The Soldier Returns

by EDGAR L. JONES

1

MORE than three months have passed since I arrived home, yet I still am lost between two worlds. Every man returning from overseas invariably is asked the same two questions, and I have not found the answer to either of them. When someone says to me, “You must have had a great experience. What was it like over there?” I am confounded. That, to a man fresh from war, is like rushing up to a survivor crawling from the wreck of the Congressional Limited and asking him to describe his “great experience.” There is no doubt that I, and thousands of others, have had an experience which we shall remember all our lives, but it is one we could have done very well without. I have yet to find a reply that will adequately represent sand, bombs, fleas, hunger, shells, disease, desolation, and death.

The second question: “How does it feel to be home?” is relatively easier to answer, if one is content to respond without thinking. It feels very good, of course, to be home. And yet, what sensations can a soldier afford to have? A battlefield is no place for emotions. A man going overseas must leave his feelings behind. The difficulty, I find, is to regain those lost emotions which enable a man to take his place in civilian life. Except for taste sensations, I am numb to everything I used to find stimulating. I can understand now why members of the socalled “lost” generation of the 1920’s went to such extremes in their search for animation. It may sound like exaggeration, but I actually feel like a stranger in my own home, because everyday living in America requires emotional responses which I am incapable of giving.

The part of civilian life most difficult for me to become accustomed to is the mental agitation, the fluctuating enthusiasm, which accompany each day’s news of the war. While I was overseas a friend who had been invalided home wrote and urged me to stay away as long as possible because the war on the home front would drive a man crazy. Now I know what he means. The overintensified, glamorous version of war which comes to us each day via headlines and excited voices of radio announcers is far removed from the actual fighting. Because our reading habits arc based on emotions, the war news must be highly dramatized to compete with murders, accidents, and sports for top place in public interest.

The true story of a soldier’s dull, routine existence, told without benefit of adjectives, would never sell papers. I am not blaming anyone. My reaction is purely a personal one — now that I have been judged unfit for further service I must adjust myself to the civilian approach to war. But I should like to make people understand that war is not glamorous or exciting or even a “great adventure.”

Every time I hear a commentator rhapsodizing on another Allied victory, or am told that the war is practically over, I think back to the wet November day last year when the British Eighth Army huddled around radios in the Libyan Desert and heard England and America celebrating the Battle of Egypt. Rommel had been defeated at El Alamein and chased through Halfaya Pass. Britons were wildly ringing church bells, and American officials were running out of adjectives. We of the Eighth Army were shivering in the rain and wishing we had a hot meal and a dry bed.

We had pulled up at dusk, after driving since dawn. The rain had made the desert as mucky as a mudflat at low tide, and digging a place to sleep in was a long, discouraging task. As fast as we shoveled, the wet earth oozed back into our holes, but I at least had a roof over my head by virtue of getting first claim on the tailboard of a blown-up truck. Breakfast that day had consisted of porridge and two pieces of bacon, we had had no lunch, and for supper we opened cans of cold corned beef and packages of hardtack — the omnipresent meal which the Tommies call bully and biscuits. The country was the same barren, desolate wasteland that extends with few interruptions from Alexandria to the hills of Tunisia.

Our supplies had failed to catch up with us. There was no water and no prospect of a decent meal. Even brewing tea was out, because a fire would have attracted the deadly attention of Rommel’s “defeated” army. A dive bomber had taken the measure of a near-by artillery unit and filled our hastily pitched dressing station with groaning, spewing men. It was impossible to locate a hospital for them before daylight. There was nothing to do but hang around the headquarters truck and listen to the sound of church bells ringing out our victory. The Battle of Egypt was over, yet I can remember how difficult it was to sleep that night — not because of exhilaration, but because I was so bitten by fleas I could not stop scratching. As one Tommy put it, “Chum, if this is victory, give me steak and chips!”

2

CERTAINLY, if any army should feel the joys of victory, in the sense that we at home revel in our troops’ reflected glory, it was the Eighth Army after Alamein. For the Aussies, New Zealanders, Tommies, Indians, and South Africans who made up Montgomery’s legion of desert fighters there was never a doubt as to the eventual outcome of the war in Africa. Rommel was out-numbered and outequipped. It was only a matter of time before the Axis forces would be trapped between Montgomery’s men and the Yanks coming from the West.

Yet the British troops, most of whom had been blooded at Dunkirk, Greece, and Crete, kept their sense of proportion. They realized that war for a soldier is not unlike a bloody football game. He gives all he’s got to achieve a certain goal and then must line up at midfield to start the battle over. So the Tommies, always aware of tomorrow’s demands, cursed in time-worn basic English at today’s gains and went on fighting. There was no satisfaction for them in herding together hungry, sodden Italians who would surrender to anyone who would feed them, nor in capturing shell-shocked, beaten Germans who had fought valiantly but unsuccessfully.

The entire march from Alamein to Tunis was one of hardship and misery, not only for men in the front lines but for everyone in the desert. They say in Cairo that you can tell anyone who has been in the Western Desert by the way he unconsciously waves his hand across his food to ward off flies — flies which are no longer there. This is no exaggeration: the flies were horrible. There were hundreds of them at every meal. They swarmed over the food and could light on a spoonful of stew before one could get it to his mouth. The Tommies referred to the flies as the meat in their meat and vegetable rations. Active as soon as the sun came up, the flies maintained a shuttle service from open latrines to the food, and their efficiency in spreading infection, dysentery, and fever sent more men to our hospitals than the Afrika Korps.

The Eighth Army in defeat or victory lived exclusively on the ground. Mobile warfare provided no time to pitch tents, and the towns were uninhabitable. Shells and bombs were minor discomforts in comparison with the flies, fleas, scorpions, black spiders, and sand vipers which demanded a major share of the Tommies’ living space in the Egyptian and Libyan Deserts. Throughout the green belt around Benghazi there were malarial mosquitoes and typhus-bearing lice. Tripoli was a synonym for hungry red ants.

Added to these extramartial discomforts was the fact that from Alamein to Tunis the slightest wind was laden with stinging sand. After two or three years in the desert, troops could fight and sleep in a sandstorm, but no one could ever eat in one. At mealtime, as we squatted in the desert, blowing grit formed a layer over everything we ate. It was impossible to chew the food: it had to be swallowed whole, with stomach cramps for dessert. At the end of a three-day storm, men were dizzy from hunger, for no one — not even the stoutest hero — can live by sand alone.

Meals under the best of circumstances were never satisfying. The faster an army advances, the less it has to eat. The Eighth Army lived month after month on limited battle rations — corned beef fried for breakfast, served cold for lunch, made into stew for supper; a can of peaches for dessert to be divided among a dozen men; a vitamin tablet to prevent scurvy. Fresh meat (mutton), occasionally available for troops within easy reach of the supply lines, was rationed at three ounces per man. The monotony of hardtack and margarine three times a day was sometimes, perhaps once a week, relieved by semi-white bread so spotted with dead weevils that it resembled raisin toast. What local produce was available was unsafe for army consumption because the natives used human manure for fertilizer.

During the year I spent with the Eighth Army I was always hungry, except when a box of food arrived from home, and then I was sick from gorging myself. We used to curry favor with the cooks, as housewives here at home try to get on the right side of their butchers. Supper was always served by four, or four-thirty, so that all fires could be extinguished before sundown, and by nine o’clock men were so hungry that guards had to be posted around the cook truck to keep them from stealing a can of cheese or a piece of stale bread.

Yet, scarce as food was, water was even more so. A well in the desert is a major objective, and a retreating army must ruin the water supply with the same thoroughness that it destroys bridges and buildings. Water points in Libya, after changing hands several times, contained oil, salt, dead camels, or anything else that might spoil their purity for oncoming troops. Although the heat on the desert often reached 120 or 130 degrees, the Eighth Army survived on virtually no water. The customary ration was one pint of water a day — one pint of tepid, brackish water to drink, wash with, shave in, and use for laundering. At Mareth the ration was lowered to a single cup of water a day, and the supply had to be so heavily dosed with chemicals that milk curdled in the tea. Faced with the choice of how to use our precious water, most of us gave up washing. I did not have a bath in nine months, but I always brushed my teeth, convinced as I am that it does more for morale than any other single gesture toward cleanliness.

Water was so scarce in the weeks immediately following the break-through at Alamein that in our medical units we were scooping rain water from mud puddles, straining it through gauze, and boiling it to get enough water for washing patients. Then it rained every day in November, December, and January, and usually all day. Anyone who still believes war is glamorous should go out into his back yard some night when it is raining hard and imagine having to dig a hole in the ground for his bed. That is what the British and American infantrymen will have to do this winter in Italy. That is what the same Eighth Army now in Italy had to do last winter, and the winter before, and the one before that. Sometimes in the desert the rain and sandstorms came at the same time, and it was like being pelted with mud pies.

3

To A soldier it is just as uncomfortable being hungry and wet four miles from Tunis, or ten miles from Rome, as it was to be wet and hungry at Alamein or Salerno. War for him is a timeless existence in which today is much like yesterday or tomorrow. In terms of food, water, bedbugs, and the chance of being killed, victory is seldom sweeter than defeat. He knows he can be killed just as thoroughly on a day when the papers announce light patrol activities as when the headlines herald a major break-through. No fighting man is going to cheer raucously about Salerno, for example, when the battle for Naples begins the next day. The end may come for him one mile from Berlin, or even while the generals are debating the terms of surrender. The only battle he wants to cheer about is the last one.

Despite rather thorough jamming, the soldier overseas occasionally hears jubilant sounds emanating from America, and his repugnance is expressed with Chaucerian simplicity. I shall never forget an incident which occurred on the fourth night of landing operations on Sicily. Our ship had survived its twenty-fifth air attack, but shrapnel from a bomb which landed twenty yards away had knocked out our two favorite gunners. In the lull between attacks Sparks emerged from his wireless room to give us a copy of the day’s news. The first item was the triumphant announcement that Allied forces invading Sicily had encountered “very light aerial resistance.” The expletives which greeted this assuring summary of our situation should have burned out every radio tube in America. The announcer should have tried to tell that to the one dazed survivor of our sister ship, which was blown into a million pieces of arms, legs, and twisted machinery by two well-placed portions of his “light aerial resistance.”

Whenever I hear civilian strategists discuss the war, whether they are on the air, writing for newspapers, or talking around the table after dinner, I involuntarily wince. I suppose this is because, as an ambulance driver in North Africa, I was constantly trying to comfort those men over whose mangled bodies victory was won. Public fanfare over a current success rouses in me the guilty realization that the men who did the fighting are hunched, chin on chest, beside their foxholes, unenthusiastically opening a tin of cold rations, scratching at their fleabites, waiting for the night bombers to begin their attack, and thinking only of tomorrow’s battles. Blatant optimism makes me shudder, because I have seen tired fighting men throw down a magazine in disgust or turn off a radio in embarrassment. Premature applause turns their stomachs.

Because the men in the Eighth Army maintained their mental and emotional stability they were able to survive one of the worst setbacks of the war, reform their battered regiments, and fight back across 2000 miles of desert to Tunis and to victory. Those Americans who suffered the Kasserine setback, but came back to beat the powerful Tenth Panzers in a return engagement, must have arrived at a similar attitude towards war.

Men who have been in action have developed a marked sense of humility. They have seen death strike with illogical fury to their left and right, and their own survival makes them feel small and unworthy. War to them is a dirty job that must be done, the sooner the better. Their attitude towards it is never expressed in words that would make inspiring copy for a war bond campaign, but they have an unemotionalized spirit of determination that allows them to take defeat and victory in their stride. While the sale of war bonds fluctuates, and the amount of public participation in Red Cross activities varies with the changing headlines, they steadily fight on, today the same as yesterday, the same as tomorrow.

4

FOR a former ambulance driver to talk about America’s post-war obligations may be out of place. For nearly a year and a half, however, I was isolated from all things American. I saw the United States through the eyes of the common man in other countries; through the hopes and fears of the British, South Africans, Egyptians, Syrians, Indians, Australians, NCAV Zealanders, Fighting French, Arabs, Italians, and even a few Germans. In most cases we were the first Americans to whom these men had ever talked. Because we were constantly serving as interpreters of the way Americans think, Ave were more aware of the United States than ever before. We read as foreigners American newspapers and magazines; we listened as aliens to American broadcasts. I can say without hesitation that America is the best-loved nation in the world — and add, with reluctance, that it may become the most hated.

Life in the desert was a communal existence. The nearer one was to the front, the more the essentials of existence were on a give-and-take basis. Food, clothing, blankets, and water were shared without hesitation — and what is more important, without ceremony. Cigarettes were precious, but no one took one for himself without offering the pack to whoever might be standing near-by. The men who had things took care of those who had not. Packages from home were divided up — each man feeling that it was the fortunes of war that brought his box through; so it should be shared with those less fortunate. Survival of the fittest was not the rule of life; the strong helped the weak. There was no room in battle for bickering over who owes whom what.

Some of this spirit, I find, has developed in America since I left. The rationing system is all new to me. Out of it has grown a new neighborliness, which I like. Friends share their butter, meat, and sugar; strangers climb into taxicabs together; the comradeship in trains and buses these days makes the crowded conditions bearable. War has made us personally less self-sufficient, more aware of one another.

The same spirit prevails throughout the United Nations. All trade barriers are down for the duration. The countries that have, supply those which have not. Money is no motive; if England or Russia wants food, we send all we can spare. American troops wear clothes made in New Zealand and Australia; Indians drive Canadian trucks; the Fighting French eat South American corned beef. And nations are flourishing as never before under a system which has replaced competition with cooperation. The Moscow Conference has stimulated hope for permanent unity, a foundation for everlasting peace.

Yet there are other changes in America that are shocking to anyone just back from the war. Searching for ulterior motives has become a national pastime. Each move on the part of governmental bureaus, labor, or industry is eyed with suspicion, viewed with alarm. Outspoken racial prejudices hit the returning American these days like a blow in the face. The undercurrent of criticism against the Administration has all the terrifying qualities of any underground movement. If this atmosphere of distrust were confined to domestic affairs it might be considered pre-election politics, but unfortunately it undermines our international associations as well. The war has never come close enough to our doors to make us feel ashamed to ask what we are going to get out of Lend-Lease, who is going to own the air bases after this Avar, or how we are going to get our share of the oil, rubber, and tin.

Since I have been home I have thought often of the posters I saw in Arab shops throughout the Middle East. One of the most ubiquitous is a picture of President Roosevelt. I could not read what was written in Arabic under the smiling, benevolent face. A second line in French, however, says: On ne vous oublie pas (“We are not forgetting you ”). The more I talk with people here, the more I wonder who of us it is that does not forget the Arabs. Few Americans I have met know anything about conditions in the Middle East. Yet the people of Egypt, for example, though thirteen out of sixteen million of them cannot read or write, and though they live under unbelievable hardships, regard us Americans as their one great hope and salvation.

Whenever we stopped to prepare a meal along the roads in Egypt, Libya, Tripolitania, or Tunisia, Arabs appeared from nowhere to watch like hungry dogs while we ate. They begged for whatever scraps of food were left in our mess tins; young and old, they searched ravenously through our garbage pits; they gathered up the used tea leaves which the cooks tossed out on the ground. The men and women used to shake our hands warmly, after we had given them a package of biscuits or an old pair of shoes, and repeat over and over, like a prayer, “Americans very good. Americans very good.”

I am sure that if the American people learned of the plight of the Arabs they would raise several million dollars overnight to send to them. But the Arabs don’t want charity. They want a share in the life that to the rest of the world has come to mean the American way of living. And they are not alone. Millions of Moslems face the East to pray for spiritual guidance, but look to the West, America, for economic liberation. In Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea, we were followed up and down the streets by children shouting, “The Americans are here!” (There were only two of us!) Men and women in every house came out to greet us. High in the mountains of Lebanon a man took me in to meet his aged mother. She smiled from within, like so many other blind persons, and cried, “Ah, you have come at last, Mr. American. God bless you all!”

5

AT LEAST two-thirds of the British troops I talked with wanted to come to America after the war — some to visit, but many of them to find a satisfying future. Among the peoples of India the American promise is a ray of hope. For the Australians and New Zealanders life in the United States is an ideal towards which they are trying to build. Through us the peoples of the South Pacific expect to build up their secondary industries and become more independent.

Yet if you read American magazines and newspapers as an English civilian would read them, or listen to the radio as though you were a Chinese soldier fighting for the sixth year against the Japanese, you can understand the adverse reaction to American propaganda in the minds of many of our allies. We used to hide some of our magazines from home so that the Tommies would not misunderstand the attitude of our country. I do not believe that most Americans are eager to exploit the world after this war. Yet many industrial advertisements, heralding the golden vista of world-wide markets, create the impression that the shores of the United States are lined with twentieth-century carpetbaggers ready to Americanize the world for their own profits as soon as the last shot is fired.

Some of us in America are so jealously concerned with what we are going to get out of this war that we have turned the people in England against us. I have great faith in the British Tommies. They have been away from home so long that they have changed their entire perspective. They are determined to return to England and change many of the things that now seem unfair to them. But they, and the letters they get from home, repeatedly express a fear of the United States. As a result many Britons are more interested in an alliance with Russia than with us.

So, when someone asks me how it feels to be home, it is in the light of these post-war problems that I try to answer. I came home eager to discover how much public support stood behind the promises that sounded so encouraging while I was overseas. I wanted to learn what plans the average citizen had for collective security after the war. I have found a general feeling that some sort of “League of Nations with teeth in it” should be established after the war. This is encouraging. So is the new neighborliness I have mentioned. Offsetting these heartening changes is a host of ominous fears — the mercantile, profit-seeking suspicion brought back by the five Senators; the whispering campaign against the Russians, our supposed enemy in a war to follow this one; the distrust over whether or not our allies are contributing a fair share; the lack of confidence in anything but force as a means of maintaining peace; the ever increasing resentment toward any measure, good or bad, that the Administration proposes.

For more than a month I have put off writing to a young New Zealander who lost his arm at El Alamein. During the two weeks he and I occupied beds side by side in a hospital in the desert outside Cairo, we spent long hours discussing our respective countries. He had complete faith that out of this war would come a bright new world. That is what he was fighting for. He is waiting for me to tell him how I find things here in America. He, like millions of other men, is waiting for encouragement. I wish I could write and tell him in full confidence, “On ne vous oublie pas.”