Stephenson Tales

Army Fellows and One Official Jerk

The other day I looked up "849th Signal Intelligence Service" on the Internet. To my gaping surprise, there I found things about my organization that I would have thought to be still highly classified. You may look it up for yourself and you will find out things you never would have learned from me. When I was discharged, I signed an agreement that as long as I lived I would never reveal any details of my intelligence work and that to do so would make me liable for a court martial and imprisonment. At that time I had been away from Lucy Chase for over three years, and I would have signed anything to get out and to get back to her, to get married, to raise a family with her. So I still honor that agreement, but I can share (with anyone who cares) some of the characters in the organization.

Just to show the variety, I'll name but a few and then tell the story of one of the most stupid, incompetent, self-important officers I ever came across - and believe me, there were many who can fall under such a rubric!

Charlie Farley had been an English teacher at Bowdoin College. John Hobart was a former drama critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He played my Stage Manager in the production or Our Town (see "Theatre Arts" of October, 1945), which for several weeks was directed by Thornton Wilder. Billy Packer had, as a lad, been in the Broadway production of Life With Father. Lou Mowdy had been a monk in Tibet, and was fluent in Mandarin Chinese! Bill Marquardt, after the war, taught Shakespeare at the University of Cambridge in England. Dr. Chwa was a Chinese scholar who had 3 PhDs. And then, on the other hand, there was Lou Hartsook, who could barely read and every week would visit the whores and bars in Algiers and, drunk, on the way back to Hammam Melouane, try to dive out of the back of the truck.

The officer alluded to above was Major English, who had been a drummer in a swing band in Chicago before the war. Why we had a "commander of troops" is one of the military mysteries to which there is no explanation, except that he was fulfilling military protocol, which insisted that we all be armed; spend an amount of time in "close order drill;" practice responses to "enemy action" by dashing out with our weapons at 2:00 a.m. twice a year to fire at the mountain below our camp. (I did not go the third time, and if I had been caught I would have lost my rank, job, and "freedom"!)

Since part of my job - which I can reveal - was to train cryptographic teams to be assigned to combat units during the seemingly interminable "Battle of the Bulge" (December 16, 1944, to January 28, 1945), we had a huge map which covered an entire wall of our office. It showed where every one of our teams was on any given day. These teams reported back to Allied Force Headquarters every 24 hours. It is necessary to note that some of those teams were wiped out along with the troops they served.

Our map had pins with colored heads showing where each team was on any given day. Major English would come in; I would shout, "Tej-hut," and we would all leap to our feet (this includes Capt. Gilden who could barely conceal his contempt) and stand at "attention." Major English would condescendingly say, "As you were."

We would all sit down and go back to our work - trying valiantly to figure out where we had left off in our puzzling assignments so we could continue working.

Major English would stand in the middle of the room muttering to himself and pointing to various units on the map. He did not have the faintest notion what anything on the map signified, but he was being "official."

One day he came in and did his performance. He stood there with his hands in the "at ease" position behind him, bent his knees slightly, and rocked up and down on the balls of his feet, looking at the map from side to side. He stopped and looked over his shoulder back at me and said, "Yessir, them Germans is gonna recapitulate."

I went under my desk.

Oh, life in the Army...ever entertaining.

Composed 7 November 2008; Transcribed by Lucky

© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008

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