FORT MEADE, Md. (Nov. 10, 2015) -- They were Soldiers once, Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. They stood straight and strong and proud. They were brave, heroes even. Some volunteered. Some were drafted. They fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. They served in combat, they served in occupation forces and they served stateside.
Now, these proud veterans are mostly in their 80s and live at the Armed Forces Retirement Home, or AFRH, in Washington, D.C., better known as the Old Soldiers Home. Their hair has fallen out or turned white and their shoulders are stooped, their voices gravelly. Some use walkers and wheelchairs and some need hearing aids, but their minds are sharp.
Although it's been half a century or more since the battles of their youth, a lifetime, really, since they raised their hands and swore to protect the United States, those days seem as real today as they did then. In fact, they come to life every other Saturday when a group of about 10 meet over coffee to reminisce and swap stories of war, peace and even civilian life.
"I like to tell stories and I like to listen to stories and I like to exchange stories," said retired Chief Warrant Officer 2 William J. Opferman. "I guess it's egotism. I get entertainment. I learn things of interest. I have an insatiable curiosity. I want to know about almost anything except some things are too much for me."
It's a social occasion for the veterans, and often a way to make sense of their own service.
"They have the support and the other stories that may be similar or different from their era … and they can learn from it and feel like 'it wasn't just me. We were all in this together, no matter what war, what conflict. Peacetime, wartime, it doesn't matter. We have a connection,'" said AFRH librarian Christine Baldwin, who moderates the group, named Double Nickels Speakeasy after the Double Nickels Theatre Company, which helps seniors transform their stories using reminiscence theater. The company's founder, Antoinette Ford, helped an earlier iteration of the veterans group get started while her father was an AFRH resident.
Everyone, for example, has a story about how he joined the service, and a story about basic training. Retired Air Force Master Sgt. Earl Tourgee, who started out in the Army, tried to trick his father into giving him permission to join up at 17 by hiding his enlistment papers among forms for the Navy V-12 College Training Program.
"I had a piece of paper for my father to sign for me to go into the Army and on top of it was a Navy V-12," Tourgee remembered. "That he would sign. He said, 'What's underneath it?' I said, 'Oh, just sign it.' He looked at it and he found out that it was OK for me to join the Army and he says 'the top one I'll sign. The bottom one is not worth anything.' So, I waited until I was 18 and I did it anyway [in 1947]. I enlisted as a basic rifleman and I ended up in the Air Force.
"During basic [on Fort Dix, N.J.], I was firing for record in January, laying on a poncho, snowing, sleet, rain. I had my regular fatigues on, my ODs, my overcoat. Myself and the rest of the company ended up in the hospital with pneumonia and semi-frostbite."
"We're all in the same boat," Tourgee reflected. "We're all retired. We all had basically the same experiences, but it's different to hear somebody else say it, what you had done versus what they had done."
Baldwin gets the veterans' discussions started, asking about the military or even the weather or pets, for example, and then the stories start. They range from the gruesome to the funny and even the time-honored practice of making fun of second lieutenants.
"We had this second lieutenant who came in," recalled retired Sgt. 1st Class Roger Polhemus, describing his service in the Philippines during World War II as a corporal. "He knew everything. He was a graduate of West Point and a second lieutenant and didn't know his front end from his back end."
"Did you tell him," asked former Cpl. Robert M. Webb.
"No," Polhemus said. "He didn't live that long.
"The Japanese were lobbing mortar rounds into our encampment. He'd been there about an hour, really deep in battle. He said, 'Now we're going to go up, make a frontal attack.' … I said, 'lieutenant, I'm responsible for 11 men,' my squad. 'We're not going up that hill for a frontal attack. … We'll probably be killed.'
"I asked the lieutenant, 'Can you read maps?' 'Certainly I can. I'm a graduate of West Point.' I said, 'OK. What are those little squiggly lines?' 'Oh that's simple. Those are rivers.' I says, 'No. That tells the height. … I'm going to go around in this gully and get in back. … Kowalski here can lob a grenade about 40 yards accurately so I'm going to try to … wipe them out.' … The lieutenant said, 'I'll have you court martialed.'"
"Anyway, I took my men around to the base of the hill. … [Kowalski] got up there, almost put it down the tube of the mortar. He was that accurate. When we got back to camp, I reported into the captain of the company. I says, 'Capt. Murphy … I disobeyed an order. He says, 'Tell me what happened.' So I told him, and he says, 'Hell, I'm not going to court martial you. You should get a medal.' I said, 'Well, I want to put Kowalski in for a Silver Star.' … They gave him a Bronze Star with a V for valor."
With a background as a stand up comic and movie extra, Polhemus, now just a few days shy of 89, turned out to be the consummate storyteller, with tales of meeting Clark Gable prior to the Army and bringing top secret papers to President John F. Kennedy. He also spent some time, briefly, as a prisoner of war.
"I don't know where I was, either in Korea or Japan, I really don't remember," Polhemus said. "Instead of shooting us, they put us in a corral that must have been used for water buffalo. I was corporal. I was God-almighty. The rest of the guys were privates and they came up to me as if I were their leader and says, 'we haven't eaten for two or three days. What do we do?'
"I says, 'you see those piles of droppings? Go through that and find any seeds that haven't germinated. Put them in a helmet and put water in there and we'll have like a soup.' … Besides that, there was like little eggs. One of the privates came up to me and said, 'Are these eggs?' I said, 'Go ahead and eat them. Protein. It won't hurt you.'
After we got out of that situation, I told the men that those little eggs were actually flies before they were born, maggots. They said, 'Maggots, blech.' I says, 'You're still alive aren't you?'"
The stories, the veterans avow, are all true. Or at least "as true as we know it," they qualified.
"Sometimes our memories do fail us," Baldwin said. "We think we remember it was in the 50s. That's also a help because someone might say, 'Nope. That was 1963.' … Generally speaking, these stories are pretty spot on." And if some of the tales seem a bit far-fetched at times, well, that's the military for you. In fact, Opferman is still incredulous all these years after the Korean War: On the one hand, he was a guard for the commanding general of 8th Army. On the other, he was a deserter.
"I had a simple, old-fashioned bellyache and a field doctor diagnosed it as appendicitis," Opferman said. "They sent me over to a MASH, a mobile Army surgical hospital. … I said, 'Doctor, I don't think I have anything seriously wrong with me.' … 'Well,' he said, 'we can't take any chances.' … So he puts me on a hospital train and sends me to Pusan. I get down there and … I said, 'I'm sure I have nothing wrong with me.' 'Well, we'll just have to keep you under observation for a few days.' I did finally succeed in getting released.
"They had a system going on in the early part of the Korean War called the pipeline. They were desperate for troops on the front line. Any Soldier who was not actually with his unit … had to go into this pipeline. They handed you an M1 rifle and (sent you) to the front line. … It was several days' journey and they had what we called repo depots, replacement depots. Sometimes you'd stop at one of these … and I got through to my unit.
"The first sergeant said, 'Where the hell are you?' I looked at a map and I read him the coordinates. He says, 'OK. Keep your bag packed. Keep your helmet on.' … My first sergeant and the platoon clerk came along in a jeep. The guard says, 'Halt.' He says, 'We just came to pick up one of our men that got out of the hospital.' The first sergeant pulled the jeep in to the gate, spun around, threw up a cloud of dust and he hollers, 'Get in the jeep.' … We were going down the road and the guard's yelling, 'Halt! Halt!' and I was gone.
"What was funny was the morning report would come out, and … every unit had to report the status of every single member of that unit. … It had my name and it had the unit and it said 'hospital.' Then, one day, it said, 'hospital to duty.' The next day, from then on, it just said, 'present for duty.'
"However, that other outfit was sending in a different one and it said AWOL [absent without leave]. If you're AWOL for 90 days you became a deserter and then you got reported to the FBI. … I was on that wanted list as a deserter. We were all laughing about it because we were the general's guards."
They eventually sorted it out and Opferman, 86, became a criminal investigator, serving for another 19 years, including a tour in Vietnam that he is quick to say he does not consider a "heroic duty."
Neither is occupation duty heroic, not really, at least to Soldiers. To thousands of relieved or displaced civilians and refugees after World War II and Korea, it might have been a different story, however, as Webb discovered.
After World War II, the artilleryman found himself assigned to the local military government, which was responsible for several camps for displaced persons. One of his duties was to visit the camps a couple of times each week, including one for about 10,000 Jews who had been saved from concentration camps. Webb found some traditional Jewish music and played it over the loudspeaker in his jeep. They were touched by such simple human kindness after so many atrocities. "I was the belle of the ball after that," he remembered.
Webb went on to describe how a Polish refugee from another camp came to him with a story that ultimately busted up a black market ring.
"He was working at a farm out in the country and he knew they had some guns and ammunition that they weren't supposed to have," Webb explained. So four of us pulled a raid on that home. We went there and … this lady had a clothesline strung up for drying clothes. This line was primer cord for explosives. It's filled with powder that would explode. … We couldn't find any guns or any weapons.
"This DP's brother farmed farther along. He knew they had machine guns so we went over and raided that. … We found machine guns in the barn. We found ammunition. … We raised the mattresses and there was belts of machine gun ammunition in the beds. We found a lot of materiel: blankets, sheets and stuff that was scarce. I called the [authorities].
"The [agent] said 'we've been looking for these people for months. They're stealing from the quartermaster warehouse.' He took them in. … The [agent] told me, 'Anything that you want, you boys take it.' So we each took a blanket. They had two motorcycles and they gave us one of the motorcycles and we took it back to camp and wore it out, everybody riding it."
Webb, who is 18 going on 89, lost his hearing, his sense of taste and his sense of smell and his balance as a result of all the blasts and explosions he experienced in the artillery with only cotton or his fingers as ear protection. He joined the speakeasy group shortly after moving to AFRH last spring to meet people. "You've always got stories," he said. "I've had a lot of experience so I like to repeat them."
"People wouldn't believe me ordinarily and it is a story," agreed Tourgee, who went on to serve in Vietnam, about why veterans should talk about their experiences. He's 85 and hopes to outlive his great-grandfather, who lived to be 100. "I tried to write some of this down for my grandchildren because what they're learning in school is not what I knew and not what I saw. … It's a shame that more people don't tell their stories. It's a shame they don't teach it because one of these days a lot of people that you see here won't be here much longer and whatever they know goes with them. You can't leave it unless it's written."
"It's better than recorded history," Opferman added, "because the veteran tells the story from first-hand experience."