Manhoods: A Memorial Day Memory
In early 1945, I arrived at the 317th Infantry Regiment, 80th Division, part of General George S. Patton’s Third Army. “Welcome,” said a corporal, invoking the nickname of our commander, “to the world of ‘Old Blood and Guts.’ Our blood, his guts.”
A lieutenant looked at my papers. “This guy can type,” he said to a sergeant. “Put him on the SIWs.”
So began a weird two weeks. There was only one typewriter, which the sergeant used all day. My job was to man it all night typing officers’ notes about enlisted men suspected of Self-Inflicted Wounds.
Fighting in a war is like anything else that matters–ninety percent of it is just showing up. But for a few, it became unbearable. They shot themselves in the arm or leg, slashed a thigh, dislocated a shoulder or wrenched a knee in some improbable fall.
Night after night, under a Coleman lantern hissing yellow light, I typed their stories in quadruplicate. In deserted barns and bombed-out buildings, I copied officers’ notes about soldiers who had maimed themselves out of fear and fatigue, offering up some body part to save the rest. More than once, I was relieved when the investigator gave a soldier the benefit of doubt, refusing to add a court martial to the pain and shame to which he had already sentenced himself.
During a few hours of fitful sleep each morning in a command post corner or the back of a bouncing truck, my dreams were roiled by images of bleeding flesh and half-heard rumble of guns.
Late one afternoon, I came to reclaim the typewriter, and the sergeant, an apple-cheeked farm boy named Duffy who had had little to say to me, started complaining about my lack of nocturnal tidiness. Somewhere in his mutterings were the words “dirty Jew.”
Before either of us knew what was happening, I had him by the shirtfront, bent back over a desk, his eyes wide with fear. I was pounding him in blind rage.