Oral Tradition: World War II
My name is Marc Aaron and I am interviewing my grandfather, Melvin Backman, for my oral history assignment. Except for a hiatus during which I was overseas, we have maintained close contact for much of my life. We always corresponded at least once a month and thus are aware of the happenings of each other's lives. During my high school years, our relationship reached a form of strain. He had always great difficulty in expressing his emotions and in dealing in like situations. I have always been able to make him laugh, but any other real form of expression took a more concerted effort. During this interview, I saw into a part of his life, which until within the last year, I had no idea existed. This interview is the result of one man's opening up and I am forever appreciative.
All writing within this paper which is my personal thoughts afterwards, or spoken during the interview or stories which I feel are particularly interesting will be printed in italics. It is early March, 1998.
Please begin by telling us about your involvement in World War II. All writing within this paper which is my personal thoughts afterwards, or spoken during the interview will be printed in italics, as in Studs Terkel's book.
O.K. In February of 1943 I entered the Army Air Corps. My address at that time was Lynn Massachusetts, where I had been working in General Electric as an inspector of superchargers. When I went into the service, I was shipped to Miami Beach for my basic training. That took place in March and April and maybe just a little bit of May.
I was 24. I had just completed my undergraduate degree, in education of English and history.
So after basic training in Miami, they shipped me to Fort Logan, Colorado, to get special training as a clerk in engineering aircraft. Originally I had gone in hoping to be a pilot but my eyes were not good enough. I went into the air corps, but was assigned as a clerk, typist and was receiving training as an operation clerk which dealt with operation forms, checking of flight plans, figuring out flying time records and dealing with the engineering and maintenance of aircraft.
After my training in Fort Logan Colorado, I was sent to Boston Massachusetts where I worked at Logan airport in the air controllers department. My responsibility was to track all army air corps aircraft in the air and at the different levels. Now the air controllers did the actual communication with the pilots but I maintained a magnetic placement of all army aircraft in the area. I was there for 6-8 months when they shipped me overseas. I was assigned to the China-Burma-India Theater. I was going directly to India, headquarters for the first air commander. We were stationed south of Calcutta in Assinol; it sounds like a very funny name. It is an Indian name which sounds like ëasshole' but it isn't (laughing). I was there for about 13 months.
Now the headquarters for the first air commander was headed by Colonel Cochran and he had attained a certain amount of fame because he had served as the model in Terry and the Pirates, a comic strip published in many newspapers. The character representing Colonel Cochran was called Flip Corcan. Colonel Cochran was in charge of a glider combination where they landed gliders with supplies and American troops that worked together with the British against the Japanese. This was one of the first successful operations in Burma because Burma had been taken over in early `42 by the Japanese from the British. The three forces in the CBI were the British, the Gorkha troops (they were the British in India) and the American troops led by General Stillwell and also a crack American troops led by Frank Merril. They were called "Merril's Marauders." Now Merril's Marauders were operating in the Northern part of Burma, trying to capture an airbase that the Japanese controlled. Merril's troops were successful in capturing that airbase. However, after capturing the airbase, Frank Merril, their leader, suffered a heart attack and had to be flown out to a military hospital.
Did they keep the same name after he left?
They did, but they also had to fly in a substitute and they were not as effective under this substitute. I was still stationed in India while this was happening in Burma.
I was working in headquarters in the 309th aerodrome squadron, which was mainly used for maintenance of aircraft. I was not part of any operation in Burma at that time. We arrived in Assinol in October or November of 1944. In 1945 the European war was terminated in May but the war in the Pacific, in particular in the China-Burma-India area, which was probably one of the most remote areas for the American forces in that war, continued.
Before arriving in India, I had mentioned that I had to be shipped with my outfit to L.A. We were on board ships with about 6,000 troops but the ships were engineered to hold only 3,000 troops, so we had to double in everything. We had four bunks from the floor to the ceiling. We could not sit in the dining room because we had to get out fast. We had 3 meals but we had to stand while we ate and move out in 10-15 minutes. We went from L.A. in a zigzag course in order to elude the German submarines. We were headed toward Bombay, India and before we got there we stopped in Melbourne, Australia to load up supplies. We spent about a day and a half there.
Did you receive any soliciting visits from the women of the port?
Oh no, no, no (laughing)! We could not leave the ships and they could not come to the docks to see us. They were kept away. We did get out of the ship bit there was a fence. We did try to get some supplies by giving money to people who worked on the port. We needed to get some extras because what we were eating on board the ship was the same thing day in and day out. We used to have a chili sauce over toast that we called "shit on a shingle" every night (laughing). We were on that ship for about 6 weeks. We got to Bombay and then took a cattle car to Calcutta. These were military trains, meant for the third class passengers. At Assinol we got our supplies and outfits and were allowed a monthly case of beer and that was it and I think there was an occasional bottle of hard liquor. We did not have any P.X. (a place where you can buy beer, cigarettes, shaving cream, etc.). This would be handed out to us. We did not have a lot of American troops with us. Again mist of our food was never fresh. We had sea rations and only on holidays would we get fresh meat, which would be mutton from Australia.
Did you notice a change in your physique for the worse?
Oh, yeah. Again you have the same meals day in and day out. You line up with your mess kits and the cooks dump it in your mess kit. If it is the same thing day in and day out you take a mouthful or two and unless you are ravenous, you just don't feel like eating anymore.
We had Indian kids around us. We were eating indoors but when you would come out with your mess kit you'd dump what's left in a barrel and that would be garbage. But when we arrived in India it was shortly a famine that killed 3 million people. So there were a lot of people starving. These kids would come with tin cans and ask us for our leftovers which we would ordinarily dump. Naturally we would give it to them. But then some newspaper got hold of the story and said, "GIs Dumping Garbage on Indian Kids." This was in papers in India and then got into American newspapers. It was used to denigrate the American services and the American officers. Then the officers made a rule that we could not give any of this food to the Indian kids.
But we were allowed to go to Calcutta when we had a pass on some weekend. When you went to Calcutta, you saw more starving people and people with all kinds of diseases in the street regularly. It was the first time I had been subject to such starvation and so much begging in the street.
At this time when you thought about the horror of the war, did you think more of people dying due to the war or more of the starvation associated with the people of India?
Well the starvation in India wasn't the result of the war, but I did not see any people die as a result of military action. I was insulated from the killing on both sides, so I did not really think of it.
When the war was over, in Europe, then many troops were discharged but we were in the China-Burma-India Theater. Our squadron, the 309th airdrome in August 1945, proceed to prepare to separate from the airbase in India to be shipped home from Calcutta. My CO had been a captain and then promoted to major. I had served under him in the States and then when we came overseas (as well). He had asked me to take over the writing of the squadron histories, a chapter for every month. He had had a person doing this in the beginning around the end of 1943, and this person had written one chapter and it had taken him six months. The CO promoted him to a corporal for writing this chapter. Then the corporal was shipped out. I was one of the few soldiers who had had a college degree and a background in English, so he asked me to take over. By that time, six months had elapsed and we were behind six chapters. I wrote the six chapters in about two weeks but I got no recognition from my CO. I think he may have resented me because only had a high school education. He had been a milkman as a civilian whereas I had been preparing to teach, but because of the war breaking out I had been serving in the General Electric plant.
The CO was not happy with me, especially when I complained because I thought that I wasn't given just recognition for the work I had been doing. It was far superior to the previous writer and he had received his first stripes and I was still a P.F.C. Our outfit was preparing to leave the airbase and I received a last minute notice that I was being transferred to the 319th troop carrier squadron which was going into Burma and then to China. I was not to be discharged. I had served for two and a half years, a lot longer than a lot of the people who were going home. I had been singled out; everyone else was going home.
We flew over "the hump" and the only way we could get supplies to Chinese troops was to fly them in. We did not have many American troops with us (now that I had been transferred). My new CO was a Westpoint graduate and he welcomed the opportunity to work with a college graduate. He gave me much more responsibility and promoted me to corporal, then sergeant.
We were in Burma for 2 weeks during which we met up with the remainder of the over-tired, worn down "Merril's Marauders" many of whom had been hurt and wounded. They had been there for a year and a half. They had had a terrible time. I never found out what happened to their original leader. We were then moved to a northern airbase in China at Ian. The troops guarding the airbase were from Chiang Kai-shek's troops. I was briefly at Kunming where I celebrated Passover, then I went to Ian. Again we were out in the country and there were really 3 different forces operating in China, Chiang Kai- shek's troops, bandits and Chinese communists. Part of the mission was to get supplies from Burma and India to China.
When the weather was bad, weight had to dropped in order to make it over the hump. We had a standing order from Chiang Kai-shek, if the American planes were losing altitude, to drop Chinese troops and he did not provide any parachutes. It never happened that we had to drop Chinese troops.
How did these troops seem to take that?
I don't think they knew. We didn't have much contact with them. When we got ready to depart to go by plane back to Calcutta, to be shipped home in December of 1945, we had to get rid of a lot of stuff that the American troops had accumulated. The Americans knew that if they tried to leave those supplies, the Chinese troops would be investigated for black-marketing the American goods over to foreign troops, so we had a big bonfire.
I also remember my buddy who worked as an orderly in the CO's office. He was in charge of all the financial records and all the monies used in paying the soldiers. When we were getting ready to leave, he was told by his officer to stay in the orderly room to watch over everything (money, records and that type of thing). He was from Florida and his family had a cattle ranch, so he was familiar with a gun and was given a gun to protect himself. They had Chinese guards outside and at nighttime, one guard climbed in through the open window into our orderly room and my buddy woke up and told him to stop. Whether or not he understood English, he kept coming and my buddy had to use his gun and shot him. The next morning the American officer met with the Chinese officer and they had to decide how to explain the death of this Chinese guard and they said that Chinese communists killed the guard.
In the operation of preparing to leave the Chinese air base, I was in charge of all the records and the whole operation and that's when my CO gave me a promotion to staff sergeant because I was in charge of the whole operation taking care of the troops.
Coming back to United States, we did not go back through the Pacific but we came back through the Suez Canal, by the Atlantic and by the Statue of Liberty in New York and then we were shipped to Massachusetts.
And that was the end of your involvement?
Yeah, I was discharged in January of 1946 and I went home of course and it was a great experience. I was one of the last of my family, since my father was one of ten children so there were a lot of grandchildren serving in the army and the air force. For example, my younger brother Harold was a navigator in the B-17's or B-24's it may have been. None of our family died in the war. My brother Harold was involved with a lot of assignments were he was subjected to flak and luckily he was never hit. My older brother Benny served in Europe. Harold was stationed in Italy and he used to fly over the airfields in Romania bombing the oil fields there. But Benny was stationed first in England, then in France and then served in the Battle of the Bulge. Benny was the chauffeur of a general but was in the infantry. He did not fight, he generally drove the general. He had been given basic training but he hadn't really served.
Can you describe the condition of your life and what you were doing before war broke out?
I was living with my grandmother in Lynn. Now my mother had died and my father had remarried and moved to Maine back when I graduated from high school in 1936. I graduated from college in 1941, not because it took me five years but because I took a year off to work in order to get enough money to go to school. After graduation in 1941, I went to work for General Electric plant as I mentioned working on superchargers while I was living with my grandmother. It was a good time.
So the General Electric job was a war job?
Yes. I was part of the defense industries connected with the military, and it gave me an exemption for about a year and then it came to a time when they weren't granting exemptions to young men who could serve in the (armed) forces. So originally I joined in order to gain the exemption.
I signed up because I had to, by myself. I was not angry for any disruptions to my life. I had originally signed up when I was attending Bridgewater State teacher's college. Then living in Lynn I had to sign up again. Friends of mine did sign up, but not with me.
Basic training was in Florida. They had marches and it was Spring so the sun was getting hot. We had a heavy pack and had to go on six mile hikes and so it isn't a lark, but I did not mind it.
What was your family's reaction to you joining the war?
Well there were three of us. Benny went into the war first. I went second and Harold third. Because Harold was at Harvard he was able to join up with the ROTC in the army air force. We had lots of cousins who had gone in, it must have been about ten. They took it generally well, because as Studs Terkel has called it, it was considered a "good war." Still, there is always an element of the unknown and you don't know what you are going to get into and there is a certain amount of fear connected with the unknown.
What previously characterized your idea of war? What helped contribute to this image?
I had been exposed to a lot of literature that dealt with World War One. That's when you had all kinds of terrible stuff, soldiers in trenches for years. The literature that we were reading on World War One was actually pointing out the terrible horrors of World War One. So in some respects, it isn't the best kind of influence in preparing you for World War II.
I know that I read All Quiet on the Western Front, and I know a lot of the pictures that I got were horrible. I also know that I have seen movies were I heard "stand up and help your country." Did you ever see anything like that?
Of course. The posters were generally Uncle Sam pointing at you calling you to enlist. It was hard to say if this made me feel patriotic. I felt that this was a duty that I had to do and in some respects I was fortunate in that I did not participate in any actual killings. At the same time, India is not a pleasant place. They have monsoons with tremendous rains and they have tremendous heat and malaria and all kinds of skin diseases and in fact when I came home I picked up a skin disease on my face and my shoulders. Later when I was discharged, they gave me a small disability pension, ten percent. It was treatable but I wasn't able to get rid of it for months and months.
Where there any promotions of racial or class stereotypes, by either side?
Well there happened to be no black soldiers in my outfit that went over to China, so I cannot say if I am aware of any racial prejudice in my own outfit. I did read that in Europe blacks were operating with a bias against them. Their troops did not really get any equal treatment.
I have some impressions and memories of India which are a mix. They're not really happy and I feel today a prejudice often against Indians or India. We were an American contingent on an airbase, and we had some Indians come in to do some cleaning, stuff like that. I found them too deferential. They leaned over backwards to humble themselves. I did not like that. I wanted them to stand up for themselves, you know what I mean? I was not used to people lowering themselves because you were in power and exercising some kind of aristocratic privilege. I did not want them to treat me as if I was someone better. Today I would never go back to India. I would go back to China and to Burma even though I did not have much contact with them.
Was there any anti-Semitism on the American part? Did you experience any?
There may have been. It is entirely possible that my CO, the milkman from the midwest, was not happy with a Jew who had gone to college and was serving under him and who had made a complaint to him about what I thought was a failure to acknowledge what I had done for him. This is strictly speculation.
What was your attitude towards or image of the enemy? Try to differentiate between then and now.
I had no contact with any Japanese, however we had Guru guards stationed at the air base. Naturally you don't approve of the enemy but I could never bring myself to hate in the same way that some of the other guys would speak of "the Jap bastards" and "we have to kill `em all" and that kind of thing. I just could not do it.
Maybe because of coming from a Jewish home, you are aware of persecution be leveled on anybody and people can do terrible things. It's difficult to become one of the brutalizers. I tried to think level-headed, because you need to try to hold on to your own humane principles in life, otherwise you become no better than the enemy.
I know that you obviously did see movies and such while you were in Burma, but maybe while you were working on the home front or while you were in training camp the movies that you did see, did they present a strong image of patriotism?
I got my basic training in `43. That's close to fifty-five years ago and it's difficult to remember the specifics of the movies. It did not change any of the feelings I had for my country. The movies did not influence me as much as the books as I had read. I am just more reactive to books than I am to movies.
Do you remember being surprised at all by the level of violence depicted in movies or the propaganda leaflets you had seen?
You see the violence is not so much in the propaganda, it's in the action that takes place. When men are involved in war, you see, they are also involved in survival. When you are involved in your basic instincts to survive, you do anything. It isn't as if you are seeking violence, you are just seeking to survive. You follow what I am saying? In most war experiences, the violence may be triggered by the aggressor but once both parties get caught up in survival it isn't that you are trying to be violent, you're just reacting for survival.
You said that you were writing almost a journal, the history of your squadron. Was this censored at all? If so, by whom?
I had to check out with people who were involved with the group in those periods of time that the chapters covered. I tried to get factual information from the people who were in charge and knew what was going on. Our group was a squadron, some 200 men, and it wasn't as if we were in contact with the enemy. Our squadron was primarily engineering and maintenance of planes.
Were you aware of your audience while you were writing this?
The histories were not directed at the public. They were directed at the supervising officers, providing information on what the squadron did. There was no editorial content. You are writing in a relatively factual and chronological manner.
Did you feel a weighted sense of responsibility because of this duty?
It's personal pride but you see you want to do a professional job. It's almost as if it doesn't have anything to do with your individual pride, you are supposed to be a professional. You are supposed to know something about the English language. You should be able to communicate in a clear, direct, forthright manner, providing the facts, providing the information, organizing it so that it is effective.
Have you ever re-read your "coverage" that is, your history of the war?
No. I wouldn't have the opportunity. They're done and they become part of the squadron history. It's so long ago I don't even remember what I did.
Did you correspond with family or friends at all? When you wrote them did you "check" what you wrote?
Oh yeah. Well I was honest, but you must recognize that you were not supposed to give the exact names of places in your letters. I am not sure how much censorship was involved. I was never really involved in anything so I was never really discussing that type of thing which could be considered questionable. When I wrote to family I wrote to maintain the relationships, to express an interest in what was happening to them, to convey some information as to what was happening to me. I did this without getting involved in military affairs. I would not generally complain to much because that would upset them.
Through correspondence with people at home and your working experience with General Electric, were you presented with the attitude of the home front?
When I was in the States I would be reading US newspapers so that I was more or less up to date. Once I was in India, it took a lot of time mail to reach us and for my mail to reach them so it was about a month by the time you got knew of events. You were not in the country, you are not getting the exposure to newspapers so you don't know what is happening. I was out of touch.
You said before that you had no real animosity toward your enemy, but a lot of your fellow soldiers did...
.....See I know that you haven't really had any experience when it comes to war, but you see a lot of what happens. It's like this: you want to hate your enemy. You seek to find justification for hating.
Did you do that?
Sometimes you hate. I am almost eighty and I recognize when I look back on my life and on those who have been a part of my life, that it isn't good to get too immersed in hating. It isn't good for your own physical, mental and emotional condition. I feel I can operate more effectively both in terms of my friends and family and even in terms of people who may be against me, by not getting swept away. I have always been able to suspend my emotions and have been able to figure out what was happening and why.
For example, I had been together with one of my buddies in India. When we were separated, when I went to China and Burma and he went home, I wrote to him when I was in Burma and I mentioned what I thought would happen with the Chinese. Later, he wrote back to me, "You were right on the dot in everything you wrote about the Chinese (and the Japanese)." All I am trying to say that I was able to exercise a certain amount of objectivity in my thinking, even then, so that I sometimes could figure out what was going to happen on the basis of what I had observed.
Did the enemy have a face? That is, when you thought of the enemy, did you think of a particular picture or symbol?
Did you feel at all compassionate towards the enemy?
No. It was not a question of compassion, it is a question of the people you care for and the country you're involved with. You can't afford to feel sympathy for the enemy.
Of the people back home, how were their lives changed by the war?
That depends on what kind of work they did. My father's life had not changed much, he was the foreman of a shoe factory that made women's shoes. Styles may change but the war would not have too much of an impact. There was food and gasoline rationing. You could not drive around too much on the weekends or visit family in other states. The greatest thing affecting them was that they had nephews and cousins involved in the war and they were removed from their local communities. They felt real concern for their well-being.
A lot of the exposure through film and literature that I have had seems to emphasize on the interplay between officers and enlisted men and between the enlisted men themselves. Besides the CO whom you believed did not like you, what was your attitude toward your higher officers? Did you notice any differences in class or education that set you aside from the other soldiers?
I had no grievances against officers. You didn't socialize together, so it could have been seen as a class difference, I guess. Most officers had some form of higher education and I was not egotistically involved with any superiority that my education had given me. My training provided a certain informational background in areas that interested me as a teacher. I tried not to attach my ego to any of that. I was not a better person because I had a few more years of education than another.
Comment on the "comrade-at-arms-relationship."
When you live on a day to day basis, with other men in close quarters, you are involved in all the activities of being part of a group. There is a camaraderie that develops. There also may develop some friction but I would say that most soldiers would try to not let that get out of control.
See, I suppose that being part of the group that does not depend on money or social rank helps. One of the most democratic organizations in any country is the army. All have you been subject to the orders of some superior officer, so these are things that you share.
I have not remained in contact with any of the people I knew in the army, but that is by circumstance, not choice.
The barrack life was all right. You have buddies and some recreation but you are cut off, there wasn't much we could do in India. We were next to fields, small villages. I had a buddy who worked as a photographer who had a jeep and had some opportunity to travel around and I used to go with him. Most of the time we could only go into town for a meal and then come to the base. You had to get to get a special permit to get into Calcutta.
I know that you didn't see any combat, but it is because of this added distance that I want to ask these questions. What was your attitude towards combat, loss and death?
It is upsetting. To have a real buddy and to have him killed is upsetting. I was exposed to far more death in my civilian life, than in my military life. Usually it is the other way around. I would say that I did not experience enough death in the war to have evolved any significant changes in my attitude toward death. See, the death that I experienced in my civilian life had more impact on me because that had to do with people who had a large role in my emotional life.
Do you remember where you were when you found out about the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
I don't know the specific moment. I know it happened when I was in Burma and China. See we did not hear (about it) immediately and it was all somehow muted because we were in another country and we were cut off. You did not hear about these things, until some days after. I'm really not sure how I felt. I don't know. It's not like when President Kennedy got shot, when people could remember where they were and what they were doing. See then you had a radio or a television and you're going to hear things; every five minutes, you can't escape them. But when you are in China doing something without radios, TVs or newspapers to see, you are cut off from them.
See I never had, and I am glad I didn't, I never played any role in pulling a trigger on somebody.
Do you think that your image of the war would have been markedly different if you had pulled a trigger, even if you had missed?
Yeah......yes I think it would have. There are people who are more affected than others by this kind of experience. See being part of an armed force, identified with the patriotic defense of a country gives you a rationalization, you're just a good patriot.
See that's the problem with modern-day war; you never see the face of your enemy. You release a bomb but you never see the people you killed. Even pulling a trigger......When you go back to primitive war when the warriors used spears or bows and arrows, you generally saw the people you killed. In modern-day warfare you don't see the people you killed, you are just part of a machine that kills them, a machine gun or a bomb.
Also war destroys bodies, faces, it destroys identity. It destroys the personal quality. It's not a person you are killing because you never see them. That's one of the dangers when we live in a highly technological world, we are just part of a machine. It's like being a gear in a machine; pulling a trigger of some big weapon and we don't know what it's going to do. Are we less guilty or more guilty? See you can't say. Living in a technological, mechanized world makes us often less human. Now I was fortunate that I didn't have to kill anybody. It's not that I am a better person, it's just that I was lucky.
Did you feel heroic, coming back?
Just lucky to be alive?
That was the end of the interview. Overall Melvin Backman was an excellent subject and volunteered his answers willingly and eloquently. He did seem to slow a little when discussing the deaths of his wife, mother and child, and the tone grew markedly more somber and quiet. His den was a good place to hold the interview especially as that is how I always picture him. His deep insight and objective answers were very fitting and the occasional emotion in his voice surprising, demonstrating the importance of some of his war experiences. The only real difficulty lay in what not to include.