RANDALL: I was a second lieutenant. This means you have 40 men that are dependent upon you for their lives and they treat you as their father. And here, you're 22 years old and can't possibly be that smart...I'd like to pay a personal thank you to those guys and others like them. (More of this interview here).
I was given a mission to take a few men and reconnoiter a small dirt road, only about a half-mile long, and determine if it had on anti- personnel or anti-tank mines or if it had trip wires. And this was under a foot of snow and it was down right next to the river... in open country....
And when I got this news from the Battalion S2, the intelligence officer, I said, "But don't we have engineers to do this kind of thing?" And he said, "We have engineers, but they aren't doin' this kind of thing. They're on some other mission." And then I said, "Don't you have mine detectors that I can take down there?" He said, yeah have mine detectors. They're out on another patrol." He said, "Lieutenant, there are five snowsuits in the corner. You take those and go."
So I had four men and myself, and I threw the snowsuits to them and I tried to orient at them on this, thinking, "This is the worst situation I can think of." And the panic mounted in me. It was below freezing. My teeth were chattering so badly I could not orient them properly.
I couldn't talk. I finally resorted to the infantry motto, which is, "Follow me." I could say those two things. And then we walked through the woods, following a road for about a half-a-mile and came to the end of the tree line.
And then you could look out and see this completely untrammeled snow, a small rural road — you could see a depression in the snow to show where the road was, not a mark on it and it led right down to the river. And you look up... 450 feet high was the escarpment which contained all the pillboxes in our zone on the Siegfried line.
MOYERS: German pillboxes?
RANDALL: Yeah... And I thought, "My God, when we step out on this snow we're going to be visible, we're going to be moving, and immediately a magnesium flare will go up, a parachute flare... and then, naturally, you get machine gunned."...
And I was so scared I really didn't know what to do and I really didn't know how to find these mines. I knew this was important information because of the battalion going down these roads in a few nights carrying assault boats to hit the river.
So I really gulped hard in trying to conquer this fear, told all the men to get behind the trees and I just jumped down on the road. And I didn't blow up.
And I was pretty pleased about that. And then I just thought, "Well, I'll just keep going." So I walked another about 50 yards in the snow and motioned for the next guy — I'm thinking, "He probably won't come out," but he did and that gratified me immensely.
And we all went down with this big interval between us in case of one of us set off a mine. And, well, to make it shorter, we trampled the heck out of all that snow and got back to the tree line.
And by that time we were so relieved and happy that we were throwing snowballs at each other. And when we went back to through our own outpost lines, we completely forgot to pass word and almost got shot doin' that.
And I went back and reported this - that there were no mines to Battalion S2. And he said, "Good information, Randall." And I turned to leave... and he said, "Hey, Randall, how did you determine there weren't any mines on that road?" And I said, "We trampled the hell out of every square foot of snow on your goddamned road!"...
The war changed my self-perception.... All decisions in later life are viewed in the perspective of your early experience in the war, and I wasn't afraid to just make a major decision involving money or stuff because I'd say to myself, "Hell, if I lose it, I'm still alive and nobody is shooting at me."
Addendum: I just read this article
(via Damian Penny and Andrew Sullivan) and it made me feel a little guilty. The author, David Gelernter, has it right that many young people in the post-war generation were taught to have contempt for anything military and were, therefore, unable to pay due respect to the veterans and those who lost their lives during the Second World War. However, I don't believe that anyone showed contempt for what they had done or thought that it wasn't worthwhile. The anti-military and the pro-WW2 attitudes co-existed in a form of shallow schizophrenia without the one truly affecting the other. Moreover, I believe that the anti-war attitudes of the post-war era were (well-handled or not) an attempt to continue the fight against unthinking obedience in the service of militarism. And, finally, as I told the Photon Courier a few weeks ago, the "greatest generation" were regular guys who were thrust into an extraordinary situation. Back in civilian life they weren't one dimensional heroes and could not be treated as such. Archie Bunker served in WW2. That being said, I don't think it's hypocritical to appreciate them now and to make up for any praise that was lost but due.