GI Joe (or Jake) with a capital 'J'
By BILL MEYER
His name wasn't Joe, but for purposes of this column will be changed to "Jake" in order to protect his identity. You may recognize Jake as similar to other GIs who served in the 99th during the winter of 1944-45.
Jake was a Pennsylvania Dutchman born in Lancaster County and raised as an orphan at the Hershey school. He was a strong, healthy, and happy guy with deep brown eyes and a constant grin.
Jake would fight for a friend and had no enemies. He was loyal, but cunning. He was the kind of soldier who did his duty but took no crap.
Soon after landing in France we joined a huge convoy headed for Belgium. We bivouacked in an apple orchard of northern Normandy.
A superior officer approached Jake and said "Private, dig me a foxhole." Jake looked back without a grin and said, "Dig your own f- - -ing foxhole." From that moment every man in the outfit knew we were in combat.
Back at Camp Maxey when Jake didn't approve of some duty assignments, he went to the captain's office, sat on the edge of his desk, and suggested, "It's time we had a little father/son conversation." The captain was amused and let it go. The first sergeant, a big hulk of a man with granite jaw and personality to boot, wasn't as amused. Jake cleaned the kitchen grease traps that day.
Jake was married but never let that bother him around native ladies. While at Aubel, before going on line, Jake got acquainted with several.
After the German army (it seemed like all of it) hit us in the Bulge, Jake did his duty and was earning his pay, day after day. Eventually, the Army felt it was time for men to have some R&R in Verviers. Jake and I were among those sent to the rear to get a hot bath, change of clothing, hot meal, and a night of sleep on an Army cot.
Jake and I visited a bar in downtown Verviers to enjoy a few beers. Jake quickly swiped the bartender's bottle opener on the sly. Each time the bartender opened a beer, Jake would produce the opener and insist that the barkeep have one too. After a few beers we started to leave (with our rifles, of course; a soldier never went anywhere without his rifle). As soon as we started for the door the excited Belgian quoted the price of the brews. Jake replied, "Nay, Nay," and indicated that the bartender supplied the beer, Jake provided the opener, and we had the rifles. He said it was an even-Steven deal and the bartender agreed.
That night Jake took me to a home where he had noticed two maiden ladies earlier in the day. We decided to visit. When we got there, we noticed a bicycle leaning against the front of their home. We knew they didn't have a bike. But we knocked and were invited inside the apartment. The Belgian bicyclist was irritated. He yawned, stretched, and otherwise indicated that we should leave. Jake went to the girls' shelf radio and turned to Armed Forces Network where Kate Smith was playing. Jake loved her, especially when she sang "God Bless America." It brought tears to his eyes. The Belgian stood up and walked to the radio, turning it to a local station as he yawned. Jake tuned it back to Kate Smith, let a .30 cal. round fly into his chamber and the bicyclist rode away. We left too. The evening was over.
We had only the one day and night, but made the most of it. The next morning they loaded all of us on GMC 6x6 trucks and headed east. My GI underwear, which I'd worn for many weeks without washing, could be seen running down the road behind the truck trying to catch up.
It was one of the best vacations possible, but so brief. As the driver topped a hill east of Verviers he shifted into fifth gear, the engine made a fluttering snort, and the Jimmy lurched forward. Through the rear flap we saw a pole planted in a deep snowdrift with Old Glory waving in the breeze.
Suddenly, we knew why we were there.
And we knew where we were going.
The vacation was over and reality had sunk in.
A few months later the war in Europe was over and Jake and I were among those headed for home and Japan, in that order.
We were sent to a Cigarette Camp near LeHarve to await transportation. They offered passes to Paris. Jake went but I didn't. A kid from Kansas would be out of place in such a city.
When Jake returned and we were aboard ship in the Atlantic a short-arm inspection revealed that Jake had acquired a souvenir from Paris. He was furious. It meant he had to stay in Camp Butner General Hospital until it was safe for him to go home. I only saw him one more time. He returned from leave and the medics discovered he'd picked up a similar disease at home. Again, he was furious and divorced his wife. He couldn't believe she'd do that to him. I tried to explain, but Jake wouldn't listen.
I never saw him again. After the bomb, Uncle Sam no longer needed us and sent me back to Kansas, while Jake was being treated in North Carolina.
Though I never saw him again, I heard from Jake often. He drove a milk tanker truck into New York City from Lancaster County. Along the way, when Jake noticed an unattended telephone he'd give his ol' buddy a call. That went on for months until Bell gave me a ring to ask who'd been calling me, wondering if his name was Jake.
My answer, of course, was, "I never heard of the guy."