When Connie Comes Marching Home

Last Tuesday, November 8, was the 80th anniversary of my 23-year-old Army corporal Uncle Connie’s uncelebrated and at first officially unacknowledged death on the opening day of a massive United States-British invasion of northwest Africa code-named Operation Torch.

From “The Fields of Golden Grain”

Connie was the devoutly Catholic draftsman son of a semi-prestigious but down-on- his-luck, alcohol-challenged architect in Aberdeen, South Dakota. He was the older and beloved brother of my then ten-year-old mother Jane, who was known as “Bugs” (because of her bulging eyes as a baby) to her family.

My uncle was also something of a budding wordsmith with a poetic spirit.  On December 19, 1942, responding to the news that Connie had been declared Missing in Action, the Aberdeen Central High School’s Blue and Gold newspaper recalled that Connie had authored “one of the finest columns that has ever been the privilege of the paper to run. He has been honored as the writer of one of “the ten best feature stories submitted to the annual Quill and Scroll International Writing Contest” in 1939. The Blue and Gold, which held down a page in The Aberdeen American-News, printed a selection of passages from the late teenager Connie’s 1939-40 column:

“Catching up on the diary: About a year ago January – a world saddened, war-torn, with human hatred and passion – midnight – the air moist and warm – the sky black – the steady, sobbing out of a January thaw – the earth wept – with thorns so deep.” (Here Connie was likely referring to the German invasion of Poland, the immediate spark to World War II).

“I’ve thrilled at this: Watching a red sun sink beneath a frozen prairie.  The lonely whistle of a departing train on a cold night. Walking home along dusty country road on an Indian Sumer day – to a cozy cottage – twilight across the lake – studying under a kerosene lamp – falling to sleep to the sound of lapping wave – on October moon rising.” (Here Connie was referring Lake Kampeska, in Watertown, where the family kept a cottage I recall from a late 1960s summer)

“Memos of a metropolitan: Moving from a small South Dakota town to the Nebraska metropolis…empty feeling of the small-town lad…homesickness that comes with it…gradual routine of the ‘big town’…consistent ten minute interludes od of a fire or ambulance siren…ever rising groan of the street car…monotonous tone of the paper boy.” (Connie must have spent some time in Omaha, perhaps on a job for his father’s firm).

“Elbowing up to the front line of a massing mob for a glimpse of ‘FDR’ and the First Lady at new Union depot…driving over to Lincoln for a view of the new South Omaha bridge…wondering if ever going back to Dakota prairies where:

The sky grows all ablaze
Toward the end of the day
And there is no smoky haze
To spoil the twilight’s stay
Where the fields of golden grain
Hide the furrow’s steady turn
And thank God for a little rain
When your lips begin to burn

Letters From “This Man’s Army”

My mother had a penchant for throwing stuff out, including a few boxes of my childhood baseball cards that would probably be worth a few thousand dollars today. One thing she held on to that I found in her Chicago apartment after she died in 2007 were two small boxes full of letters from Connie to his family while he trained for his possible European deployment in the giant Army base in Fort Dix, Kentucky and letters from friends and relatives to his parents after he was declared “missing in action.”

In his voluminous correspondence, Connie boasted of his increasing skill in the use and care of rifles, machine guns, and artillery and his promotion to corporal on the basis of his drafting skills. “There’s fifty thousand soldiers training here,” he wrote his parents, “and everywhere you look all you see is barracks…there’s lots of ‘you all’ boys from every state in the Union plus plenty of Negroes and boy are they kept in their place” (November 2, 1941).  (It’s retrospectively disappointing that Connie did not express displeasure at Black soldiers being “kept in their place” in the viciously segregated US armed forces.)

The “handsome,” “popular,” and “well-spoken” (my mother’s wistful recollections) Connie was something like “Bugs’” substitute father. He watched out and cared for his much younger sister in ways that her older and somewhat booze-dissipated parents, nominal Catholics who did not attend mass like their Army son.

Connie expressed concern for “Bugs,” worrying about her happiness after the family was relocated to the Clake Hotel in Hastings, Nebraska while the father found work designing a new army facility. He wrote to Jane directly, telling her to “mind your teachers,” “say your prayers every night,” and attend mass.

Connie worried also about the state of mind of his father, whose business was down and who visited Connie early in his son’s Fort Dix stay. The father and son had Thanksgiving dinner together in Louisville – the last time they’d see each other. “Dad said the office seemed pretty lonesome now,” Connie wrote his aunt Hazel (of whom I have fond Aberdeen memories) later in the fall of 1941.  “I imagine it does with no work and not having me around as usual. Things certainly turned around in a hurry.”  He reported that his father told him that he “envied” the “adventure” of Connie’s deployment in “this man’s army.”

Connie later wrote to his father about the promising future architects would enjoy once “this whole mess is over.”  He rhapsodized about the spread of “Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired styles across the country.”

“Almost Everything Went Wrong from the Start”

By the onset of the fall of 1942, Connie was based in England. Contrary to previous letters in which he doubted that he and his comrades would be fed into the great European war, he was about to be thrown into “this whole mess.” He’d die before he fired a single shot.

Operation Torch was launched with the goal of removing the fascist Axis from the African continent. The fascist forces in northwest Africa were French, under the command of the Vichy regime, which collaborated with Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich after the Nazi occupation of France in May of 1940.

The Soviet Union had for months been pushing the Allies, the United States and Britain, to start a western (European) front against the genocidal and fascist Third Reich, which had launched an epically mass murderous invasion (Operation Barbarossa) of Russia in June of 1941. United States (US) generals wanted a landing in France and were confident it could succeed.  Consistent with the anti-communist British and US ruling imperial classes’ hope that Nazi Germany would soak “Marxist Russia” in as much blood as possible before falling to the Allies, US president Franklin Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill chose instead to attack the Nazi-led Axis in North Africa. (Less than four years later, the virulent anti-communist Churchill would go to Kansas City, Missouri, to help spark the Cold War by denouncing the Soviet “iron curtain” that had “descended across the [European] continent.”)

Operation Torch, the World War 2 Facts website accurately reports, “marked the first time that British and American forces worked together on an invasion plan and would take place from November 8-16, 1942. The operation would result in a major victory for the Allies and would also include the first major airborne assault carried out by the United States during the war.”

Super.  Cold comfort for my uncle and hundreds of other US and British troops on two British ships, the HMS Hartland and the HMS Walney. The opening Allied water assault on Oran was nothing short of a fiasco, reflecting “bad intelligence” claiming that the French forces defending the port were on the side of the Allies and not with the Vichy regime under the French Nazi collaborator Marshal Petain. As US Naval History and Command reports, relying on the prolific US naval historian Samuel Eliot Morrison:

“Almost everything went wrong from the beginning. French searchlights quickly picked up the two ships, and shore batteries opened up…Oran had a number of French navy destroyers and submarines in port, and their crews reacted very quickly and effectively. By the time Walney and Hartland broke through the booms into the narrow harbor after 0300 on 8 November, they were being hammered mercilessly from all sides by French warships. After she unsuccessfully attempted to ram an underway French destroyer, the bridge of Walney was completely shot away as she drifted to the head of the harbor before sinking. At one point, the French destroyer Typhon, still pier-side, poured salvo after salvo of 4.7-inch fire into Hartland from a range of 100 feet. Fires below drove U.S. Army troops topside, where they were slaughtered by point-blank machine-gun fire before Hartland sank. Casualties were very heavy. Of 393 U.S. Army raiders embarked, 189 were killed and 157 wounded. A total of 113 British crewmen were killed and 86 wounded…The survivors were all taken prisoner by the French and held until the Vichy French in Algeria switched sides a few days later.”

“Helpless and Useless”

It was a turkey shoot for the fascists – a sadistic mass slaughter.  I have declassified eyewitness accounts sent to me by the Department of the Army.  One account, dated July 25th, 1948, comes from John C. Dietel, one of the troops on the Hartland – Connie’s ship – to survive:

“On the morning of November 8, 1942, two ships, the Hartland and the Walney, entered the port of Oran, Algeria, by breaking a submarine cable…Once inside the harbor shore batteries and machine guns opened fire on us.  After a few shells hit we were ordered below decks. Soon shells were exploding where we were…Our officers had abandoned ship except those that were killed or wounded.  I managed to get back to deck where I discovered the bridge had been hit and set afire with most of the officers in there dead. There were men jumping off the ship into the water and as they did, they were machine gunned in the water.”

Another US soldier who survived the pathetically one-sided “Battle of the Port of Oran” was Ralph R. Gower, who reported this on July 26, 1948:

“These ships were formerly [U.S.] Coast Guard Cutters that had been traded to Britain [under the Roosevelt administration’s pre-Pearl Harbor Lend Lease program with England].  There were about two hundred soldiers each the night of November 8.  The French allowed us to break the boom at the harbor entrance and enter the harbor with no other resistance than minor machine gun fire. After we had gotten in, and almost to the piece, all the resistance the French were capable of was brought into action against us.  The Americans were below top deck and were, of course, helpless and useless. Shells from the French Cruiser which was in the harbor, and from a submarine were fired into every compartment in the two boats…causing the men to panic and many were killed by machine gun fire as they tried to escape through the hatchways. I personally saw several shot as they were attempting to swim ashore…The Sub as well as the Cruiser after shelling each compartment began firing incendiary shells and they each [ship] went down burning, carrying many men with them…I knew nearly all the men who were members of my company, but as I was one of the last off the boat I didn’t see then except the following: Sgt Fred Barnes had his head blown off and I saw it lying in the helmet before I left.”

In another report, a Hartland survivor reported seeing his lieutenant dead with “both of his legs blown off.”

Quite an “adventure” in “this man’s army.” My mother’s big brother never fired a single shot in “the good war.” On his very first day of combat, he was likely trapped below decks, “helpless and useless” on a sinking ship or perhaps picked off while trying to swim to shore. All thanks to bad intelligence and, more importantly, to the general ruling class understanding – shared by imperialists on both sides of the “good war” – of frontline troops as expendable cannon fodder,

The US War Department changed my mother’s big brother’s status from MIA to KIA in the summer of 1948 as US movie audiences thrilled to Key Largo, a classic John Huston film noir in which Humphrey Bogart starred as a World War II vet who became embroiled in a conflict with mobsters while trying to pay his respects to the family of a dead late war buddy including his buddy’s sultry widow, played by Lauren Bacall.

A Boyhood Memory

Operation Torch was hailed by the knighted British historian Martin Gilbert as “the largest amphibious invasion force thus far in the history of war [as of the fall of 1942]…The invasion of French North Africa,” Gilbert wrote in his massive tome The Second World War: A Complete History, was swiftly successful.  Within seventy-six hours of the first landings, Allied troops were in undisputed control of 1,300 miles of the African coast, from Safi to Algiers” (pp. 375-76)

Cold comfort for Connie’s family and friends, who lacked official notification of his death fate for more than five years (though the news must have been completely unsurprising by then.)

I’ve often wondered what it must have been like for my fifth-grade mother, living in a Nebraska hotel room, far from her friends and classmates in Aberdeen, to learn by War Department telegram that her dashing older brother had disappeared “over there.”

Once when I was a third grader suffering through Mrs. Oppenheimer’s piano lessons in Hyde Park, I happened upon a songbook with the musical score of the old World War One song “When Jonnie Comes Home.”

When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah, hurrah!
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah, hurrah!
The men will cheer, the boys will shout,
The ladies, they will all turn out,
And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

The old church bell will peal with joy, Hurrah, hurrah!
To welcome home our darling boy, Hurrah, hurrah!
The village lads and lassies say,
With roses they will strew the way,
And we’ll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home.

As I plunked my way through this minor-key dirge, I noticed tears in my mother’s eyes.  Connie never came marching home, he just vanished without the slightest hint of fanfare before he got to take aim at a single Axis target.  The ladies never turned out, the men never cheered, the church bells never peeled, and the boys never shouted for my uncle Connie.

Perhaps someday I will drive over to see the Clarke Hotel, now a senior living facility in the “red” (try brown) state of Nebraska.

While generally liberal in orientation, my mother was not especially political.  But she hated war and was an easy convert to the movement against the US War on Vietnam. One my favorite old photos of her shows her costumed up for a national Moratorium Day March against the US War

That’s the best part of this war story. The real time story gets worse, however.  It has to do with what Connie and other US Americans thought – perhaps it’s better to say didn’t know or in some cases didn’t care to know – they were fighting against in what some of us rightly call “the global war against fascism.”

“Those Who Laugh Today Probably Will Not Laugh Much Longer”

The rest of the story that I want to tell about my Uncle Connie’s death gets darker in ways that begin to be suggested by the following passage from the British historian Martin Gilbert’s aforementioned volume. The passage comes directly after Gilbert’s flattering description of Operation Torch as “swiftly successful”:

“[On the evening of November 7, 1942], when Hitler made his annual speech in the Munich beer hall, he focused his attention on Stalingrad [where the Third Reich and the Soviet Red Army were suffering epic mass casualties in the leading battle of World War II – P.S. ], of which he said, ‘That was what I wanted to capture, and do you know, modest as we are – we’ve got it too!’ [false, the Battle of Stalingrad would be the Third Reich’s most decisive defeat – P.S.].  There are only a few more tiny pockets!’ Hitler spoke also about the Jews, and of his 1939 prophecy that the war would lead to their annihilation. ‘Of those who laughed then,’ he said, ‘countless already laugh no longer today; and those who still laugh today will probably not laugh much longer’” (emphasis added).

“From France and Holland, thousands were being deported to Auschwitz that November.  In central Poland, tens of thousands more were being deported to Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka…On November 9, a new name entered the vocabulary of evil: Majdanek, a camp outside the Polish city of Lublin where, on that day, four thousand Lublin Jews were brought, the first of several hundred thousand to be incarcerated and murdered…half the deportees were taken to the gas chambers.” (Gilbert, The Second World War, p. 376)

The Nazi Holocaust – the campaign to literally eliminate the Jewish population of Europe – had been underway for well more than a year by the time of my uncle’s death.  At first, the victims in Nazi-occupied Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states were rounded up by mobile Einstatzkommandos and killed primarily by shooting. Later they were sent in boxcars to fixed concentration camps to be worked and gassed to death.

The Nazi invaders at first delighted in handing the task of extermination to Eastern European pogromists, local anti-Semites who took revenge on “Jewish Bolshevism” in mass public slaughters.  A German photographer reported an all-too common Balkan scene from the Lithuanian town of Kovno on June 25, 1941, four months before my uncle started his short career in the US Army:

“Close to my quarters I noticed a crowd in the forefront of a petrol station surrounded by a wall on three sides.  The way to the road was blocked by a wall of people…In the left corner there was a group of men aged between thirty and fifty.  There must have been forty to fifty of them. They were herded together and kept under guard by some civilians.  The civilians were armed with rifles and wore armbands, as can be seen in the pictures I took. A young Lithuanian man with rolled up sleeves was armed with an iron crowbar.  He dragged out one man at a time from the crowd and struck with the crowbar one or more blows to the back of the head.  Within three-quarters of an hour he had beaten to death the entire group of forty-five to fifty people…After the entire group had been beaten to death, the young man put the crowbar to one side, fetched an accordion and went and stood on the mountain of corpses and played the Lithuanian national anthem. The behavior of the civilians present (women and children) was unbelievable.  After each man had been killed they began to clap and when the national anthem started they joined in…In the front row there were women with small children in their arms who stayed there right until the end of the proceedings.” (Ernest Klee et al.“The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders [Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky & Konecky, 1988], pp. 31-32)

Third Reich soldiers joined the cheering crowds viewing the blood-soaked scenes. Hitler’s SS helped coordinate the terrible events.

By the time Connie was sent to England and then to his death on the HMS Hartland, Hitler’s mad machinery of mass murder had largely taken over and industrialized the genocide. When the Nazi extermination camps were completed, the Jews of all occupied Europe (including France, Holland, Belgium, the low countries and Italy) were shipped to the death sites in trains “efficiently” organized by Adolf Eichmann.

A contemporary politics aside: here is perhaps a good place to recall that Donald Trump’s favorite US paramilitary fascists, the Proud Boys, protested the supposed “theft” of the 2020 presidential election in a December 2020 Washington DC rampage during which some of the group’s thugs wore t-shirts saying “6MWE,” meaning “six million Jews killed by Hitler wasn’t enough.”  Recall also that Trump has openly embraced Q Anon, which is an essentially neo-Nazi tendency that updates the anti-Semitic blood-libel allegations made against Jews by Hitler.  When some of us update Sinclair Lewis for the 21st century by saying “it can happen here,” the “it” in question isn’t just fascism, it’s also genocide, something far from alien to “exceptional” US-American history.

It was all very consistent with Hitler’s racist ravings in his best-selling memoir, Mein Kampf.  This sickening tome, published by a Nazi publishing house in 1925, advanced the main ingredients of Nazism: palingenetic and racist ultra-nationalism, virulent Social Darwinism, rabid antisemitism, the embrace of political and imperial violence, and an aggressive foreign policy dedicated to Lebensraum (living space) in eastern Europe. From 1925 to summer 1945, Hitler’s sick “autobiography” sold over 12 million copies and was translated into more than a dozen languages.

The Holocaust was foretold also in the Nazis’ 1935 Nuremberg Laws, which denied Jews German citizenship and equality under the law and in “the Kristallnacht.” Three years and 364 days before my uncle Connie’s death in the Port of Oran, on November 9th , 1938, the Nazis undertook “a series of pogroms against the Jewish population in Germany and recently incorporated territories. This event,” the United States Holocaust Museum reports, “came to be called Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) because of the shattered glass that littered the streets after the vandalism and destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and homes.”

“Unpleasant Thought for the Day”

Which raises a curious question, the depressing answer to which is partly evident in the two boxes of correspondence I inherited from my mother: what in the name of God and/or history did Uncle Connie and his family and his families’ friends think their young soldiers were fighting against “over there again” across the Atlantic?

Sadly, there’s nothing in the letters between family members and friends that shows the slightest understanding of what the Axis enemy and its demented leader Hitler and his Nazi Third Reich were all about.  The most one can garner from the correspondence is a sense that the new war in Europe is a replay of the previous global war and that the Germans and their dictator wanted to run the world in nasty and autocratic ways. There’s no sense of the difference between the German Kaiser of WWI and the Nazi dictator of WWII. There isn’t the slightest hint of a wisp of a scent of Germany’s nine-year immersion in virulent racist fascism or of how Germany is exterminating millions of Jews (and many others) in accord with Mein Kampf, Hitler’s 1930s political speeches, and Nazi ideology.  There isn’t a word about any of this. The notion that Connie was involved in what leftists have long accurately called “the global war against fascism” – much less a war to stop genocide – is outside the bounds, consistent with the great US historian and journalist William Shirer’s account of willful American ignorance in his mournful memoir of Nazi Germany The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940.

Here’s a depressing indication of how indifferent and ignorant the US populace was regarding the genocidal nature of the German enemy just weeks after Connie went “MIA.” The same December 19, 1942 Aberdeen American News that included quotations from Connie’s high school Blue and Gold column (see Part 1) was loaded with reports of various battles in both the Pacific and European theaters and gas rationing at home.  Down at the very bottom right-hand corner one can read this story:

“UNPLEASANT THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Rabbi Says Nazis Use Jew Corpses for Soap

Washington – (AP) —  The United States has joined other United Nations governments in condemning Germany’s ‘bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination’ of the Jews….In announcing the move, the state department said reports from Europe indicated German authorities ‘are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.’ The announcement described Poland as ‘the principal Nazi slaughter house, where ghettoes are being systematically emptied of all Jews except a few skilled workers valuable to the war industries.’ It added: ‘None of these taken away are ever heard of again. The able-bodied are worked to death in labor camps. The infirm are left to die of exposure and starvation or are deliberately massacred in mass executions….Rabbi Stephen Wise issued a statement charging that the Germans…utilize the corpses in the manufacture of soaps, fats, and other products.”

Yes, you read that correctly: “Unpleasant thought for the Day,” Not “Horrific Reports of Mass Genocide, Consistent with the Maniacal Fascist Dictator Hitler’s Promise to Exterminate the Jews.”

The story appeared far below news reports on gas rations, domestic food shortages, high school sports, and a truck robbery in Chicago. In retrospect, the story belonged at the top of page one. Instead, it went to the bottom almost as an aside on a strange and “unpleasant” rumor best not to be thought about.

US Battle of the Bulge GIs Were “Interested in Two Things: Getting Drunk and Getting Laid”

My old Marxist British history professor CH George enlisted in the US Army as a teenager, fighting his way in 1944 and 1945 from Belgium through the Battle of the Bulge to the opening of the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. Influenced by Marxist and left-anarchist ideas picked up from a leftist tutor in Popular Front France (where his industrialist father did business during the mid-late 1930s), CH enlisted with one goal in mind: to kill fascists and defeat fascism. I asked him if his goals were shared by any other troops with whom he served. “No,” he said, adding that “my fellow soldiers were interested in two things: getting drunk and getting laid.” (CH’s little-known and idiosyncratic WWII memoir, Journey to Dachau: An American Solider’s Odyssey contains no reference to this indifference and/or ignorance, out of perhaps exaggerated respect for his fellow GIs).

Meanwhile, as the bodies piled up, US planners were scheming to emerge from the Second World War as the hegemonic heir to the British Empire and the leader of the so-called Free World. In building the new Pax Americana, which would murder millions in east Asia and the Middle East in coming decades (please see my 2018 essay “The World Will Not Mourn the Decline of US Hegemony”), they would enlist and protect former Nazi operatives as intelligence and military-industrial “assets” in the new Cold War with Hitler’s great enemy: the Soviet Union.

I’ll Keep My DNA

True story: a couple years ago the US Army reached out to me with a DNA kit.  They’d like to see if there’s a forensic match with some remains from the HMS Hartland.  Perhaps Connie was among a few of the corpses who were recovered from the ship and buried outside Oran. If there’s a match, a friendly Army bureaucrat (based in Fort Dix appropriately enough) told me, I could decide to have Connie’s remains buried in Arlington National Cemetery or in another location of my choice.  I could pick his hometown of Aberdeen, South Dakota, where this uncle I never met wrote as a precious teenager of “the Dakota prairies…where the fields of golden grain/hide the furrow’s steady turn/And thank God a little rain/When your lips begin to burn.”

There’d be a military flyover at Connie’s belated funeral.

Some media would turn out to cover the event.  You’ve probably seen stories like that on CNN: “WWII veteran finally returns home.”

I ran it by a lawyer I know. He recommended that I not put my DNA in a federal database.  “Too many false matches.  You could end up being accused of some heinous crime you never committed.”

True but I had a different thought: here we are in Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and his fellow and (easily re-elected) Q’ANazi Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Amerikkka, which is undergoing an ongoing normalization of fascist politics — idiotically described as “working-class” and “populist” by certified morons across the political media (with the open charlatan David Brooks in the lead) — in the United States.  The process is especially pronounced in South Dakota, where a virulent neofascist governor – a potential running mate for the orange fascist reptile Trump (Kristi Noem) or his fellow Florida fascist – sits atop a legislature jammed with Republi-fascists who feel if anything pride about the genocidal destruction of the Sioux nations that once thrived in the Dakota territories.  These revanchist assholes (who have passed a law that essentially forbids honest teaching about the genocide inflicted on the Sioux in South Dakota) and their base talk constantly about “civil war” and I am not a pacifist.  Who knows what kind of “heinous crimes” I might get accused of committing — or actually have to commit — against these post-republican white nationalist Christian fascist MAGAts as “their” America becomes progressively less white in coming years.  I have no intention of helping the state track me down in light of that.

This essay previously appeared in two parts on The Paul Street Report

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).