“Suddenly, There Were The Americans”

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As a five-year-old, the British military historian John Keegan writes, he was “whisked from London at the first wail of the sirens to a green and remote corner of the West of England” where his father was an inspector of schools for children evacuated from the cities. There Keegan lived out the war. No bomb ever fell on the peaceful backwater where he had been sent to safety, but the war—its machines and ordnance and participants—totally engaged Keegan’s schoolboy passions. In an introduction to his forthcoming book, Six Armies in Normandy, which will be published by The Viking Press in July, Keegan remembers the Americans who were billeted in his town in those pre-invasion days when our presence saturated England.

 

And then, suddenly, there were the Americans. There had been portents of their coming, in particular the appearance of an Office of War Information booklet, snapped up by me from a town bookstall, on the 8th U.S. Army Air Force. It was filled with photographs of the construction of the airfields from which the 8th was to begin its bombing campaign over Europe and contained a cutaway drawing of the Flying Fortress, for which, through counting the enormous number of machine guns it mounted, I quickly formed almost as strong a regard as I already had for the Spitfire. There had been outriders, a scattering of officers in the unfamiliar rig of olive jacket and beige trousers—”pinks and greens,” as I subsequently learned veterans nostalgically describe it—whom I used to see walking home on warm sunlit evenings to the lodgings that had been found for them on the outskirts of the town. On one of these, astounding myself by my forwardness and in flagrant violation of family rules, I tried the formula that I knew to be in universal circulation: “Got any gum, chum?” I was rewarded by an embarrassed halt—my embarrassment was altogether greater—a rummaging of pockets and the presentation of a packet of spearmint. As it happened, I did not like chewing gum. But the superiority of the American product over the British one, and particularly the sumptuousness of the wrapper and the lustrous simplicity of its design, instantly and deeply impressed me. Much of that evening, which normally would have been spent reading at a gap illicitly opened in my bedroom curtains, I devoted to a study of the spearmint package, struggling in an increasingly trancelike state to draw from its symbolism the message that I sensed the designer sought to convey. Thus I made my first encounter with the science of semiotics and also with the bottomless riches of the American economy.

The latter was shortly to be made manifest in superabundance. Toward the end of 1943 our backwater, which British soldiers had garrisoned so sparsely for four years, overflowed almost overnight with GI’s. How different they looked from our own jumble-sale champions, for they were beautifully clothed in smooth khaki, as fine in cut and quality as a British officer’s—an American private, we confided to each other at school, was paid as much as a British captain, major, or colonel—and were armed with glistening, modern, automatic weapons, Thompson submachine guns, Winchester carbines, Garand self-loading rifles. More striking still was the number, size, and elegance of the vehicles in which they paraded about the countryside in stately convoy. The British army’s transport was a sad collection of underpowered makeshifts, whose dun paint flaked from their tin-pot bodywork. The Americans traveled in magnificent, gleaming, olive-green, pressed-steel, four-wheel-drive juggernauts, decked with what car salesmen would call optional extras of a sort never seen on their domestic equivalents, deep-treaded spare tires, winches, towing cables, fire extinguishers. There were towering GMC six-by-sixes and compact and powerful Dodge four-by-fours. Pilot-fishing the rest or buzzing nimbly about the lanes on independent errands, there were tiny and entrancing jeeps, caparisoned with whiplash aerials and sketchy canvas hoods. Standing one day at the roadside, dismounted from my bicycle to let one such convoy pass by, I was assaulted from the back of each truck as it passed by a volley of small missiles that fell into the ditch beside me with a soft patter. When I burrowed in the dead leaves to discover the cause, I unearthed a little treasure of Hershey bars, Chelsea candy, and Jack Frost sugar cubes, a week’s, perhaps a month’s, ration of sweet things casually disbursed in a few seconds. There was, I reflected as I crammed the spoil into my pockets, something going on in the West of England about which Hitler should be very worried indeed.