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The Night War: 60th Anniversary Edition

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When I was asked to write the introduction to the 60th Anniversary Edition of the classic World War II memoir The Night War, I admit to some healthy apprehension. After all, what could I possibly say about the book that every schoolkid, West Point cadet, history professor, and presidential hopeful has not already said a thousand times, much more eloquently than I ever could? You see, unlike my famous uncle, I'm not especially predisposed to putting my thoughts down on paper. 

So in preparation to write this brief foreword, I sat down to read The Night War for perhaps the fifteenth time in my life. Just as I had as a young man, I imagined Bucky steeling himself as he prepared to assault the beaches of Sicily (and Salerno, and Normandy). I tried to put myself in his foxhole, sharing a smoke with his pals. I tried to comprehend his fear in Azzano, and his astonishment at the sudden appearance of his sickly friend-turned-Captain America. I shook my head in wonder at the outrageous feats of brilliant (and some might say, stupid) daring that were the hallmark of the Howling Commandos' raids on Hydra.

Above all, I marveled at his bullish, unwavering devotion to duty, sure, but to his friends before everything else. I was proud of his outrage at the treatment of his friend, Gabe Jones; sad for his self-doubts and recriminations; amused at his antics with the pretty Sicilian gals. Of course, between the lines, it was easy to see the survivor's guilt, the fear of not returning home, and the love for family that are timeless mainstays for all those serving in times of war.

The world knows Bucky was a hero. But what his journal shows us is that he was a man, too. He had friends he loved, friends who died, battles he fought, and moments of such paralyzing fear that it's a wonder anyone could find the strength to keep going. It reminds us that his friends--so many of whom never got to return home, either--were just as vibrant, brave, and beloved as he.

Doubtless there has never been a war more necessary to fight than the one my uncle helped to win. Yet this book, this window into another time, reminds us of the extraordinary human cost paid by that "Greatest Generation" so that we might live a safer, happier, freer life. 

It has now been 60 years since that fateful year when the guns finally went silent. Of course, there is still war in the world. I have two sons in uniform myself. But the lessons Bucky teaches us in The Night War--not intentionally, of course, considering he probably never intended anyone to read it--are simple, and just as enduring as human conflict itself: first, all people are people; second, when the going gets tough, keep going; and finally, above all, try to do the right thing whenever you can. 

James B. Barnes II
Retired Colonel, United States Army
© 2005



Invasion of Sicily

July 13

Well it is done. We have seen and survived combat somehow. Landing did not go as planned. I know of at least 9 men who drowned just getting to the beach and one of them a pal who was in 2d platoon that got transferred to a different company and they ended up going up the beach with the 26th.[1] Goddamn fucking op fell to pieces. Dick McCafferty from Providence is who got killed. The poor bastard was a fisherman too, I can’t quite believe that he drowned. He is the first man I know to die personally and though we all knew it would happen I find myself not able to think about anything else. He has two brothers also, both in the Pacific in the Navy and I do not know his parents’ names and I suppose the brass will notify the family but I just feel sick about it. Dick was a good man, although I think you can probably only call him that now as he cannot have been more than 19 or 20 and did not even have to shave which we all had him over on. Funny bastard I think even got our drill sergeant to like him somehow, I swear he just refused to do hospital corners and finally Parks did up his bed for him and then his bed was perfect and the drill sergeant came early one morning and Dick was sleeping on the floor already in his full kit. I still cannot figure if it was him being that lazy or if he got lucky on a chance at a joke because Sgt. Banks could not believe his eyes. I cannot believe he is dead and not even by a kraut bullet.[2] Just tripped at the wrong time. His poor mother.

A and B company stormed the beach with the 16th and we were pinned down for hours by the stukas.[3] It was not at all like training, that is God’s honest truth. I think all of us still have our blood up as we were out there for two days and though we should be sleeping and I know several fellows are, I am not one of them. Somehow everything is clearer and more terrible in combat. Krauts flew sortie after sortie and that scream of the high alt bombs is just as I remember Murrow describing on the radio from London.[4] I feel as though these few acres of beach have been our own London for these two days and not only can none of us hear a damn on account of the explosions but I am sitting here my back against the wall of a hangar which we are using to get some rack time and my hand just will not stop shaking. It only stops shaking to write.

Howe was terribly injured next to me. It was shrapnel that got him in the face and neck. There was more blood than I have ever seen even after I got the sulfa powder[5] on him—it all disappeared instantly. It was so loud with the shells that I screamed for the doc but no one could hear and so I gave Howe my morphine and got Walters to help me drag him and then Walters caught shrapnel so it was down to me. Walters is all right just got caught in the leg and he’s on a boat out of here.

There was so much blood on me by the time I got him to the doc that he thought I was hit too and I did not even hear him ask me if I was hurt until he slapped me in the face. Howe was just gurgling blood but his face was white as hell and his eyes were staring up at nothing and when I looked at him I froze because I thought for sure he was dead and that I’d just dragged a dead man two hundred yards. But Howe is going to live though his face is all tore up.

His blood dried all over my blouse along with the salt and it makes me think of Steve’s test paper when he has the time and money for watercolors, everything all blurring together dried rippled stiff. It feels that way in my head too. The pitch of the dukws[6] and the smell of Baker and Yates’s sick at the bottom of the boat and the ocean making everything a splattered darker green and the rumble of the Shubrick’s[7] guns and of course Howe’s blood and all of the sand turned to mud and the earth getting torn up to hell pass after pass of the bombers. I am filthy too. No showers to get cleaned off in and I have had enough ocean for now. Everything is going again in my head all out of order but it all comes back to Howe. The doc said he will make it.

July 16

Dreamed the landing again. I am finding that combat is so much more terrible than any of us imagined. I am shocked by the fear of it all. I think until now none of us even knew what fear could be. Somehow I found myself moving and firing my rifle and doing what was needed but it felt throughout that I was somehow screaming away in my own head: how can this be real? How is any of this happening? And when we get to a safe position or at least some cover and the ack acks are firing and the planes overhead are shrill and everything is the loudest anything you ever heard, it takes every ounce of—to be honest I don’t even know that it can be called courage—to get up and keep moving. It doesn’t feel like I thought courage would feel. In the moment it feels like beneath bit of sand or driftwood is the safest place on earth. And then you look over and see a fellow you don’t know blown to bits so badly that there is nothing left of him I recognize as a man. And still I must keep moving. Tippett could not at first. We were beside some rocks and for the moment, safe, and then the mortars started coming and both of us along with Nichols simply could not move or breathe for the fear. But we had to keep moving so we did. And yell at the others also. I dragged Tippett along with me, both of us still dripping, and I suppose it is the nature of battle that I didn’t even feel how heavy he must have been, but soon he found his feet and that part inside men that lets us do this at all. I want nothing more than to go home and never experience it again. It is dead quiet aside from the sound of the guns far away, no one talking or laughing as before, I think all the fellows must be having the same thoughts of what in God’s name are we doing here?

July 18

Healy, Vogt and Sheehan from 1st platoon came by. Sheehan’s got a pal who’s a cook, so he found himself some extra dog food[8] that he decided to trade for smokes. So they settle down with me, Miller, and Frank Castellano, and Frank goes and gets Dietz who doesn’t smoke who’s the perfect man for this occasion. So anyhow Frank comes back and says, “Now Dietz, not a word here pal,” and he goes to Sheehan and says very officially, “I am Private First Class Dietz’s attorney in this matter, let me assure you that he’s a fellow of substantial means,” and he starts haggling for the chow using Dietz’s smokes.

Now Frank did finish high school unlike me and Dietz but that’s hardly college is it? So I go, “Hey Frank, how many times did you see Young Mr. Lincoln?” and Miller elbows me and goes, “Buck, you mean Young Mr. Castellano.”[9]

Anyhow by the time Frank gets to convincing Sheehan to take “bank credit redeemable upon next resupply” so that we get the hash now and Sheehan gets smokes later, Miller goes, “Objection, your honor!” and stops it all, and then says, “Point of fact: we are going into action here tomorrow and not getting resupplied before then,” on Sheehan’s behalf, now Miller wants the extra chow as much as any of us but he likes a good joke more, doesn’t he? And I’m good for a joke too so I say, “More importantly, here, Tech Corporal Castellano, is the fact that the United Bank of Dietz is facing serious risk of bankruptcy as a result of this impending action,” and Dietz starts laughing and goes, “I feel Jerry coming with the foreclosure papers as we speak!” Miller looks very serious. “Son, do those papers sound like an 88?”[10] and Sheehan goes, “It does to me, Sarge!” Frank looks at Dietz as disgusted as I ever saw him: “You fucking moron, Dietz, the bank is the one who gives the foreclosure papers, not gets them!”

July 19

Sitting around with 1st Sgt. Talley and Flynn & Vogel from 3d platoon and of course me, Miller, Carter, and Glenn and once he finishes with the briefing (“5 morons laid up with the clap, tell your men to use the frogskins[11] God gave them” basically) Vogel breaks out a bottle of some sort of vermouth he found somewhere and says, what do you say fellows?

Anyway, get to talking and Flynn’s telling how he heard a couple of his buck privates arguing with each other about who ought to ask Sgt. Flynn about how he got that scar. See, Flynn’s got a stripe like a map of God damn Chile down the side of his face—makes him look as mean as a made man. So Flynn gets his buddy, a Pfc. Rossetti who I don’t know, to go spread a rumor that Flynn got it from when he was in prison for murder. “But Rossetti!” they’re saying, horrified, “convicts can’t serve!” and Rossetti goes, “just be glad Uncle Sam’s pointing him at the krauts!” and busts up laughing at their faces. Any boys too dumb or too young to believe that have no place being infantry on the front lines, God damn.

Anyhow, so Carter goes, “well, how did you get that scar, Arthur?”

Poor bastard gives the biggest sigh. “Don’t spread it around, but I got dropped as a little baby.”

And without a beat, Miller goes, “Well we know that, Flynn, but how did you get that scar?”

Anyhow after we stop laughing and seeing as Flynn didn’t get his scar from a brawl after all, we get to talking about the biggest fight we’ve ever been in, and hell, I’ve got some of those! And so Miller goes to me and says, Buck, you boxed, didn’t you?

“Sure did, pal, but the biggest fight I ever been in wasn’t in a ring,” I start up, and it makes me sick for home to think about it but I have never had the chance to tell anybody what happened on account of the fact that everybody back home knows about it already!

So my friend Steve is a real fighter, I start off, and then yell for Castellano so he can get Plinsky, considering Plinsky’s got probably thirty pounds on Steve but they’re the same height. “So I’ve got this friend Steve, a real son of a gun, type of fellow who’ll pick a fight with anybody he thinks might pick a fight with him, and he’s about Plinsky’s height but skinny as a goddamn broomstick. So me and Steve go up to a jazz club in Harlem, now Steve don’t like jazz really but he’s a good sport and the best friend you’ll ever have, so we’re at the jazz club and it’s time to go otherwise we’re walking back to Brooklyn.” Of course Castellano’s the only one from New York so this doesn’t mean much.

Anyhow, we’re not in our neighborhood, we’re walking to the elevated and we run across a couple of fellows who looked like they stepped straight out of Lady Killer[12], and they know it too, and I don’t know what happened but we’re walking and Steve laughs a bit and sure enough, now we got two big fellows getting heated, saying, “hey punk, what are you laughing at?”

Well if there’s one thing Steve hates it’s anybody calling him a punk. So he stops short and I think, Oh Lord, don’t do it! Because the dumb shit opens his mouth, all piss and vinegar and says, “I saw a funny joke walking,” and he’s fresh enough that they know exactly what he’s doing, and so the second one, hell of a guy, bigger than me, well he goes, “oh yeah? What kind of joke was it then? Why don’t you tell us the joke?” This guy was trying to give us a chance to get the hell out of there!

Well I try to step in and go, come on, pal, let’s get out of here, I hear our train coming, and I don’t know if Steve’s blood was up on account of he got stood up at the jazz club or something, but he plants his feet and looks up and down at the two guys, and just says, “I’d tell you but I got a train to catch and can’t explain it three times,” cool as can be, and well it takes them maybe fifteen seconds to figure out he’s insulting them (so Steve was probably right) but after that it’s fists flying. Well Steve’s small but he can scrap OK, and I’m no slouch myself, (Castellano snorts on account of the time him and me had a little exhibition—fucker still angry I left out that I was any good—but how’s a fellow supposed to get any bragging done with Castellano around hogging it all?) anyway we’re in some trouble, and then we hear some whistles and a few coppers are running towards us, and at the same time I see the train headed our way so I grab Steve, yank him by the arm in the train just as the mobsters scram, and got the hell out there. And here’s the thing: we both got our noses busted, and a broken rib and busted knuckles, and for Steve a tooth missing, all because Steve’s got bad lungs and he had a little cough that they thought was a laugh, and he’s too much of a little shit to correct the record!

Anyhow I haven’t had a letter from Steve at all since June, and of course mail has been so very slow that we haven’t had any mail at all for four weeks, but telling stories about home does make a man miss it terribly. We are so very far away from home.

July 23

Some fucking town that ends in O. I don’t know. But most of 2d Bn got pulled back and today we had decent hot food for the first time since Africa—not even A rations but stuff from here. Bread and pasta and two fellows from Tennessee in the 16th actually butchered a fucking cow. They found it wandering around the village because the fences have all been cut and it had a tag butt there are hardly any civilians here anyhow and good God I had seen enough fucking cows at Fort Howard but at least did not have any guys trying to go after them with a knife and fork. Anyway apparently they knew what they were doing because ten hours later we had fresh beef and steaks and 2nd Lt. Kurlansky from 3d platoon found some sort of machine in the house he billeted himself in that he says will make hamburger. I don’t want to know. Meat is supposed to come from the store wrapped in brown paper and thank God I was not born in Tennessee and instead in Brooklyn like a civilized man. If they do make burgers I will eat at least five seeing as we had a darts contest earlier and some of the replacements bet their shares against me and Miller and Glenn helped me hustle them.

July 24

It did make hamburgers and we did not have the right bread or cheese but Goddamn were they fucking good. I gave two of mine to Sgt. Pike from 3d Platoon seeing as he introduced me to Mary With The Very Red Lips back in Africa and any pal who talks you up to a dame who will put it in her mouth deserves a goddamn burger all right. He said I owed him beers also and I can’t say I disagree. Maybe there’s a Maria with Very Red Lips around here somewhere and I can help poor Pike out.

July 27

Walking through some of these little towns that we are “capturing” is not what I was expecting back before we shipped. I suppose it’s that we saw all of the newsreels from Africa and maybe that is a little of what we thought we would see? Of course it seems just as hot and dusty here, but these bleached stone houses and cobblestone paved roads too skinny for our jeeps are really nothing like I’ve seen before outside of pictures. (Roads really are that narrow. Earl took over for the driver after much convincing and was sure he could do it — damn thing got stuck — white paint of the Army star totally scratched — driver near in tears because what the quartermaster will say — I watched the whole thing having a smoke).

Harry says the strange part is the fact that so many of the houses are empty or locked up or what-have-you—and I think he’s right—a town with no people in it just seems flat wrong. I guess the civilians have tried to quit Sicily knowing it’s a battleground, and in any case the Italians we have met are not great supporters of Hitler or Mussolini—but what else are they going to say to a pack of GIs? Some of these dames though—!!!

July 31

Pvt. Rivera in Miller’s squad hit today in legs and back by shrapnel but Harry says the doc says he will survive


Chapter Notes:

[1] 26th Infantry Regiment, a formation which also participated in the amphibious assault of Gela, Sicily.

[2] “Kraut” is a pejorative term for German soldiers.

[3] “Stuka” was another name for the Junkers Ju 87, a German dive-bomber and ground-attack aircraft.

[4] Edward R. Murrow was a famed CBS news broadcaster who received wide acclaim for his coverage of the Blitz.

[5] Antibacterial powder soldiers were instructed to sprinkle on wounds.

[6] DUKW, or “Duck” boats, were amphibious assault transport vehicles.

[7] The USS Shubrick (DD-369) was a Navy destroyer that participated in the Battle of Gela.

[8] “Dog food” is slang for Army A-rations.

[9] Young Mr. Lincoln was a popular 1939 film depicting Abraham Lincoln’s early legal career.

[10] The 8.8 cm Anti-Aircraft / Anti-Tank artillery gun used extensively by German forces was commonly referred to as the “eighty-eight”, and made a distinctive “boom” sound when fired. The 88 was so feared that it became the moniker for virtually every kind of German artillery.

[11] “Frogskin” was slang for “condom.”

[12] Lady Killer was a 1933 crime drama.