NEWSLETTER #46 - Spring 2011
by Roger W. Caputo
This is a story of one person's experience in World War II and the title grows out of the time served on the Continent of Australia (the term "Dream Time" is borrowed from the Australian Aborigine use of the term to describe the distant past of mankind). The writing was done because of the urgings of one family member and was completed in 1995. No claim is made that the story is one of a kind or especially unique, no more than each of us is some different from the other. Reproduced here by permission of the author.
Because of the length of the manuscript, we will tell Roger's story in various installments, in succeeding issues of THE FLYING CIRCUS Quarterly, as page space permits.
Roger Caputo was an NCO who was assigned to Group Headquarters, Administrative Section, in Intelligence.
Along about May 1945 I began to feel sick; I was losing body weight at a rapid rate. One of the Group's flight surgeons looked me over and put me in the local military hospital where they diagnosed me to have a bad case of amebic dysentery. The tropical bugs had finally won out! I was put on some medication which kept the symptoms under control, but I never regained my normal body weight. In May 1945 the War in Europe was over and the military had more manpower than it knew what to do with, so they devised a point system, such that those soldiers who had been in the military and also overseas a long time could apply for a 45-day leave to go home for some of Mom's good cookin'. If there were other circumstances, such as failing health, or battle wound complications, then these factors were added into the point system. The magic number was 80: 80 points and you go to go home for leave. 'Ya had to promise to come back to the overseas theatre that issued the leave. Also, a soldier had to write a letter of appeal as well as have 80 or more points. I wrote the letter and I had just a few over the magic number. The fact that I had not been and was still not contributing anything of substance to the War effort could not be considered a legitimate factor. However, the officers reviewing my application had the option of approving the application if they felt so moved. My application was approved!
I had to say goodbye to some of my buddies with whom I had been closely associated for 31 months: December 1942 through June 1945. The "clerk typist" did his thing and cut my orders. I packed my personal things and turned in that belonged to the military. An airplane carried me to the Island of Leyte, Port of Tacloban, only 275 miles as the crow flies. This occurred in early July and I joined others in a staging area awaiting "the first available transport" to the United States. Translated, that means, just be patient and sooner or later something will come along that floats and we'll put you on it. It finally came along and it was a Liberty ship very much like the Steinmetz. Well, since it was free and there was an implied promise we'd be fed, we accepted the generous offer! Thirty days after boarding at Tacloban that wonderful old Liberty ship sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge in the broad daylight. As the ship was nudged into its berth, there was a crowd present to greet us along with brass bands the likes of which cannot be imagined. The War was over! Japan had surrendered unconditionally and we were all heroes!
The significant part of the story lies in that the poor old Liberty ship was so slow and made so many stops enroute that the departure date plus 30 provided the time needed to drop two A-bombs and for the Japanese to accept that it was all over for them.
The Liberty ship stopped first in the Marshall Islands, that was a 2900 mile leg; then it stopped at Pearl Harbor, another 2500 mile leg; and then the final leg to San Francisco, for a total distanced of about 8000 miles. Upon arriving at Frisco I had accumulated about 62 days at sea and that's more than some guys in the Navy accumulated the entire war! Today, Virginia can't understand why I am averse to taking a vacation on a cruise ship!
We had no duties enroute those 30 days and that caused the time to pass very slowly, but we could wait because we knew the United States was the destination and a known quantity awaited us. We whiled away the time sunning ourselves on the deck and visiting with each other. Strange as it may seem, no significant events occurred aboard ship and I cannot recall a single face or name of any of those on the voyage. I think the sleeping accommodations were standard troop transport (the bunks below deck in layers), but the messing facilities and procedures are a total blank.
While the ship was at berth in Pearl Harbor, the damage from the December 7, 1941, bombing raid was plainly visible; sunken ship hulks here and there. One afternoon, while still in the harbor, the ship's PA system came on announcing the dropping of the first A-bomb (August 6, 1945). We all just stared at each other wondering what it was and what it all meant. Even with one year's college engineering to my credit, I was unable to analyze the announcement. The news was framed in language that seemed dramatic and somehow we grasped, in a crude way, that this was no ordinary event!
The character of the reception at Frisco was unexpected, but even more we did not expect a troop train of Pullman cars to be switched right on the dock waiting for us. We walked, dragging our gear directly from the ship to the train. In a few hours, the train departed for all points east. No shivering in the cold or standing in the rain. My, how things had changed! As the train wended its way eastward and while passing through Utah, I began to feel sick. My throat was too sore to swallow and I could tell I had a fever. The Officer in Command of the troop train was a very young Lieutenant and I made my concerns known to him. After deliberating together over the options available, we jointly decided that I need the attention of a medical person and there were none on the train. At a stop in Ogden, Utah, I got off the train and transport was waiting to take me to the nearby Base hospital. Diagnosis ... streptococcus infection! That was the second time during my military service that a train ride over the mountains found me too ill to proceed. Physically I was a basket case; my body weight had declined from a normal 155 lbs to 125 lbs, probably due to the bout with the amebic dysentery.
The nurses put me to bed and loaded me with medication and I went to sleep … after about 24 hours of sleep, I awoke and felt like a new person. The fever was gone and my throat felt better. To this day, when I get the flu or an infection, I go to bed and sleep and when I wake up I'm well on the way toward recovery.
I stayed in the hospital, perhaps a week to 10 days, and was finally pronounced fit to travel again. Before I left the hospital, I decided to do something daring for that time: phone Virginia long distance and tell her what had happened to me and we talked a long time and all the staff were getting very nervous about the cost of the call. I assured them I could cover it and the final bill was $25, a tremendous sum for that time (equal to $300 today). Given the fact I had not talked to Virginia since February 1943 (it was now September 1945), hang the cost! I didn't call my folks as it would only upset them: me in the hospital again. Virginia gave them assurances that I was alright.
I cannot remember a single detail of the trip from Ogden to Chicago. It was a train ride, but I have no recollection of the trip until the occasion I am standing, at attention, before a Lieutenant at Fort Sheridan (in Chicago) as he is reviewing my file and my orders for the 45-day leave. Normally, enlisted men are not entrusted to carry their files from point to point, but in this instance an exception was made due to the move from a foreign theatre to the United States. As I stood there awaiting his pleasure, he looks up and says, "Sergeant, you have a choice; you may have the leave as you applied for and has been approved; or you may have a DISCHARGE!" Suddenly I'm hearing heavenly harps and the flutter of angel wings! DISCHARGE? I mustered all the self control I could and replied, "Sir, if it is all the same to you, I'll take the discharge, Sir!" The Lieutenant said, "So be it, but remember you still belong to Uncle Sam until you reach home and take off the uniform!" Within hours I'm clutching my discharge papers to my breast and boarding a train for St. Louis, but not before I've called home and told my folks the train arrival time in St. Louis. Why the military put me on the Illinois Central, which stops only in St. Louis in place of the Chicago and Alton, which stops in Alton, only 10 miles from my home, I'll never know. I'm free at last and who is going to quibble about details?
My father simply hated to drive in the big city, but somehow he found the courage and the way to drive to Union Station in downtown St. Louis. Mom and Dad were, with many others, crowded up to the arrival gate at the station anxiously craning their necks to catch sight of me as a mix of civilians and soldiers tried to squeeze through the gate. I saw them and tried to motion them back to ease the jam, but they were having none of that back-up stuff! They came to see their boy after he'd been overseas for 28 months. Police lines could not have held them back! Mom was just beside herself, almost jumping up and down. We gave each other a big hug and then I could tell by the expression on her face that she had given me the once over and concern was written all over her expression as I undoubtedly looked like walking death at 125 lbs. We sat down on a bench trying to gather ourselves together and I asked where Virginia was and they explained she could not make the meeting. I was crushed! Later, Virginia, thoughtful that she has always been of others, told me that she had decided to let my arrival be all for my Mom and Dad. Virginia was now in her second year of teaching as a high school band director in a small town about 80 miles away. The date was September 9, 1945, and school had started and she had no car nor did she know how to drive. I had not thought of these problems; all I could imagine was she didn't care to see me. Welcome home!
Dad got us back to the house without trouble. He carried my bag for which I was grateful. I crashed into bed and slept.
For six weeks I did practically nothing while waiting for Mom's good cookin' to nurse me back to health; and it did, but it was a very slow process.
What was it like to be home after 37 months in the wartime military and 28 of them overseas? In August 1942 I left a boy 21 years old and returned an adult 24 years old; I'd been the equivalent of around the world twice; seen all of the Pacific Ocean; had been in many strange lands; seen many strange people; had done nothing of substance during my absence; had seen men just like myself die and they would never get to go home; why did they die and not me? I had lived in a tent for the 28 months; experienced climate conditions and environment totally hostile; lived with uncertainty; and had little or nothing to say about what I did. After all of that, how was I supposed to react to civilian life, given the fact that 3 years of growing into it was simply wiped out … I had entered civilian life as a freshman, skipped the sophomore, junior, and senior years and came back a graduate! How were any of us to go about picking up where we left off? The answer was, "this is a new problem," maybe requiring some new approaches!
I can clearly remember riding home from Fort Sheridan on the train trying to develop a response to the new status of being a civilian. I was trying to figure out why I wasn't reacting with more enthusiasm; for example, jumping up and down; or laughing; or getting drunk to celebrate; or shaking everyone's hand. Nope! None of these reactions at all; I just sat there and stared out the train window at the good old United States as represented by the Illinois prairie, drinking it all in! I'm nearly home; no more sea voyages; or no more tropics; or no more death and destruction; or no more military; just soak up all the features of the nearly forgotten civilian life. When people have a long illness and a near death experience in a hospital, there is a certain level of mental trauma that is present until they get back to normal and the wheels are rolling again. My wheels were not yet rolling!
It takes energy to make the wheels roll and my level of energy was at a very very low value. Would it eventually restore itself? How long would it take? What should I do to help it along? Would I be able to identify all the handles of the civilian way of life and would I have the strength to grasp them? When? Where? How? Should I return to my old employer and reclaim my job as provided for by the newly adopted Federal law, or should I do something else? Maybe I should make an entirely new start; if so, then what? Those individuals who had begun a professional life prior to the war had only to return, dust off the tools, and move on ahead. For them, the decisions to be made were less traumatic. For the guy like me, the choices could be more complicated. I had done a pretty good job of screwing up my chance to get an education by dropping the scholarship opportunity in favor of chasing the flying dream; and then had to get back into the education loop the hard way by working full time and attending school at the same time. I certainly needed to straighten out this mess if I was ever to make a better life for myself.
The timing of my return to civilian life was bad from the standpoint of returning to school promptly. The fall semester had already begun and even if it had not, my energy reserves were zero and I would have never been able to keep pace. So the general plan began to take form in my mind on the train ride to St. Louis: get rested and regain some strength; then get my old job back or an alternate; then at the beginning of the spring semester of 1946, reenter an engineering school of my choice. The money problem no longer existed; the Federal GI Bill would pay for all the school costs plus $120 per month living allowance. In addition, I had a military pay withholding program in force for all of the time I was overseas and my bank balance showed $4000 cash. I was rich! Listen up fellow! … Your Creator is giving you one more shot at the brass ring and you had better not fumble it! I didn't!
After the 6 weeks of R&R at home, I reported to my old employer and the old job was available, but I didn't want it. We were able to negotiated a compromise; I wanted a job in their engineering department as a draftsman. I had some artistic talent, one year of pre-war college engineering, and a senior person in the engineering department took me under his wing, taking considerable pleasure in helping a veteran. The employer made it clear that if I did not claim my pre-war job, the employer had no obligation to provide any other. I signed a waiver, releasing the employer from his legal obligation, and then started work on a drawing board. It was a great experience. The employer was aware that I planned to work only to the end of 1945, then quit and go back to school.
In January 1946 I entered the University of Illinois at the Champaign-Urbana campus. There were 20,000 other veterans also enrolled and the town and campus was very crowded, just like the military bases had been. As a matter of fact, the faces on the campus were the same ones I had been looking at for the previous three years. They not only looked the same, they acted the same, but just in a different setting!
I rented a room in the home of an aging couple as being preferable to a dormitory which would have been just another barracks. I had to take all my meals out in public restaurants where the food was very similar to that served in the military. I had no car. Before the war I had owned a nice little used Chevrolet. During the war, my Dad had put it up on blocks to save the tires, and he was holding it pending my return. For reasons I cannot recall, I instructed my Dad to sell it. Very possibly someone was pestering him to buy it as there were no new cars being made during the war. That was a terrible mistake to sell the car, because when I returned I needed wheels and there were no cars as the auto industry was only getting started producing them. Every returning veteran needed a car and the supply was non-existent. My private room was about a mile from the campus and I was forced to use public transportation which was adequate. Getting home on occasional weekends to see my folks and Virginia involved sharing a ride with others, who lived in my home area, or taking a train. Dad let me use his car when I was home on weekends so Virginia and I could get our romance up to speed again.
In order to make up for lost time, I went to school the year around: spring, summer, fall, and winter. By the end of the spring session of 1946 I could foresee life was going to be one long lousy experience until graduation. I'd had enough of that loner stuff to last me a lifetime … and 2-1/2 years more did not look attractive! So during the middle of the 946 summer session, Virginia and I were married in a lovely small formal wedding. Our honeymoon consisted of a weekend at a St. Louis hotel and then we caught the train back to school and set up a home in a small apartment.
For the first time in my memory, I felt whole, having a mate just as the Creator intended life should be!
So what goes around comes around, and civilian life had been rejoined!
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Last updated: 05/13/2011 12:21 PM