"...we made our way down ladders and through a maze of passageways to a cabin which we would call home for the next five days."
"The attitude and behavior of the French at this time were consistently hostile to Americans."
"I put the family safely on the train and went back for the luggage, making it clear that a few Gallic curses were not going to intimidate me."
"...the best laid plans of mice and men..."
"...as a professional member of the military, it was unfair for me to be serving in Europe when so many non-professional military people were serving in Vietnam."
Deutchland, We Barely Knew Ye
n the two days we spent in New York awaiting our sailing date for La Havre, France, we worked through our checklist of things to see and do: Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building, UN Building, Times Square, an off-Broadway play, and dinner at one of those places where you put in money and retrieve your food from a little window. Those clever New Yorkers!
When departure day arrived, we fought the impossible New York traffic to the waterfront where the SS United States lay pier side -- a huge ship and owner of the Atlantic crossing speed record (a distinction it still holds).
With two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son in tow, we made our way down ladders and through a maze of passageways to a cabin which we would call home for the next five days.
It turned out to be an enjoyable, uneventful crossing, in spite of two very energetic and mobile children and constant monitoring of the ship's PA system for announcements of "child overboard." Memories are of near continuous eating episodes, periodic lifeboat drills, overcast days, and long periods of uninterrupted reading and dozing while wrapped in blankets on the "sun deck".
On our arrival in France, we took the train into Paris where we would spend the night and most of the next day before catching another train for Germany. The attitude and behavior of the French at this time were consistently hostile to Americans. NATO HQ had just been relocated from France to Belgium (at French request), and French national pride required that every Frenchman show disdain for anyone who might be American. In spite of the cold reception, we made visits to The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc du Triomphe, and strolled the Champs Elysee. Departure from Gard Nord train station left us with an indelible memory of the French when the baggage handlers refused to load our bags on the train and said I was not allowed to carry them onto the platform myself. This was resolved when I put the family safely on the train and went back for the luggage, making it clear that a few Gallic curses were not going to intimidate me. Au revoir, mes amis -- baisez mon derriere.
The overnight train ride to Bremen would have been unremarkable had we not found ourselves sharing sleeping accommodations with a German family. We weren't prepared to disrobe in the company of strangers (although they showed no compunction about stripping down to their skivvies in front of us); so we dressed the children for bed but slept fully clothed ourselves. They probably still comment on the strange custom of Americans to sleep with all their clothes on.
In Bremen we were met by a bus from the command and finished our long journey to Bremerhaven over one of Der Fuhrer's aging autobahns. As a major seaport, Bremerhaven had been completely devastated by allied bombers during the war and the city was entirely rebuilt during the postwar period. It was an interesting place to be stationed, with good rail and highway access to other parts of the country and the rest of Europe. We looked forward to our three-year tour of duty and the opportunity to explore Europe. But the best laid plans of mice and men? In less than a year after arriving in Germany, we boarded an airplane on the Fourth of July 1967 and returned to the United States -- I was on my way to Vietnam.
Several factors led to this sudden reassignment. The buildup of U.S. forces in Vietnam was at its peak at this time and casualty lists were getting longer every day. My brother, who was in the Army, received orders to Vietnam and was assigned to the First Infantry Division (Big Red One) in the field. The policy in effect at that time was that members of the same family did not have to serve together in a combat zone; so my arrival in Vietnam allowed him to request and receive a shortened combat tour. Also, I felt that as a professional member of the military, it was unfair for me to be serving in Europe when so many non-professional military people were serving in Vietnam. I wrote a letter to the detailers and let them know that if there was a requirement for a person with my particular qualifications, I was willing to have my assignment in Germany curtailed for a tour in Vietnam. Almost by return mail my command received a letter asking permission to transfer me. I certainly had second thoughts about it, and I had a very unhappy wife to deal with, but I confirmed my willingness to go.
The orders came quickly afterwards, assigning me to duties as the Officer in Charge of the Special Support Group Detachment to the MACV Studies and Observations Group (SOG), a harmless enough sounding organization. I was actually assigned to an unnamed Washington agency for duty with SOG, but I had long ago gotten used to written orders that didn't mean what they said; and it didn't take me long to puzzle out what my "particular qualifications" were for this job-experience in covert operations can come back to haunt you.
Jean d'Isle is a retired naval officer living in Hawaii.During his military career he served in a number of overseas assignments, including Germany, England, Spain, Viet Nam and Puerto Rico. Following his retirement, he was an adjunct faculty member of Hawaii Pacific University and is currently under contract with the U.S. Navy at the submarine base in Pearl Harbor.
Jean's column, View From d'Isle, is a regular feature of VegSource On-Line Magazine.