Chapter 1This is how the world looked in the beginning, or perhaps how it will look in the end. The air crackles with heat, and the sky is the colour of salt. It’s an inert, waterless place, a series of eruptions blasted from the elements. My eyes sting with sea-smoke and ash. As I pick through the fissures and craters, I feel as if I’m scrambling through a petrified storm, great clouds of violet and magenta abruptly turned into rock. Nothing grows up here but sprigs of sea aster and sisal and fountains of dust. Way below, a volcanic sea cracks and sucks like blue glass burning. It is the ancient Mediterranean, in an adolescent mood. This is the island of Pomègues, at the brittle end of the Frioul archipelago. From the cliffs, I can make out the knobbly, desiccated mountains of the Côte d’Azur, and, amongst them, the city of Marseille. Through all the smoke and vapours, it looks like Gomorrah, which is how most Frenchmen think of it. Forget it, said my friends in Paris, it’s just a filthy port, full of whores. Frioul has seldom seen hope welling up in the hearts of Frenchmen. Perhaps it’s because – from a distance – the islands glow like bones, and turn the sea around them into liquid midnight. Or perhaps it’s for all the hopes and promises that have foundered there. For centuries, it was a place of exile for criminals, revolutionaries, the mad and the diseased. Remarkably, I discover that the last hospital was only abandoned in the 1950s. Ossification has taken over so quickly that it now looks Pompeian. Rattoneau Island is covered in such ruins. Next-door Pomègues doesn’t even have that. The Marseillais still punish – or honour – their islands with isolation. I have Pomègues almost to myself. I clamber across the island and see no one except a group of Arab women swimming in a cove, and a very fat man. The women are fully clothed and hardly seem to notice the water around them. The fat man too seems very conscious of his clothes and walks as if he’s wearing ermine and velvet. The oddest thing about it is that he’s completely naked. Even the most sparing of places, it seems, can ease the harshness of reality.After an hour, the island rises into a promontory and I’m attacked by les gabians.
These foul, preternatural seabirds are the only creatures malicious enough to live up here, on this great, lifeless buttress. I begin to climb, under the snip and click of beaks and talons. The gabians have sown the aster with bones and shells, like a mortuary in the sky. Their vile pterodactyl chicks rasp at me from the ledges, and I can hear the bony scissors again, snipping at my ears. Then I’m at the top, alone on an empty battlefield. It’s like a landscape inside out, a great belly of eviscerated earth and rock. All around is the wreckage of an Armageddon, a vast fungal fortress system of shattered domes and concrete mushrooms, pillboxes, foxholes, giant gun emplacements, crumbling redans, rangefinders, embrasures and trenches ten feet deep. I find tiny, cement cells in the earth, like weird earth-borne fruits that have ripened and burst and turned to stone. Nothing has been spared the cataclysm. It’s now a world of components and pieces; lumps of roadblock, bedsprings, a glittering carpet of glass, and fuel cans scattered like chaff. Obstinate chimneys nose their way up through the rubble and, in the cement, I see a date scratched with a stick: 1944
. So, this bone-dry war village – die Batterie von Pomègues
– flourished only momentarily before the bombs began to fall. It has flourished little since. These days the only colours erupting in the rubble are poppy reds and gassy clumps of lavatera. Few people come out here any more, to this rock so violently shunned. Vive la Sodom
, say the graffiti. Perhaps the aura of anxiety has never really lifted away. It’s not hard to envisage the desperate battle that everyone knew would come, a short brutal flurry of rock, heat and dust. Amongst the sea-shells are bolts sheared, twisted steel, sleepers broken like matches, and armoured doors bent double in the blast. It’s strange to think that these were liberating explosions – death to end tyranny, American bombs. And, of course, after the bombs came the ships, 880 of them on that first day of the Allied landings in southern France. ‘The Other D-Day’ had begun, exactly ten weeks after that to the north. Had I been standing up here two months later – in October 1944 – I’d have seen them, still pouring down the Côte d’Azur; troopships, Liberty Ships, tugs, Blue Ribands, tankers, colliers and tramps. It must have seemed as though the whole of America was out there, ready to roll into Europe . . . Chapter 2 On 29 October 1944, it was the Le Jeune
, steaming past. She had the look of a liner, a German liner, which is what she’d been until her capture. She was now a shadow of her former self, aged by blackout and wartime drab. On the quarterdeck was a tiny figure dressed in webbing and olive. It was Putnam Flint. He’d remember this day with a degree of perplexity. It had been a curious voyage: the Straits of Gibraltar like a pair of gates; the tideless sea; Spain, looking empty; the water as blue as ink, and the storms that boiled up from nowhere and ripped off the davits. Then, at last, he’d got his first glimpse of France, these burnt crumbs scattered over the ocean. Life had taken an uneven course up until now. After his Buick adventures, Flint had briefly tussled with education. It was a hopeless struggle, which by 1938 had ended in expulsion. After that, he took a job in a glass factory, an experience that left him with nothing but a smattering of Polish. When war came in 1941, it had about it a hint of adventure. Flint was now faced with ancestral choices: whether to take to his heels like grandfather Horace, or to seek his salvation in khaki. With the future so thrillingly opaque, he opted for the army.America was no wiser than Flint as to where the path led from here. Little thought had ever been given to the possibility of all-out war. In 1938, the Regular Army was about the size of a large town. Its big guns were mostly French, or antiques bolted to trucks. Her soldiers, meanwhile, looked as if they’d marched out of another era, with their gas capes and outsize bayonets. ‘We were isolationist,’ said Flint. ‘Asleep at the switch.’ It was only with the Blitzkrieg that Washington woke up to the future. Rearmament began and – for the first time – the myriad units of the National Guard were gathered under federal control. But it was still an army that frightened no one. The British called the Americans ‘our Italians’, and – to the Germans – they were merely the ‘ice-cream men’. Even the US veterans of this era have doubts about their own ferocity. To them, they were simply the ‘Brown Shoe Army’, a reminder that standardisation was still six years away, and the other side of a global conflict.Leadership too was disconcertingly crusty. Often it was simply a matter of good schooling and admirable polo. Officers were still forbidden from carrying umbrellas because the Duke of Wellington had considered them offensive (except in the presence of ladies). Negroes, on the other hand, were excluded from all forms of military action, other than the wearily menial. It was thought they didn’t have the moral fibre for the infantry, or sufficient co-ordination for the tanks. It says much for the America of that time that a German prisoner could eat in a Louisiana restaurant, whilst his Negro guards had to wait outside.The process of shaping young Americans into soldiers was hardly edifying. Flint spent much of the next two years in the Deep South, being hauled from camp to camp. It was a sort of de-education, a numbing of initiative. Men had to perform Herculean feats of polishing and endless drill. There was jargon too, a soldierly babble of sad sacks
(shirkers), fart sacks
(sleeping bags), pinks, peters
and bang up
(trousers, penises and sex). Worse, every day was governed by chickenshit
, which was the law of pointlessness. Whenever the army stopped to think, chickenshit kicked in. It required blankets to be folded in a particular way, and ties to be worn, even in combat. Chickenshit became a replacement for thought and even learning. Enlisted men were taught nothing about the dangers they’d face in the months to come: mines, trench foot, German weapons or enemy aircraft. It’s a tribute to the remarkable adaptability of Americans that any of them survived at all – or that they persevered, rallied and ultimately triumphed. Only two miracles happened in the chickenshit years. The first was that Flint married the granddaughter of a Native American. In their wedding photographs, Dorothy-Ann Smith is a woman of fierce beauty and Texan poise. As her ancestry wasn’t fully appreciated in the Austin of 1943, people happily assumed she was aristocratic and probably French. Flint enjoyed the secrecy, and Dottie was always more lover than wife. Every morning and for the rest of her life, she’d begin the day by slipping naked into the garden, and plunging into the pool. The other miracle was of a military nature. Somehow, amongst all the chickenshit and polish, the army had spotted cunning, and Flint was raised from the ranks. Even better, he was plucked from the infantry and resettled in armour, or the next-best thing. It was the 824th Tank Destroyers, a hotchpotch of gunners, tankers, volunteers, plunder, fallout and rejects. ‘We were a bastard outfit,’ says Flint proudly. Not that he cared. With the prospect of wheels, the war had begun to look promising. That summer, he grew a moustache, a flourish that’s survived to this day. The Tank Destroyers were the product of some feverish thinking. Ever since 1862 and Antietam – the bloodiest day in American history – the army had been haunted by the prospect of casualties. It was constantly wrestling with the idea of how to get through wars both on top and intact. Men were expensive (Flint had cost almost $40,000 to train, nearly half the price of a tank) and yet surprisingly inefficient. Foot-soldiers only ever inflicted about a third of the enemy’s casualties, and yet made up nine-tenths of American losses. The artillery, on the other hand, could inflict roughly the same damage, whilst accounting for only 2 per cent of the loss. The answer to the problems was therefore always the same: overwhelming firepower. Throw a storm at the enemy, and stay put until nothing stirs. This had become the mantra of American tactics.The problem now was the breakthrough of tanks. Soldiers, or ‘Doughs’, were terrified of tanks, and Panzers
among doughs rendered artillery useless. Who would be there to staunch the flow of tanks? As the imagination faltered, the answer seemed obvious. Tank Destroyers would be like the rook in chess, a nimble reserve behind a line of pawns, ready to leap across the battlefield at the first sign of trouble. In reality, they lacked both leap and punch and thick enough walls. Such a lightweight concept was doomed even in blueprint. At almost the very moment that Flint was joining his battalion, General Patton was urging that the idea be abandoned. He was studiously ignored. The War Department formed seventy-one battalions of Tank Destroyers, absorbing over 100,000 men. Over 5,000 of them would be killed in the frenzy to come, and many more injured. Only the infantry saw the Tank Destroyers for what they were: ‘Can Openers’, functional and piffling. Washington, on the other hand, saw the future in cats, dressing its wolves in panther’s clothes. Every uniform carried the same uplifting emblem, of a giant cat enthusiastically munching a tank. Nor was it just uniforms. Panther fever was loose amongst war bonds, recruiting posters, newsreels, letterheads and kitsch. The Panthers even had their own growly motto: SEEK, STRIKE, AND DESTROY. Flint hated such hubris. ‘Huh,’ he tutted, ‘More like Sneak, Peek and Retreat
.’ Chapter 3A dress rehearsal for the European Theatre was held, in Louisiana. Most agree it was vintage farce. The part of Germany was played by a long, hot bog that swallowed up tanks. France too had lost all her buildings and was equally torrid. For several months, chaos settled over the swamps as nearly half a million Americans fought each other with fireworks and flags. Most of the time they were lost, and ended up smashing their way through their own reserves. It was worse at night, like a turkey shoot for the blind. Then the radios failed, followed by the boots, the underwear, the ammunition and the rations. Some days, Flint simply borrowed a jeep and drove off the set. He’d continue driving until he reached Austin, several hundred miles to the west. These were the best moments of the mock-war, the real one still thousands of miles to the east. He and Dottie went touring in a Buick Opera Coupe, made love on the parade ground and picnicked at Barton Springs. Then, after several days, Flint would climb back into his jeep and hurtle back for the final chorus. If the Panthers learnt anything from the Louisiana manoeuvres, it was the persistence of mud. That – and darkness – seemed to be the only certainties about the battle ahead. There was also the stark realisation that they might all be killed without firing a shot. Few knew what to expect. Sergeant Parham was the only one who’d ever known enemy fire (Panama ’38), but it was not an experience he could humanely explain. ‘I shot one right though his left ear,’ he’d say, ‘and it came out of his right.’ The only other professional was Major Clint Smith, the battalion commander. He was a tall fleshless man from somewhere south-west, all chickenshit and razor-sharp dress tousers.Everyone else felt much like Flint, overawed and out of place. The 824th were always an odd mix. Amongst almost 800 uprooted souls there were Cubans, Baptists, truckers, dockers, hucksters, accountants, cops, cheats, hunters, conscientious objectors (serving as medics), asthmatics, several athletes, countless adulterers, a couple known as ‘The Rover Boys’ and a Chinaman called Jung Chin. It was like a village in the ether, a community only in concept.Flint was in B Company. Most of the others out there were Tennessee farmboys or savvy Jewish kids from New Jersey and Brooklyn. Even now, as Flint reels off their names, it sounds like the story of America: Pinzel, Freiman, Finnegan, Doom, Captain Gleason the Meat Inspector, Loychik, Schroeder, ‘Featherhead’ Maclean (who dreamed of a bed), Grandma Gregory and Grandpapa Young, and the joker, Frankie Barone. Others would only find their names later – in the heat of the fight – men like ‘Burp-Burp’ Birdsey, ‘High Burst’ Bible and ‘Stuka Joe’ Sweet. And then, recalls Flint, there was a plumber from Pennsylvania, called George Hammel. ‘Every time he got a shock, he’d yell, “JE-SUS CHRIST!! I mean . . .” We’d hear a lot of that.’From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Panther Soup by John Gimlette. Copyright © 2008 by John Gimlette. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.