Forging Unity Takes More than Yellow Ribbons

June 30, 1991|By RICHARD E. ENGLER JR.

CROFTON — Editor: In my Perspective article, ''Forging Unity Takes More Than Yellow Ribbons'' (The Sunday Sun, June 30), an error occurred in the course of editing my submission.

The statement that ''18-year-olds six weeks from civilian life were thrown into the breach'' is incorrect. My original draft described a Pentagon meeting at Christmastime 1944 at which it was stated that ''there is to be no publicity given to our latest measure expediting replacements'' whereby men from the armed forces were receiving only six weeks of infantry replacement training. The 18-year-olds were receiving from 13 to 17 weeks of infantry basic training before shipping out.

& Richard E. Engler, Jr.


Crofton -- The flush of victory in the wake of the gulf war has brought on a wave of national celebrations honoring not only those who served, and especially those who fell, but honoring also that sense of strong support, if not total unity, that prevailed as the displays of flags and yellow ribbons flourished.


Some may reflect that this was the first time since World War II that such unity in wartime had been manifested in our country. Certainly the young have been taught that in that other ''good war'' Americans stood shoulder to shoulder, ready to share the sacrifices in opposing the enemies of freedom. Perhaps the ''teachers'' should re-examine their memories.

My own memory was jarred a few years ago when I finally got back to places in France that had haunted me for over 40 years with scenes of remembered fire and cold and terror. At the American cemetery at St. Avold, in Alsace, I was seeking the graves of two of the youngest members of my old infantry company: teen-agers who fell during our first attack in the last winter of World War II. Walter and Henry; they lay almost side by side. I hadn't known them very well. None of us had had much time to become close friends. It was doubtless the fortunes of war that took them at so young an age while others of us were spared. I still feel they could have had a better chance.

Walter had called out ''Help me!'' after the German shell sent shrapnel tearing into his chest. But the man he called didn't stop to help; everyone scrambled to get out of that frozen field where the barrage from the 88s was falling. Someone did help Henry, bandaged his wounds and propped him against a tree for the litter bearers -- who never came. In this makeshift attack, without artillery support, the litter bearers were from another regiment. They were strangers. Henry probably froze to death.

How many Americans today know how desperate their country was in the fall of 1944 to find the manpower to bear the rifles that would be needed to achieve victory over Hitler? The nation's mobilization planners were trying frantically to correct their errors of the mid-war years when air power and machines and technician specialists were considered the mostessential ingredients of victory. Now men with rifles were urgently needed: Of eight million men in the Army, only 700,000 were infantry. Yet the machinery of the great war enterprise was heavily staffed -- indeed, overstaffed.

A military analyst for Life magazine, Hanson W. Baldwin, wrote critique in early December that praised some achievements of our armed forces, notably in supply and transportation, but held strong reservations about many other facets of our army's efforts in Europe. Baldwin described the very large staffs formed in Europe at the expense of front-line manpower. He noted that command and headquarters personnel were occupying more than 150 hotels in Paris. ''If the Army sloughed off its excess 'fat,' '' Baldin wrote, ''five to ten more combat divisions might be formed out of this personnel.'' He scathed the ''yesmen in disguise'' who populated those massive staffs, concentrating their energies, he said, on building up ''positions of personal prestige and power, little private empires. . . .''

In our distorted national memory, that point of climax in World War II is recalled as a time of ''all for one and one for all'' on the home front. But it really wasn't that way. Check the newspapers and newsmagazines of that day. In the midst of wartime prosperity, people were eager to pursue the new opportunities the war economy had generated. Worker turnover in war industries was epidemic and brought strong warnings to job switchers that they might be drafted into the military. As politicians and businessmen anticipated reconversion to a civilian economy, ammunition shortages were being reported by our armies in Europe.

Before renewed war production got under way, the enemy lashed out with his great winter counter-offensive: first in the Ardennes, then, on New Year's Eve, in Alsace. And so the half-trained and the almost untrained, the disgruntled specialists-turned-infantrymen and the 18-year-olds six weeks from civilian life were thrown into the breach.

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