Shore veteran remembers Hitler, tries to re-enlist WAR IN THE GULF

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 24, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When the bombers and the missiles began to streak across the Persian Gulf skies last week, James O'Toole turned away from his television set for a moment and looked his wife in the eye.

4 ''Would you mind,'' he said, ''if I signed up?''

''If that's what you want,'' said Bernice O'Toole, ''you have my blessing.''

And so last week, James O'Toole left his Federalsburg home and drove to Easton, where he tried to enlist in the United States military.

He is 67 years old.

O'Toole comes from another time and mind-set, a time when war was fought by human beings more than technology and a national mind-set that did not question the words of politicians and military commanders in wartime.

He is a veteran of World War II and the Korean conflict, and he is not kidding about wanting to join the fight this time. He has 14 combat citations, including a Bronze Star with leaf for valor, a Purple Heart, and a Good Conduct Medal.

''Can you imagine that?'' Bernice O'Toole was saying yesterday. ''Can you imagine an Irishman getting a Good Conduct Medal?''

Her voice was a mixture of laughter and pride. The fighting heats up, and James O'Toole's blood begins to race. He looks for a way to help the country, and his wife looks at him and her heart swells.

''He's just patriotic, that's all,'' she says.

This is why, last week, O'Toole, a retired construction worker, dug out his old Army discharge papers and drove to the military recruiting station in Easton.

''What can I do for you?'' asked a Marine recruiting sergeant sitting in a little office.

''Just don't make fun of me,'' said O'Toole. ''I served in World War II and Korea. I think I can be of help now.''

''Sir, I believe we might have a problem with the age limit,'' said the Marine sergeant, who passed him on to an officer with the 29th National Guard unit.

The man with the National Guard had the same problem with age but told O'Toole there might be an opening for him as an air raid warden, although the job would offer no pay and no benefits.

''No, thanks,'' said O'Toole, thinking the officer missed the point. The motivation isn't money, it's morality. The nation is at war, and O'Toole wants to help. A younger generation remembers Vietnam and the duplicity of their own government. His generation remembers World War II and the destructiveness of Adolf Hitler. A sense of mission is involved.

''I saw enough war that I know what it's all about,'' said O'Toole, who served 14 months in England during World War II and two years in Korean combat. ''I don't like war. I just thought I could help. This thing isn't gonna end overnight, and I didn't want to be a spectator.''

He also doesn't mean to toot his own horn. When the military turned her husband down, Bernice O'Toole sent a letter here that said, in part, ''We could use a few more like him.''

Contacted by telephone, James O'Toole was shocked at the attention and said this:

''Don't make too much of me. There's a lot of people just in this town who'd do the same thing. A lot of them are heroes. They're more important than me. I'm sure I'm not the only person who feels this way.''

At the military recruiting station in Easton, Sgt. Alton Banks said, ''Three or four guys have come in since the fighting started, saying they really wanted to go over there. We've had 20 or 30 people altogether, but a number of them said they had plans to come in even before the war started.''

In Baltimore, Army spokesman Kevin Riordan said, ''We've had interest, but I can't really tell if it's increased since the war started.''

In Federalsburg, there was never much doubt in James O'Toole's mind.

''Oh, I would definitely go over there,'' he said. ''I could show these guys what an old man could do. My Lord, I'm not scared. I'm angry. This was something that never should have come about, and we should have learned that from our history.

''If we'd have done this in '33 against Hitler, we never would have seen the fighting we had in World War II. And then we never would have seen it in Korea. You've got to stop a tyrant early. This Hussein's a tyrant, just like Hitler.''

O'Toole is a fighter. He's survived two cancer operations, and he's had a broken hip and ''can't walk more than a couple of blocks. So I'm no candidate for combat. But I'd serve anywhere, at least anything but the Navy. Nothing against the Navy, it's just that I don't care too much for water. I'd rather dig a hole than swim.''

Though he was trained as a radar technician and artillery observer, he knows those skills are long since outdated.

''Everything's computerized today,'' he said. ''I know that. There's no way in the world I'd know what they're doing. But I feel like it's my moral obligation to be of service to this country. I'd answer telephones. I'd drive a general around. . . .''

Maybe it's not just James O'Toole talking. Maybe it's an entire generation, which remembers Adolf Hitler grabbing for other people's land and nobody standing up to him until it was too late.

This time, O'Toole just wanted to join those standing up early.

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