>(A chapter, in part, from Mike Vanderboegh’s upcoming novella, “Absolved”. Written to the tune of “Star of the County Down” by Clinch River Pearl)
Author’s Note: I first heard the tale of the wayward boxcar back in the late Eighties. Whether it was true or not I cannot say, but I know there were folks up in Winston County who believed it. What happened to it, and most importantly where it’s contents are today is anybody’s guess. I suppose some folks know, but they’re not talkin’. You never can tell, though. We may yet see some items off that boxcar’s bill of lading, if push comes to shove. In the hills of red-dirt-poor Winston County, nothing goes to waste, and they hardly ever throw anything useful away. 😉
“We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”
— Franklin Delano Roosevelt, December 29, 1940
“The men of the mountain are down in the vale,
And the flags of Shelburny are loose to the gale –
And tho’ gentle the Forth, yet her sons never slight,
For the mildest in peace are oft boldest in fight.”
–The Wexford Insurgent, a traditional Irish Ballad
January 22, 1945: The Depot
It was Monday and James Boatwright was late. He was late and he was cold. It was 19 degrees and he was chilled to the bone, and not just from the winter weather. As he hurried across Broad Street dodging traffic he slipped on the ice and almost ended up under a passing Ford cargo truck. The military policeman at the Broad Street Gate was laughing as James recovered and slipped-slid through the crusty brown slush at the curb. Boatwright ignored the MP and rushed through the gate, running as fast as the snow and his worn-out shoes would allow until he launched himself into the Intra-Depot Bus just as it was pulling out of “D” stop in front of the Depot headquarters building.
Had the MP not recognized him and allowed him to pass without checking his ID, Boatwright would have never made it to his desk on time. But the MP had been working his post for about three months now, and he knew Boatwright to be one of the many department managers of the busy Columbus Army Service Forces Depot. In fact, though the MP did not know it, James Boatwright was one of a few of the Depot’s 14,000 man (and woman) workforce whose seniority predated the war.
Built in 1918 on 281 acres of swamp & farm land well east of downtown Columbus, Ohio, the Columbus Quartermaster Reserve Depot was well-sited to take advantage of three major railroad lines. By the end of “The War to End All Wars”, the Depot had expanded to 25 warehouses. Most of these were dismantled after the war ended, and during the Twenties the Depot’s mission became reconditioning war materiel for resale.
Renamed in 1930 as the Columbus General Depot, it was used during the Thirties as the District Headquarters for the “Triple Cs”—the Civilian Conservation Corps—for Ohio and West Virginia. Thus it was to the Columbus General Depot that in 1933, James Boatwright, hat in hand, applied for a floor sweeper’s job. The fact that James was a veteran of the “Great War” helped him secure his position, as did the fact that his uncle had worked at the Depot since the groundbreaking in May, 1918.
If he ever felt guilty about using his family connection to get a job, James didn’t remember it. It was the “Great Depression” and his family was just short of eviction. Being hired by the Depot was the best thing that could have happened at the time, and certainly James had repaid his employers, the taxpayers of the United States of America, with years of diligent hard work. When he had time to think about it (which wasn’t often), James wondered if the current “Great War” would be followed by another depression. “I suppose we’ll have to start numbering the depressions like we number the world wars now,” James had grumbled to his wife just last week.
Then came Pearl Harbor, and the Depot workers knew they would be called upon to support the war effort just like 1918. They had no idea, however, how large a task they would be asked to perform. It was a bigger war, with many fronts, and the demands of the services for arms and materiel were huge and insatiable. The Depot grew, and grew again, buildings multiplying at a ferocious pace. In August, 1942, the Quartermaster General took over the Depot and it was renamed the Columbus Quartermaster Depot. In this war, the Depot would support all the services, not just the Army. Later that year, another 295 acres were purchased and the building went on and on: more vast sheds, more rail sidings, more offices to handle the workload: Salvage Office, Lumber Office, Motor Maintenance, even Chemical Warfare. In 1943, its named had been changed yet again to the Columbus Army Service Forces Depot, but to everyone who worked there it had always been, and would always be, simply called “The Depot.”
Over 14,000 war workers now bustled across the Depot’s nearly 600 acres at all hours every day, and some of them were prisoners of war. James never felt comfortable having POWs doing critical war work. It was all very well to use them on the farms growing grain and such. How much sabotage could they do there? But here, at the Depot, with vast quantities of munitions passing through there were unlimited opportunities for criminal mischief. Oh, the Italians were trustworthy enough, James reflected. Once beaten, they stayed beaten and were more docile and agreeable than the native Americans who worked at the Depot. But the Germans…..well, James Boatwright hadn’t trusted a German since 1918 and he wasn’t about to start. He kept a vigilant eye on the Germans in his immediate area and he constantly urged his supervisors and lead men to do the same. There hadn’t been a case of sabotage in his area that he knew of, and there wouldn’t be if he could make sure that the Germans were carefully watched. Not that the Germans, or anyone else, had spare time to think up mischief. They were too busy.
Five thousand rail cars entered and left the Depot every month. John Carmody, a friend of James’ who kept track of such statistics from his office up front in the headquarters building, said that if all the cars were put end to end, by the end of the year they would form a train well over a thousand miles long. In February 1943 alone the Depot had shipped over 53,000 tons of guns, ammunition and other ordnance supplies to the far-flung battlefronts. Carmody also told Boatwright that the Quartermaster Section was shipping about ONE HUNDRED MILLION field ration meals a month. From fresh meat to antiaircraft guns, from clothing to bridge sections, from jeeps and trucks to medical supplies, the Depot took it in, inspected it, repackaged it, selected it, and shipped it on to its ultimate destination: the biggest war the world had ever seen.
On the wall next to his desk was a clipping from the Depot newsletter, “The Log of Columbus.” Almost two years old now, it read: “The gigantic task in which all of us are engaged to bring freedom again to the nations of the world has been aptly called a war of supply. Never before has so much depended on keeping the tools of war moving to the fighting fronts. This Depot is one of the most important links in the chain of supply.” James kept the small clipping as his own little war poster, for he believed every word of it.
Even before the war, the President had called the United States “the arsenal of democracy.” Looking out the bus window as he passed by the long sheds full to bursting, crated antiaircraft guns and searchlights sitting in the open storage areas and forklifts rushing to and fro, James Boatwright knew he was looking at just a small portion of that arsenal. He was proud of the job he did, even if at the moment he had no business doing it.
James Boatwright was sick. The flu had been going around, and James had caught a piece of it. His temperature at the moment was about a hundred and two. He had alternately chilled and burned for two days now. His wife had not wanted him to go to work today, but he felt he had to. Not that today was any more important than any other day but merely because he knew that his sons, and a lot of other fathers’ sons, were counting on the supplies that would move through the Depot this day. James wanted to make sure that his part was done right. And there wasn’t one of his subordinates he could trust to keep an eye on all the many facets of his job.
So when he made it to his desk, he hung up his hat and overcoat, put his lunchbox on the shelf and began to organize his day. First he had to clean up the mess. Over the weekend someone, probably that 4F kid Jimmy McKnight, had been using his desk as a combination dinner table and library reading room kiosk. There were crumbs everywhere. (Was that mayonnaise on his telephone handset?) Spread out across his desk was Saturday’s edition of the Columbus Evening Dispatch. James didn’t mind someone using his desk, but he darned sure wished they had the manners to clean up after themselves. Well, there was a war on, right? Standards slipped in wartime, that was a given, so James merely sighed and began to sweep the crumbs into his wastebasket.
The newspaper drew Boatright’s attention. He’d been too sick to read the paper the last couple of days and this was still news to him.
“REDS 204 MILES FROM BERLIN” screamed the headline in the Dispatch. “Five Red Armies Strike Nazis; Reich Invaded at Three Points,” read the next line. “Simple Ceremony Marks 4th Term Inauguration,” said a lesser headline in the upper left corner, below which was a picture of the President being sworn in by Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone. James sighed. Well, I didn’t vote for him, he thought.
Mr. Boatwright had drummed a practical knowledge of the history of American constitutional jurisprudence into his son’s head to supplement James’ Catholic school education. And Mr. Roosevelt (his father had referred to him as “THAT man,” until the day he died in 1937) had bent the Constitution into a pretzel to accomplish his “New Deal”, even going so far as to threaten to pack the Supreme Court to coerce the justices into getting what he wanted. Many Americans thought Roosevelt to be a deity only slightly lesser than Jesus Christ. James had a different opinion. It was, however, a minority opinion. Well, that’s democracy for you, James thought.
“Torpedoed Ship’s Crew Strafed by Japanese,” read the headline just above the fold. Just to the right of that tragedy was a story that caught James attention:
“Canadian Draftees Revealed AWOL”
“Ottawa, January 20 (AP) –
Half of a group of Canadian home defense soldiers drafted for overseas service went absent without leave before embarkation, and 6300 are still at large, Defense Minister A.G.L. McNaughton disclosed today. Some 1500 of these 7800 returned voluntarily or were apprehended, he added, and about 500 of them sailed for Britain along with the others who did not take authorized leaves….the 6300 will be classed as deserters if they do not return within 21 days.”
Boatwright snorted in derision. Canucks. That figured. Such behavior squared with his own experiences with Canadians in the First World War. Shaking his head, his eyes scanned on down to “Casualties in Central Ohio”. “Ah, blessed Heavenly Father, there’s little Vic,” James whispered.
“KILLED IN ACTION”
“Columbus — Sea. 1c Enio John Centurini, 23, E. 3rd Ave, in the Pacific; Cpl. Victor R. Lake, 25, 2481 James Road, in Germany.”
It wasn’t news to James, of course. The Lakes lived two doors down from the Boatwrights and Mrs. Lake had received the telegram over a week ago. The government always delayed the press release of casualties so the families wouldn’t suffer the shock of reading about it in the papers the same time as their neighbors. Still, occasionally the telegram didn’t get delivered to the right person and there was more than one father or mother or wife who read about the death of their little Jimmy or beloved Johnny over morning coffee.
What a waste, James thought. Another marvelous boy cut down in the spring of life, one of millions of such boys all over the world. Ah, God in Heaven, what a waste. All because of the murderous greedy bastards who start the dirty stinking wars. The fires of Hell weren’t hot enough for Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini. Stinking bastards. May they meet their Maker swiftly.
The war was close to being over. That much was clear from the headlines. We were going to win the war, the only question uppermost in James’ mind was how many American boys lives would be required to end it, and would one or more of his three sons be among the fallen?
Hitler’s last gasp had been that Battle of the Bulge thing. Surely that WAS his last gasp. He couldn’t have another surprise like that up his sleeve, could he? But then there were the Japs. One look at the map told you that they still were in a lot of places they had to pried out of, and we hadn’t even got close to the home islands yet. How horrific was that going to be?
“Jap Resistance Mounts in Fury In Luzon Fight.” Now this story drew James Boatwright’s full attention. James’ son Billy was a sergeant in the 37th “Buckeye” Division. And the Boatwrights hadn’t had a letter from Billy since last month.
“Tank Battles and Artillery Duels Flare Along Invasion Front” James read on down the column.
“Sisson was captured after a nerve-wracking night in which Japanese pressed the attack incessantly against American infantry and anti-tank guns pinned down by artillery firing from overlooking ridges. As soon as the Japanese armor withdrew, screaming Nipponese foot soldiers charged. They were beaten off with losses to both sides…. Similar tank and Banzai charges were reported elsewhere in the sector, where Japanese were burned out of 20 foot holes by flame-throwers….”
James stopped reading. Flame-throwers. Wasn’t there something from last week about flame-throwers? Some unfinished business, he half-remembered. He discarded the newspaper into his trashcan, and began to survey his desk seriously for the first time. Rifling through his pending basket, he found it. There was a shipping order for twelve M2-2 flamethrowers. Let’s see, James scanned the attached note. Ah, that was it. James rose and walked out his office door into the bedlam beyond. Scanning the frantic activity, he spied the man he was looking for corking off by the water cooler, trying to make time with Betsy Sillers. James grinned. Sillers wouldn’t give Chief Cooper McCarthy the time of day if he was the last man on earth. Betsy had sense.
“McCarthy! Come here for a second!” he yelled.
McCarthy, a hard-drinking Irishman with an uncommonly big beer belly, danced across the shed runway, dodging a passing forklift. When he got within earshot he said, “Yeah. Boss?”
“Did you get those flame-throwers re-crated for shipment?” Boatwright asked.
“Uh, what flame-throwers?” McCarthy feigned ignorance.
“You know damned well which flame-throwers, McCarthy. The ones I talked to you about twice on Saturday.”
James didn’t wait for a reply. “Now get your ass over to Shed 11 and get them ready before I send you to the paymaster to pick up your last check.”
Boatwright executed an about face and went back into his office, leaving the Chief Cooper spluttering what little he remembered of his father’s Gaelic curses.
One of James Boatwright’s principal duties was the supervision of the Freight Consolation station. Shipments from all the various sections of the Depot that were less than a carload were brought to the FC station in the south end of Building 12. There it was sorted and consolidated to get the economical benefit of shipping in full carloads. Those flame-throwers that William O’Rourke McCarthy had been goldbricking on were all that was needed to fill out a railcar going to the port of Oakland where ships were destined for various points in the Pacific theater. And that shipment needed to leave today, if possible.
James scanned down the consolidated bill of lading, which contained some unusual items:
2 M55 Quad Fifty Caliber anti-aircraft machine gun trailer mounts, complete with 200,000 rounds of .50 caliber belted ammunition, ball, tracer, and armor piercing incendiary, as well as extra gun-mounted ammo cans and spare barrels; 4 of the new M20 75mm Recoilless Rifles, tripod mounted complete with direct fire sights plus 400 rounds of 75mm armor piercing and high explosive ammunition…
James guessed the first two items were “packaged” so they could go into immediate action. Although the destinations were different, they were probably both intended for the Philippine theater.
Then there was another big package. It consisted of 200 M3 .45 caliber submachine guns with 2,000 magazines and 120,000 rounds of .45 caliber ball; 200 of the new M2 Carbines with 2,000 magazines and 120,000 rounds of .30 Carbine ball ammunition; 100 M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifles with 1200 magazines; 100 M1903A3 rifles with grenade launching attachments and crates of high explosive, white phosphorus and antitank rifle grenades with launching cartridges; there were even more crates of Mark II hand grenades. For the Springfields and BARs there were 240,000 rounds of M2 ball ammunition packed in bandoleers and 5 round stripper clips. In addition, there were boxes of web belts and ammunition pouches of the appropriate types for all the weapons, in matching quantities going to the same address.
These had to be intended for some guerrilla group in Asia, thought Boatwright. Almost all shipments to U.S. military units were not bundled like this. They would ship whole boxcar loads of arms, other boxcar loads of ammo, and most often these would be shipped direct from the manufacturers or arsenals which produced them. But there were plenty of places that the Japanese still held, and these items looked like they were packaged to enable them to be re-bundled without delay and dropped behind enemy lines. James had seen packages like this before, going to the ETO. (In fact, although Boatwright never knew it, those arms had been dropped to the French Maquis by the OSS. This package was intended for a particularly effective anti-Japanese partisan group in French Indochina which the OSS had been working with for some time. Its leader was a little Communist named Ho Chi Minh.)
Then there was another line item that, like the 75mm Recoilless Rifles, James had never seen before.
There were 20 M3 “grease guns” like the others in the “package” but these were being shipped with sound suppressors. Hmm, thought James, silencers. No magazines or ammo were included with this shipment so presumably the recipients would already have both.
And of course there were the twelve M2-2 flame throwers and 24 refill tanks, as well as organizational support maintenance kits. No fuel of course, that would be available wherever these were going. Sergeant Billy Boatwright had written his father about watching GIs of his division using these devil’s backpacks on Jap pillboxes on Bougainville in March of last year. James shuddered to think of the sights his youngest son had seen. His own war had been terrible enough, but he suspected, no, he knew, that the scientific ingenuity of man had made this war even worse.
There were more light items: bales of uniforms, anti-flash garments and hoods for naval gunners, aircraft carrier deck signal paddles, pith helmets, mosquito netting and MP brassards as well as ping pong balls and paddles headed for some USO or hospital. All of it was destined for the Port of Oakland. James checked the total weight of the cargo, plus the space calculations. Yes, it was not too much over the 100.000 pound maximum gross for the 50’6” long car (as measured internally) and the stuff would fit with some backing and filling by the POWs. (There was a time when James would have never considered loading a railcar more than the max, but this was war and there was a continual shortage of boxcars.) The balance would have to be right, not too much on one side of the car or the other. But the German POWs were usually pretty good at that, better than most of the Americans on the loading crew who worked the forklifts.
The POWs. James Boatwright grimaced. They would bear watching with this one. Give one unattended POW a minute to fool with a case of hand grenades and it could be Armageddon on his loading dock. He would watch this one himself.
By the time McCarthy came back with the re-crated flame throwers (and it was record time for him), the loading of the railroad car was well under way, all under the watchful eye of James Boatwright. There was some trouble with the balance, but after taking some items off and rearranging them, it finally worked. They were just about to fit the last items in by hand when James Boatwright passed out and hit the dock floor as if he’d been pole-axed.
The Depot medics were summoned and, with the assistance of the American lead man and his helper, carried James to the ambulance. Someone yelled at the POWs to “hurry up and finish the job goddammit!” In went the last boxes and the door was sealed.
In the confusion, no one noticed Feldwebel Helmut Grass switch the bills of lading on the outside of the car with the next one up the track.
Helmut, recently of the 252nd Panzer Grenadiers, had been waiting for such a moment for three months, ever since he had been posted to the Depot. According to the Geneva Convention, POWs weren’t supposed to be employed in war work but Helmut didn’t mind. He figured (quite correctly) that Germany probably had American POWs doing war work back home, and besides, he thought that the job would give him ample opportunity to help the Fuhrer and the Fatherland by engaging in a little sabotage.
Raised in the Hitler Youth, Helmut was a big believer in the Fuhrer and the Fatherland. He liked to think he had remained faithful to his blood oath even after he was captured in Normandy. Even so, by the date of his capture on June 13, 1944, Helmut’s military ardor had cooled considerably. In fact, he had been hysterically happy to be captured. Flattened in a roadside ditch, he had pissed himself in fear while the P47 “Jabos” worked over his unit’s convoy with bombs and machineguns, again and again until the stench of roasting flesh made him puke his last three breakfasts. He was still hiding there two days later when an advancing American infantry unit scooped him up. Helmut was too demoralized to resist. Even now he dreamed every night of the smell of roasting flesh. He could still smell it. Sometimes he dreamed the flesh was his. On those nights he woke up screaming to find his mattress soaked with sweat and urine. His continual shame made him an even bigger Nazi in the POW barracks than he had been in the Hitler Youth.
As for sabotage, Helmut had been sorely disappointed. He was too closely watched during his service at the Depot to as much as spit in the “Amis’” coffee. His best opportunity had been today. “25 Grenades, Hand, TNT Frag, MK.2 with fuze” read the crates that Helmut had helped position in the car. “Grenade” meant pretty much the same thing in several languages and Helmut understood exactly what was in those crates, but every time he looked up there was that verdammt American supervisor staring back at him, looking for all the world like a hawk about to sink its talons into a field mouse if it so much as twitched.
When Boatwright had collapsed and the rest of the crew was distracted, Helmut seized the chance to do the only thing he could think of to wreck the American war effort: he switched bills with another railcar that the crew had earlier loaded with clothing. If he could not destroy the cargo, he could at least send it where it was not needed. He was exultant. He had struck a blow for Fuhrer and Fatherland. He had in some small measure begun to atone for puking and pissing in fear at the bottom of that French ditch.
Helmut watched as the American assigned to document the loading matched the wrong bill of lading with railcar’s number. As the crew went on to loading the next car, he began to hum the “Horst Wessel Song.” His fellow POWs looked at him like he was crazy, which of course he was.
February 2, 1945: The Camp
It was a Friday afternoon in the warmest February Bill Hackney could remember, but then Bill was a native of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, not Aliceville, Alabama. A lumberjack by profession and a family man, Bill had initially been spared the draft. As a lumberjack he plied a trade that was ruled to be essential to the war effort, for everything that the “arsenal of democracy” turned out was shipped in wooden crates, lashed to wooden pallets, loaded onto wooden box cars, transported to wooden warehouses, and handled by men who slept in wooden barracks.
But in July, 1944, Bill’s wife told him she had fallen in love with a discharged soldier, a local fellow who had come home minus his right leg below the knee after an encounter with a Jap knee mortar on New Guinea. She wanted a divorce. It was crazy, but Bill figured maybe he could save his marriage by becoming a soldier himself. If she wanted a soldier, then a soldier he would become. He went down to the recruiting office and signed the papers. She laughed when he told her. Fortunately the kids were upstairs sleeping. He slapped her face so hard it spun her around and dumped her on her butt on the kitchen floor. She wasn’t laughing when he walked out the door. But then, he wasn’t either. It was the first time he’d ever touched her in anger, and though she’d deserved it, he wasn’t proud of it.
Well, at least boot camp kept him so busy he barely had time for the memory to rankle during the day. The long nights were different, though. He had plenty of lonely, ugly thoughts then. With all the war news of casualties, casualties and more casualties, Bill figured he’d end up in a mattress cover six feet deep somewhere in France or maybe on some Central Pacific hellhole. So he was surprised when God smiled on him and he drew an assignment to the 305th Military Police Escort Guard Company stationed at the Aliceville POW Internment Camp.
Located close to the railroad junction in Aliceville, Alabama, the camp had been built by the Blair Construction Company of Montgomery, Alabama and was opened for business on June 2, 1943 when the first prisoners arrived by train at the end of a long journey that had begun at El Alamein. The camp consisted of more than 400 buildings, employed more than 1200 military and civilian personnel and housed over 6000 German and Italian POWs.
Throughout 1943 and 1944, the original complement grew with new arrivals from Sicily, Italy, France and Holland. Prisoners were employed mostly as agricultural laborers at local farms, and there hadn’t been an escape attempt since August, 1943, when a couple of Nazi fanatics had managed to get themselves shot trying to get through the wire. Why they didn’t walk away from a work detail when they were already miles away from the camp was a mystery to guards and prisoners alike, but then as Sergeant Wilkie put it, “Well, ya gotta be pretty fricking stupid to be a Nazi anyways.”
Most of the prisoners figured they were pretty fortunate to be sitting the war out in safety rather than fighting in some doomed last ditch ‘kessel’ on the Eastern Front. Of course even if they had escaped, where would they go? Mexico? That might be an option for somebody interned in say, Arizona. (There had been rumors of a successful escape from a camp in that state.) But Alabama? You would have to be wire happy to try. Not that there weren’t soldaten who didn’t go nuts behind the wire. The camp hospital had its own mental ward, and occasionally a suicide was found hanging by a knotted bed sheet from an overhead pipe or rafter.
Hackney also had heard the rumors that every now and then some POW would make an unflattering comment about the Fuhrer and end up as an “unexplained death.” The American camp commander wasn’t too fussy about autopsies in such cases and if the Nazis still held sway in some of the tar-paper barracks there wasn’t much the 305th MPEG Company could do about it. Gerald Stabler, the mayor of Aliceville and the town undertaker still got the business generated thereby, for which services the U.S. Army reimbursed him, if not very handsomely.
But if the POWs didn’t talk much politics or religion to the guards or each other, they were scrupulous about keeping to the rules when outside the wire on work details. It wasn’t uncommon for the MP guard to take the two shotgun shells he was issued out of his weapon, sit down with his back up against a tree and go to sleep with the twelve gauge across his legs. When the work was done, one of the Krauts would gently wake him, and back to the camp they would go.
For their part, the guards never mistreated the prisoners (unlike some camps) and some became fast friends with POWs, although it was against the rules. The townsfolk had lined the streets and gaped at the prisoners when they first marched from the railroad station in 1943. (“As if we had horns and a tail,” one prisoner had told Hackney.) But now, almost two years later, some of them would invite POWs into their kitchens on a hot day and give them lemonade. Both MPs and POWs agreed there were worse places than Aliceville, Alabama to serve out the war.
But at the moment, Private First Class William J. Hackney had a problem. In fact, he had a big problem. The problem was a railroad car that should have been loaded with the winter clothing issue for 6000 men. But when Hackney had broken the door seal on the car and the POWs had pulled open the door, instead of courdoroy pants and cotton shirts with “PW” strips sewn on them there were crates of ammunition. Instead of standard issue PW overcoats there were hand grenades. Hand grenades! Plus Lord alone knows what behind that! Hackney had followed orders and brought a work detail to the siding to unload what was supposed to be a bunch of clothes. Now he had twenty German soldiers hanging around looking at crates of munitions that they quite certainly recalled how to use.
The first thing Bill did was to load his shotgun with his two puny little shells. They hardly seemed adequate for the occasion. Two shells divided by twenty Krauts: nope, Mrs. Hackney’s oldest son didn’t like the math at all. Bill didn’t see any of the more notorious camp Nazis in this bunch, but then, how do you tell a Nazi just by looking at him? He ordered the crew boss, Gunter Muller, to shut the door and move his work party away from the car a good twenty yards or so. He then told Gunter to send a man to summon Sergeant Wilkie. Gunter’s command of English was excellent and he complied with the commands instantly, barking out Hackney’s instructions in rapid-fire German. A “kreigie” went running down the siding to the supply office. Hackney moved in between the car and the Krauts. Gunter sensed how scared the Private was and ordered his men to sit down facing away from the siding.
“With your permission, Sir, I have instructed ze men to sit down,” said Gunter, maintaining his distance from both the rail car and the shotgun.
“Uh, yeah….Great, Gunter….Uh, and, thanks,” stammered Hackney.
Gunter nodded, once, and stood very still.
Like cavalry riding to the rescue, Sergeant First Class Walter “Wendell” Wilkie came barrelling down the track. “Hackney, what the hell is this Kraut all upset about?” demanded Wilkie, hooking his thumb back over his shoulder at the POW runner who followed him at a respectable distance.
“Uh, Sarge, we got us a SNAFU with this car. It don’t have our cargo in it, it’s got somebody else’s,” replied the Private First Class.
“All right, well get a couple of those Krauts to open her up so I can take a look,” ordered the Sergeant.
“Sarge, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” replied Hackney. He leaned toward Wilkie and whispered, “There’s ammo and grenades in that car and God knows what else. It’s packed to the gills!”
Sergeant Wilkie eyed Hackney suspiciously. “No shit?”
Hackney nodded vigorously. “No shit, Sarge. That’s why I had ‘em move away from it.” He added, “I think we oughta get that damned thing outta here pretty damned quick.”
“Private, that sounds like a damn fine idea,” agreed Wilkie. Unbuttoning the flap on his holster and touching the butt of his .45 in reassurance, the Sergeant eyed Muller and his crew. “OK, here’s how we’ll do it. You escort Gunter and the rest of them Krauts up to the headquarters building and pick up Corporal Zelenski on the way. Don’t let these guys outta your sight or let ‘em talk to anybody. You make sure Gunter keeps these mothers quiet. Tell Zelenski I said to keep these Krauts under guard and away from the rest of the camp until we get this car outta here. Tell him to get as many men as he needs from the interior guard to make that happen. When he’s got all the help he needs, tell him to send four more MPs with you back here, and tell ‘em to come with full magazines. And top off your shotgun too. You got that?”
Private First Class William J. Hackney nodded, “Yes, Sarge.”
“Repeat it back to me,” demanded the Sergeant.
Hackney did. As the Sergeant expected, Pfc. Hackney got the first part right, and most of the second part wrong. Wilkie repeated his instructions, and this time when the Pfc. repeated it, Hackney got it right.
“OK, then,” Wilkie ordered, “Get Gunter with the program and move ‘em off quick march. And come back here double time.”
“Right, Sarge,” said Hackney, adding, “I’ll be back with help as soon as I can.”
“You damn well better,” snapped the Sergeant, ‘or I’ll have you on permanent tower guard for the rest of the war. You’ll have to eat, sleep and shit up there.”
Hackney’s head bobbed up and down in agreement. All the guards hated tower duty. He turned and issued his orders to Gunter, repeating the instruction for absolute silence. Of course Gunter had heard the Sergeant’s orders himself and, unlike Pfc. Hackney, he had understood them correctly the first time. Gunter saluted, American style, did an about face and strode down the embankment to his crew who had remained seated with their backs to the railcar. Executing another about face, Gunter commanded them to rise and fall in. The POWs leaped to their feet, quickly sorting out a line.
Keeping a straight face, Gunter addressed them in German in a conversational tone: “OK, kameraden, these ‘Ami’ arschlocks are crapping bricks about what’s in that ‘wagen’. They want us to follow that frightened private ‘quick march’ to the headquarters building and to say nothing to anyone along the way. Follow me.”
With their backs to the Americans, the Germans grinned. There were no Nazis in this work party, just German soldiers trying to make it home. None of them wanted to be a dead hero. But the nervousness of the Americans reminded them that they were still ‘Deustche soldaten’ and feared by their enemies. So they smiled as they faced right and marched in perfect step to the headquarters building, looking every bit the German soldiers they once had been and, in truth, still were.
February 5, 1945: The Boxcar & the Preacher’s Son
By Friday evening the crisis was over. A switch engine had been summoned from the small Aliceville yard and the boxcar had been moved away from the camp and re-secured with an Ordnance Department padlock. After it left the camp area, Gunter and his men were released to go back to their barracks. The unrepentant Nazis who secretly controlled the inner camp raged that such an opportunity for “making our own Second Front” had been lost. The rest of the POWs, including Gunter, thought them mad as hatters but said nothing. Despite their disappointment at being denied the opportunity for posthumous Knight’s Crosses, the Nazis praised Gunter for the way he had maintained the German military spirit in the face of the cowardly, frightened Americans. They reluctantly agreed that there had been little else Gunter could have done in the face of Sergeant Wilkie’s vigilance.
As far as the American army was concerned, the only thing left was the paperwork. Something had to be done about getting the boxcar back on the way to its correct destination. And someone had to find out “where in the pluperfect Hades” (to quote Captain Arliss who was a religious man and not disposed to profanity) the correct rail car full of the camp’s winter clothing issue was. On Monday morning, both of these jobs fell to First Sergeant Matthew Mark Luke, the NCO in charge of the 305th’s quartermaster and transportation office.
Now as one might suspect from his name, Matthew Mark Luke was the first-born son of a preacher. And like many a preacher’s son, Matt Luke was a rebellious young man when he was growing up. In fact, that was how he had come to be in the army. It had been a cold night in November, 1937, when the Winston County, Alabama, probate judge caught young Matt deflowering his fair daughter in the carriage house. (Well, in fact the young lady who was not yet of legal age had been deflowered previously more than once by others, but that was a fact that was both unknown to the judge at the time and immaterial in the heat of his rage.)
Matt Luke’s life was saved that night by four happy accidents. First, the judge had snatched up his pistol instead of his shotgun when he had gone in search of his daughter. Second, the sight of his young daughter screaming and leaping about “in flagrante delicto” (as the legal community calls it) and “buck nekkid” (as they say in Winston County) disconcerted the judge greatly and spoiled his aim. Third, the Lord had placed a window right above the equally nekkid Matthew M. Luke, thus facilitating his rapid egress from the scene. And last, but certainly not least, the judge was drunker than Cooter Brown and couldn’t have hit the broadside of the carriage house if his life depended on it.
The only thing the judge DID manage to hit in his fusillade was a coal oil lamp that promptly exploded all over the upholstery of the judge’s Model A Ford, which began to burn like the Devil himself had just returned it after taking it for a spin around the Lake of Fire. Thus in one night did the judge lose his Model A, his carriage house and his illusions about his daughter’s virtue. It is hard to say which loss hurt him worse, but the neighbors who knew him best thought he mourned most over the Model A.
As for Matthew, he paused only long enough after his unclothed run home through the backwoods of Winston County to do four things. He put tincture of iodine on his scratches (and some places hurt more than others). He jumped into a shirt, britches and shoes. He kissed his Momma goodbye. And he told her he was off to join the Army.
Army life suited Matthew Mark Luke. His sergeants were easier on him than his daddy had been. He’d been snapping to attention and saying “yessir” and “nossir” since he was two, which impressed the officers. Being a Winston County boy he could shoot straighter than most of his fellow soldiers, who were primarily sickly, cross-eyed city folk who’d never handled a rifle in their lives. Such martial competence always endears a young recruit to his drill sergeants. Better than that, he got to drink when off-duty and nobody yelled at him. He also got to debauch himself with willing young women and no one tried to shoot him. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, he had a winning smile and wholesome good looks that allowed him to locate and acquire items for his fellow soldiers that they otherwise could not obtain. Matthew Mark Luke found a home in Army.
An army, especially an army in peacetime in a country in the middle of a depression, is a place defined by its scarcities. Private Matthew Mark Luke quickly came to understand that the supply clerk gets first dibs on anything that comes into the unit officially. He also understood intuitively that unofficially a supply clerk, especially a quick-witted supply clerk with a preacher-son’s nose for human frailties, can corrupt even the most straight laced officer or NCO if he can lay his hands on that man’s vice of choice. In view of future events, it probably would have been better for the good order and discipline of the Army if Matthew Mark Luke’s recruiting sergeant had met the Winston County probate judge before he signed the young man up. Unfortunately, future First Sergeant Matthew M. Luke did not introduce them. As a result, Parson Luke’s son got the best of the bargain.
By the time of Pearl Harbor four years later, Matt Luke had made Staff Sergeant in the Regular Army, a meteoric ascent in peacetime. He had accomplished this by bribing his officers and blackmailing his NCOs. He also ran the post betting pool and provided moonshine to the enlisted men (though he was so slick that the Provosts could never catch him). Considering that Prohibition had ended years before, this was no mean feat. He did it by undercutting everyone else’s prices and going directly to the distiller— who just happened to be his Uncle Curtis who lived up near Natural Bridge. Curtis Stampp (his Momma’s brother) had been a moonshiner all his life, as had his daddy and his daddy’s daddy before him. It was said that the Stampps had planted more terminally surprised “revenooers” in North Alabama than any other family. The Stampp family product was quality ‘shine that never made anybody blind or killed ‘em with just a drink or two, and that was about the most you could expect from any white lightning. It also made Sergeant Matthew Mark Luke a comparatively rich man.
Now like any other important and influential man, Uncle Curtis Stampp had friends. Rich friends. Important friends. Crooked friends. Some of these friends controlled the Alabama Democratic Party, which at the time was the only real party in Alabama, except in Winston County on account of the Civil War, but that’s another story and besides the Stampps had Winston sewed up anyway. Some of those friends also controlled the gambling and bawdy houses that flourished outside army posts all over the state, heck, all over the SOUTH. One of these towns was Phenix City, just across the river from Fort Benning, Georgia. Later on, after the war, some of Curtis Stampp’s friends had the Attorney General-elect of the state of Alabama assassinated because it looked like he was serious about cleaning up Phenix City. They didn’t really have a name for their group back during the war, but Curtis Stampps and his friends later on came to be called the “Dixie Mafia.” Some of their criminal descendants still call many of the shots in Alabama to this day.
After Pearl Harbor, Sergeant Luke realized that he was in on the ground floor of a big opportunity. The Army, his Army, was fixing to be a LOT bigger. More soldiers meant more vice and more money in his pocket. But there was a catch. While Matthew Mark Luke was patriotic enough to wish the Japs and the Krauts were all blown to hell, he wasn’t about to risk his own hide to do it. So a considerable amount of his time was taken up with using his influence (and that of his uncle) to make sure he never left the continental United States. By February, 1945, he had been transferred, and transferred again, each time promoted to greater responsibility, always in supply. His latest assignment had been of his own choosing, and promised to outlast the war. It was convenient in that it was located in his Uncle’s “Area of Operations” as they say in the Army. He may have been in the Army, but Matthew Mark Luke was doubly home.
Being the senior supply NCO at Aliceville offered many opportunities for an unscrupulous entrepreneur. The prisoners all had nothing but time to burn, and the Germans especially were skilled with their hands. They could take a tin can and make a beautiful ashtray out of it. There were woodcarvers galore, and their work (intricately carved gnomes and walking canes were the most popular) brought good money from civilians outside the wire. In return for the POWs’ art works, First Sergeant Luke traded them cigarettes, candy, liquor and on, occasion, women. By February, 1945, he was rolling in dough.
But like most self-made rich men, Matt Luke never had enough money and he was always looking for new opportunities. And, like most successful thieves, he had grown a bit careless. But the boxcar presented a golden opportunity, if he could just figure out how to pull it off. It had dropped into his lap like a ripe peach, and he wasn’t going to let it get away if he could help it.
First, he had to get a look at the goods. On the pretense of making sure that “nothing was missing.” First Sergeant Luke took a stroll over to the railroad depot and unlocked the door. Luke slid open the boxcar’s door and climbed up to the top of the stacked freight. Yup, there were grenades all, right, and lots of cases marked “Ammunition, Ball, .45 Caliber.” Crawling over top of the crates, working his way along the space between the roof of the car and the freight, First Sergeant Luke played his flashlight on the stenciling. “Gee-zus H. Chraaast,” Luke whispered his daddy’s Lord’s name in vain. There were cases of .45 caliber grease guns here to go with the ammo. He’d seen enough. Uncle Curtis would know where to move this merchandise.
Turning himself around in the cramped space, Matthew Mark Luke banged his head on one of the smaller crates on top. He cursed, then shined his GI flashlight on the markings. “Ping pong balls?!?” Hey, he could use those! Luke made his way back to the door opening and shoved the case of ping pong balls over the edge and out the door. The crate tumbled, bouncing twice, and landed about ten feet away from the tracks, upside down. Scampering down the stacked freight, the Master Sergeant jumped out of the car, slid the door back shut and replaced the padlock. Slinging the small crate over his shoulder, First Sergeant Matthew Mark Luke headed back to town, immensely pleased with himself.
Seventy five yards away, hidden in the shade of the rail yard office roof, two men watched Luke carry away the case, although at that distance it was impossible to tell what the contents of the box were.
“You were right to call me, Mr. Peevey,” said the taller of the two,
“Yes, sir,” replied Peevey, “I knowed that sumbitch was up ter no good.”
“Don’t mention a word of this to anyone. Go home and make some notes about what just happened in case you’re asked to testify about it later. Be sure to note the day and time.”
“Yes, sir,” said Peevey. “I sure will, Captain.”
First Sergeant Luke turned right after he left the rail yard, easing on down the alley behind Aliceville’s main street, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible with his burden. Finally he came to the back door of the “rooming house” that everyone in town over the age of 10 knew was a discreet bordello and that almost no one knew was owned by one First Sergeant Matthew Mark Luke.
Dumping the ping pong balls on the floor just inside the door, Matt Luke entered the “boarding house” kitchen and made his way to the front room where the telephone was. There was no one about at this time of the morning. The “boarders” were all still sleeping upstairs, resting from their nightly exertions.
Twenty-five minutes and three phone calls later, First Sergeant Luke left the “boarding house” by the same door he had entered and made his way back to the camp. With Uncle Curtis’ assistance, he was about to steal a boxcar of United States government property. All he had to do now was to arrange with the proper office at the camp to generate the documents and make the official phone calls necessary to send the boxcar on its way. And since that office was run by one First Sergeant Matthew Mark Luke, he didn’t think that would be a problem. Smiling like the cat that ate the canary, the preacher’s son began to hum “In the Mood.”
. . .
Exactly one week later, First Sergeant Luke’s empire came crashing down upon his head. The crate that broke the camel’s back was filled with ping pong balls.
Captain Harrison Fordyce, Provost of the Aliceville Camp, appeared suddenly one morning in the supply office, flanked by no less than four MPs. Fordyce had been investigating Luke’s extracurricular activities for six months and prior to entering the office it had already been a busy morning. MPs under Fordyce’s command had already raided Luke’s whorehouse as well as a separate gambling establishment. Local police had not been contacted about the impending raids because Fordyce knew that most of them were on Luke’s payroll. Indeed, one of Aliceville’s finest had been found snoring next to the bawdyhouse madam. A state police captain was brought in from Montgomery to give the raids in town legal cover, but the operation was entirely Fordyce’s.
Luke had known from the week of Fordyce’s arrival at Aliceville Camp that he might become a problem. His sources told him that Fordyce was a bit of religious prig, and that the Captain neither smoked nor drank, did not apparently chase women and had no sense of humor whatsoever. Luke had approached the Captain from a number of angles offering various temptations but Fordyce had always ignored the hints or turned him down flat. In fact, Fordyce had been sent to Aliceville by the Army’s Criminal Investigative Division specifically to investigate complaints against First Sergeant Luke. This day represented merely another victory in the Captain’s lifelong crusade to rid the Army of vermin like the Winston County preacher’s son.
But the threat of Fordyce was never enough to cause First Sergeant Luke to alter his operations. He was making too much money, having too much fun, and had grown both cocky and sloppy. Stealing the ping pong balls had been the ultimate stupidity. He had wanted them for a third enterprise he planned for Aliceville, a “recreation center” for soldiers with perfectly legal billiard and ping pong tables on the first floor and highly illegal (and profitable) slot machines on the second. He certainly could have purchased a million ping pong balls with just one day’s proceeds of his gambling and prostitution enterprises. But they were there, and he felt untouchable, and so he stole them because he could. Now that crate sat in Captain Fordyce’s office, evidence of Luke’s theft of government property. It was turning out to be a bad morning for First Sergeant Matthew Mark Luke. He was unceremoniously slapped in the camp brig, and the official grilling of his subordinates in the supply office began.
By the next day, Captain Fordyce was ready to question the First Sergeant about his nefarious activities. He had left Luke stewing in the brig all the previous day to improve the disgraced NCO’s willingness to cooperate. Fordyce had found this technique brought results in previous investigations. And he had many questions for Luke.
For example, this business of the ping pong balls was complicated by the fact that all documentation about the rail car– its arrival at the camp, Sergeant Wilkie’s report, even the incorrect bill of lading– was missing from the files. The crate still bore US Army markings it was true, but unless the ping pong balls could be proven to have been government property by some documentary trail, the theft charge was in trouble. Fordyce was just about to have Luke brought over for interrogation when two pieces of news reached him almost simultaneously.
First, the boxcar was missing from the Aliceville rail yard, and Station Master Peevey had no idea where it had gone. Second, First Sergeant Matthew Mark Luke would not be available for interrogation that morning as his body had been found swinging from a bed-sheet in the brig.
Captain Fordyce could not have known that the First Sergeant was a claustrophobe. Ever since his daddy had locked him in a closet for punishment when he was a boy, the preacher’s son had a positive horror of enclosed spaces. After reading his report, the Captain’s superiors did not fault him for the outcome of the investigation. The court martial of the First Sergeant, even given wartime security rules, would have been messy and embarrassing to the Army as well as the town of Aliceville. Far better that Luke had solved their problem in the way he had chosen.
With Luke’s death, the problem just vanished. His little empire disappeared instantly and without a trace. No charges were filed. The prostitutes, gamblers and lesser bootleggers left town, and the clientele they had serviced now had to go further afield for diversion.
The mortal remains of First Sergeant Matthew Mark Luke were transported by rail to the Natural Bridge station on the Southern Railway in Winston County, where the coffin was collected by his family. Two days later, his daddy gave a eulogy for the prodigal son. And if there was regret and remorse for the way he had lived his life, the grief and the tears at his graveside were no less real. In time, the U.S. Army provided an official headstone for the career soldier.
Less than ten miles away as the crow flies, another monument to the life and times of the wayward preacher’s son sat on a deserted siding of an equally deserted old coal mine. His last and biggest scam had been successful.
Not that it would do Matthew Mark Luke any good where he had gone.
(Next: Poor White Boys – The Boxcar and the Duty.)