Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An Old Celluloid Soldier Remembers

(The following was in response to the Red Room Website's request for our memories of World War II. As you will see, mine was fought from in front of a TV set and at the movies.)

Captain Flynn: My Favorite CO, a Man I'd Follow into the Jaws of Heck!
“Despite Spielberg’s avowed intent to darken and coarsen the formulas of the war picture, old moviegoing habits die hard: I was practically standing on my seat and yelling at Tom Hanks to kill more Germans, and then, when he had finished killing Germans, to kill more Germans”—Anthony Lane on Saving Private Ryan,  in The New Yorker (August 3, 1998)

I was a strapping, manly six year old when I shipped out for World War II. With only a few scenes of basic training under my belt, I was sent straight into battle, inside the glowing blue foxhole of my family’s RCA TV.

I’ve long forgotten the first battle I fought, or what non-movie theater it took place in. Most likely it was in the Pacific:  Objective Burma where I served under eternally evanescent Captain Errol Flynn. Together, Errol, me and a squad made up to look like Warner Brothers character actors battled our way through the steaming jungles of Burma, a unit in the guerrilla force known as Merrill’s Marauders.

My first battle also might have been Guadalcanal Diary. There, with fixed bayonet, I gung-hoed alongside William Bendix, Lloyd Nolan, Anthony Quinn and Richard Jaeckel, blasting our way across Guadalcanal’s jungle floors (dressed to look like a Hollywood set), shooting Japanese soldiers (disguised to look like Filipino and Chinese extras) out of palm trees.

Those battles over and won, Errol not only pinned a Mauve Heart (a rank below the Purple) on my bony hairless chest, but gave me manly and well-intentioned advice on how to kiss girls, none which helped.

From there, I turned my warrior’s distant gaze . . . let’s see . . . East . . . West? Anyway, I signed right up to join the fight against the Nazi horde besieging Europe where I fought my way through two campaigns, battles so tough, the smell of the popcorn is still with me.

In Attack, I was a private under the command of Jack Palance, Eddie Albert and Lee Marvin during the Battle of the Bugle; in Combat , Vic Morrow and Rick Jason led me and my buddies up from the beaches of Normandy, across northern France, a battle that lasted five years.

Of those two campaigns, Attack was the grimiest and, I must say, the most dysfunctional—Sergeant Palance threatened to stuff a hand grenade down Captain Albert’s throat, then had his arm crushed by a German Panzer. (Guess somebody needed a little R&R!)

Combat was the lengthiest campaign I ever fought in, longer than The Longest Day. For five grueling years, under constant fire from commercial breaks, I marched with Sergeant Morrow’s squad as we machine-gunned and blew up every Nazi in France.

Even after the war ended just a year after D-Day, our squad fought on for glory. We never got out of France, either. My, we must have looked dumber than Stan Laurel when 1949 rolled around and we noticed that most all the other GIs had shipped out stateside! Boy, were we surprised!

Many were the carefree hours I spent fighting in Combat with my squad of pint-sized GIs in schoolyard and forest as we killed more Nazis than attended the Nuremberg Rally. A stream of images of Men Falling Down in the most acrobatic entertaining fashion—why it was just like it they were going to sleep!

What? Of course, they were just going to sleep! How else do grunts like Richard Jaeckel keep showing up in movie after movie!? You get shot. You fall down and go to sleep. You get up again. How simple is that?

And stuff blowing up. Never forget stuff blowing up!

Combat ended, but my craving for action didn’t. I promptly re-upped for my toughest, most dangerous, mission ever--the mission that took me . . . Where Eagles Dare.

Where Eagles Dare was the best two-and-a-half hours I ever spent killing Nazis. Me, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood huddled manfully together on top of a windswept cable car a million feet above a jagged snowy Alpine Valley. Then, at the top, we scaled another million feet of castle wall, full of grim, single-minded determination to complete our desperate mission . . .  

Rescuing Ingrid Pitt!

Best Reason  Ever to Climb a Castle Wall

With lovely Ingrid in my arms and under the able command of battlefield general Yakima Canutt, Dick, Clint, and I blasted our way to victory, sending another ten thousand Nazis to fiery, glorious, stuntman’s doom.

It was during the Where Eagles Dare campaign that I learned one of my profound lessons: when you go into battle, be sure to take along Ron Goodwin and His Orchestra. It’s the only road to victory!

After the smoke cleared, I turned down Ingrid’s plea for marriage to fight alongside Clint again in the Battle of Kelly’s Heroes. Still, that day comes when a young soldier has to face the fact that he’s becoming an old soldier. War was changing: banana peel humor, Don Rickles spinning Borscht Belt jokes,  hippie Donald Sutherland popping wheelies in a Sherman tank while we really blew apart another ten thousand Nazis  . . . none of it felt like my World War II.

I resigned my commission. Except for a brief mission with the brilliant but erratic General Sam Peckinpah—I found myself fighting on the wrong side and then the German Army ran out of money—I retired to my den, polished my medal and reminisced.

When Spielberg called me back to fight in Saving Private Ryan, I told him “nuts” and was glad of it when I saw it—all those heads flying off, faces exploding, and guts draping over beach barriers like sausages didn’t look like any war I ever fought in.

In fact, this old soldier wonders about some of the younger veterans he’s meeting nowadays: boys who fought in the front lines in Korea and Vietnam, Desert Storm and Afghanistan. It’s a different kind of soldier I’m seeing: blinded, strapped in wheelchairs, limbs blown off, hitting the bottle—and other stuff--too much, crying, yelling and acting crazy like . . . like they’d been through some kind of bad experience!

Too bad you missed my war, me buckos: Don’t believe me? Grab that remote. Let’s go climb that castle wall once again and kick some Nazi butt!

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

(Re-edited 6/1/11)
Photo of Errol Flynn from Jerry Murbach/Dr. Macro Web site

Photo of Ingrid Pitt from Where Eagles Dare fan site.

Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.


Anonymous said...

My participation in "The Longest Day" was a speech I made standing up during the intermission lamenting the futility of war - much to the embarrassment of my family sitting nearby.

Louise Clark

Thomas Burchfield said...

Hey Louise: I participated in the TV set, like most of these movies I saw when a tyke! Movies can get close to showing war's futility but, being experience at least several times removed, can never get to the heart of it. They are only portraits employing two senses--sight and sound--not the reality.