A Memorial Day Weekend Tribute to Uncle Sam
As the nation remembers its dead from wars past and present on this Memorial Day weekend, and as special attention is being focused on the opening of a National World War II Memorial, I wanted to take a moment to tell you about a man who, not unlike others of his generation, served his country abroad. His name was Salvatore"Sam" Sclafani, first cousin to my Dad, married to my mother's sister, and forever etched in the minds of our family as"Uncle Sam." Born in 1915, Uncle Sam left us ten years ago, having succumbed to prostate cancer. But it was this man who was my earliest inspiration in all matters political; he nourished in me a love of history and politics, and was the guy to whom I dedicated Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.
My Uncle Sam was, without doubt, one of the funniest and most benevolent souls to ever grace this planet. And when you got him to talk about politics, it was like a veritable ride aboard the Coney Island Cyclone, that landmark splintery wooden rollercoaster. He was the most opinionated and outspoken critic of politicians, left, right and center, whom I've ever had the privilege to know and love.
Back in 1976, I interviewed Uncle Sam for a special project I'd done on the veterans of World War II. His comments are as precious today, as they were back then.
He remembered that"day of infamy" in December 1941. His mother labored by the stove, preparing the traditional Sunday home-cooked Italian meal. In the background, the radio played the sounds of a Swing band ... and then, a news flash came that the Japanese had attacked the US military base in Hawaii.
My Uncle had been classified in the army for the draft, but after years of working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he decided to enlist in the navy instead. Several days after his enlistment, he was shipped out to the Great Lakes Military Installation in Waukegan, Illinois, outside Chicago. Like a tale out of a storybook, he married his girlfriend, my Aunt Georgia, the day before he left.
From his hair-scalping at the installation to the strenuous marching, walking, running, rifle and rope exercises, boot-training was a test of his endurance. Even learning to sleep in a hammock—or as Uncle Sam reminisced,"trying to get into them, and involuntarily getting out of them"—was a chore. From Illinois, he was sent to Norfolk, Virginia for further training. He eventually became a part of the Seabees, a relatively new branch of the navy that was similar to the army corps of engineers. In learning the arts of naval engineering, these Seabees were taught everything"from building bridges and laying down airfields in record time, to advanced techniques of camouflage."
From Norfolk, Uncle Sam went on to Pleasantville, California, and then on to the Bremerton Navy Yard in Puget Sound, Washington state, where he participated in the salvage work on the USS Nevada, damaged in the Pearl Harbor raid. As they awaited orders on their next assignment, Uncle Sam's group was split into two: Group 1 was headed south—to Guadalcanal. By the mere accident of being part of Group 2, Uncle Sam ended up in the North Pacific."We then realized," he recalled:"This is it. This isn't playing anymore. We're not training. From here on, everything is real."
Morale was remarkably good on the trip. But there was a common expression on everyone's face, he told me: an expression of suppressed horror, worry, and uncertainty. There was that constant alert for possible enemy aerial or submarine bombardment. While he remained remarkably calm, many of his newfound pals were desperately ill."My comrades wished they had died. Men were throwing-up against bulkheads and walls and fainting on decks. They lost their appetites from terrible fear and severe seasickness."
Ten days after rough riding, the ship neared its destination. A heavy fog descended. And when the land mass came into focus, it looked like the cold, barren surface of a distant planet: no trees, no vegetation, immense mountains of stone and volcanic rock. Uncle Sam wasn't a few minutes on land before an alert signaled an imminent Japanese air attack. An earlier attack that day had destroyed the boats that lay docked around a makeshift pier. Running to take cover, the men passed an enormous hill of greenish-white pine boxes ... coffins waiting for new inhabitants. It was the kind of greeting that sobered the most stubborn among them."A morbid, depressing and unsettling sensation came over me," Uncle Sam said."We were finally aware that we had been sent to the notorious Dutch Harbor in the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, the closest US military base to Japan, only 600 miles away." This was a place where temperatures ranged from 12 below to 60 above. At times, many feet of snow would fall. Certain seasons brought 18-hour days, while others brought 18-hour nights. But always, there was a damp, musty fog; for the two years that Uncle Sam was stationed in the Aleutians, he never saw the sun.
Within the first week of their arrival, the new troops faced air attacks, volcanic eruptions, storms, earthquakes, and"horizontal rain," due to"winds that could blow a building across the Hudson River." Those winds, dubbed"Williwaws," were sudden and severe, up to 200 mph. Ironically, it was the difficult climactic conditions that saved Aleutian Island residents from both constant Japanese aerial bombardment and the typical diseases that infected troops stationed in the South Pacific."American pilots remarked that there were better odds in flying 50 missions over Berlin," Uncle Sam would say,"than even one mission over the Aleutian Islands."
He remembered walking along a dirt road, when a light breeze had suddenly transformed into one of those Williwaws. By the time he had hit the deck, the wind had uprooted steel cables, boulders, and a 13-ton patrol bomber on the beach—smacking it up against a mountain. The Seabees' efforts to camouflage their work were not very successful because of these winds."We were forced to build revetments for planes to try to camouflage them with heavy steel-cabled nets. After the first storm, all the nets went flying across the Pacific Ocean and days of work went down the drain."
But the Seabees transformed the rough Alaskan terrain, by literally leveling mountains. After laying down many miles of airfields with heavy metal stripping, the Seabees paved the way for an Aleutian air-force, since land-based bombers were now able to land.
By this time, Uncle Sam had become a Second Class Petty Officer. His days began at 5 am. His meals consisted of passable substitutes, since there were no eggs or milk. Remarkably, he gained 30 lbs. while living in Dutch Harbor. It was weight he desperately needed, as he worked hard on airfield and submarine installations. (He remembered going into one of those primitive subs:"I was qualified for submarine duty," he said,"but they were out of their minds: it was like staying in a narrow coffin, cluttered with levers, wheels, and machinery. I would never have survived!")
When his day of rigorous work was complete, he'd go back to the bunkhouses, which had been built to withstand the wind, the rain, and the war. Fighting his solitude and isolation, he found comfort with his comrades, smoking cigarettes, reminiscing of home, listening to their"Pacific sweetheart" on the radio: Tokyo Rose. Whoever she actually was, Uncle Sam had vivid memories of all the things she told them on the radio."She'd tell us how our girls were cheating on us back home. She would say that we were very stupid to be fighting ... we were going to lose anyway. So we might as well rebel, destroy our superiors, and go home." It gave them a lot of laughs, he said, but it was hard to avoid sobbing, silently, as you listened to the Swing music she played. From the crackling of the radio speaker, came the Big Band sounds of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey; more than anything"Tokyo Rose" had actually said, the use of this great music constituted a form of psychological warfare that infected everyone with homesickness, he said."It would place us in a very depressing state. Some men cried openly."
The men of Dutch Harbor served as a diversionary force in the Battle of Midway. They prepared munitions for the bloody US invasions of Amchitka, Adak, and Attu. They played an active part in the isolation of Kiska, even though they failed to prevent the evacuation of 5100 Japanese troops, who departed in the middle of a fog-heavy July night to return to Paramishiro Harbor.
During his two-year tour of duty, Uncle Sam experienced about six Japanese air bombardments; though the attacks were only seven to eight minutes in duration, they felt like seven to eight hours. A two-hour alert would usually precede an attack, as men would frantically prepare their anti-aircraft positions."We were told to run off the ships and scatter into the hills, where there were fox holes." Men clung to their own hopes for survival, some praying and giving substance to the old adage"there are no atheists in foxholes." You just didn't know if"that next bullet would have your name on it. Then you'd hear the incoming planes." Within seconds, bombs would be dropping, destroying installations, oil tanks, gasoline storage facilities, and piers. Raging infernos and thick, black smoke would engulf the camp."Things flashed quickly through my head," he painfully recalled. He had fears of invading parachutests, naval bombardment,"the end of the world. In one attack, our ship, the Northwestern, was blown into a million pieces as a bomb was dropped down the smokestack. Shrapnel and other fragments went flying, as the explosion echoed through the hills and canyons."
Uncle Sam learned a few things about wars, even"good" wars. He thought it was a joke when some said that the Americans would sell you the noose with which to hang them ... until he realized that scrap metal from Manhattan Els (elevated trains) had been sold to the Japanese and used by them to create their machinery of war. He even remembered going over to a downed Japanese Zero."And on the engine was labeled 'Pratt-Whitney Motors, USA.'"
While he wouldn't have thought twice about shooting another human being in order to survive—"quite frankly," he'd say,"it was either them or us"—he never accepted the notion that he should hate his enemy."We had been taught to hate the enemy for their bombardment of Pearl Harbor, for their cruel and inhumane treatment of our men." But when prisoners were caught,"you'd look at these men, 'our enemy,' and see a reflection of yourself. I felt sorry for them."
In 1944, Company C was reorganized and sent back to San Francisco. As his ship neared the Golden Gate Bridge, Uncle Sam cried"like a baby. It was the most fabulous sight I had ever seen. To be on American soil again, a feeling you can't imagine unless you had been in that situation. And there, on the dock was the American Red Cross—with gallons and gallons of ice-cold milk."
The climactic changes were not friendly to Uncle Sam. He developed a mysterious illness in which his legs swelled, as he lay nearly paralyzed in pain. When it was apparent that he would be in a military hospital for months, he was given an honorable discharge. In May 1944, he finally came home to New York. For months, he had difficulty adjusting. He was immensely uptight and shuddery. He developed a fear of passing overhead planes, a fear that some New Yorkers still have for reasons that my Uncle could never have dreamed. The war had split homes and families, had taken away friends and relatives, and had damaged relationships."You never know if you're going to come back during a war," he stated."But if you have that luck, you can really appreciate what you left behind."
A bolder and more patriotic American you'd be hard pressed to find. But Uncle Sam had had enough with politicians. He had voted for FDR because he was convinced that the President would preserve the peace."The President had said that American boys would not fight on foreign soil. He forgot to add: 'They'd be buried in it.'" For thirty years thereafter, Uncle Sam refused to go into a voting booth.
I come from a family of servicemen. Uncle Sam was fortunate enough to come home and to live a wonderful life, becoming a second father to me, as my own father had passed away when I was 12. But other relatives were not as lucky. My Uncle Frank was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. My Uncle Charlie survived, but was unable to talk about his war experiences for the rest of his life, having lived for years in a German POW camp. Fortunately, my Uncle Al and Uncle Georgie lived to talk about their experiences in the European theater. And my Uncle Tony remained in the army for the rest of his life.
The human cost of war is usually calculated by raw data on battle deaths, casualties, and medical evacuations. But whatever your position on the current war, it is important to remember not only those who died on the battlefield. It is important to remember, to tribute, those who survived as well, those who lived to tell us about the horrors of war, and who did the most patriotic thing imaginable: Building and sustaining their own lives in the aftermath, drawing strength from their love of family, of friends, and for life itself.
I honor their memory.
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Jonathan Rick - 6/1/2004
What a touching essay Chris. The links are very impressive too (the WW2 memorial looks stunning). Thanks for unmasking the utter inferno that is war -- which the Bush administration has unabashedly sanitized, for one, by banning photographs of Americans killed in Iraq.