Military discipline and appreciation for history bored my peers yet intrigued me. If I had had to learn the sanitized version from a book, perhaps it would have bored me as well. As luck would have it, I learned the good, the bad and the ugly from ones who experienced it firsthand.
My grandfather and his friend swapped stories about World War II in graphic detail. Not just the bravado of the battle, they spoke of the suffering, sacrifice and pain of true war. Their tales were of native peoples and foreign soldiers, danger and fear, but most of all the desperation of war.
Mechanically savvy, my grandfather was assigned to an aircraft division whose sole assignment was to fly "the hump" into India. The payload was simple: fuel. The airplanes were full as they flew over the mountains into a small airfield into what would later be Bhurma.
The fuel planes began as a fleet of six. Twenty four hours between flights kept the troops in fuel. Each plane had a canvas on which they had sewn appliques of camels. One camel gratefully applied for every trip over the hump, flights filled with prayers of pleading and gratitude for safety.
The missions were dangerous. The fuel they carried made the plane into a flying missile. Sparks from the air to ground gunner could ignite the plane. Ground to air fire produced an enormous fireball which destroyed all on the ground beneath it and the forest surrounding the crash sites. One plane landed near the center of a small village, killing everyone on the ground as well as the crew.
In the barracks that night, they discussed the letters they would pen to the wives of their brothers-in-arms as they packed the belongings of their fallen compatriots. They packed other things as well. Cheaply purchased whiskey, clothes, jewelry and shoes found their way into the duffle bags. The sale of these smuggled items had provided extra money to send home each month.
When his tour was finished, the canvas was covered with sixty-four camels. He, the pilots, the gunners and the two corporals were gaunt, but smiling, as they knelt before the canvas for once last picture before they flew home. They had a lot of reasons to be proud. They were the only surviving crew.
One by one, the five other planes had been shot from the sky. Some were full. Others were returning empty. Either way, there were no survivors. Of the seventy-two men who flew to India only twelve would return to the United States without a flag-draped coffin.
My grandfather and his friend would laugh at the antics they had pulled to amuse themselves in the absence of their friends and families. Fondness for their fellow soldiers was the tenor in their voices. Then, a haze would come over their eyes as heavy silence hung between their stories. It was the combination of bravery, sorrow, survivor's guilt and an emptiness that a world war won would never fill.