[lit-ideas] The caissons roll eastward

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 8 May 2008 19:13:29 -0700

After their experiences against the French, the Americans over-rated their
own capability and underrating the Germans.  They were deluded into thinking
they had been in some real battles and that what they had been doing against
the French was war.   As they moved eastward toward Tunis to face the
Germans "A young officer reported that the only anxiety in his tank
battalion was 'that all the Germans would escape' before the Americans could
prove their mettle."  

 

P. 168:

 

"For the Yanks, it was all new: the skinned goat carcasses dripping blood in
roadside stalls; the Algerians hawking grass mats and bolts of blue silk;
the cursing muleteers; the peasants leaning into their iron-shod plows; the
buses propelled by charcoal engines lashed to the bumper and stirred by each
driver with a poker.  American units chosen for the vanguard strutted with
pride.  The 2nd Battalion of the 13th Armored Regiment rolled out of Arzew
toward Algiers and beyond, their tanks stuffed with eggs and hidden bottles
of Old Grandad.  The 5th Field Artillery Battalion swung onto the road with
guidons snapping; each battery presented arms to the 1st Division color
guard, and 'When the Caissons Go Rolling along' crashed from the division
band.

 

"Eastward the caissons rolled, past Algerian villages with adobe walls
loopholed for muskets, past groves of mandarin oranges 'hanging like red
lamps.'  Past clopping French army columns of hay carts drawn by crow-bait
horses, past mounted artillery offices in double-breasted tunics.  Past
stubby wheatfields that had once served as Rome's granary, and past
aqueducts dismembered during the Vandals' century of anarchic misrule and
now bleaching like stone bones in the sun.

 

At dusk they bivouacked.  Soldiers swam in the chill Mediterranean or washed
from their helmets in the delicate ritual called a whore's bath.  They
staged scorpion fights in gasoline flimsies or spooned whiskey into pet
lizards to watch them stagger about.  The evening mist rose from fields with
a scent like fresh-mowed hay, which troops had been taught was the odor of
deadly phosgene; at least one unit panicked, with shrieks of 'Gas! Gas!' and
a mad fumbling for masks before reason returned.  Soldiers sharpened their
bartering skills with hand gestures, talking loudly in the distinctively
American belief that volume obviates all language barriers; one sharp trader
swapped a box of candy, piece by piece, for three bottles of perfume, a
dozen eggs, a large portrait of Petain, and a small burrow named Rommel."

 

. . . 

 

"At dawn, the promenade resumed. . . .  For now . . . the benign sun and
doughboy camaraderie moved some men to lyricism.  'The sky is almost
unbelievably blue,' wrote an officer in the 1st Division, 'and the nights
are a poet's dream.'  In the gnarled hills that steadily mounted toward the
Tunisian Frontier, shepherds watched the columns draw near and heard the
chorus of a battle hymn sung with sufficient verve to carry above the harsh
grind of truck gears:

 

                She'll be coming 'round the mountain,

                She'll be coming 'round the mountain,

                She'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes."

 

 

Lawrence Helm

San Jacinto

 

 

 

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