My father, Lou Stein, had a couple of favorite stories from his service in the Army Air Corps during World War II. This Veterans Day is as good a time as any to repeat them.
Dad and my mother had already sent wedding invitations when he received his draft notice in 1942. He was willing to go, but he begged the draft board for a delay so the wedding could take place as planned. He was given the requested reprieve, followed by new orders to report. Those orders were then rescinded, and yet another draft notice issued. When this happened yet again, Dad, tired of the confusion and the delay, enlisted in the Army Air Corps instead.
When he reported for duty, an older officer took him aside and advised him to apply for Officer Candidate School rather than being shipped overseas immediately as a newly-enlisted grunt. My father, by his own admission, was not exactly a nose-to-the-grindstone type when he was younger. He liked to party, and the work involved in training as an officer didn’t hold much appeal, until he learned the difference between a lieutenant’s pay and a private’s. Sending that much more money home to his new wife convinced him, not to mention the opportunity to have Mom by his side in Florida for a few months before he shipped out.
Dad never saw combat. He spent the war as a supply officer, stationed at air bases well behind the lines, first in India and then in the Pacific. The closest he ever came to the action was when a German–or possibly Italian–plane dropped a single bomb near the transport ship he was on, missing it by a wide margin.
His favorite story, which he repeated every Passover (and which I never tired of hearing), was about the Passover seder he led on an air base near Calcutta. According to Dad, several of the Jewish soldiers came to him and asked him if he could arrange for them to have the traditional Passover meal. Incredibly, he found a store of matzos in a rail car, along with several bottles of kosher wine. Evidently he had access to a Haggadah, the book containing the Passover service. He then persuaded the cooks to whip up as close to a proper meal as possible, after one potentially catastrophic setback. The first menu the cooks proposed included ham as the main dish. Once turkey was substituted, the seder went off as planned, with Dad, who read Hebrew fluently, as the service leader.
When the war in Europe ended, Dad was shipped to the Pacific, stationed on Tinian. On the island was an airplane hangar, surrounded by a big fence and guarded around the clock. Nobody was allowed in, and nobody was allowed to ask questions about it. The only time anyone talked about it was when one of his commanding officers told him that the war would be over in a month, which, of course, Dad didn’t believe. Inside the hangar was the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Japan surrendered a month and a day after the officer’s prediction.
Dad spent the next two months living in a tent on Tinian with little to do except wait for “first available transport,” which finally took him by boat into New York harbor sometime near the end of 1945. He was so elated to be back home and to resume his civilian life, he threw his spare uniform overboard (at least, that’s the story he told), only to discover that new clothes were almost impossible to find. The war shortages would continue for some time while the nation’s manufacturing re-tooled. The ex-soldier was forced to wear his lone remaining uniform for a while yet.
This was not the worst thing, for he soon discovered that anyone in uniform was celebrated as a hero, even men who, like my father, served their country faithfully and with distinction, but never actually faced the enemy in person.