By Don R. Marsh
Let me begin by quoting one of our nation’s most famous
and decorated soldiers of Army history, Colonel David Hackworth, who said,
“War stories present two problems to authors striving for the truth. First of all,
if you live long enough to tell them, and have an audience to practice telling
them to through the years, war stories becomes just that … stories. Just as time distances the storyteller from the events
themselves, so do repeated tellings. Gradually the stories are embellished in
places, honed down in others until they are perfect tales, even if they bear
little resemblance to what actually happened. Yet the storyteller is completely
unaware of how far he may have strayed from the facts. Those countless tellings
have made the stories “The Truth.”
The second problem with war stories is they have their
genesis in the fog of war. In battle, your perception is often only as wide as
your battle sights. Five participants in the same action, fighting side by side,
will often tell entirely different stories of what happened, even within hours
of the fight. The story that each man tells might be virtually unrecognizable to
the others, but that does not make it less true.”
I happen to be in complete agreement with Hack’s
philosophy. Permit me to tell you a personal war story that happened to me,
without a shot being fired. It happened in England in 1943, during WWII, so it
is technically a “war story” in name only. There wasn’t an enemy within
100 miles of where it occurred. As a matter of fact, it happened as the result
of what can be construed as friendly fire.
The fire was a verbal blast from a 3rd Armored Division 143rd
Armored Signal Company First Three Grader by the name of Staff Sergeant Ignatius
Scarlotta, from Chicago, who blind-sided me one rainy night at the Company mess
I believe it was either the first or second night after I
had joined the Company as a replacement fresh from the States. The Signal
Company was quartered on a former British peace time mushroom farm and used the
former sheds and out buildings for various purposes. The mess hall so designated
was one long building with a concrete floor, wide enough for two six man tables
on each side with a narrow aisle down the center. The shell of the building was
covered with corrugated sheet metal and the frequent British rains drummed on
the roof with a staccato tattoo effect.
The size limited the seating capacity to perhaps half the
battalion-sized Company at any given meal. So timing was important, get in line
early while waiting in the rain and you get a seat. Arrive late and you would be
forced to stand outside – in the rain -- until a seat opened from those who
ate fast. Either way, chances are you got wet and had to wait in the rain.
It was dark and raining as I carried my mess kit and got in
line to wait. As I moved from the chow serving line, unaware of a restricted
seating policy, carrying the lid and the bottom half containing the meal in one
hand and a cup of coffee in the other, to the open mess hall facing me, I walked
past the first area of tables at the time occupied by a group of Sergeants. At
the doorway into the main mess hall I saw that all seats in the main hall were
occupied, so I turned and sat at the first empty table behind me. I had no
sooner sat my mess kit and cup of coffee on the table and sat down when I was
tapped on the shoulder none too gently by someone standing behind me. Turning to
see who it was, I saw this scowling face who snarled at me, “Soldier, get your
ass out of that seat and out of our dining area, this is reserved for the Top
In the reserved dining area, watching Staff Sergeant
Scarlotta, the Signal Company’s pit bull, ripping me a new asshole were the
Company’s privileged few, including First Sergeant Leonard Mainiero, Technical
Sergeant John R. Myers (my wire section chief) and several others with four chevrons or more. All were enjoying
the spectacle of my embarrassment of having violated their sacred tradition
created by this small group of war time army draftee NCOs. I was the rookie and
fair game for the evening “show time” entertainment.
In no uncertain terms I got the message that this was a
gung-ho GI outfit with strict adherence to the non-fraternization of the Top
Three with those of lesser ranks. A policy demanded by the regulation minded
Company Commander, Captain John L. Wilson, Jr. Captain Wilson busted NCOs to
Private for associating or gambling with Privates as he did Staff Sergeant Glenn
E. Springer. And later Staff Sergeant Russell Kane to Private -- for “due
cause.” The same rigid
non-fraternization conduct was observed off duty in town at the pubs. Captain
Wilson’s firm belief that familiarity breeds contempt was drilled into every
man down the line. Wilson ran his Company “by the book.”
Consequently, the Top Three were negligent in forming a
bond between the old men and the new men in their sections. In peace time, it
didn’t matter that much, but in the time of war when the shooting begins you
want the cohesiveness of a smooth running section without the bitterness and
resentment of those above who pulled rank without cause.
Later in combat, when Sergeant Myers got into a firefight
with a German soldier firing a Schmeisser machine pistol, Myers was shot in the
neck; but then Private Len Wilson came to his rescue and shot and killed the
German soldier with his Thompson automatic. Private Wilson then assisted in
saving Sergeant Myers life. Rank didn’t matter when a life was at stake.
I rose from the table and juggling the mess kit of fast
congealing food in one hand and the cup of coffee in the other, avoiding looking
at my adversaries as their laughter followed me out of the room. I managed to
find a table with someone getting up. As I sat down to take his place I wondered
what kind of a chickenshit outfit did I land in?
I soon found that I had lost my appetite. After a few moments I got up
and headed for the trash can outside and dumped the contents and then washed the
mess kit in the galvanized cans filled with hot soapy water and the next one
with what once had been clear rinse water.
That dinner made a life-long lasting impression on me -- on how not to act as a top NCO. Later in life as I earned my first rocker as a Staff Sergeant, I vowed I would never abuse my rank at the expense of another soldier of a lesser grade. In my remaining years of my 20 year active duty career, I drummed that message into my subordinate junior NCOs.
When I was promoted to Technical Sergeant, I thought back
to that night in England when Technical Sergeant John Myers remained seated
there without saying a word; whereas he should have jumped on Sergeant Scarlotta
and told him to back off as I was one of his
wiremen and not one of Scarlotta’s radio mechanics.
As a replacement, and a new man, I never felt that they
accepted us into their old boys club that they formed in the swamps of
Louisiana, trained in the sands of the California desert and departed from
Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. At the Company formations, we were constantly
referred to as “the new men” –
as though we needed a reminder of the distinction.
Fortunately for me, I soon transferred out of this “by
the book” unit and into the seasoned 2nd Armored Division that had
seen combat in North Africa and Sicily and learned that when their lives were on
the line … you look out for the man next to you, regardless of rank.
So this is my friendly fire “war story”, if it can be
called that. Nobody got shot, no flesh wounds, no loss of blood, but the
“injury” ran deep and the memory lasted a lifetime.
Publication or reproduction, in part or
whole, is prohibited without written
permission from the author, Don R. Marsh.
All right s remain the property of The
Marsh Family Trust.