The Longest Wait

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The men who followed Private Henke when it all began did not think of themselves as knights in shining armor, however. They were too bewildered. When Europe had first gone to war, the standing army of the United States could not muster two hundred thousand men; for more than two years it had slowly grown, and now it was about to mushroom into millions. Its organization was not designed to promote the welfare of the individual, and its schedules did not allocate much time to self-contemplation anyway. Life in the army was concentrated on the immediate—on what was for the next meal, on who got weekend passes when, on the name of the smallest part of the Browning automatic rifle, on how to avoid crawling through the stinking puddle in front of your nose, and above all, on who was lucky at mail call. Men seized eagerly on such trivia to anchor their logic in a crazy world. That world opened for John B. Thomas of Gallatin, Tennessee, as it would for thousands of others, one midnight in the staging area at Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, when he was given a rifle clotted with black grease and told to clean it. He had never in his life seen such a repulsive object, and it never occurred to him that the last hands to touch it must have been those of a doughboy of his father’s generation. Busy all night with old newspapers and interrupted several times to accumulate dozens of articles of equipment, including gasproof underclothing, by dawn Private Thomas was ready, as ordered, to move out with his comrades. A month later they did so, having learned the first lesson of war—that the waiting around greatly exceeds the fighting.

The British had been waiting for a long time, though they would have been taxed to explain for what, exactly. They had seen defeats and had triumphed in a few battles, but as yet they saw no end to the war. They had fought in France, in Norway, in the Mediterranean, and in Africa; in the clear, sweet summer of 1940 they had won an unimaginable victory over the Luftwaffe. They had stood without arms to await an invasion that miraculously never came. They had suffered, rallied, and endured. And yet they were still being bombed, their finest army was surging back and forth across the African desert without being able to reach a conclusion, and the whole spreading continent of Europe was still the fiefdom of Germany. Being stubborn and romantic, they expected to win the war; but in 1942 none of them could see just how to start the last battle. It was then that the answer came, in the shape of John B. Thomas, all innocence, not yet a soldier by any standard but full of enthusiasm, willing and able. To the grim British he seemed an unlikely sort of savior.

The first big contingent of American troops, 10,368 officers and men, arrived in the Queen Elizabeth at Gourock, Scotland, on June 9, 1942. The troops’ last parade before embarking had been a “short-arm” inspection, and their first on disembarking would be the same; but the indignity did not diminish their pleasure at arriving on dry land, which they accomplished through lines of Scots waving and cheering in welcome. Though convivial, it was a confrontation of total strangers. To the British the Americans seemed fresh and full of energy, bright as new paint, the bodily expression of what Sir Edward Grey had noted about their country a generation before, comparing it with “a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.” They also looked soft.

To the Americans, the British looked pitiful. They had known that Britain was at war, but there had been little reality in the fact until now. They had been aware of far-off battles; they had lost ships themselves even before war was declared. But nothing of this had hit with the shocking impact of what they now saw. Their reaction was natural: they gave away what they had.