It’s Not Just Stuff

The image above is from one of dad’s personal notebooks.  It was what he expected of his men, and at least for a few years, his children.  Growing up in my parent’s house in the 60’s and 70’s meant you were always surrounded by various artifacts and memories of their military service. My mother served as a Women’s Army Corp (WAC) nurse from 1954-1956.  My father served for over twenty years and three wars, from 1943 WWII to the beginning of the build-up of the Vietnam War in 1966. This circumstance was pretty much taken for granted by us kids…didn’t everyone’s parents serve in the military?  It had simply been the way things were since the day I was born.

WWII style footlocker. Dad had 2 of these stuffed with old Army stuff.

For the older kids at least, it was part of our very being…watching dad go off to work every morning in uniform, constantly moving to a new place to live, in different states, even different countries, seemed normal.  It did not feel unusual to follow dad around when he was training his troops, attend various military events, and finally to watch Walter Cronkite at dinner every single night to see if you might catch a glimpse of your father on the TV, even if it was just to look for his name on the list of casualties that scrolled by at the end of the newscast.

Walter Cronkite telling a story in Vietnam

Mom would let us pull the TV cart over to the dinner table so we could eat while watching…a distinct change from when dad came home for dinner most of the time and the TV was turned off.  We wanted to see him so bad, some kind of proof that he was OK, that we were positive we saw him a time or two in the news footage, especially if there were helicopters.

News team in Vietnam

We had seen them flying over our house every day when we lived at Fort Benning and connected them directly to dad as that is where we last saw him before he went to Vietnam with the 1st Air Cav Division.

1st Cav news photo, 1965 when dad was training his men at Ft Benning. Doing this was scarier to me than rappelling out. Note the photo credit, Joe Galloway, the guy that wrote “We were Soldiers Once” that became the Mel Gibson movie.

Connecting the dots to my mother being a soldier took a bit more imagination.  Her service was over several years before I was even born.  Serving three years, there were far fewer bits and bobs for her, and more hidden away. While dad was a world champion packrat of, well, everything, she was not a fan of anything “old”. She used to explain that having lived a good deal of the time with her grandmother, everything around her when she was growing up all was old.

She liked “new” and was determined to purge, or at least hide, the “old” stuff. This trait must skip back and forth every other generation, as I dearly love almost anything “old” with the implicit stories and history attached to any old items.  The irony is that many of her then “new” belongings have now become old, cherished things.  But hide it away she did, in old boxes, trunks and closets.

“Curiosity killed the cat” has been uttered by poets, playwrights and prognosticators through the generations…but cats have nothing on a Profitt child.  Like a cat, the more trouble taken to hide something, the more effort we expended trying to get into it, and also like a cat, we may have lost a few lives, or at least a few layers of skin off our behinds, when we were discovered having found and messed around with them.

In the 60’s I remember jimmying the locks on an old green suitcase with stickers pasted on it from all over the place. This suitcase cost more today on Etsy as a “Vintage Samsonite” than a full set cost brand new in the 50’s.

This is the same color and style of Samsonite mom had her stuff in. Her stickers were different of course.

Overpowered by the smell of mothballs, digging inside I found some knick-knacks and personal effects along with some olive drab woolen clothing…skirt, jacket, blouse, light-brown stockings, a cap and some shoes and a pair of old brown, over the ankle boots tied together. Well now. My mother wore combat boots.

WAC service boots

The classic curse “Ah, your mama wears combat boots” from Bugs Bunny and the Little Rascal’s was no longer as funny as it used to be.  Now it had a whole new meaning, and rather than used for belittling, it became something to be proud of.  From then on if someone tossed that phrase at me on the playground, the retort would become, “that’s right, she did wear combat boots, what did your mom do”?

Mom In Army Garb.jpg

Now, I knew my mother had been a WAC nurse, there were several photos around the house and I had been patched-up with untold butterfly bandages, but holding the physical proof of her service in my hands was somehow more real.

Mom WAC Portrait
Basic Training photo to her father Carl.

Looking at the patches on the sleeve, I quickly identified the uniform to be the one in the classic set of photographs of her and dad from when they met at the Presidio of San Francisco. That feeling of confirmation and validation of knowledge that she “wasn’t always just a mom” was worth every layer of skin I lost on that venture.  The stories were true!

Mom-Colored-Oil_1.jpg

Of course, dad had trunks and footlockers with decades of stuff everywhere. He didn’t have just one uniform, he had dozens of them.  Fatigues, Class B khakis, Class A dress uniforms, cold weather gear, jungle gear, he had it all… field jackets, field caps, dress caps, garrison caps, belts, socks, skivvies, field pants, wool pants and shirts. I wore it for Halloween for years and it never got old. I wore it to school and camping and playing Army around the neighborhood.

It didn’t stop with clothing items everyone gets to keep, he had stuff you typically had to turn in (SFC Packrat at your service). There were steel helmets, helmet liners, web gear with ammo pouches and canteens, compasses, entrenching tools, ponchos, snap links and climbing rope, wet weather gear, camouflage stick, shelter halves, pole and pegs for a tent, cots, Mickey Mouse Boots for extreme cold, ammo cans, dud rockets and rifle training grenades, brass from cannons.

When we deep cleaned the house after he passed away we found a live, 40 year old CS grenade (extra strong tear gas). If that thing had rusted out or gone off it would have cleared the entire neighborhood.

m7a2
Tear Gas type Grenade

He had bookshelves of Army training manuals for everything from building a field expedient latrine to Ranger training, mountain training and setting field expedient booby-traps.   I had used the gear and read all the books many times before I joined the Army so I had a pretty good leg up on the other guys. Hell, I could have showed some of the instructors how to use the stuff.

One of the more unique items was a full crate of expended LAW rockets (Light Antitank Weapon)…they can only be fired once and then disposed of.  I knew how to deploy and target an enemy vehicle by the time I was seven.  We would take these very real rocket launchers out into the neighborhood and play army with them, fully outfitted in actual combat gear.

M72 LAW Rocket, closed for carrying and open for firing.

My brothers and I would be fully outfitted with real gear, camo’d faces, complete with antitank weapons…matched up against the neighborhood kids with a stick for a weapon. Can you imagine if someone’s kids were found running around like this today? SWAT would probably take out the squad of enemy midgets and ask questions later.

Along with all the militaria (an eBay word), much of which I still have, there were also dad’s war souvenirs. They held a special reverence as they had been brought back from the battlefield. Having been a GI myself, I now know these items could have been bought or traded from other GI’s, won in a card game or peddled by ambitious locals just as likely as dad gathering them off a fallen enemy soldier.

But as a kid, I was convinced they were pulled from the hands of a less able warrior than my father after honorable, heroic, hand to hand combat and taken as a trophy of war.

One of these items was a Japanese drafting set. It was cool because just to open it you had to find the secret button hidden on the side of the case.  The case was covered with thin, black leather, with gold Japanese characters.

Drafting Set Case

Opening the fitted case, you glanced over the mysterious contents…many bits and pieces that somehow fit together to make all kinds of odd devices.  Silver plated, some had ivory handles and all had their special cutout place in the deep blue velvet lining. It just looked impressive even if you had no clue what they did.

Look at all that stuff!

Having watched every war movie I could find, I imagined a map maker or artilleryman hiding away in a cave HQ, plotting out American targets to be shelled that night as my dad heroically charged in single-handedly with his big Browning Automatic Rifle and wiped out the HQ, saving dozens of lives.

What the heck are they for?

We were expressly forbidden to touch it for fear of losing parts, which of course made it that much more desirable.  Over the years, pieces were lost, the case was broken and it was ultimately tossed. Kids can be such assholes.

Another favorite is a Japanese Naval Officer’s Sword.  While not the more desired Samurai sword every GI wanted, it is impressive none the less.

IMG_1466.jpgThe pommel, back strap, guard, and scabbard fittings are all brass with the traditional chrysanthemum flower decoration.

IMG_1461.jpg

The handle is made of very rough ray skin for a good grip. The gray, shark skin scabbard is heavily lacquered so it is shiny.

IMG_1462.jpg

The blade itself is extremely sharp, with what used to be called the “blood groove”, ostensibly there to allow blood to flow easier so the blade goes in and out easier.

IMG_1468.jpgAgain, expressly off-limits to us kids, when mom and dad were gone we would get it out and marvel over the steel blood, imagining marks and tarnished spots to be where the sword had been used to kill or maim someone, leaving marks from the bone and blood.

IMG_1464.jpg

Still in remarkably good condition for 75 years of abuse, it is only missing the tassel that used to hang from the handle.  Mom or someone added an old tassel from a hamper we used to have to replace it, but I removed it as it felt like it somehow discredited the history of the sword. I never heard the story from dad how he came to acquire it.

There is also a silk Japanese flag…as a kid I again imagined the flag flying over a strategic enemy position, with dad and his squad as conquering heroes pulling the flag down and raising the stars and stripes in victory.

IMG_1480.jpg

It is signed by all of the men that were in his unit back then, the C Company, 184th Regimental Combat Team, 7th Infantry Division.

IMG_1481.jpg

A number of years ago when dad was still with us, I transcribed all of the names and tried to find each of them on-line, trying to connect dad with some old buddies. I spent a great deal of time looking, but this turned up no results, as most of them have probably passed on or simply have no internet footprint.

IMG_1484.jpg

This style WWII flag is commonly known in collector circles as a “meatball” flag, as it only depicts the sun, rather than the rising sun flag, with its 16 rays surrounding the sun. The rising sun flag was the war flag of the Imperial Japanese Army, if the sun is centered, and the war ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy if it was off center.

Ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy

The Japanese call their country’s flag hinomaru, which translates literally to “sun’s circle”, referencing the red circle on a white field. When the hinomaru was signed, the Japanese characters were usually written vertically, and radiated outward from the edge of the red circle. This practice is referenced in the second term, yosegaki, meaning “collection of writing”. The phrase hinomaru-yosegaki can be interpreted as “Collection of writing around the red sun”, describing the appearance of the signed flag.

Another example with far more Japanese writing than dad’s

Dads’ flag also has some Japanese characters written on it.  I have since discovered these flags are known as a Good Luck Flag, known as yosegaki hinomaru in the Japanese language.

Japanese writing on the flag

It was a traditional gift for Japanese soldiers when they deployed during a Japanese military campaign of the Empire of Japan, but most notably during WWII. This national flag was given to a soldier and signed by friends and family, often with short messages wishing the soldier victory, safety, and good luck.

As children, we again added our own story to the flag.  Every brown spot was a dried blood stain or mud from the battle field.  Dad did say that he pulled the flag off a dead soldier, and had all his buddies sign it as they passed around their own flags to be signed.  While this sounds rather morbid today, the war in the Pacific was horrific, fought against an enemy that seldom gave quarter or expected it in return. I am just glad my father survived to give me a place in this world.

There is also a camera, a German Zeiss Icon Iconta 520 camera made in the mid to late 30’s.  The unique part about it is that it had a bullet shot completely through it.

Zeiss Icon Iconta 520

Of all the items, this one created some of the more fanciful imagined stories. I’m sure you can think of a few of your own. “The guy was taking a picture at the time and the bullet went through the camera into his eye”, or “the photographer stuck the camera above his fox hole to take a picture and a sniper shot it out of his hand” and so on.

Bullet hole

I would have loved to see the roll of film that was in the camera at the time, but I’m sure it was spoiled by the light of the bullet entry or turned over to the intel boys to try and get some information on the enemy.

Metal pounded back into hole. I think dad was trying to “fix” it.

Dad or someone tried to pound the aluminum from the bullet hole back in place…I can imagine the great scrounger trying to fix it so he could use it again.  Zeiss did make the sharpest lenses for many years.

IMG_1445.jpg

Finally, there is the Nambu Type 94 pistol.  It was chambered in 8mm Nambu, which is an extinct and obsolete cartridge.

Nambu Type 94 8mm. The sear bar is is the narrow bar running along the barrel.

While the Nambu Type 14 was a sexy looking weapon that looked like a Japanese Luger, and every GI wanted to score, the Type 94 has been called the worst service pistol ever made.

Machine marks make it rough as a cob

It was a very crudely made pistol produced by Japan towards the end of the war, when they were pumping out the “last ditch weapons” as the US was closing in on the homeland.

Those thumb grooves on the back can rip your skin off. Can I get this in chrome please?

It is extremely poor quality, as most late war Japanese weapons were, this one having very rough machine marks and poor tolerances. It was just as dangerous to the owner as the person it was pointed at.  The reason for this is that it has an exposed sear bar on the side.  If this sear gets touched, it fires the gun. Yup, if you touch the side of the gun, not the trigger, it will fire.

t94cowfront.jpg

So, it could go off when holstered, handling it, dropping it, handing it to someone, etc. There are stories of Japanese officers handing the pistol over when “surrendering” and then pressing the sear bar to get off one last suicide shot.  It is still known as a desirable collectible…as the worst service pistol ever made.

Nambu Type 14 8mm Luger look alike that everyone wanted.

Moving to the Vietnam era, dad brought back a Montagnard spear tip.  The Montagnards are the indigenous peoples of the Central Highlands of Vietnam, where dad was stationed in the 1st Cav Division.

Montagnard weapons.

The term Montagnard means “people of the mountain” in French, and is a carryover from the French colonial period in Vietnam. Dad took a number of pictures of the Montagnards.

Dad’s photo of a nearby Montagnard  village along the Main Supply Route (MSR)

 

Montagnard kids begging dad for goodies along the road

Originally inhabitants of the coastal areas of the region, they were driven to the uninhabited mountainous areas by invading Vietnamese and Cambodians beginning prior to the 9th century.

Montagnard with spear and cross bow.

Having no love for the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars, they were allies and trained by US Special Forces as guerilla fighters.  They used spears, crossbows and other primitive weapons as well as move conventional firearms.

He also brought back a Viet Cong flag.

Viet Cong flag dad brought back

Here is a VC belt buckle.  It used to have a black leather belt, but it long ago rotted away under the care of the Profitt children.

IMG_1521
Viet Cong belt buckle

When we used it to play Army, the enemy forces got to wear it and as everyone knows, the VC popped up out of rice paddies and rivers so it was often wet and dried and left out in the yard to the point where the leather rotted.  I don’t know how we all lived to adulthood other than they would have to kill us all and someone would notice 6 kids missing.

Here is a photo of dad with a photo captioned as “captured VC souvenirs”.  I’m sure he thought about how he could get that bicycle back to the states somehow.

Dad in 'Nam w_ Bro's & Bike_1-2
Dad with some of his buddies with a captured VC bike and rice wine.

From the local shops around the An Khê, dad also sent back jackets for the boys and Vietnamese dresses for mom and Laurie.

An Khe street vendors

I’m not sure if any of the dresses still exist, but here is dad wearing my mother’s dress in Vietnam.

Dad in Vietnamese Dress

As far as I know there is only one remaining jacket left.  I outgrew it by about the 4th grade.  He was actually there 65-66, but bought them in ’66 just before he left.

Size to fit a 7 year old

My favorites though, are the photographs he took in many of the places he went.  They are rare in number compared to today with the endless selfies and photos of what we had for lunch enabled by cell phone cameras, so I cherish each one and take care to restore as many as I can to share with the family.

From WWII there are very few photos. Maybe a couple from Korean occupation after WWII along with a couple from R&R in Japan, quite a few from when he served in the Free Territory of Trieste for three years, a few more from the Korean War, and a number from Vietnam.

It amazes me that there are only these few remnants of their military careers, a good part of dad’s life really, but I am grateful for what remains. To me they are memories I have been surrounded with for 60 years and key aspects of who my parents were.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s