EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is a letter sent by Luke Brannon to Robert Humphrey. Brannon gave the Checkerboard permission to print his recollections.
I was really surprised and pleased to hear from you the other day. I was gratified to learn that at least someone had read my short essay on Christmas 1944, and your comments were most welcome and happily received.
I hope you found my earlier essay, which you acknowledged that you received, of some interest and useful to you as well as the following accounts of my personal feelings and exploits. I put all this in letter form because I find it easier to relate to my reader as a friend and one who is interested in what I have to say.
Before I begin, let me say to you that I have read every one of your essays published in the Checkerboard and I find it remarkable how you blend all of these different accounts into one cohesive and comprehensive storyline. As I read them my own memory is stirred and more and more incidents are recalled. I also find that, at my age (79), I can barely remember what I had for breakfast but what happened 60 years ago seems much more vivid. I urge you to continue your research and pursue the idea of putting it all in book form.
You asked me how things went on my return from the combat zone back to civil life and home. As I recounted in my earlier essay, I was injured Dec. 28, 1944, and I pick up my story there.
After the medics picked me up and carried me back to the aid station, that I presume was near Elsenborn. I spent at least one night there and the next day was evacuated to a field hospital. I don't know where it was, but it was in a good-sized building that had army cots for beds. I remember that after being admitted and placed on a cot, a nurse came over and without removing any clothing began to bathe my hands and face. As she washed my face she gasped and said, "My God, you are only a child."
She had washed all the soot and grime off and what had looked like a beard before was now just a peach-fuzzy faced kid. By this time I had begun to regain some feeling in my right side and leg and was hopeful that my left side would recover as well. There were no X-ray facilities there and it would be some time later that I would learn that my spine had been fractured.
It was here that I was tagged for evacuation further to the rear and sent then to a tent hospital outside of Liege, Belgium. Buzz-bomb Alley they called it, for there were constant buzz-bombs (V-1 rockets) going right over the hospital apparently aimed at Liege. It seemed that every minute one would come directly over the hospital and we could hear them when the engine shut off and wait for that terrible explosion that was to come. We were always on edge for the possibility of one falling on our area. Luckily none did.
It was while I was here that one of the funniest incidents of my experience took place. There were approximately eight or 10 patients in the tent where I was and one of them was a buck sergeant who was a shell-shock victim and apparently had been given a set of captains' bars by his CO when he was evacuated. He seemed perfectly well to me except that he crouched under a bed every time a buzz-bomb went over.
Well, this guy and a black Pfc. who also was ambulatory, announced they were going to a nearby pub to get some cognac and bring it back to the tent. So they left, with the captains' bars pinned on his collar. In about an hour they came back with arms-full of bottles of schnapps, cognac, and grenadine.
Now, in the middle of our tent was a potbellied stove to keep us warm. You know, the kind that has a door on the front to load in wood and a removable lid on top for heating water, food, whatever.
So, when these two came back with arms-full of alcohol, one big tall guy quickly grabbed a bottle of what turned out to be grenadine (almost pure alcohol) and took a great big swig straight from the bottle. As soon as it hit his tongue he knew he had more than he could swallow and immediately jerked the lid off the stove and spit his mouthful of grenadine into the stove. It was the next thing to an explosion. Flames shot out of the stove, straight up, catching his hair on fire and singeing his eyebrows. They quickly threw a blanket over his head and snuffed out the flames. He suffered only minor burns — not enough to keep him from getting roaring drunk.
The incident however, called attention to our tent and shortly there appeared a team of officers, apparently from Intelligence, that first called the black guy outside and interrogated him. When he came back inside he said to his buddy, the white guy with the captains' bars, "These guys want to talk to you." One of the officers said, "Soldier, you don't call superior officers 'these guys.' Do you understand me?" It turned out these two, while they were procuring alcohol at the pub, had aroused suspicion that the "captain" might have been a German infiltrator and was being investigated for espionage. They must have convinced them otherwise for no further action was taken — at least while I was there.
After a couple of days I was transported to Paris to yet another hospital where the magnitude of war injuries became overwhelming. German POWs were assisting with litter bearing and other menial jobs. This large hospital was literally overflowing with patients.
GIs who were blinded or had missing body parts — hands, arms, legs — hundreds of trenchfoot victims, some whose feet were totally black and bursting open. They couldn't stand for even a bed sheet to touch them and the damned German litter bearers knew it when they would have to lift a litter up over a bed to bring in a new patient, such as myself. They would see how close they could come to those terribly swollen feet and make the poor guy squirm or curse them for getting so close.
I stayed only a short while in Paris and today when people ask me if I saw Paris, I tell them, "Yes, I could see it out the window." My feet never touched the ground.
After numerous X-rays and further evaluation I was put on a train to Cherbourg and then via boat back to England. Only when I arrived at a rehab center near the town of Malmesbury, England, did my treatment begin. Hours of massage, special exercises, whirlpool baths, and all the rest.
Eventually, I regained the use of my legs and could walk again with support. While I have completely recovered on my right side, I still have difficulty with my left leg. It seems the older I get the more it deteriorates. At least I am whole and can lead a fairly normal life.
While here at Malmesbury and taking rehab, I occupied myself by drawing cartoons and one day I was approached by a lieutenant who asked me if I would draw a series of posters to demonstrate hospital regulations against smoking in bed, proper use of latrine facilities, no-weapons policy, etc. I agreed, but before I could finish the project, my name came up on the Z.I. list. Z.I. stood for "Zone of the Interior," meaning USA, and names were posted daily on the bulletin board for those who were going home — back to good old America.
I got the news from a buddy while I was at chow at noon time. He came in and said, "Brannon, I saw your name on the Z.I. list!" I said, "Man, don't try to kid me. I just looked at the list this morning and my name was not on it." It was a common thing to play a cruel joke on a GI to tell him his name was there when it really wasn't. But, after chow I went by and checked again and sure enough, it was there. Happy day!
On the designated day I was packed and ready to go early. All I owned I had acquired since arriving in England. An issue of clothing, shaving equipment, and some souvenirs. One thing I really treasured was a German Luger that I held as security for a loan to a GI who always thought his luck would change at gambling — it never did. I wrapped it in my winter underwear and put it down in the middle of my duffel bag with clothes on top and all around it. Near the top I put two cartons of Chesterfield cigarettes. I figured the thieves would take the cigarettes and leave the rest. I was wrong — they took the cigarettes and the Luger. He's probably bragging about how he took it off a dead German. The bastard.
Anyway, we were taken to Bristol where we boarded a hospital ship and sailed for home. I don't remember the exact date, but I do remember that while on the way back we learned of President Roosevelt's death. The trip home was much faster than the trip going over and whether it was because the ship was larger and the accommodations more pleasant, there was no seasickness.
What a beautiful sight as we sailed into New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty and to be saluted by other boats with streams of water shooting into the air. Maybe people really do care about us after all. We would learn how much they cared later on.
Our first destination was Camp Shanks NY. The food on the hospital ship was good compared to what we were used to, but the menu at Camp Shanks was unbelievable. We really received royal treatment. Steak, chicken, ham, turkey, fresh vegetables, candied yams, mashed potatoes, and fruit of all kinds with an array of desserts that was fantastic. And you could eat as much as you could hold. It was like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and your birthday party all rolled into one. It seemed that somehow they were trying to make up for all the deprivation we had suffered through; but no matter what they did, the memories of those bitter days endured.
We were issued fresh uniforms and given passes to go into New York City; not overnight, but back on the base by 11 p.m. Now remember, I am still just a kid — 19 years old and while hardened to the realities of war, I was still very naïve about worldly things, including women.
That having been said, the first person I encountered on the streets of New York was a prostitute. She walked up beside me as I strolled along and said to me, "I've got a room where we can have some fun. How about it?" I was startled to be approached this way and my immediate response was, "No thanks."
At that time I had never "known" a woman and while I had suffered the fears of a German assault I was almost equally frightened by this personal attack. She added, "I see you are wearing a combat infantryman's badge." Come on, it won't cost you anything." I said, "Thanks, but no thanks." You see, I had been taught that sex was only for married people and I still maintained my virginity. Hard to believe, I know, but it's the truth. Morality was far different from the way things are today. The war years changed many things.
Everywhere I went in New York the people were extremely nice. Whatever I tried to buy — a drink in a bar or a sandwich, whatever it was, somebody wanted to pay for it. It made you believe that maybe people really did appreciate some of the sacrifices we made.
I was at Camp Shanks for only a few days and as soon as I learned where I was going next, I called home to let them know I was back in the USA and I was being moved to a convalescent hospital at a place called Swannanoa NC, about 10 miles outside of Asheville and 150 miles from home.
No one at home really knew the full extent of my injuries and they were full of questions and concerns. I promised to get a pass home as soon as I could upon arriving in Swannanoa. Home was in Columbia SC, and it still seemed a world away. But for me, a pass for home was not an option — physical therapy and rehab were scheduled every day and only the possibility of an overnight pass to Asheville could be hoped for. It was now the latter part of May 1945, and while I was ambulatory I was confined to a 25-mile radius of the hospital.
At Swannanoa I met a guy, a fellow patient, named Randy (that's all I know) from Mebane NC. He was a big six-foot two-inch 200-pound raw-boned country boy. For some reason he took a liking to me — a 5-10, 150-pound city kid, and we began to buddy-up together.
At our first opportunity we got an overnight pass into Asheville, caught a bus and went to town. It seemed so strange away from the Army and all things that had become so familiar over the past year. We wandered through the streets feeling so disconnected and alien to everything. It was Saturday and we didn't know where to go or what to do. It was getting late, about 7 p.m., and we started looking for a place to eat. Eventually we happened onto a diner of sorts that the entrance to was about five or six steps below the sidewalk and inside was a lunch counter across the back with about eight stools and to the left there were four or five booths against the wall.
When we entered there was no one, no other customers, in the place; just the owner-manager standing behind the counter. Before we sat down, Randy said, "We'd like to sit in a booth, OK?"
The owner said, "No, it's late. The booths are closed."
OK, no problem. We sat at the counter and ordered our food. We had just begun eating when the door flies open and 15 or 16 guys in baseball uniforms come charging in and go straight to the booths and sit down.
No problem for me, but Randy looked like a boiler about ready to explode. He stood up and poked his finger at the owner and says, "I thought you told me those booths were closed!"
The owner replied, "They were closed to you. They were reserved for these fellows, our local baseball team." Randy's response was anything but conciliatory.
"You mean to tell me that we soldiers that fought to save your sorry ass can't even have a booth, but these 4F sons of bitches can?" Everybody was now on their feet and looking very aggressive. I told Randy that if he wanted to fight we would, but the odds were not in our favor, at least 15-2, and that in this case discretion would be the better part of valor. He reluctantly agreed, so we left our meal unfinished and unpaid for. I suggested we go somewhere else and have a beer and relax a little.
We found another café that was open, with booths all down the left side and the kitchen on the right. As we entered, in the second booth were two sailors and two girls having a beer and laughing. We walked on by to the fourth booth, sat down, and ordered a beer.
A little later one of the girls who was going to the ladies room in the back, came by and playfully knocked Randy's cap off, looked back, and smiled at him. Nothing was said. When she returned, Randy reached out and grabbed her arm, stopped her, and said, "Why don't you girls get rid of those sailors and go with us?"
She said, "Maybe," and walked on to her booth. We ordered another beer and shortly the girl reappeared and said, "OK, those sailors are about drunk anyway. We're gonna call a cab and take them back to their unit. You guys can come along, too."
As soon as she walked away I told Randy, "This could be real trouble. I don't want any part of it."
Well, apparently Randy's frustration level was at a very high peak for he looked at me across the table with his teeth clenched and said, "If you screw this up you won't have to worry about those sailors whipping your ass. I'm gonna beat the crap out of you myself."
I was convinced, and when the cab came, all of us — the two sailors, the two girls, and us two GIs crowded into the back seat and dropped the sailors off at their unit. Without going into more detail, that was the night I was "forced" to lose my virginity. While the experience was very satisfying, what followed was very unpleasant — the visit to the pro-station. It was enough to keep me celibate until marriage.
Several weeks later I was eligible for another overnight pass to Asheville. This time I called home and arranged with Mom and Pop to meet me in Charlotte at my aunt Mary's house for I had not seen any of my family since returning from ETO. Aunt Mary (my mother's sister) and Uncle Roy had a large family and their youngest daughter, Margaret, was my age and very pretty.
Actually I had carried a picture of her all through the war, because I had no girlfriend at the time and I showed her picture when asked. Well, arrangements were made for Mom and Pop to drive up from Columbia, about 100 miles to Charlotte, and I would duck the MPs in Asheville and catch a bus to Charlotte where they all would meet me at the bus station when I arrived Saturday night.
Everything went well getting on the bus and coming into Charlotte. However, as I was preparing to leave the bus, I looked out and saw two MPs standing on either side of the door checking passes of the other GIs getting off. I just knew I was going to get caught, for my pass only allowed me to go to Asheville.
As I stepped from the bus I could see the happy faces of my mom, pop, aunt Mary, uncle Roy, and Margaret and before the MPs could even ask for my pass, Margaret charged through and grabbed me around the neck and pulled me past them and I was home free. The MPs just grinned as I greeted everyone in turn.
I can still feel my mother's hands running up and down my spine as she hugged me. She was checking to see what damage the artillery burst had done to her son. I can't imagine the anxiety she must have felt all the while I was in harm's way and then hearing of my injuries. She died on her birthday in April 1962, a victim of colon cancer, but the memory of her touch is still very vivid. She was only 61 years old.
Our visit was short, just overnight, for I had to return to the hospital in Swannanoa on Sunday. So many questions to be asked and answered on both sides and yet there was a strangeness that I find difficult to define. Had I just grown up in that year and a half or had my experiences changed me in some way that I can't explain? Time would tell.
My therapy would continue until sometime around the first of August 1945. I was sent to Camp Butner NC, for processing and discharge from the service.
While I was at Camp Butner only a couple of weeks, there was time to meet some new friends and some old enemies as well. It seemed that all of the kitchen helpers and cleanup crew were German POWs, and I learned here that my hatred for the Krauts was deep and would take a long time to get over, if ever.
One day, while waiting for our processing to be complete, some of GIs were playing a pickup game of softball out behind the barracks and adjacent to the mess hall. Several of the German POWs came out of the kitchen and squatted down by the wall to watch. During the game a foul ball rolled over to where the POWs were and one of them, whose face I still see, picked up the ball and, with a devilish grin on his face, threw it at me as hard as he could. It made me so angry I grabbed a bat and went charging after him. He ran quickly back into the kitchen with me right after him, where I was grabbed by some other GIs who settled me down. He's lucky I never saw him again after that.
I met a guy here at Camp Butner whose name I'll probably never forget. His name was Cpl. A.P. Wood. I called him Armor Piercing Wood because of his initials. He approached me one day and asked, "Brannon, I've got a pass to go home this weekend and I don't have any money. Could you loan me $20 and I'll pay you back when I return?"
Sure, why not? After all, he's an Army buddy, right? Well, needless to say, he didn't have a pass, he had a discharge and was gone for good with my $20. He was from Lumberton NC, and I have thought many times about stopping there one day to see if he's still around.
Then the magic day arrived — Aug. 30, 1945. I was discharged from service, signed the payroll sheet for the last time, collected all the back pay that was due me, and given a transportation slip to catch a bus back home.
I felt strange at first, disconnected sort of. No one to make you get up, no schedule to follow, no special time to eat, no regimentation of any kind. And, while I had looked forward to being out of the Army, now that I was out I felt out of place and lonely. The friends that I had before going into service for the most part, were not around anymore. Those my age or older were either still in service, killed or wounded in action, or married and gone.
The only guys still around were those one or two years younger than I and had not been called into service. One of them, Al Hendrix, had just finished high school in June 1945, and was preparing to go off to Newberry College, a Lutheran school just 45 miles from home. It was Labor Day Saturday, and we had a "going away" party, just he and I and another friend of his who was older and already enrolled at USC. So we bought a couple bottles of wine and spent the evening talking and generally having a good time.
Some time before we called it a night, Al said to me, "Why don't you ride up to Newberry with me in the morning?" All I have to do is check in with the registrar and get my room assignment, then we can just goof around all day. You don't have anything else to do."
He was right, not only did I not have anything to do, I didn't know where my life was going. So I agreed and to make a long story a little shorter, when we checked in at the registrar, he looked at me and said, "Why don't you enroll, too?"
Now, no one in my family had a college education. There had never been enough money to even consider the possibility. In my family, a high school education was considered quite an accomplishment and in those prewar days it was enough. But, now there was this thing called the GI Bill and the registrar knew all about it and how to go about getting it done and, within five days I was a student at Newberry College.
Had I not made that quick decision to go to college, I don't know what I would have done or where I would be today. The job I had previous to service with S.C. National Bank was not available. The man I had replaced earlier had returned from service and had priority and there was no place for me there.
This, of course, added to my feelings of uselessness and frustration. As it turned out, college was a good alternative. It provided the structure I needed to live a more ordered life and gave purpose to my existence. Living in the dormitory was not too different from barracks life — noisy, rowdy, drinking, bitching, and sometimes fighting. So this felt more like home than home did.
In a way it was sad that I felt this way but, although I loved my mother and father deeply, I couldn't seem to relate to them anymore. Perhaps in retrospect, it was because I had left home as a boy and returned as a man. There is no question in my mind that being in service at that time in my life had a transforming effect on me as a person. The innocence of youth had disappeared and the influence of barracks language had corrupted me. I remember well the one time my mother slapped me was when I used barracks foul language in her presence. I didn't do it intentionally, but it had become so commonplace, I did it without thinking.
She brought me to my senses, as she should have, and I never made that mistake again — in her presence, that is. Even now, in times of frustration or anger, my language deteriorates and I slip back to the old ways again.
Going to college aided in many ways to help me meld back into civil life. Less than a year after entering college, I had met and married a coed who lived in town. We moved into a garage apartment behind her parents' house and managed to exist and, 17 months later, have our first child — a boy, all on $90 a month. Rather than take summers off and lose my $90 subsistence for three months I elected to attend classes year round. As a result, I was able to complete a four-year program in three years and in August 1948, I had earned a BS degree in commerce. I still had not reached my 23rd birthday.
I am sure that having that degree opened the necessary doors that have allowed me to have three successful careers. For 20 years as a credit and sales promotion manager, three years as a station manager for a local black program radio station, and finally, more than 30 years as a real estate broker, eventually owning my own company with a partner until retirement in 1991.
I currently am enjoying life watching my family grow from three children, five grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren and playing golf as often as possible. In this South Carolina climate you can play about 350 days a year. Not bad, eh?
R.H. Luke Brannon
500 Garden Arbor Lane
Lexington SC 29072