Tuesday, September 11, 2007

John W. Stallman

Camp Gordon Johnston Reunion

The Greatest Generation - John W. Stallman

By Richard E. Noble

[I have just recently learned that John W. Stallman has passed away. I conducted this interview with Mr. Stallman and I thought it might serve as a fitting remembrance.]

“Richie, you have asked me a lot of questions and I’ve rambled on, but I always want to say that I’m proud that I had the opportunity to serve my country. I enlisted but that doesn’t make me any better than anyone who was drafted. We were all soldiers together. I’m proud of my unit; I’m proud of my uniform; Lord knows I’m proud of it. But it took everyone to win that war. It was a popular war - if there is such a thing as a popular war. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a gun; I could shoot back. I’ve got to say this; any infantryman who goes into combat and he doesn’t understand the idea, that it is - kill or be killed - he’s got two strikes against him. We Americans are basically peace loving people. The guys who serve in most of these things (wars), they weren’t born to kill people. They were trained to do it. If you take any other attitude, you ain’t going to have much of a chance in combat. It is a cruel thing, but …”
As I sat there listening to John W. Stallman, a proud infantryman, originally from New York, who volunteered for the Army at nineteen years of age - now eighty-two - and who trained for the invasion here in Carrabelle, Florida, my mind was a jumble. Everything about this man was striking me to the core - even his accent; he was a damn Yankee, like me. He asked my name, and I said Richard - he immediately began calling me, Richie. Nobody calls me Richie. There were only three other people in my entire life who ever called me Richie. Not even my mother and father called me Richie. My Grandmother and two of her sons - my uncles, Ray and Joe, were the only ones who ever called me Richie.
Both of my uncles served in World War II. My uncle Joe was also an infantryman. He was in the Pacific. He returned from the war with malaria - and was never quite the same as he was before he left - mentally or physically - but that’s another story.
John W. Stallman, my uncle Joe and my uncle Ray - they all had that same look in their eye; that same attitude, and for some strange reason they all called me Richie. Suddenly, there I was listening to Mr. Stallman as I once did as a ten year old looking up into the eyes of sincerity and concern of one of my most beloved and idolized uncles. Mr. Stallman didn’t realize it, but after that “Richie” business he could have told me anything and I would have been on his side and in his defense.
Mr. Stallman was actually old enough to be my father. There aren’t too many men around that fit into that category these days.
I couldn’t help but to think of that “Greatest Generation” notion by Tom Brokaw. Was this guy, John W. Stallman, from a different breed of people? Was there really something different about him and his generation?
My generation was Vietnam, and I’m not going to get into that but - we don’t have that Mr. Stallman look in our eyes - none of us. We are not an “us” either. We are a - you or me; a - we or they; a - this side or that side; we are not an “us”. We all have in our eyes; suspicion, anger, mistrust, hostility, confrontation, bitterness, hurt, fight, regret, guilt, belligerence; we have all sorts of things in our eyes, but we don’t have what I saw in Mr. Stallman’s eyes. It just ain’t there.
Go back to the first paragraph of this article. Look at some of the words and phrases used by Mr. Stallman: enlisted, drafted, proud; kill or be killed; Americans are a peaceful people; soldiers are trained to kill - they aren’t born that way; it took everyone to win that war; the guys; all soldiers together; I was lucky, I had a gun - I could shoot back. I know that Mr. Stallman didn’t realize it, but every word out of his mouth was a subject of books, controversy, discussion, dissent and argumentation. So I asked;
“Do you think that your spirit is different - that Greatest Generation thing - do you think that your values and your attitudes are different or were different when you were growing up?”
“I’ve tried to ponder that question to myself sometimes and I was real worried when they went to Iraq the first time - you know, the first Bush - I thought, boy, I wished I was fit to go with them. I could settle them down with my experience. But they proved to me that they were just as good as soldiers as we were. Everyone serves in their own time and copes with the situation as it is.”
You see? ... it sounds like Mr. Stallman is a part of a team. He belongs to something.
John Chancellor in his memoir divided the people of this country into two groups. Those that felt that this country was a Zoo and those that felt that it was a Jungle. One group he called Democrats and the other he called Republicans. I’ll let you figure out which was which.
I’m kind of a half-breed. I wish that I lived as a wild, independent beast that I am, enjoying my natural habitat, but with the protection, care and concern found in the loving environment of a Zoo - but I don’t. At least I have never felt that I have.
I live in a Jungle. It has been my responsibility to take care of mine and my own, and I have never had anybody volunteering to help. It has always been - pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and every man for himself - as I have viewed it. Maybe that is not true in reality, but that is the way it has always seemed to me. It has always seemed very clear to me; if I don’t have the money to pay for it, I ain’t going to get it - and nobody else cares if I do or I don’t.
Now listen to me. I don’t sound like Mr. Stallman, do I? Are we from two different generations - his, the Greatest; and mine - the not so great? I’d like to be more like Mr. Stallman; but, I’m not.
Mr. Stallman had joined the Army in hopes of becoming a paratrooper. A paratrooper could earn an extra fifty dollars per month. As a paratrooper he could earn 100 dollars a month - the regular guys got 50 dollars a month. But Mr. Stallman got “crashed” out of the paratroopers and next found himself on a train to who knows where.
“So anyway, they loaded us onto a train about three days later. We thought that we were going to Texas ... One of the other guys told me that we weren’t going to Texas, but to this “hell hole” somewhere in Florida. I asked the conductor, but he told me to just go back to my seat. He said that he had told me too much already
So anyway, we went off on a switch and we ended up here in Carrabelle, at Fort Gordon Johnston.
“But I’m proud that I came through here - but it was a hell hole. They tried to make it a hell hole. Bradley (Omar) was our commander - he was our division General. He said that whoever picked this place (Carrabelle) as a training site ought to have been court-martialed. Walter Winchell said that this was the Alcatraz of the Army ... Our floors were sand; you slept on a cot; you stood up to eat; you had your mess kit on a table about fifteen inches wide; cold showers - that is, if you got a shower; they just tried to make life as miserable as they could for you down here. We had forced speed marches - fifteen miles, no break. Of course, no one wanted to fall out. Our platoon sergeant said that it took more guts to stick it out than to quit. We didn’t think about it though, we just did it. You didn’t talk back to no NCO or officer or anything like that, not even a PFC in those days ... They were good sergeants though. They knew what they were doing. I didn’t know what they were doing. I just did what they told me ... You thought that you were physically fit, but you weren’t. They had four different obstacle courses. We did everything. We were training for the invasion ... I was here from January in 1943 until the last of May in ‘43
“We would get onto the landing craft at about four o’clock in the morning. We’d go out here to Dog Island… They’d rendezvous. We’d go round and round in circles. Then, just before daylight, they’d make a run for the beach. You’d get to the beach - maybe a quarter of a mile in-land or so; you’d dig a foxhole. They closed this place down because they had twenty-six men drowned out there…”
“We’re you here when that happened?’
“Yes, I was here at that time. It was my division but a different regiment. There were about 17 thousand men, at strength, in three regiments. A regiment is about 3,500 men. If they asked you if you wanted a pass to Carrabelle, we laughed. There was nothing (in Carrabelle). We could ride up in the truck to Wakulla Springs. I never did. I was always too busy. I needed my rest, or was shining my shoes, or cleaning my rifle. They called the whole “problem” off. They said that thirteen men had drowned, but I have since talked to a coxswain who was out that night. He said that he knew that they had said that it was only thirteen but that he would go to his grave saying that it was twenty-six. He said that he had told one of the other coxswains who was involved in the tragedy that he didn’t have no business being where he was. There was a storm out there. The other coxswain never spoke to him again. The Coxswain who I met felt that it was negligence ... He said that he was told never to get into those kind of waters when there was trouble ... ‘It was rough out there on the other side of Dog Island … We came up the river and we had no problem. We brought all of our troops to shore,’ he told me.
“Now, we were on shore, waiting to board on. When that storm hit, I had never seen it rain that hard in my life. I had seen a lot of hard rains in my day, but I never saw it rain that hard in my life. We just laid on the ground and just took it. Finally at about daylight, they just called the “problem” off. They called all of those things “problems” - a maneuver, they would call it a problem.
“But anyway, I’m glad that I went through this place. They took us out of here on a Pullman train. I told the fella that I was with (on the train) “Popul,” that was his last name, I said; “I never thought that I was going to get out of here alive; but I’ll sure tell you one thing, I’ll never, ever come back to this place - I’ll never come back to this place again.”
“So did you ever get over to Europe?”
“Oh yeah, we went into combat. The 28th fought all through Europe. I got five battle stars. I was wounded twice and I have a combat infantry division badge - that’s the thing that an infantryman is most proud of. This isn’t true what I’m gonna tell ya, but those that were in the infantry - we look at the combat infantryman’s badge, which is a blue crest with a rifle across it, as next to the Congressional Medal of Honor - but it isn’t. The only people who can get the infantryman’s badge are infantrymen, machine-gunmen and mortar-men. Later on, they did create a Combat Medic’s Badge and they deserve it, because if there is anyone who has got guts, it the medics.
“Men were dropping like flies. In Normandy we lost an awful lot of men. We were the first division to enter Germany in strength. The Hearken Forrest that was a terrible, terrible place. We should never have attacked as we did. The German’s had the high ground; we had the low ground. Read “Follow Me and Die” if you can get it. It is out of print, but that book tells about my division.”
Mr. Stallman went on and on. He was eager to talk about his experiences. It wasn’t always that way he told me. But he thought that it was great that people were interested to hear about it today.
There were other people, like myself, there at the World War II Museum in Carrabelle. There were a couple of college girls from FSU; they were doing a thesis. A couple of the Veterans were showing them around the museum and relating to them the personal nature and meaning of many of the artifacts and mementos.
Another gentleman was there with his video camera. He had been there the year before also. He was recording the reunion. He said that his film was going to be used as a part of a teacher’s education program in combination with the local high schools, colleges and universities.
Mr. Stallman thought that this new interest in his war and his times was really a great thing. He had made tapes about his life and times for his own children and grandchildren and he felt that this attempt at preserving this history and tradition was a truly necessary part of the American heritage.
As I left the Camp Gordon Johnston Museum, I felt somewhat ashamed that I had not been there before. This museum has been progressing and growing now since 1995. The museum is presently housed in 2500 square feet of a 1943 former movie theater, most recently the home to the old Gulf State Bank. It is located at 302 Marine Street in downtown Carrabelle. Admission is free. The Museum is open weekdays from 1 P.M. to 4 P.M., and on Saturdays from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. Everyone involved in the project is a volunteer and no one receives any pay.
The Museum artifacts are on display in six different rooms, each room with its own theme. There is a gift shop with books, hats, and other memorabilia. Private and/or educational tours can be arranged. A tour can be arranged by calling (850) 697-8575. This should be a must field trip for the schools in this area, and any history class on whatever level. I met Mrs. Minichiello, the current president and volunteer tour guide, and she is a wealth of anecdotes, and pertinent information. Her personal, tragic story with her own Dad, a World War II veteran, which I think provides a good deal of her spirit and enthusiasm for the project, is a war memento or memorial in itself I’m sure that all of those involved in the project have equally compelling stories.
Don’t be like me; get yourself over there. The people and the atmosphere are more than friendly, and the stories and the information are pertinent, memorable and compelling. I’ve been there twice now and I intend to go back more often. Everything and everyone in there is a story and a part of American history. To have such a museum as this in our tiny community is truly something to boast about. It is a great idea. It could very well grow into an attraction for Franklin County and something for the local people to take pride in. They are adding new materials everyday, and are enthusiastically open to gifts and donations of artifacts and memorabilia from the World War II era. If you have never been over that way, take a trip over.
The Camp Gordon Johnston Reunion which has been taking place now, for the last seven or eight years, may be coming to an end. Unfortunately, all the veterans are getting too old, the trip is difficult for many, and, of course, many are passing on. Mrs. Minicheillo tells me that they are going to try to keep up some sort of yearly celebration, though. A parade, like the one that they had this past weekend would be nice, but ... time (money and volunteer participation) will tell.
Over thirty World War II Vets came to this year’s celebration - realizing that this may be their last chance to meet up with some of their old buddies and tell war stories. They looked to me to be having a great time.
Most everything was volunteered or provided at cost. Many things were free where they could be provided or offered by local business people.
If you haven’t been there to see it, you should. And if you can afford to join up and you haven’t, you should. I can’t think of anything more worthwhile for those with the energy and spirit. As they say today - it’s a good thing.