Monday, September 26, 2022

Part I - A Fireside Chat

Pendleton County, Kentucky

In the summer of 1934, Stanley Grimes was just past his 13th birthday. An energetic and slim young man with penetrating eyes, he had a sharp nose and thick dark hair that he wore slicked back which gave him the look of one of those Italian boys you heard about in the news those days making up the organized crime families just down the river in Newport, Kentucky. Stanley was the middle child to 8 siblings at the time and grew up on a farm in Pendleton County, Kentucky which his father Gilbert rented for $5 a month. In 1934, the country was still reeling from the worst economic crisis in its history: laborers were out of work, farmers had no place to sell their crops and if they could they were forced to sell them at prices less than it cost to plant and grow them. As a result, many farmers like Gilbert simply gave up and only grew what they needed to feed their families. Decent hard working people started to live like they were poor. Stanley's parents were in a fight for their lives. In those years, Stanley and his family ate what they grew: corn, potatoes, carrots... whatever the soil of Kentucky would yield; he was still in the height of his boyhood and didn't need much. He loved going with his mother down into Covington where the pace of life was quick and businessmen in their slick suits walked down the street clutching the Kentucky Post. Across the Ohio River he could see the progress in Cincinnati, distinguished by the imposing 49 story Carew Tower, just completed a few years before. One day, he thought, he'd work in a building like that. He'd send money back to his family or maybe even buy them a new Chevy Sedan. He hated that a man who worked as hard as his father could still be as poor as they were. 

He and many young boys and girls his age, colored by this economic blight brought on by factors of no fault of their own, were the ones who made up what would become known as the Greatest Generation. A boy like Stanley of 13 may have gone down to the grocery store in Butler, Kentucky,  asking for 25 cents a day to bag produce or to help in any way, only to be answered that no jobs were to be had. The grocer probably needed the help, he just didn't have the money to pay. His older brother Dewey had been working as a farmhand at Ms. Beckett's for 10 cents an hour, her parents aging and no sons in the house. Sometimes he'd let his brother work for him on the weekends and pay him half the 10 cents, a sum that Stanley would collect with excitement to save up for an ice cream in town. But what could a boy of 13 really contribute to the family?

On a hot Thursday in June of that year, there had been some excitement that the president was going to address the nation. Roosevelt was going to talk about what was being done by the government to make times better. Stanley remembered this man from the TVs in the windows of the stores down in town: his big smile and cigarette holder riding around in a fancy car claiming that 'happy days were here again'... the song he heard on the radio was catchy and Stanley may have found himself humming it while walking down the road on the way to school in those early years of the 1930's. Stanley's dad was not a political man, but who could not have been swept away in the Roosevelt dream? The days of big banks and unbridled greed which threw the country into this terrible situation were over, and now this man of the people was going to make things right. All day and for the past few weeks, June was unbearably hot that year. Many days had pushed 110 degrees, driving people to sleep on their roofs, front porches and front yards to escape the heat in their houses. The most popular spot in town for young men like Stanley became the banks of the Licking River which provided a brief escape from the oppressive heat.  

When Stanley got home that evening, his mother Laura had dinner cooking and the house was a commotion as one would expect a small farmhouse accommodating 8 children including the new baby Junior. The house smelled of cornbread and beans, a meal that Laura served up most nights to the Grimes family. After bread, eggs and milk for breakfast and cold cornbread for lunch, no one was surprised that cornbread followed for dinner. Stanley ran to the kitchen, grabbed a big spoon and stirred the beans. With 10 mouths to feed, it seemed something always had to be cooking in that tiny kitchen and Stanley got to know what it was like to feed a small army: fetching bags of cornmeal and 1lb cans of Heinz beans from the local grocery, ensuring all was stored after dinner, bringing the used cans back down the road to collect a penny for each 5. He did not know it now, but these skills would serve him down the road feeding the 140 men of Dog Battery in the years to come.

After dinner, Gilbert tuned to WLW on the radio and the family listened as the broadcast tuned over live to the White House and the nasally voice of that New Yorker cut into the airwaves:

"It's been several months since I talked to you..." he said. 

And he went on to talk about things which began to lose Stanley and his brothers: reciprocal trading agreements, gangster crime, the regulation of securities exchanges. But then he delved into the heart of his message: The three goals of the government, he said: Relief. Recovery. Reform. He began to talk of farmers. Of how many thousands of people like his dad would have lost their farms had it not been for the relief programs passed by the congress. He talked about how special interests and rich men in Washington were upset by what he was doing, but that the fight that he was fighting was for the worker and not for the men with money. Stanley, looking around the room at his family could not help but smile... he knew that the people that Roosevelt was talking about was them. 

He began to speak of devotion to public service, of fair minimum wages, of the elimination of child labor. All this was well and good, but still foreign until he gave a real example: The White House, he said, was very old. It was built "when the Republic was young", but this summer they were installing wiring and plumbing to keep the house cool even in the heat of the summer. On hearing this, Stanley wiped the sweat from his forehead and thought of how nice it must be to have a house that was capable of cooling itself down on a hot Kentucky night like this one. This, Roosevelt said, illustrated the progress needed not just in the White House, but what was needed to bring the country into a modern era and face the new challenges plaguing the country in the 1930's. He then began to close by describing a trip he was ready to take:

"I plan to land at a port in our Pacific northwest, and then will come the best part of the whole trip, for I am hoping to inspect a number of our new great national projects on the Columbia, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, to see some of our national parks and, incidentally, to learn much of actual conditions during the trip across the continent back to Washington."

He paused a moment... and to close his adress in his staccato phrasing and New York accent: 

"While I was in France during the War, our boys used to call the United States "God's country"....  Let us make it and keep it "God's country".

A barking voice came on the radio: 

"Thank you, Mr. President. On behalf of Powell Crosley and WLW radio, we hope you have enjoyed this Fireside Chat of President Franklin Del..." 

Gilbert switched off the radio as Laura began to call all the children to bed. 

That night in the bedroom with Bobby, Dewey and Henry, Stanley began to think of how with all of Roosevelt's fancy new relief programs, maybe he could do something to help. The president was obviously on their side. He wanted to help families just like his. There must be something out there. Stanley closed his eyes. What could he do beyond being an extra hand in the kitchen or finding an odd job around town from time to time to help the family? 

Across the ocean, a storm was brewing. Just as with Roosevelt, a young and charismatic leader by the name of Adolf Hitler who was also hailing himself a man of the people and the worker was on the rise. Young boys just like Stanley sat by their radios too in Frankfurt, Heidelberg and Berlin, listening to this man speak of how hard times were coming to an end and how their nation too was on the brink of a new modern era. They did not know that in just a few days this man was to order a massive purge and assassination of a 100 of his political detractors in what would become known as The Night of Long Knives; they did not know that the designs of this man went far beyond modernization and relief from the Depression, that because of this man their lives would become inescapably intertwined with other kids like Stanley. 

The chirping crickets in the tall Kentucky grass outside sang Stanley to sleep from the open window as his mind began to wander... "God's country..." he thought. His teacher at school told of how the Licking River joined the Ohio, which flowed into the Mississippi and then into the vast Gulf and Ocean at New Orleans. What a big world, he thought, as he closed his eyes and sailed down it in his dreams. 




Thursday, July 28, 2022

PROLOGUE

Mostagenem, Algeria. February 1943. 

 

0150 Hours

 

The recently promoted Sergeant of Dog Battery, Stanley Grimes knew it his duty to stay back and man the 50 calibre while his young recruits enjoyed their first days overseas at the bars in downtown Mostagenem, an area where a soldier with a few whiskeys in him could find his night going sideways in quick fashion with the local girls who seemed like goddesses after those weeks on the boat and even more back in training in Virginia and New Jersey. Despite it being February it already felt like summer in Algeria and the sandy beaches and commotion in town of all the freshly arrived troops made for an excitement that even though a war was going on inevitably led to a feeling among the men that this was some form of extended vacation in the exotic tropics of Africa. Just months earlier, Casablanca had enthralled the country and now Stanley and his men were walking those same shores as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in the film. But Stanley had a young bride at home and a sense of duty which kept him at that gun while his friends went down the hill and had their fun. As the gunner on the 50 cal, he maneuvered  the barrel down towards the harbor of Mostagenem and saw the ships anchored quietlytheir lights dark under the blackout orders but could vaguely be made out against the moon which caused the Mediterranean to glimmer and the moorings of the ships to occasionally flash as the inevitable one or two lights from the city reflected on their metallic surface. The night was silent apart from the faint sound of the surf against the rocks down the cliff side at the shore.

 

The crew and mission of a 50 calibre in an anti-aircraft battery was a special one. This was a gun not meant for heaving flack shells randomly into the sky during a raid, their large bullets were meant to make calculated volleys at enemy aircraft that would slice into the fuselage and bring the target down as they came in too close for the 90 mm Bofors AA gun to hit. Tracer rounds let the gunner of the weapon know he was close or off target. These guns had a crew of four: a gunner, an assistant gunner, an ammo man and a water man. This night Stanley sat in the gunner’s chair and looked into the night sky and down at the harbor. He thought of his training in Ft Bragg, where he learned the basics of combat; how to handle a side arm and his M1 Carbine. He remembered the drills in which blank rounds were fired over his head to simulate the stress of combat. But even more-so now: his classroom training back in New Jersey in which he learned what an ME-109, Ju-87, Ju-88 and FW-190 sounded like in the sky, what they looked like, how they maneuvered and attacked. As the Sergeant and gunner it would be his call when to engage even though there were C-47s and friendly aircraft overhead at seemingly all times. He kept an eye on those ships. The glimmer of the sea under the waxing moon which he wished would hide its face beneath the clouds. 

 

0212 hours

 

From the battery Radio Man: 

 

"Red Alert! Red Alert! Red Alert! Able Battery Sector 547 reporting 15 miles northeast of Mostagenem. Enemy aircraft. 15-20 Ju-88s incoming at a heading of 195 at 4000 feet. Repeat: Enemy aircraft incoming! This is not a drill! Over.

 

Stanleys fingers tensed on the trigger and his adrenaline began pulsing. This was it. What all those years away from home and in training had been leading toward. As if an actor repeating his memorized lines, he called out:

 

"Examining Gun!" as he checked the sights of the 50 cal and that a clear view was established, "In order!" He called to his 3 man crew. 

 

Stanley's assistant gunner, remembering his until now unused training after nervously fidgeting with the weapon called out in succession: "Bore and Cables in order!" Indicating the weapon was ready to fire and could maneuver in any direction necessary to shoot. 

 

The number three or ammo man now checked that the ammunition chests were in order and the 50 cal bullets were loaded in the weapon and more was on hand to feed if necessary. "Ammunition in order!" he shouted. And now on to the next man

 

The number four man was in charge of the water chest. This man ensured that the weapon would stay cool when in action and in checking turned the crank to be sure that water was circulating properly in the machine. 

 

"Water chest in order!" he yelled to Stanley. 

 

This quick drill; this one which they had practiced so many times in Virgina over the past several months, was now a reminder that they were now in Africa; that German aircraft would soon be overhead; that this was not a game or training. As Stanley felt the cool steel of the trigger on his fingers, he remembered Mary Lou. Of how they got caught on that country road in that storm last summer when Deweys car had broken down in Indiana and how beautiful she looked in her dress soaked in the rain; of how he hated Indiana but now how much he wished he was back there. He looked up at the sky and pretended he was back there for a moment. 

 

0229 Hours

 

Stanley leaned into the silence of the night. The hum he heard he was not sure was in his imagination or the enemy he'd been training to see all these years. And then it began. Able Battery positioned to the northeast up the coastline began reporting with their 90mm's. At first Stanley heard the shots and could see the muzzle-flashes lighting up like fireworks in the night. Then in the air he saw the explosions. One after another they went off and the night became day. As the flack lit up the sky he could see even at several hundred yards three tight V formations of Ju-88s bearing down on the port of Mostagenem. His adrenaline rushed at the thought of them getting nearby and his training raced through his mind of how many bombs they heldthe speed at which they traveled, and when and how they attacked their target. These were the infamous ‘Schnellbombers'  (fast bombers) that were versatile enough to serve as bombers, dive bombers, fighters and night fighters (and towards the end of the war, human torpedos). They were among the most menacing craft in the Luftwaffe and after all these months seeing them in the sky brought him almost to tears of fearfulness. In some way he was glad that most of his buddies were down in Mostagenem at the bars. They were safe. This was a job for the Sergeant of the battery.  

 

As the formation passed Able Battery the sickening feeling approached him: he was next. Whether they were after his position or moving on to the harbor he could not have been sure. Dog Battery, positioned 5 miles to the southwest on the coast would be the last line of defense before the bombers were over the port of Mostagenem. He and a few 50 cals and the big guns of the 90mm AA. It was his time. 

 

The night, now brilliantly alight with red tracers, blue incendiary rounds and blanketed with the bright yellow and orange flickers of the flack explosions made Stanley wonder how any sane pilot would keep coming at them; how these planes had pilots whose mothers cared about them and that their mission seemed all but suicidal. A few hundred yards from shore a round from Able Battery had made its mark: he could see the wing of one of the planes catch fire and he watched in wonder as it banked right and dropped towards the sea, out of sight.  He felt sorry that they had made the choice to fly into this storm of steel. But now he began to finally understand why he was here: in this life and death conflict neither side was heading back. 

 

Stanley's mind raced back to the trainings he had on the distance and angle to fire on a Ju 88 traveling at a given speed. His finger squeezed the trigger and the weapon issued its ordinance deafeningly into the sky and he watched as the bright red tracerevery 5 shots flew upwards where he had aimed. He could see his Battery mates reporting with their 90mms as the V formations began bearing down on the ships moored in Mostagenem. As he saw the 88s dive and the ships catch fire in the harbor he no longer felt sympathy for those German pilot's mothers. He squeezed the trigger of the 50 cal and hoped he'd find a target in the sky if only to save one of his American brothers on those ships in Mostagenem. His ammo man exchanged the box and the water man kept cranking while the barrel began to glow red

 

What was only 12 minutes seemed like hours and the rounds Stanley fired into the sky he was never sure made their mark. But the might of what he and all of the batteries of the 67th CA put in the sky made him feel like America could not lose. The news articles he'd read of the German advance being turned back in Russia. Stalingrad. Kursk. It was soon to be over he thought. America had a foot planted in Africa and after a few more months he would be home. As the barrel cooled on the 50 cal and his heart rate came down, Stanley thought of Mary Lou. That little house in Kentucky. How funny it was that a boy like him was in North Africa shooting at German planes. But it would all be over soon. 




Postcard From SSGT Stanley Grimes to Mary Lou Grimes c. March 1943