After peace broke out across Europe, it was time for combat by other means.
WHEN THE Selective Service drafted me in February 1943, I recalled a neighbor’s exciting stories of serving as an artilleryman in France during the First World War. I thought the artillery would be the place for me.
The army had other ideas. I was fit as could be—I had been a star athlete in high school—but did not have gunner’s eyes. However, I did have an aptitude for high-speed radio, and wound up with the Army Airways Communications System, which helped guide military planes. In late 1943 my unit shipped out for Britain, where I spent the war as a code slinger. I served about as far from the front as you could get and still be in the European Theater of Operations.
But I nonetheless emerged from my two years overseas with an armload of war stories. There were Luftwaffe bombings, V-1 flying bomb and V-2 rocket attacks in London, strafings in Aberdeen, Scotland, an assault by a Nazi guerrilla in Nuremberg, Germany—even the near outbreak of World War III. Or so it seemed to a wide-eyed GI standing at the feet of the legendary General George S. Patton. My military career intersected with Patton’s during a postwar GI Olympics in which I raced at a stadium in the complex where the Nazis once staged their monstrous ceremonies.
Our convoy took 16 days to reach Glasgow, Scotland. From there we moved to the Midlands and then to London. With the name of a pub in hand and having heard all about Piccadilly Circus and its bold ladies of the night—whose preferred introduction was to grope a fellow through his greatcoat and say, “Cough!”—several of us set out to see the sights of wartime London. We survived a brush with the “Picadilly Commandos” and had just settled into the recommended snuggery when the building began to rumble and ashen-faced GIs burst through the blackout drapes to report an air raid. Through the drapes I caught a glimpse of a piece of Luftwaffe plane burning. I really was in the war.
The next day we moved from our billet into top-floor digs across from Green Park. That night, after another evening out, we were awakened by the second attack of what was being called the “Baby Blitz,” complete with sirens and antiaircraft guns. One of our bunkmates had enjoyed himself so much he refused to wake up for the march to the shelter, so we had to carry him down five floors. In the morning the same fellow refused to believe he had slept through a bombing raid until we showed him a newspaper headline and pictures of incendiaries striking Westminster Abbey.
From London we went on station in Aberdeen and at a Royal Air Force base in rural Dyce that attracted the occasional Messerschmitt; to escape a strafing, my companions and I dove into a stairwell. We roomed with families who invited us to country dances, where the style was for two gents to take a female partner by the hands and whirl her off her feet. Watching one trio too closely, I caught a boot on the chin that knocked me cold. Finally I got to my long-term wartime post, Air-Sea Rescue Station Mullaghmore, in northern Ulster, Ireland, where 25 or so Americans inhabited three Nissen huts. We each pulled three eight-hour shifts at the electronics, with a couple of days off in between duty sessions.
By this time I was missing my long-familiar exercise routine. At Monrovia High in California I had played football and captained the championship track team. I was top dog in the 100- and 220-yard dashes, lead man for our undefeated 4×220 relay team, and scored the occasional point in shot put. My new location and schedule meant I could run on the beach and work on my shot putting with round rocks. I also had time to participate in meets nearby and on the outskirts of Belfast. A few times I qualified for meets as far away as London, where my exquisite timing always seemed to place me in the middle of V-1 and V-2 attacks.
By the time Germany surrendered, Mullaghmore station had shut down. We Yanks moved into nearby Coleraine, in Northern Ireland, again rooming with locals, as we waited to amass the points we needed to go home. That’s what I was doing in mid-1945 when word came about a “GI Olympics” taking place that August in Nuremberg. The games, intended to provide diversion for restless GIs twiddling their thumbs in Europe waiting to be discharged, were open to personnel from all services of the United States and Canada. High-ranking Russians would be observing.
In the preliminaries, held around Britain and France, my fellow track-and-field competitors and I from the Air Corps got no real direction. Our official coach, an American who had played college football in the South, seemed more interested in recruiting for his alma mater. “Al, you’re the only real athlete here!” he’d crow to me. “We want you at our campus!” Older gents from civilian athletic clubs did show an interest in us. One of these fellows told me, “What ye need to do next noon break, sonny, is ter go ter yer shelter, drink a full pint of Guinness, wrap yerself up in yer very heavy blanket and just let vitamins soak in while ye eat lunch, then ye repeat the process before returning to the field.”
Even so, the UK contingent made the semifinals in Paris. Happy distractions—the racy Pigalle quarter, the bohemian haunts of Toulouse Lautrec, chasser les femmes, and all that— kept trumping training, but I still won the 100- and 200-meter dashes and placed in the shot put and broad jump. Out of high school habit I resumed the role of captain. Now all we had to do was win the Air Corps berth in the GI Olympics.
When we arrived in late July 1945 at Nuremberg Stadium— renamed Soldiers’ Field—the man at the duty desk said we might as well go back to Ulster; the qualifying meet had just ended. He mentioned that he coached the winning Air Corps team. Stunned, I asked to see their times. We were in the same league, if not better, especially in the dashes. We argued him into a run-off—which we won handily.
The big event was two weeks away. We found billets in the suburbs, where we began to acquire a smattering of spoken German and souvenirs like the combat boots and Luger that I picked up to go with my GI-issue trench knife.
We had strict orders not to fraternize with Nurembergers, many of whom were furious at what our bombing and artillery had done to their city. Also, there was much talk, official and unofficial, about “Werewolves”—in German, Werwolfen: diehard Nazi guerrillas who were supposed to be lurking everywhere, using pretty women to lure GIs into sexual encounters that turned into castration, usually by razor blade.
Oh, and we trained regularly, too. One morning I was heading for the track, spikes over my shoulders, when I turned a corner and nearly knocked down an American military policeman. The MP was holding a Thompson submachine gun on a squad of German POWs, and he was on edge. I could see why. Those guys looked hostile, from the death’s head insignia on their peaked hats all the way down to their hobnailed boots.
“Ach,” I said. “Der Schutzstaffel ist kaput, ja?”
The POWs started forward in my direction. The MP charged his piece and waved it. “You dumb sonofabitch!” he yelled. “Get out of here before you get us all killed!”
When Bob Hope brought one of his USO troupes, including Les Brown and His Band of Renown, to the Opera House, my teammates and I caught a ride to the show. It was drizzling, and the opera house roof was long gone. I was glad to be wearing my GI raincoat, though I had to shift position often to keep from sitting on my trench knife. Even in the drizzle, Hope and company were stellar. By the time we returned the rain had ended. I found a restaurant and enjoyed a snort. As I was leaving, two demure Fräuleins asked in perfect English if I would escort them home, saying it was dangerous for them to be out so late. They lived down the way, they said.
All thought of bans on fraternization disappeared from my head. We three strolled, making small talk, toward a vine-covered arch that spanned the street. Beyond the structure overhead lay darkness. A thought tickled my memory. I had my hands in my coat pockets. I got a grip on my knife.
Up in the arch, something rustled ominously. With a right arm hardened by shot putting, I drew my knife, tip toward the mystery noise. A man jumped down from the ivy and onto the blade. I stepped back. My assailant hit the ground. I tore a pin off the fellow’s jacket and broke whatever speed records existed for whatever distance it was that I covered to get back to where the streetlights and safety beckoned.
From then on I stuck to track and field, and my diligence paid dividends. I qualified for a spot in the 100-meter dash and as lead-off man for the Air Corps team in the 4×100-meter relay. On the appointed day at Soldiers’ Field, the announcer summoned sprinters for the 100-meter dash. We took our marks.
“Get set!” the announcer squawked.
I poised, waiting for the pistol. The PA crackled.
“We interrupt these proceedings,” the man said, “to announce that Japan has agreed to surrender!”
The starter fired his gun. I leaped straight up, thinking that surely given the circumstances the judges would call us back. Nope. I think I finished sixth.
Our relay foursome did better. The team from Patton’s Third Army took the overall prize, but our third place in the relay earned us a spot on the podium on closing day. After marching with fellow competitors into the stadium, we took our places between two stands of VIPs, with the Red Army general staff to our right and on our left, the master of ceremonies, General George S. Patton himself. Patton was bursting with pride as he leaned into the microphone and in his raspy, high-pitched voice said, “I am here to tell you that no matter what anyone else says, the American soldier is still the best goddamned soldier who ever set foot upon this earth!”
As he spoke Patton looked straight at the Russians. They were smiling and waving, completely unaware of what their host had said, as the interpreters blanched from the struggle to paraphrase Patton’s invitation to start World War III. The interpreters must have found the right words, because the smiling and waving on the Russian side continued. We marched out, and when World War III didn’t start, I packed my gear and returned to Ulster to count my points toward my long-awaited trip home.
Originally published in the August 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.