Monday, May 25, 2015

Heroes Part II

When someone says, "Yea, I was in the service. I was a clerk typist.", and tells you funny stories of boot camp and maybe the stuff he and his buddies did in Japan in 1975, you can believe that.

We've all heard of Stolen Valor and there are groups of veterans that dedicate a lot of time exposing guys who claim to have been super combat vets, SpecOps operators, Navy SEALs, wearing uniforms with rows of ribbons they bought on-line.

What isn't as obvious is the guy who was in the service and just embellishes what he did. Now he can talk the talk, knows the units, lingo and details. Maybe he was on the base in a non-combat role but in a support unit that fixed the boats. It might start out no more than saying, "Yea, I served with the SEALS. No, I don't want to talk about it.", to his friends at the bar. That's true in a way, if you squint. It makes his boring job a little better story.

I ran into this with a WWII vet recently. I am now about 99.5% sure the story he's sharing is bovine excrement. The internet changes how easy it is to check. I heard his stories and it was both believable and a great story, so I went looking. Where he said he was and what he said he did seemed like it would lend itself to a story for the blog, if not a book. I wanted details. I found the unit, found mission histories, found a real live historian in England that I spoke on the phone with last week.

And what I found is that a man with the right age and right name was there, but he wasn't what he claimed to be and couldn't have been. I suspect he made this fiction up right at the end of the war. He started telling it real early and kept telling it until he had it down pat. I don't know what he gained from it and it doesn't matter any more. He's 93. I left out all the details because I am not trying to out him. That 0.5% of uncertainty is enough for me to leave this alone.

What is verifiable, is that he served in WWII in England, came home, worked for 45 years, married and had a family, served in local government, volunteered in the community and in all the small normal parts of his life, seems to have been part of the generation that built the post-war world I grew up in. A likeable, mostly honorable, man.

The English  historian I spoke with told me they find a certain amount of this. He told me about a (deceased) WWII fighter pilot whose family had contacted him with stories of air to air combat, a crash landing in France, details of the ride across the Channel, being returned to the base to fly again, and so on. Great stuff. The family wanted to get it in the historical record.

Well, the man was a fighter pilot. But the mission histories are complete, they all exist, and by the time this man was flying there were no German fighters rising to meet them, no desperate dogfights in the sky over Germany. By the last months of the war, the Luftwaffe was pretty much defunct. He had flown his missions, escorted bombers to targets, and flown back. No record he ever fired his guns in combat. He had wanted to be a hero bad enough to tell pieces of other people's stories.

I suspect it has always been this way. That after the battles between Rome and Hannibal's army, guys who had been cooks and farriers went out and collected swords and armor and took them home to tell great stories of their bravery and how they had singlehandedly turned the tide of the battle.


Old NFO said...

Sad but true... Truly sad...

Divemedic said...

Years ago, I worked for a guy who claimed to have been a door gunner on a helicopter in Vietnam. He used to tell us stories about how his helicopter was shot down, and how he had spent two years in the Hanoi Hilton. He claimed to have been returned in one of the prisoner exchanges near the end of the war.

Easy enough to check. I contacted the POW/MIA society, and there was no record of anyone by his name ever being a POW.

burt said...

And yet, some were on operations that they knew were classified at the time. If so, no amount of digging will get you the info on it. They may not know if those ops are still classified. And even if they were declassified, they probably wouldn't tell you about 'em anyway.

"Don't ask me no questions, I won't tell you no lies."

J Melcher said...

USAREUR, 31M (Multi-channel communications operator) here, telling it as "When Ronald Reagan sent me to (West) Germany, Europe was threatened with what he called an 'Evil Empire'. A year or so after I started my mission there, that situation no longer pertained..."

Roy said...

Never forget, everyone who joins the military puts themselves in harms way - from the clerk typists to the messcooks to the combat infantryman and helicopter pilot.

Picture it. It's 5:00 am on a beautiful Sunday morning in December 1941. The USA is not at war. You are a messcook who happened to get orders to an old WWI battleship called the Arizona. Arizona is tied up to the quay in one of the largest naval bases in the Pacific in one of the prettiest places on Earth. You had no control over where you were sent, but there you are nonetheless.

So you get up that morning, like any other, and you go to do your job in the messdecks serving breakfast. The messdeck also happens to be your battle station.

And that's where you are when the forward magazine explodes.

Are you a hero? You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time due to orders you had no control over.

Maybe not a hero in the strictest sense of the word, but deserving of respect nonetheless.

Bob said...

Too often we forget that humility is a virtue, or at least is considered one in most religious traditions. I like Milton's thought on service, as he wrote of it in On His Blindness:

God doth not need either man's work or his own gifts.
Who best bear his milde yoak, they serve him best.
His State Is Kingly.
Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

Chickenmom said...

Hubby's Uncle was a top turret gunner. Never, ever talked about the war unless he had too much to drink. Never told any 'great' war stories about his exploits, just hoped that future generations would never see the horrors he had to witness.

Jerry The Geek said...

Who cares? It's been too many decades since I was there, and most of my war stories have been "improved". Nobody wants to hear them anyway, so if I want to make them more exciting, it's between me and my grandchildren.

And they aren't listening, anyway.