Perry Mann: A long-ago September, a war-time march and a bath on Corsica
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After two weeks at sea, near 2 a.m. on a clear night in September 1944, I stood on the bow of a troopship in convoy in the Atlantic approaching the Strait of Gibraltar and watched for lights on the European and African coasts. Just as anticipated, dim, flickering lights appeared at the horizon on the port and starboard of the ship with the Strait dead ahead.
The lights were little more than lightning bug flashes, but they were exciting and comforting after days in sardine condition in hostile seas. I went below deck, way below, found my bunk -- a bottom one in a tier of four --lay down and wondered where I would land in the Old World and what fate had in store for me there.
A few days later, after passing through the Pillars of Hercules, we espied the Isles of Malta and Sicily; and on a brilliant morning at sunrise, we entered the harbor of Naples, Italy, a beautiful vista in spite of the wreckage of war strewn about the port and the hulks of ships capsized and half sunk in the bay.
Although, I had been roused at 5 a.m. to prepare for debarking and although the ship had docked in the early morning, I along with hundreds of other soldiers did not walk the gangplank to dockside until 5 in the evening.
Duffel bags shouldered, we marched in ranks through Naples, a war-torn and poverty-ridden city, swarming with ragged urchins scavenging and begging, some with stumps where young limbs had been before the bombers came. One girl of about 9 ran playfully among the ranks and picked pockets of the unwary troops; but a savvy sergeant caught her and shook her, causing three billfolds to drop from underneath her dress.
We arrived at a bombed railroad station, from which Mussolini's trains had departed on time and boarded one of the few serviceable trains left. After a long wait, we chugged out, passing in the yards hundreds of bombed freight and passenger cars before reaching the countryside and headed to where we knew not.
After hours of stop and go, in the dead of night in alien land, we un-boarded, fell into ranks, sort of, and marched and stumbled along dirt roads in the Italian countryside until at dawn we reach a staging area near Caserta where we were assigned tents and bunk, into which we collapsed.
After a few weeks in camp at Caserta, a city northeast of Naples, where in peacetime the king resided in his mansion, I departed by plane for Corsica, an island famous for little else but as the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte.
I landed at an airport near Bastia, a city in the northeast of Corsica, and eventually arrived at a camp consisting of tents on a hillside outside the city, where I took up my duties as a radio maintenance specialist in the Army Airways Communication System.
Corsica is an island 110 miles long and 60 wide with a stony and steep topography, some mountains reaching 9,000 feet. With the exception of the swamps and lagoons on the east coast, the country is mostly up and down, mountains and narrow valleys. The climate is Mediterranean, the kind that has lured most of New England and Oklahoma to Southern California, days of blue and gold wrapped in 70 degrees Monday through Sunday nine months of the year; but with occasional ferocious storms in the fall.
I remember such a storm that broke soon after I arrived. Clouds formed and in their trying to pass over a precipitous and lofty mountain, the result was an avalanche of water, a frightening downpour, depositing ten inches or so of water with such suddenness that everywhere became a river. The rivers and creeks became mad monsters of roiling rain and debris. Our camp was pitched at the base of the mountain. I put my belonging on my bunk, sat on it, and watched the river run through my tent.
The aftermath was a disaster piled upon disaster: War had bombed and shelled the country to chaos; now the cloudburst had added its destruction to roads, bridges, houses, and gardens. I saw a trailer with a B-47 fuselage attached to it lying along a creek bed that an hour before had been a raging river. The tractor that had pulled the trailer had been washed to sea. I watched peasants, men and women, gleaning carrots from the remnants of gardens that were a mile from where they had grown.
But I lived milder, more pleasantly memorable experiences on Corsica. Bathing is a perennial problem for soldiers in the field, and so it was for me until I discovered a reservoir.
At the head of a narrow, lovely valley in which citrus orchards were planted, was a reservoir, a large rectangular cement structure designed to collect mountain stream water and release it during the dry season to irrigate the citrus trees down the valley. The reservoir became my bathtub.
The reservoir was partitioned with a wall, the top of which ran just below water level, making two pools of cool, clear, clean trout-stream water. I would dive from the partition into one of the pools and splash about under the golden warmth of the Mediterranean sun, climb onto the partition, soap up and splash about and rinse in the other pool. No Roman Emperor ever had it so good at bath time.
It was harvest time in Corsica, where the peasants grew an abundance of grapes for wine and figs, peaches, and tangerines. Near the farmhouse commandeered to house the Army Airways Communications System's transmitters were large vineyards and fig and peach trees. Instead of walking a mile or so to the field mess hall, I would go to the transmitter station and breakfast on a variety of fruit, with a ration biscuit or two, a breakfast fit for Emperor Napoleon on the Sunday morn whether he was in Paris or Elba.
Near our station was an improvised graveyard of 10 or 15 wooden crosses solidly made and artistically engraved designating the last resting places of German soldiers who had been left behind when the Wehrmacht retreated. I read one day the inscriptions, which gave names, dates of birth and death and the hometowns of the dead. All died before having lived 20 years. They died in a land remote from that of their birth.
That night in my tent, with knees as a desk, I wrote to my mother and I told her about the graves and how thankful I was that I was not there. I remembered some lines from "The Man He Killed," by Thomas Hardy, the great English novelist and poet, and I mentioned those lines to her. How true they seemed to be:
Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin.
But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place... .
Mann is a lawyer, gardener and World War II veteran who lives in Hinton.