The Longest Wait

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Before his induction, George W. Marshall had been a delivery boy in Los Angeles. Now an acting corporal, he was under orders to deliver twenty-seven G.I.’s to some place he had never heard of. He figured the train ride would be brief since the country, according to the army orientation lectures, was hardly bigger than Minnesota. The ride took nine days. They were in a baggage car with no lights, no liquor, and nothing but K rations to eat; and after spending their first night immobile in a tunnel taking shelter from an air raid, they began to feel oppressed. Then they saw the kids, standing silently on a station platform watching the trains go by, looking with solemn awe at the young, healthy strangers smiling back at them. There were some cherries in Marshall’s freight car, packed much the way California grapes might be back home. The cherries were disbursed. But at other stations there were more kids and some adults. Cigarettes, soap, razor blades were handed out. When they were gone there were still more stations. One man broke out his gasproof clothing and disposed of it; then finally others began dropping out their duffel bags just as they were. When the train reached Waterloo station in London, there was a lot more room in the baggage car. Marshall decided to take a stroll. Outside the station it was pitch black and the streets were empty. He could see searchlights playing and he heard the quick whump-whump-whump of anti-aircraft guns and the faint, warbling drone of aircraft engines. There was a sudden descending whistling noise, and a man running toward Marshall yelled at him what sounded like “It it, matey!” When Marshall stood still in surprise the man charged into him and knocked him flat. In the same instant a bomb crashed into some houses a little way up the block.

By now the Londoners had a routine for air raids. Some slept in the subways. Some with their own little houses had brick shelters at the end of the back yard, equipped and decorated according to taste, the more luxurious with bunks and with stoves for making tea. Some put their faith in interior shelters built like steel tables, under which they would crawl when the bombs began to fall too close. Still others merely huddled into their broom closet underneath the stairs until the worst was over. Private Joseph Veto of Manchester, New York, found himself in this predicament one winter night in a house in Argyll Street, London. His knees were touching his chin and he was trembling with fear, though he said it was the cold. He heard a far bigger noise than the rumble of the bombs; it was a tearing, anguished noise as though the sky was tumbling down. A plane was falling. It hit a house farther along the street, its dead pilot landing on the owner’s bed. His skin was crisp, like roast pork.

London offered other diversions than the bombing, which in any case was past its worst. One handsome young American lieutenant could often be seen standing on Shaftesbury Avenue, far enough removed from Rainbow Corner to avoid the heaviest competition, staring in a puzzled fashion at a shilling in his open palm. When he saw an attractive girl he would scratch his head and inquire politely of the young lady if she could tell him how many sixpences there might be in his shilling. He never failed to bear off a conquest to the movies, where she could weep a sentimental tear over Greer Garson keeping her upper lip exquisitely stiff as Walter Pidgeon, in a battered raincoat, came back from Dunkirk, or moon over Bing Crosby dreaming of a White Christmas just the way Irving Berlin intended him to. Martha Raye, the soldier’s soldier, was playing to acres of olive drab at the Palladium; Beatrice Lillie (who had just lost a son in action) was at His Majesty’s Theatre in Big Top; and Vivien Leigh was at the Haymarket in The Doctor’s Dilemma . At the Windmill, as always, there was the chorus line, the bravest and barest in the world.

In the country, pleasures were simpler if not necessarily quieter. Most places could boast what Staff Sergeant Edward J. Twohig described as “the surprisingly interesting stock met at some of the church parties.” Conversely, the British were favorably impressed with the newcomers. Few of them withstood for long the ebullience of American spirits. The roster of Twohig’s outfit carried nicknames like Silent Rapp, Skin Walbourne, Macadoo Machado, and Lightning Ruhberg, which startled the ears of the British, who confined themselves to time-hallowed familiarities no more daring than Dusty Miller or Chalky White. Herbert D. Bidgett and a buddy called Bowers from the 81st Seabee Battalion were standing around when they were greeted by a gentleman who looked “very English.” He was wearing a stylish dark suit and a bowler hat and carried a slim umbrella. He invited the husky young men to join him for a drink at his club. Stifling their worst suspicions, they went along, “It was strictly male and strictly for drinking men,” Bidgett recalled. “We were introduced all around and after a time Bowers wound up playing the piano, and that guy was one hot number. He could play boogie-woogie like you never heard, and all the Limeys really lapped it up, requesting songs they’d heard of and all. First thing you know old Bowers is just sweating and playing and all I have to do is accept drinks. He didn’t even stop to drink. I’d just tip it up and he’d swallow. After a couple of weeks of this we were invited to join the club and did.”