Read an Excerpt
Out of the Mist, Memories of Memories of War
By Michael D. "Moon" Mullins
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Michael D. "Moon" Mullins
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSergeant Joe Thomas, World War II POW
I walked into American Legion Post #46 in Tipton, IN, one evening seeking permission for a book signing event. My book, Vietnam in Verse, poetry for beer drinkers, had been released a few weeks earlier and I wanted to do a signing in my home county. It was a quiet evening with few people seated at the bar. My eyes adjusted to the dimly-lit room and I scanned the faces, hoping to see someone who could answer my question. Getting permission to sell books in Legion homes has not been a good experience for me, even though I am a 30-year member. Each time I think about that I wonder why. I think they should welcome me. They should be fertile soil for what I do, especially since I donate so much of the proceeds to things supporting veterans. Organizational support is non-existent, but in many ways that is understandable. Too many of us write for any group to select whom it supports unless you are fortunate enough to be politically connected. I am blessed, however. What I learn from the people who I meet in the various veterans' settings is incredible, although most of that has been gleaned at other places than in Legion or VFW bars. This visit was about to prove a wonderful exception to previous experiences.
I sat at the end of the bar until the bartender had a chance to speak to me, at which point I asked for an officer. Fortunately, the commander was there and we chatted a while, setting a date for my book signing. The Ladies Auxiliary leader, a woman with whom I've worked for years, arrived before I left and offered me a warm welcome. The atmosphere changed around me. An older member came in behind her and took a stool at the end of the bar. A beer magically appeared in front of him and people greeted him in a way that spoke of a status reserved for someone very special. My friend Virginia introduced me to Joe Thomas, World War II veteran and former Prisoner of War. I shook his hand, got a hug, and another beer appeared. I realized I was in the presence of the royalty of our world.
Another older member joined us and fueled the conversation. The second gentleman was a Korean War era veteran who had served in the Air Force in stateside duty, but he urged Joe to share at least a little of his story with me. They chatted with each other and I became an interested spectator. I heard the end of his story that night and went home to write a tribute poem. Two weeks later, I returned to share it with him. Joe was pleased. If nobody ever saw it but him I had accomplished my goal. I presented him a gift from my heart. Within days, I heard from his family. A niece asked me for a copy. She told me that I had said things in a way that meant more to the family than I could imagine. Words like that are scarce and give me purpose I never expected when I began my journey into the writing world.
Two weeks later, I returned to Post #46 looking for Joe. I was told he would be there soon — he walks the few blocks from his home every day, weather permitting. The walk is Joe's exercise and the Legion a large part of his social life. His stool is empty usually. If not, it will be. I took a seat nearby and waited, soft drink in hand. The smell of the grill forced me to order a cheeseburger and fries. That Legion Post knows how to do a good old greasy burger the way fast food joints do not understand. I was half way through the dripping burger when Joe Thomas sat down next to me. There was his beer — the magic still worked.
"Joe, I want to hear more of your story," I said.
I heard it that night. I wrote another poem. He loved it too. So did his family. It is not enough. I must tell the story in another way as well.
I looked into Joe's old face that night and saw tears. I closed my eyes to intensify his words.
"Damn these memories ... they just come. For 65 years I've tried to turn 'em off," he said.
"What Joe?" My tone was subdued. "What memories will not leave you alone? Are they memories of lost soldiers?" I asked in an awed and reverent way.
By the time I met with Joe Thomas the second time, he was another of my heroes. He is a World War II Prisoner of War who survived; who was rescued; a man who was there to tell me his story and did so willingly. He was 83-years old, about to celebrate his next birthday. I waited as he calmed his demeanor, waited to hear another chapter in his story.
"Shoelaces," he said, "Shoelaces."
"What about shoelaces?" I was taken aback.
He looked at me and said, "I was 18 at Anzio. We took the beachhead and I had been a cook. It all changed when we hit that beach."
I could see it in my mind. I saw him, 18 and green, in bloody water, wading ashore through the litter of torn bodies. Those floating bodies, bobbing in the waves on the shore, changed his role in that war from cook to infantry. As he explained to me, "his war started for real." Private First Class Joe Thomas began fighting his way to Rome. He was a Thunderbird of the 45th Infantry, part of the Army's 179th Infantry Division. The grand scheme was to catch the Krauts in a trap. Instead they were caught and Joe was a prisoner. In Joe's words, "I went ashore a PFC and death promoted me." In the landing he not only changed jobs, he got a battlefield promotion, through attrition, to Sergeant.
Memories come crashing out like the Colorado River in flood stage when they are released! They cascade and rumble out of control no matter how many times they have been unleashed. When a person opens the door to the locked chambers of the mind, the demons and the angels fly out regardless of the times you have visited that room. Joe has told his story before, at least to some veterans and a few fortunate historians. He belongs to a Prisoner of War Association as well. Each time there are little things that come back. Each time tears are as fresh as the images which rage behind eyes that see inwardly more clearly than out. Events are jumbled and happen out of sequence. I discovered in my own reminiscing about Vietnam that the calendar is inconsequential when talking with friends and veterans. Some incidents had more of an impact than others and leap off the floor of the memory chamber more often than others. You must grab a broom and sweep the dust off more obscure ones to give the whole picture any semblance of order. If you are to write about them you must step back and piece the puzzle together. Telling it is no different. Joe and I bobbed about like logs swept by the whirling Colorado roaring through canyons on the way to its end. The first time I talked to him, I heard the end of his story. The second time I heard the beginning. Now I want to tell them together, in some sort of flow, like a river of consciousness after the rainy season has passed.
Historians write that the landing at Anzio was such a complete surprise that the Germans were caught totally unprepared. The Allies were met with token resistance only and casualties were light. The 45th Infantry of the 179th Infantry Division had orders to make heavy fortifications along the way, yet they made amazing headway as they proceeded inland during the first week of the invasion operation. Fighting was sporadic initially, but the Germans moved rapidly to intercept and all of that was about to change. So was Joe's life as a soldier.
The Germans reacted with reinforcements which included elite troops, heavy armor, air support and a railroad-mounted artillery piece that caused more casualties to the Allies than all their other ground and air forces. The Army units continued to battle inland but progress was slowed to a crawl and fighting grew vicious. The landing occurred in mid-January, 1944 — but by early February resistance had stiffened and every foot of earth was earned with blood. Ultimately, the attack lasted into late spring of that year and the toll on both sides was remarkably similar. The Germans counterattacked in mid-February and Joe's part in World War II went from the proverbial frying pan to the fire. As the fighting intensified so did casualties. The 45th was caught in the crosshairs. The unit began taking an alarming number of wounded. Joe had his cooking gear taken from his hands and a carbine thrust in them. Having had no infantry training before he arrived in Europe, his only formal combat training was — combat. As the days turned into weeks he grew more skilled and progressed from Private First Class to Buck Sergeant in short order. Promotions through attrition were not unusual in World War II and Joe Thomas went from cook to non-commissioned officer in a few short weeks. The plan was to fight their way to Rome and back. They were going to trap the Germans in a gigantic pincer movement that would allow them to disable a large portion of the enemy force in that part of Europe. While his outfit was moving one direction another was supposed to move toward the Jerrys from a different one, effectively snipping their supply and reserve force pipeline. He fought on fields littered with bodies, walking through the dead and wounded. His friends dropped in large numbers, but Joe kept his squad moving the way his Company leaders directed. While they thought they were making all the right moves, the enemy had in fact reversed the tables on them. The German lines had bulged but not broken. It collapsed around them, trapping them between two forces. Joe's military life was again about to change course.
When the inevitable happened and more senior NCOs realized it, they pulled Thomas aside and gave him some terse advice. If capture was imminent he was to cover his stripes as quickly as possible however he could, or better yet get rid of his blouse and put on one from a fallen comrade if he must. Noncoms were not treated well when captured. Until the moment that advice was breathed aloud Joe did not realize how dire things had become. It was not long after those terrifying words landed on his ears than the face of reality crested a nearby ridge. He grabbed the field jacket of a dead GI and pulled it on just before the remnants of his platoon were captured. Joe thought he had done it in time, but one sharp-eyed German soldier saw the flash of his stripes before his arms disappeared into the sleeves. He, another sergeant, and a corporal were herded like a goat from the sheep and loaded on a separate truck when wheeled vehicles arrived. He was allowed to keep the coat.
Joe Thomas had no idea where he was taken. The truck was covered and all he knew was the trip seemed unending. He and his fellow prisoners were filled with dread, imagining nothing but the worst ahead. They knew that information was the key to victory and the Germans would do anything to extract whatever seemed of value from their American prisoners. Our enemies have never, in any war, been restrained by the same values as we, when interrogating (forgive me for editorializing — but it is true). Joe alluded to the fact that they tried to prepare for what they knew was in their future. He never gave many sordid details about that part of his interment in our discussions. Some memories are better left in their coffins.
The first night, the Germans put Joe in a basement somewhere and posted a heavily-armed guard. They ripped off his stripes and took them to someone — an officer, he assumed. He was beaten, as a warm-up for things to come. The enemy presumed that any soldier of any rank had a modicum of knowledge beyond that of the ordinary grunt. His cloth stripes were replaced with bloody ones. The next day the basement was used as a distribution center and further sorting was done according to rank. The guards separated Joe Thomas from his friends for longer term imprisonment.
The compound where Joe spent many months was deep inside Germany. His daily routine included questioning, filth, cold, damp, questioning, nasty rations, and limited writing privileges. Thomas joined more "experienced" prisoners who told him to sleep with his shoes tied around his neck at night. If he did not, the guards would steal them and sell them on the black market. He used his laces to secure his shoes to his throat at night. The soldiers were ruthless, but they would not take the chance of cutting them free. Joe said, "The shoes were mine. I fought miles in them. Nobody was taking them — they were life to me. My leggings were gone right after the landing. My shoes were my last defense and I guess my safe place in a way. They were really all I had."
While a captive, Joe was allowed to write a letter home every other week. On the odd weeks he could send a card, no more. The card went to Evvie, the letters to Mom and Dad. He smiled sadly and said, "Evvie was the redheaded girl in the next town who I saw before I left to the war." She was his angel and he clung to his parents. Joe said that reaching out to home may have kept him sane. He knew that anything he could not say to her on the postcards, they would share with her for him.
Somehow he still had his shoes when the Russians attacked and rescued him and the other POWs in his camp. They were saved! Joe still had his soles and his soul. They spent the next several weeks — and he did not know how many — marching 700 miles out of Germany to Russia. Joe said the march was endless, living on partial rations, with few clothes, in a harsh climate. But he was free! He was leaving Hell! He had no idea what was ahead but he knew what he was leaving behind. In an unnamed village along the way, a cobbler saw his shoes' condition and asked permission to help. The Russian soldiers allowed him to stop long enough to have them re-soled by a compassionate European. Joe's shoes were and are a symbol of all that his captivity was and what his rescue became. His shoelaces were his ties to hope. Joe does not know how long he was in Russia, but he remembers being put on a train and somehow arriving in Egypt. He was there for months. Joe called the time there a POW detoxification period during which the Army counseled many former POWs before they returned home. He lost track of time entirely during this period. I am not sure if the war was officially over by the time Joe Thomas returned to America. I did not press him with questions. I saw his face. I could not. I know one thing with certainty. World War II was over for him.
Joe Thomas was in the United States of America at last! He was on home soil. He did not say whether he got there by bus or train, but the police met him and drove him to his parents' house. An officer welcomed Joe home as a hero. He drove the young warrior home with deference and dignity. There were no red lights and no sirens as I understood the story. In fact, they arrived to find all the lights on. Surprised, Joe wondered how his Dad knew he was going to be there that night. He thanked the officer and went inside to huge, quiet embraces. (I am sure there was the appropriate community welcome later) It was not long until Joe's dad said, "Joe, go call Evvie and get her over here." He did both. She never left him again — until God called her home.
I cannot say how many times Joe got tears in his eyes. I cannot say how many times I have while writing this and the poems that preceded it. Joe Thomas concluded our meeting with a wonderful story that evening.
A few years later, Joe was working for a Chevy dealer near the Indiana-Michigan border. At the time, he was driving an old Mercury — all he could afford. It frustrated the dealership's owner to have that Merc on his car lot. He pestered Joe every day to buy a Chevrolet. He pressured, he cajoled, he berated — but Joe resisted. Joe never talked about his war history beyond the fact that he was a veteran. There were many around so that part was not unusual in the late forties. Government efficiency being what it was, Joe's POW compensation was not straightened out yet. The paperwork delays were as bad then as they are now. Many legislative acts were brand new and being clarified. The owner finally became aware of Joe's history through shop talk, but he did not pry. As it happened, when his curiosity could no longer be contained, he called Joe in to talk. It was the day Joe received his first POW compensation check of $23.64. The check was in Joe's shirt pocket. He intended to go to the bank at lunch to cash it — he needed the money. When the boss saw the check, he asked Joe about it and the whole story came out. The businessman was humbled. Apparently thinking about the grief he had been giving the man sitting across from him, he asked Joe if he could see the check. Joe reluctantly let him look at it. The man asked Joe if he could keep it for the afternoon. Joe agreed, but insisted that he have it by three and be allowed to go to the bank at that time. The owner agreed. When Joe returned at the prearranged time, the owner said, "Joe, this is not a very big check for all you have been through, but I want it. Would you use it to buy a new Deluxe?"
Excerpted from Out of the Mist, Memories of Memories of War by Michael D. "Moon" Mullins Copyright © 2011 by Michael D. "Moon" Mullins. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.