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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

(19 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 33, 19 August 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Maj. Gen. Alden H. Waitt
Chief, Chemical Warfare Service
U.S. Army

Dear General Waitt:

To tell the truth – and don’t let that strange word “truth” frighten you, dear general! – I never expected to find myself writing to an officer in the U.S. Army.

After all, as a former pfc I have a certain self-respect to maintain, especially since it turns out that you and other untouchables who had the power of life and death over us in the recent war, seem to have been pretty chummy with Murray Garsson, the war profiteer, who numbered among his friends ex-convicts and more amateur scoundrels like representative May, chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee.

But you seem so dishonestly confused and ignorant on the career of the 4.2 mortar which was supposed to be your specialty that I cannot resist writing. Of course, to do you justice, you may be quite honestly confused or ignorant. Those qualities, in fact, along with several other nasty characteristics, seem to be an occupational disease with army officers. But in either case a letter is in order.

To Refresh Your Memory

One of the facts you seem especially vogue on is the number of men killed by premature explosions of defective 4.2 shells. I was not with a chemical mortar battalion during the war, I was with the infantry. But out of my limited experience I want to give you a few names, a date, and a place, in order to refresh that conveniently poor memory of yours.

On September 15, 1944, the second battalion of the 16th infantry was on the outskirts of Brand, Germany. Its attack was being supported by the 81th chemical battalion. (Its field code name was Camel White.) In the midst of the heavy firing a 4.2 shell exploded prematurely, killing one enlisted man and wounding seven others.

I remember the incident as if it were yesterday, dear General Waitt, because of a little act of bravery and self-sacrifice which occurred and which must be so incomprehensible to a person like you. One of the wounded men who was being loaded on a jeep-ambulance rose up on his elbow on the stretcher and said, “Take care of the other group first. They’re wounded worse than I am.”

A Few Reflections

I have often thought of those men who died or were wounded in that pleasant field in Germany on a sunny September afternoon. Do you know what conclusion I’ve come to? Those men were killed or wounded through their own negligence. They just weren’t very smart.

Because if they had been smart they would have chosen rich parents like Murray Garsson, who manufactured those same 4.2 mortars. Then, like Captain Joseph Garsson, his son, they would have had friends like Andrew May, chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee, who would have seen that they were “protected and taken care of” while they were in the army – especially from those notoriously treacherous 4.2 mortars.

And if they had been court-martialed they would have had you to intervene directly with General Eisenhower, as you did for Captain Garsson, carrying a letter from representative May asking for a special investigation because Captain Garsson’s father “is one of my warm personal friends.”

So that’s why I always come back to the same conclusion: those men who died or were wounded weren’t smart. They chose the wrong parents. They should have chosen parents like the Garssons, with their hired fixers in Congress, their army lickspittles like you, their gilded women, their buddies from the underworld, and their Wall Street friends – all of whom “took care” of themselves very well during the war.

Yes, they “took care” of themselves very well – and far better than those men of the 87th chemical battalion lying dead and wounded in a now forgotten field in Germany two years ago were able to.

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