Now we have bipartisan embroidery of war records as the Republican candidate for the President’s former Senate seat in Illinois is caught giving himself a medal he didn’t get in Serbia, joining the Connecticut Democrat who retroactively imagined himself in Vietnam combat.
On Memorial Day weekend, such false claims recall my World War II experiences with the subjects of heroism, cowardice and the reality between.
As a 20-year-old foot soldier waiting for assignment in France, I was ordered to stay up every night and type officers’ notes about suspected SIWs, Self-Inflicted Wounds.
Night after night, I tapped out stories in quadruplicate about men who had maimed themselves out of fear and fatigue, offering up some body part to save their lives–shooting an arm or leg, slashing a thigh, dislocating a shoulder or wrenching a knee in some improbable fall.
One morning there, I met an officer who had just arrived to take command of a rifle company, a leathery-faced man with a thick red mustache, a West Pointer named James Woodside. He had been a paratroop colonel until he refused an order that would have needlessly endangered his men, been busted to captain and was now being sent to serve with the ground troops.
I never saw him again but, after V-E Day, when I interviewed soldiers for a regimental history, Capt. Woodside had become a legend. “The man was crazy brave,” one of his sergeants said. He led charges against machine-gun positions, ran at snipers and, on one occasion, chased a German tank up a road with a bazooka on his shoulder.
To bracket stories of soldiers who gave way to fear, there were other such tales of bravery and valor, but those were the exceptions.