Holiday war stories
November 26, 2008
Veterans remember their experiences from some of the conflicts that helped safeguard America. Their stories are of combat and support roles, surprise attacks and camp life, holiday celebrations and day-to-day experiences in the Army from World War II to today's war on terror.
<b>World War II: Carrol Collins </b>
IF Soldiers invading Italy during World War II needed to eat, retired Master Sgt. Carrol Collins was the man to see.
Assigned to the 90th Quartermaster Railhead Company, Collins and his unit supplied food and forage (for mules from the 10th Mountain Division) for any troops who happened to be in the area: sometimes two or three divisions, sometimes a corps headquarters, sometimes even Army headquarters.
"We had the food. We issued it daily to the mess sergeants. They'd come in and pick up the rations for the troops. Then at night, we'd get some more in. The next day we'd ship it out. We'd leapfrog and stay behind as long as there were troops in the area. As the troops advanced, we'd go up to support the frontline troops. Then the line advanced and we'd eventually be back to supporting the rear-line troops."
During WWII, there were two types of early meals-ready-to eat: C- and K-rations. According to Collins, C-rations consisted of two cans for each meal: one with some kind of hash, beans or stew and the other with dried biscuits, instant coffee and powdered milk. No one liked them, he said.
Instead, the slightly-more edible K-rations were preferred. Closer to the modern MRE, they were small boxes with a can of meat, crackers, candy bars, cigarettes, matches and even toilet paper.
These were supplemented by local Italian fare, including wine. The cooks took special care of the troops on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, although Collins said that otherwise it was work, and meals, as usual.
Collins said the men frequently went into local towns when they had rare off-duty time or walked around the countryside to get away from the military. The rest of the time was usually spent playing cards or reading.
While busy making sure the troops were fed, Collins said he was usually behind the front lines except during the invasion of Italy, when a nervous Dutch sea captain deposited them on-shore four days early.
"We were supposed to land at D plus four," he said. "D was the day of landing plus four days. Well, H-hour was about two or three o'clock in the morning. That was the initial landing. We landed at H plus four hours. We walked through the water up onto the sand and they were shooting at us. It wasn't scary because we didn't realize how much danger we were in."
After the war, Collins briefly left the Army before reenlisting with a counterintelligence specialty. He went on to interview refugees during the Korean War, earning the Bronze Star and later the Distinguished Service Medal.
Frederick McClellan Sr. </b>
INSTEAD of opening presents, sitting down to a big dinner or attending religious services, retired Sgt. 1st Class Frederick McClellan Sr. spent Christmas 1950 on a hillside in Korea pretending to be dead.
After first serving in Japan, he was discharged on June 24, 1950. The war in Korea started the next day, and he decided to reenlist. McClellan wanted to go to war with his buddies from the occupation of Japan, but not only was he assigned to a different unit, he became the point man, which meant he had to walk 10 to 15 yards in front of the rest of his squad, constantly exposed to the enemy.
"It was real scary," he said of the squad's almost nightly patrols. "I was trying to make contact with the enemy."
Instead, the enemy found him on Dec. 25, 1950. But he wasn't on patrol and most of his unit was asleep when Chinese soldiers overran their position.
Stationed at the top of a hill, all of the machine gunners were practically killed in their sleeping bags, he said. Part way down the hill, McClellan heard their screams and had time to roll out of his sleeping bag and stretch out on the frozen ground, to keep a low profile.
"All I was thinking was that if they see me, they're going to come over and bayonet me or shoot me to make sure I'm dead. So I just started praying and hoping that they'd never see me."
If he fixed bayonet and charged the Chinese, he knew he would die. If he ran back toward his unit at the bottom of the hill, he knew they might mistake him for the enemy and shoot him.
Of the seven men on that hill, he was the only one who walked off, after laying motionless for about three hours without gloves in subzero temperatures. The resulting frostbite was so severe that doctors told him if he had been outside another 15 minutes, he would have lost his hands.
He was evacuated to Japan after only four months in Korean and was awarded the Purple Heart, before spending the rest of his career in the Army and civil service. McClellan still takes pain medication for his hands and has post-traumatic stress disorder from the attack.
<b>Korean War: Richard W. Robinson </b>
RICHARD W. Robinson held a little-known job during a little-known war.
The retired sergeant major spent the majority of his 18-month deployment during the Korean War holed up in a classified-message center. His job was to make sure combat units in the field got crucial intelligence and operation reports.
"There was two of us. We worked every other night. The night I was off, I'd go in and help (him) clean for the day, then I'd go home. He'd sleep there and at 5:00 in the morning the intelligence reports would come in and right after that at 5:30, the operations reports would come in. The next night I would come in and he would help me and then he'd take off and I'd sleep there and do the morning, get everything ready.
"We had three corps. I'd say probably six or seven or eight divisions, plus the First Marine Division that got all this stuff. But it was essential that they all got it by 10:00 in the morning," Robinson remembered.
Although the sound of artillery was a constant presence and there were few ways to relax and unwind, Robinson said he felt fortunate to have showers, clean clothes and decent food. His best friend was on the front lines and when he visited Seoul, Korea, on a pass during the holidays, he hadn't seen a real shower or clean clothes in at least a month.
Like other veterans, Robinson said the holidays were just like any other workday, although he remembered a cardinal visited once to say Mass for Catholic Soldiers.
Fifteen years later, in January 1968, Robinson thought the war was about to start again. Once again assigned to Korea, he was about to return to the United States on leave when North Korea attacked the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy spy ship in international waters, killed one Sailor and held 82 others captive for 11 months. Further hostilities were avoided, but Robinson said all Soldiers were issued weapons and spent months on alert.
<b>Vietnam War: Michael J. Longwell</b>
WHILE many young men were avoiding the draft by any means possible, Sgt. 1st Class Michael J. Longwell volunteered for all three of his tours in Vietnam in 1966-1967, 1968 and 1971-1972.
"When I first went to Vietnam, I'd already been in the Army three years, then got out and went back in. This guy said, 'Why are you here' You already were in the service, you didn't have to worry about being drafted.' I said, 'I'm here because I love my country,'" Longwell said, later adding that he was also "young and stupid."
Although he was assigned as a supply clerk during his first tour, like most Soldiers he frequently had guard duty and occasionally went out on patrols. He thanks God that they never saw any action, although shortly after he returned to the States his unit was attacked.
Longwell also tried to extend for another six months as an infantry Soldier after his first 12 months, but it turned out that the Army thought something was wrong with his eyes and didn't want him. The friend he was supposed to join ended up losing a leg.
"I really believe now that maybe somebody upstairs was looking out for me and didn't want me to go," he said. "'Charlie' was good at mortaring us. You'd be sleeping in the middle of the night or on guard duty or whatever and all of a sudden 'shush, shush.' He liked that. He was very good at that and by the time they got reactionary forces to find him, he was gone."
At the end of his third tour at the Directorate of Logistics, the Viet Cong started shelling their headquarters during the day, something Longwell said made him very nervous. He spent his final two weeks carrying a weapon at all times, although with his own room, he said that tour was comparatively easy.
There was usually little to do when off duty, although they occasionally had barbeques. Longwell said that Christmas was especially nice, and added there was always a tree and a special meal. The Red Cross or Salvation Army usually provided care packages as well.
Longwell said one of the most difficult parts of the war for him was dealing with people's reactions when he got home.
"I can remember telling somebody that I just got back from Vietnam, and they looked at me in disgust. If you went to Vietnam, oh man, they didn't like you. (They would ask)'What's wrong with you' How could you go there''"
<b>Operation Iraqi Freedom:
Andrew D. Swilling </b>
WITH three deployments to Iraq under his belt, Staff Sgt. Andrew D. Swilling, a military policeman with the 3rd Infantry Division's 293rd MP Company, has seen the war go from invasion to insurgency to surge to relative calm.
Of the three, his most recent tour, from November 2006 to February 2008, sticks with him most. Located in Muqdadiyah in Diyala Province in northern Iraq, he said it was particularly violent. With the town taken over by insurgents and only one route back to the main base, they were fairly easy targets.
"For about 10 months it was a fight every day," Swilling said. "Someone was getting hit every single day. A lot of people were injured. It was a nasty situation. A lot of times it was very scary. But it's one of those things that nobody lets on to. The last thing you want someone to think is that you're scared. Everyone else who's with you is thinking the same thing. They don't want their buddies to think that they're scared."
There were several attacks that should have killed him, Swilling said. One improvised explosive device blew the back off his vehicle. Another detonated next to his seat and was so strong it burned all the hair off his gunner's arms. No one was seriously hurt either time, a fact that still amazes Swilling.
"My first thought was 'I'm dead.' Then I thought, 'Well, I'm thinking, so I'm probably not dead.' It's one of those things that I think about, not every day, but pretty often. It was just one of those experiences where you don't know how you lived through it. That one stays with you. A lot of the IEDs do because they're just so sudden and so violent," he said.
The worst part, Swilling said, was knowing that every time they left their base, something was probably going to happen. He couldn't even entirely blame the insurgents, because he knew many of them were only there because al Qaeda threatened their families.
And then, the surge came to Diyala and Swilling said things changed overnight. Al Qaeda disappeared, roads were safe and markets re-opened. It was a huge relief, he said, especially because he volunteered for his next two assignments, in part because of his Soldiers. He said he was supposed to lead them, but instead they constantly amazed him with their bravery and dedication.
It was worth eating the same meals over and over again, although according to Swilling, the food improved after his first deployment, when he had meals-ready-to-eat for months at a time. Swilling said Soldiers got so sick of them that they started buying food from Iraqis: kebobs, chicken and even pizza.
There were special shipments of food for holidays, however. According to Swilling the chow hall put on a huge spread at Christmas, and Soldiers were able to relax and play games instead of heading out on patrol. A small shopette had everything they needed, or Soldiers could go to several stores on base run by Iraqis. And unlike Soldiers before him, phones and Internet provided instant connections home.