We took a broom, dipped it into the salt water, and painted over the bodies.
The children, who were lying down, unable to move, leaped up....