I was born 21 years after the conclusion of the Second World War. When I was young my world was liberally populated with World War 2 veterans. Sixteen million Americans served during the war, roughly eleven percent of the overall population.
I remember them all dressed like the Blues Brothers and clamoring over each other after church let out. Upon the final “Amen” these guys scampered outside to burn their Camels and Marlboros. Though it reliably kills you young, nicotine is a great anxiety medicine.
It was different back then. Clinical anxiety was not a real thing, and folks typically treated their emotional challenges unsuccessfully with alcohol. These young men had been ripped from their homes and families to travel to the other side of the planet and fight and die for the cause of freedom. They were just simple men—souped-up teenagers juiced on testosterone and patriotism.
These experiences changed them fundamentally. The visions of hellish carnage are beyond anything we modern folk can really imagine. We honestly have no idea.
It was not in vogue to speak of such stuff openly back then, so most just kept it bottled up inside. They would disappear to the VFW to drink too much with the only folks in the world who could understand. For the most part, however, to cope they just worked hard.
An Extraordinary Fellowship
I was a bald-headed freshly-minted paratrooper just back from Benning when I first met my wife’s grandfather. My then-girlfriend disappeared off with her grandmother, leaving me on a porch swing with her grandfather for a couple of hours. He had himself been a paratrooper in 1942 until a jump injury moved him to the leg Infantry. He asked about airborne training and was amazed at how little had changed. Then he got a far off look in his eyes.
He fought as an Infantryman in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. He told me what a German artillery unit looked like after it had been obliterated by Allied artillery. His description included human entrails draped liberally across trees.
The man had enlisted in 1940 as a Private and ETS’d in 1945 as a Master Sergeant. It takes a good bit longer than that today. He made rank so quickly because every other person he worked for got killed.
That evening I enjoyed dinner with my future in-laws. I casually mentioned that I had enjoyed a truly splendid talk with grandpa that afternoon about airborne training, military service, and the war. The conversation stopped abruptly. When I asked meekly if I had said something inappropriate I was told that he had come back in 1945, announced that it had been bad, and declared that he never wanted to speak of it again. To my knowledge, this conversation in 1986 was the first time he had mentioned his time in uniform to anybody.
A Most Remarkable Math Teacher
John Mullins was my Tenth Grade Geometry teacher. He was a backwoodsman in his fifties who had taught Geometry and Senior Math ever since he came back from World War 2. He was a thin man with a thick Southern accent who suffered from diabetes at a time when diabetes was still kind of unusual.
Today’s teachers are both underpaid and underappreciated. However, most of the teachers in my well-funded district have access to more technology than launched the moon missions. Tablet computers, networked projectors, classroom Internet, and educational science aplenty enhance the chores of pouring knowledge into the heads of their precious little monsters. By contrast, Mr. Mullins had a chalkboard, a wooden compass, and a wooden protractor. With just these three items that man taught me a great deal of geometry.
His pants were always covered in yellow chalk dust. I can only imagine how this must have frustrated the man’s wife when he came home in the evenings.
I’m not God’s gift to smart people, but I was the STAR Student for my high school. I picked Mr. Mullins as my STAR Teacher. When I bumped into the man in the hallway and informed him of that fact he broke into a broad grin, wiped his chalk-covered hands on his pants, and shook mine in appreciation. I’ll never forget that.
Mr. Mullins was a relatively unemotional man not prone to outbursts. However, one day something touched him off and he kicked the wastepaper basket hard enough to stove it in on itself. The ferocity of this display scared the living crap out of us. We attributed it to his blood sugar. In retrospect, I suspect it went deeper than that.
Only the Good Things
In my experience, those old guys almost never share the dark stuff. They’ll speak of the funny times or the inevitable silliness that ensues when thousands of young men are packed together with a common purpose. They saved the real stories for their buddies at the VFW or just never spoke of them at all. In the case of Mr. Mullins, he once interrupted class spontaneously to relate a tale of combat in Europe in WW2.
For Uncle Sam’s own unfathomable reasons the BAR was reliably issued to the smallest man in the squad. Troops would align in formation by height. Giving the 19-pound BAR to the shortest guy in the unit supposedly made the gun a smaller target in combat. In practical use, once the bullets started flying such stuff just found its own level. The BAR went to whoever best wielded it in support of the squad and platoon mission. In this case, that was Private Mullins.
Mr. Mullins and his mates were fighting across France, and life was dangerous, chaotic, and short. In modern mobile warfare front lines can be nebulous things. Amidst the fog of war, a German courier astride a beautiful white charger came trotting down a forested French road as my future Geometry teacher and his fellows hid in the brush nearby.
Mr. Mullins stepped out into the track, his BAR held at the hip and oriented toward the surprised Wehrmacht soldier. Mr. Mullins said he did not necessarily intend to kill the man but rather wanted to take him prisoner and secure his dispatches.
He told us he was most taken with the beauty of the enemy soldier’s horse. All folks of that era appreciated a nice horse.
The Nazi soldier, for his part, wanted nothing to do with that plan. He wheeled his terrified mount around masterfully and took off from whence he came at a hard gallop. Mr. Mullins, now incensed by the Kraut’s impertinence, triggered his massive Browning, emptying the 20-round magazine in a single long burst.
Engaging a galloping horse from the hip is not a standard course of fire taught on Army ranges, so Mr. Mullins said he just rolled the big gun around in a circle as he unloaded at the weapon’s cyclic rate. When the bolt slammed home on an empty chamber and the smoke cleared Mr. Mullins said the German rider was disappearing into the distance, terrified but otherwise unhurt. Mr. Mullins used the experience to relate something about mathematical probability. I don’t recall anything about probability, but I’ll never forget the BAR story.
John Moses Browning’s Machine Rifle
John Browning was the most prolific firearms inventor in human history, holding some 128 gun patents at the time of his death. We have discussed the development of his eponymous automatic rifle in this venue before. Here’s the link—
The gun Mr. Mullins carried was the M1918A2. On paper at least, the M1918A2 was improved over the original M1918 with the addition of a two-stage fully automatic fire selector, redesigned furniture with a lengthened buttstock, a massive folding bipod along with a shortened tubular flash suppressor, and few other minor trinkets. Realistically this just made the gun three pounds heavier.
Many to most of the cumbersome bipods were removed and left with the company cooks. The heel-mounted monopods on the buttstocks got binned in short order as well. Where the original M1918 was a selective fire with a three-position fire selector, Mr. Mullins’s gun eschewed the semiauto function in favor of a selectable full auto rate of either 400 or 600 rpm.
The BAR is almost unimaginably bulky and heavy. Packing one of these beasts from the truck to the firing line is a butt whooping. I cannot imagine toting that thing all the way across Europe. Alas, those were some undeniably hard guys.
Mr. Mullins eventually died of complications of his diabetes. We lacked the tools to manage this pestilence back then that we have now. However, with only those three simple tools this dedicated educator taught me enough Geometry to get me through Mechanical Engineering school as well as a lot of other complicated stuff later on. As a nation and as a people we owe those old guys a debt that can never be repaid. Sometimes it behooves us to just be still and ponder how awesome they all were.