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Booknotes Memories (2): The War Years

George Soter, 1940sGeorge Soter, 1940s UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES


These memories were written by George in 2008.

Unintended Consequences (UCs): Key component of every war. UCs are usually bad; but sometimes surprisingly not. For instance, early on in WWII, the compulsory draft too quickly overstocked US army ranks (“Hey! What do we do with all these guys?” “Keep ’em marchin’ and drillin’!”), while simultaneously thoroughly depleting US college and university campuses. (“Where are all the guys?”)

But, in a seemingly rare creative moment, the US Army came up with a plan to attack both these UCs at once: it was called ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program) and the U.S. Army was soon running the single biggest college education program in the nation's history––sending more than 200,000 soldiers off to some 227 colleges for highly sped-up courses in various branches of engineering, medicine, dentistry, personnel psychology, and 34 different foreign languages! Less marching, less empty campuses. (Among the eventually most celebrated of these GIs were Henry Kissinger and Ed Koch; among the least celebrated was the present writer, then PFC George Soter.)

I was one of twenty Greek-Americans (and one hapless Serb, victim of an army snafu—“We have no Serbian Area & Language Program…but Serbia’s right next to Greece, so let’s put him in the Greek one.”), all of whom in the wartime winter of ’43 ended up in Worcester, Massachusetts, members of Clark University’s ASTP Greek A&L unit. We were, for a while, far from the shooting war over there––and hey! back thisaway, too.

The 20 “Greeks”represented coast-to-coast Greek-American enclaves including interior ones, Idaho to Pennsylvania. We attended daily classes in spoken and written Greek, in Greek and Balkan geography/history. (Teacher, speaking in English, “All Balkan countries are culturally similar in diets, dances, customs…But,” lapsing into politically incorrect Greek, “never trust those bastard Bulgarians!”) We soon infiltrated the welcoming Worcester Greek community’s families (and their many restaurants), even though most of the East coast Greeks––unlike our Stamatopoulos, Constantinides, and Kapenekas guys––had had their too-Greek names arbitrarily anglicized into often totally unrelated “Yankee” ones, i.e., “Kotsilibas” became “Davis” and who knows whence the Patterson and Anderson Greek surnames sprang from?

In addition to daily classes, we also took part in an original ASTP musical “Wearin’ Brown” that we wrote and appeared in; and established life-long friendships and relationships including the to-this-day partnership of Effie Hartocollis, Clark student from Athens, and ASTPer George, Peter’s mom-and-pop. Talk about your very UCs.

Did we ever get to soldier in Greece? Thanks to the UCs of a Churchill/Roosevelt agreement, which kept Greece on the Brit side of the post-war ledger, “No.”

Our Army-sponsored college ASTP days ended as precipitously as they had begun. Now, we were off to the War. From Worcester, we trained west to Camp Crowder, Mo., where, to our relief, we became part of the Signal Corps (not the Infantry) and, then, back east where we were crammed onto The Nieuw Amsterdam, a “leased” Dutch luxury liner, to cross the U-boat-infested Atlantic. (Lots of on-deck bridge games). First stop, Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, England, where we waited and waited (more bridge games) for the Battle of the Bulge to end so we could move on to our destination, Antwerp, Belgium. Our job there: to run the Army Message Center of the Allies’ busiest port––a kind of 24/7 duty entailing shifts of 8 hours on, 24 off––mostly supervising staffs of local civilians and army cryptographers. Happily, those many hours off led to many indulgences, like French lessons, and local tourism in Antwerp and, more often, in nearby big city Brussels, a 40-minute train ride away, all enjoying the happy absence of their recent occupiers. The only “war-action” times came with the self-propelled and unnerving V-1 and V-2 bombs the Germans, still in Holland, were lobbing at London and our port’s way day and night mostly with guesswork aim. (The closest they got to our ‘barracks’––an ornate Fifth-Avenue-like mansion––was several blocks away. Yet still unnerving.)

A note on the bulletin board of the Brussels Red Cross Service center, made all those ASTP Greek conversation hours seem prescient. A Greek-Belgian family invited U.S. soldiers of Greek descent to call on them. (A way for the Klimis family to establish thankful contact with the GIs and to overcome any language barriers.) I promptly made the call––and for the next year, I was a frequent commuter from Antwerp to the haute bourgeois, Greco-Belge extended family at 14 Square de l’Aviation. The many Klimises there, sharing a five-story townhouse atop their wholesale sponge business, included three related families (one with a sister and brother of my age), governed over by the oldest matriarch widow (a combination Anna Magnani and Jane Darwell). Each family had an elegantly furnished separate floor-through apartment. Most of the males and the matriarch took care of the sponge business (their natal Greek island of Kalymnos was known for its sponges––this was still the era long before cellulose sponges). My commute quickly grew to encompass weekly family dinners (to this day rich Belgian chocolate mousse acts on me like Proust’s cookie––visions of the elaborately carved sideboard and the crowded polyglot table); some overnight stays; trips to the Knock-Le-Zoute seashore; Greek church Sundays; outings in Brussels (many French films without English subtitles); and a lot of Greek talk. Once, even, on a week’s leave to London, I got to be a paid personal deliverer via a sponge-stuffed duffel bag for some of their pre-war UK customers. (So, Irving, sponging, of all kinds, is the army, too.)

Part II
It’s 1945, Our War is over! But the GI Grand Tour of Europe (for some) continues. With Paris, London, Belgium, and their assorted hinterlands covered, some remaining highlights include:

1. Berlin. After the Greek-Belgique moments, next stop is the ruins of the German capital. (Next time it’s on TCM catch the Billy Wilder, Dietrich, Jean Arthur movie, A Foreign Affair, for true-to-life local color.) Our job there is to oversee (Was is das?) a former Zeiss-Ikon warehouse; we’re housed in Queens-like apartments complete with cleaning-frau services (Das ist der Army, Herr Irving?) in a Queens-like part of Berlin whose subway stop is––hold on!––unforgettably, Oncle Tom’s Hutte, a paradoxical remnant of the anti-US international success of Stowe’s anti-US-slavery 1800’s novel. / With an oversupply of GIs and an undersupply of troop ship transports heading home, many GIs are offered simultaneous army releases and US Army jobs in Berlin. A kind of college campus culture takes over, with almost nightly frat-like parties in those Queens-like Berliner apartments, and their intermingling of GI, WAC, Brit, French ––even a rare Russian or two––and ex-GI members of Berlin’s occupying forces. / With the black-market value ($125.00) of a carton of Camels (PX price, $2.50), caviar and champagne as well as arts and antiques are suddenly homey GI events. (If you were ever bowled over by the Paul Klee watercolor or the third-century small Hellenistic marble head in a Soter Manhattan apartment, this was their provenance.) / Berlin was also the provenance of the life-long friendship with Tom and Dorothy Wellington and the assorted Wellington offspring that continues to this day. In Belgium, 1945.In Belgium, 1945.

2. Edinburgh. As the seemingly stalled troop repatriations go on and on and on, Army creativity came to the fore again, making available to Europe-stranded GIs some unique educational opportunities. In addition to selected courses at French and British universities, the army also promoted on-the-job training opportunities, If you had worked, say, as a butcher in Topeka, Kansas, or an antiques dealer in Sarasota, Florida, wouldn’t it be educational and very “peaceful hands across the sea” if you could work for some weeks in a butcher shop in Lyons or an antique shop in Liverpool? I remembered that pre-draft, while a student, I had worked at Chicago’s Marshall Field department store with some admittedly too-few hours in the book department; so I applied for a “Book Store Placement.” Quicker than you’d expect, I was on my way to James Thin Booksellers (“established 1824”) in the Scottish capital. For the weeks ahead, a discreet italic notice among the books in their window display reported that a member of the helpful US forces would be serving them. The managers very quickly saw that my “serving” expertise was best described by the founder’s surname, and so they spent many of my “on-duty” hours guiding my own reading towards the then current (and now classic) English authorial heights––Forster, Huxley, Woolf, Shaw, et al. Whoopee! My recreational reading went on in Edinburgh, an esteemed UK cultural center, far from the depressing Berlin ruins! Take that and that, you Nazi rats!

(Next month: Out of uniform and lo! here’s the future-saving GI Bill to see to it that life continues to march on, as mysteriously and serendipitously as ever––even in Chicago!)