Old Soldiers Never Die!

Posted on 07 July 2010

Recently, I lost an old friend.  An e-mail from the daughter of my WWII Army buddy, Paul P. Bartels, informed me of his passing. After expressing my condolences to his family, I wondered what I might do to ease the pain of their loss.  Into my mind flowed the sagacious words of General Douglas MacArthur, in his address of April 19, 1951 to Congress on the occasion of his retirement from military life.  In summing up his career, the General stated proudly, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

Thoughts of MacArthur took me back to August 10, 1945, when I boarded a troopship in San Francisco Harbor bound for the Carolina Islands.  My ship was part of a massive Allied armada bent on invading the nation that had bombed Pearl Harbor: Japan.   Due to Divine Intervention, which was spurred on, no doubt, by my mother’s fervent prayers, that invasion never took place.  After we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered unconditionally on September 2, 1945.

When the war ended, I was no longer needed to serve as an infantryman.  Thus was I transferred to the 24th Signal Company on the Island of Mindanao in the Philippines.  I served my country as a member of a gigantic taskforce assigned to secure Japan and keep the peace following its surrender.  From Mindanao, my fellows and I shipped out again — this time, directly for Japan.

It was near the town of Matsuyama on the Japanese island of Shikoko that I first met Paul.  We were both assigned to the mess section of our Army camp.  Paul  drove the mess truck and I repaired, maintained, cussed at, and prayed over antiquated field stoves in order get the 24th’s meals out on time.

After a few months, the 24th Division was ordered to replace His Majesty’s Royal Cameron Highlanders, who were stationed at Okayama on the main island of Honshu. Mess Sergeant Werner Poppe selected our cook, Tony Prekosivich, our driver, Paul Bartels, and yours truly, who came to earn the moniker The Stove Man, to set up an advanced kitchen at Okayama.

In a two-and-a-half ton truck that also towed a small water carrier, we stowed all of our  necessary gear.  Over the island’s mountainous terrain, Paul maneuvered that truck like a pro, toward the ferry station on the inland sea at Takamatsu.  There, we boarded a ferry that would carry us to the town of Uno on the island of Honshu.  En route, the ferry captain invited us into the wheelhouse, where he cordially served us saki (rice wine).  That trip would create a fond memory for me in the years to follow.

Arriving at Uno, we motored to Okayama, where life unfolded in imitation of art.  Like a page out of a Rudyard Kipling novel, we were greeted by a band of welcoming, kilted Scotsmen.  Before their forces pulled out so that we could occupy the area, they put on a show for our division that featured the rousing Scottish dance, The Highland Fling.

We set up our mess hall at Okayama, near a barracks that housed officers.  Because it was summer, we noted with suspicion a wisp of smoke curling from the eave of the officers’ roof.  Rapidly, that wisp escalated into a raging inferno that caused a hasty evacuation by the officers.  One of our trucks was parked perilously close to the fire and had begun to smolder.  If the flames had reached the gas tank, it would have been a terrible, life-threatening disaster.  Without hesitation, Paul leaped into the smoldering truck and drove it out of harm’s way.  In all of the excitement, his act of heroism went unnoticed — but I will never forget it.

After a few months at Okayama, we were ordered to make our final move to the most southern island of Kyushu, near the town of Kokora.  Paul, yours truly, and the rest of the 24th Signal Company set up camp in the Kitagawa Racetrack area.  This would be our home until other troops would arrive to replace us.

During our occupation of Japan, we came in contact with the native people.  They could not speak English and we could not speak Japanese.  Our mode of communication was like a mad cross between Show and Tell and Charades, with the results often hilarious.  Paul and I often had a good laugh this way.

As the one-year anniversary of our landing at Matsuyama approached, rumors began to fly, hinting that we would be receiving our replacements. When the rumors proved true, it was a bittersweet departure.  We all shook hands, slapped each other on the back, and said farewell to our buddies, knowing full well that our paths would probably never cross again, at least, not in person.

After we returned to our respective hometowns and got on with our lives, we tried to keep in touch.  Annual Christmas cards, very much anticipated and cherished, contained letters of how our families were growing and what we had all been up to in the preceding twelve months.  But as years passed, that Christmas card list dwindled down to just three of us old soldiers.  With Paul’s passing, it is now just two of us: Pat Barbato and me.  Pat never fails to remind me that he wishes to be the oldest living World War II veteran, with me right behind him!

As I write this tribute to Paul and those days overseas, I hope I have enlightened his family as to how he served his country and enriched the lives of the people he touched. I believe that when General MacArthur said that old soldiers never die, he should have finished the phrase with “as long as they still live in the hearts and minds of family, friends, and the nation they served.” 

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6 Responses to “Old Soldiers Never Die!”

  1. Sammy K. says:

    This was a great rememberance for a comrade who was finally called home. God bless our vets and our current troops.

  2. Sharon Joseph says:

    This story is about my father, Paul Bartels.Dad never told us much about his time in the military, and I only recently found out about saving the truck through Tom. My Dad was very patriotic. Even though he did not know who anyone was, he could sing all of the words to The Star Spangled Banner. Tom has become a dear friend to me, telling the stories of my dad and his comrades. You see,my father was no longer able to remember much. He had alzheimers for over ten years,and has not even known who I am the past two to three years. My dad would have felt honored by his kind words. God Bless America and our Vets.

  3. Marcella Higinbotham says:

    Great stuff. thanks for this

  4. Karen says:

    Thanks for a great story that is so vivid in its description and emotion that I too feel a loss of Paul and all the old soldiers who pass on. A blink of an eye ago they were kids goofing off together in the army. Kids who saved the world for the rest of us.

    If only we could keep forever those remaining.

  5. Quisenberry says:

    site bookmarked and stumbled upon, I’ll post a feedback on my profile asap

  6. Eugene Riffee says:

    Great stuff. thanks for posting!

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