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Letters From Readers - April 2008 World War II

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: March 20, 2008 
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What's Wrong with This Picture?

My question pertains to page 71 of the December 2007 issue. Which general, Eisenhower or Marshall, is wearing his collar insignia reversed?

Harry H. Clark Jr.
Bedford, Pa.

According to David S. Stieghan, U.S. Army Infantry Branch Command Historian at Fort Benning, Georgia, they were probably both wrong. Officers of the rank of colonel and below wore their rank insignia on the right collar and branch insignia on the left. Because, then as now, general officers in the U.S. Army did not wear branch insignia, the block "U.S." insignia was substituted. But general officers usually wore their rank stars on both collars when (as in this photograph) they wore tropical uniform without epaulets; they wore the "U.S." device on both collars when they wore their stars on epaulets. But, as Stieghan notes, "These two were both four-star generals at the time and apparently were a law unto themselves."

The Blitz, Gone Ballistic

Michael J. Neufeld says Wernher von Braun's V-2 rocket was a "failure" (Conversation, December 2007), but having lived in London during the bombings, I can tell you that the V-2s were extremely frightening. You could not hear them coming. You could hear and see both the planes and the V-1s, as they had flames coming out the back, but the V-2 was a different kettle of fish. When the siren would go off at the start of a raid, most people went on about their business until the bombs got nearer and nearer, and then they would find shelter. My mother and I were out shopping one day during a raid when we heard a loud bang in the sky, and later found out that it was a V-2 breaking the sound barrier as it came down. Though it was never designed to hit a specific target the way today's smart bombs do, the V-2 did tremendous damage and scared the daylights out of us all.

Marion Steveson
Chatsworth, Calif.

The Rescue of the USAT Dorchester

The story of the four chaplains giving up their life jackets while the USAT Dorchester sank off of Greenland in 1943 has long been told at ceremonial events (War Letters, January/February 2008). A common problem with that story is the erroneous account of the Dorchester 's rescue—or the complete omission of it. Some versions state that the three Coast Guard escort ships were unaware that the Dorchester had been torpedoed, or that the 904 men aboard were abandoned altogether.

In fact, the sonar operator aboard USCGC Comanche heard the first torpedo that hit in the boiler room of the Dorchester . The USCGC Escanaba immediately turned to investigate and promptly began rescuing men from the frigid water, while USCGC Tampa began actions to drive the unseen U-boats down and shield the rescuing ship. Rescue swimmers wearing "survival suits" entered into the frigid water to attach lines to the victims, while men on cargo nets hauled the victims out of the water onto the two rescue ships. One rescuer who entered the water without a protective suit saved two men, losing his life in the process. USCGC Escanaba rescued 132 men and USCGC Comanche rescued 97 men; they were certainly not "abandoned" as is sometimes told.

Capt. Donald M. Taub, USCG, Ret.
Huntington Beach, Calif.

One Soldier's Story

I just read the article "The Greatest Stories Ever Digitized" (Conversation, January/ February 2008) and it brought back a flood of memories. My father was a combat infantryman in the European theater. Unfortunately, he died in 2000, so he cannot participate personally in this worthwhile endeavor. However, I wanted to relate a few of the stories and experiences he shared with me. We often went to the movies together, and when we saw Saving Private Ryan , I asked him afterward if he found the combat scenes to be accurate—especially Spielberg's famous beach assault sequence, since he landed on Omaha Beach himself shortly after D-Day. He told me that during that scene the sensation he recalled most vividly was the smell of thousands of fish rotting after being killed by the concussion of so many high explosives in the water. He never really cared for fish for as long as I knew him, and at that moment I realized why.

In April 1945, my father had the unique experience of celebrating Passover, along with the Third Army's Jewish chaplain and hundreds of Jewish soldiers, at Hermann Göring's Veldenstein estate in Bavaria. I have a photo of Dad smoking one of Göring's cigars, his feet propped up on the Reichsmarschall's desk under a giant German eagle and swastika.

Dad's unit was in the Czech town of Klatov just before V-E Day. This was very close to the village of Lidice, where in 1942 Czech commandos assassinated Gestapo Reichsprotector Reinhardt Heidrich, who was behind the Final Solution. The Nazis wiped Lidice off the map and murdered hundreds of innocent civilians in the surrounding area in retaliation. Soon after the Americans arrived in Klatov, the locals started digging up the beautifully maintained gardens in front of their town hall, which had served as HQ for the Germans. It was there that those massacred in 1942 were buried. I have a woodcut of Klatov, which Dad was given by the people of the town to commemorate their liberation. I look at it often and think of my father.

After he died, I realized how many questions about the war and his life I had never thought to ask. Hopefully, those World War II vets being interviewed for the Veterans History Project will provide many answers for their families and for posterity.

Paul Bernstein
Brooklyn, N.Y.

More to Malta than Oil

My family lived through many of the hardships the Maltese people saw during World War II, including the period mentioned in the piece by Sam Moses ("Malta Must Be Obliterated!" January/February 2008). I have to take issue with his suggestion that the only reason to hold Malta was to keep the oil flowing. Malta was the sole outpost remaining in the Mediterranean after the original German onslaught; the place where land-based planes were able to fly recon on Germany's Afrika Korps. It was Malta's location and its ability to be used as a base for operations against the Axis powers that made it so vital. Mr. Moses did a great job on looking at the convoy he mentioned, but as a person with Maltese heritage, the emphasis on oil just hit me the wrong way.

Shawn J. Micallef
Green Bay, Wisc.

Too Much Chili

I'm sure someone on the staff remembers the Saturday morning inspections that were held each week during basic training. On one particular morning in early March 1943, the officer came to inspect our footlockers and beds. As I stood there at attention, shaking in my boots (at the time, us rookies thought that the officers were God, and some of them thought they were too), the officer looked at my locker and passed me by. When he went up the line, he stopped at a footlocker near the other of the end of room. He looked for a moment and asked the soldier standing there, "Is this your locker, soldier?" "Yes, sir," replied the soldier. Then the officer said, pointing at the lid of the footlocker, "What the hell is that?" "Those are my girlfriend's panties, sir." The officer then replied, "I don't want to see them again, understand?"

Those panties were solid white with black polka dots! He said his girlfriend was model Chili Williams.

John E. Conrad
Maryland Heights, Mont.

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