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Chapter 4 The Army’s secret

April 5, 2013

            I can’t point to any one moment in my life when I again wanted to clear the mystery that surrounded uncle Bud.  My unanswered questions for decades have simmered below the surface like the way police keep unsolved murders open.  Some questions merely remain unanswered to be revisited like memories that make us feel guilt.  They still hurt, don’t they?  But open questions differ.  They wait for bits of information, for opportunity.

Christmas eve in 1944 when the SS Leopoldville sunk and 764 American soldiers died the US War Department position was that the loss was to remain secret in order to deny the Nazis the benefit of knowing the success of its strike.  That year the truth also emerged that the loss could have been comparatively small if rescue efforts had not been marred by delays, blunders, miscommunications, Christmas Eve revelry, and poor decisions.  After the end of WW II, secrecy prevented embarrassment.  News that had been sent to the next of kin telling the fate of the soldiers went out in small batches to minimize the loss.  In some cases families never learned what happened.  Not ever.

The government’s hole in the fabric of Army history probably got me better acquainted with uncle Bud than if everything had been thoroughly aired in a timely way.  I believe I got more accurate information about him than I would have, even if he had survived.

“You know, Bud could easily still be alive!” my nephew Jon Angel said just the other day.  “Just think of the camping and hunting and fishing –and the stories!”

I doubt we would have gotten stories.  Pressed for more information the old guys were apt to say they just didn’t remember.

Well, I was able to get further details from a guy I visited as a hospice volunteer.  He was a lucid 96-year-old Army veteran, but I had to trick him to get it by finding another, related, topic that would lead to the kind of details I wanted, in this case, about the influenza pandemic of 1918, the pandemic that killed Bud’s older sister.

I emailed my friend Gary Williams, a professional historian in Missoula, mentioning that I was doing a history project on a lost relative.  It seemed miraculous.  Gary read my mind!

I got a newspaper clipping dated January 31, 1945, taken from the Kalispell Daily Interlake reporting that the Bondes had received a letter from the War Department saying Carl Ralph Bonde, Jr. was among those missing from a US troop ship that had been attacked on Christmas Day in the English Channel.  The rest of the page of the Interlake had society news.  And ads.  I learned that Mr. Jordet went to the Mayo Clinic and visited family members in Billings.  Telephone numbers in Kalispell were 4 digits long.  My grandparents were friends of the Jordets.

The point is that Bud’s family knew something about his fate about a month after he died.  The knowledge about Bud’s death at sea stayed in the back of my mind as I grew.

I was horrified at the thought of a torpedoed ship.  Once in 1967 my friend John Herman and I listened to a Missoula poet rant about a soldier in a doomed ship in the engine room, water rising, steam hissing.  “I am not there!” said the poet.  Little John and I trudged uptown through the snow to Eddy’s Club for some beers bought with money that we bummed from a friend, and some smokes we rolled from my can of tobacco and some wheat straw papers.  I remember feeling vaguely guilty when I heard the poem.  I was not there!  In fact, I didn’t even remember what happened to Bud, not exactly. Did the boiler scald Buddy?

The year I graduated from high school the Army was drafting young men for Vietnam, a senseless slaughter.  Nonetheless, if Uncle Sam touched your shoulder, you had to go into the armed forces or face criminal charges.  Remember the summer of Love?  San Francisco?  Hippies?

In 1967 the Army drafted unlucky young men, mostly poor, mostly minorities, and sent them to Southeast Asia with weapons, then who knows after that?  Television news showed shaky B & W images of helicopters with twin rotors touching down, lifting off.  Soldiers raced forward in rice paddies or in fields choked with snake grass.  They got shot.  They got killed, maimed, burned.  US Marine [Sanford] Kim Archer from Melrose, Montana, got sent home in a box.  He was a feisty kid a year older than I was and he sang in the back row of Mrs. Henningsen’s English class.  My classmate Danny Sanders lost some of his fingers when he was fired on by a Viet Cong machine gun as he lay on the ground, probably wetting his pants.  A couple of things were sure:  I had a 2-S student deferment because I was white and middle class and a student.  If I were a good boy someone else would get sent to Vietnam.   I was not a good boy.  I was an aspiring hippie and I smoked marijuana and took drugs at every opportunity.  I also kept my grades up adequately.  I felt like a slut.

One kid in my circle of friends, Bob Verduin, said famously, “Fuck the draft.”  In 1968 he flunked out and last I heard, went into the Army.  I was scared of the Army.  Or was I?  I couldn’t help but remember how Bud had been drafted into the Army, sent overseas, and killed within a short time.

Once when I was maybe eight years old a bully chased me until I was cornered.  I turned, ran at him, and bowled him over.  Scared him!  Guess I could do that again.   So I joined the Marines.  People said I was stupid.  Others said I was evil.  Others said I was crazy.  I wasn’t any of the above.  I was desperate.  I had squandered a lot of good karma using drugs.  I was also convinced that the Army would have done to me what it did to Bud if I had just waited passively for something to happen.  Also, I had ceased believing in the hippie dream.

Once in the Marines I mourned the life I had left behind.  God I wished I could have been with my friends again!  I hated the Marines.  I expected something really great, but what I got was a whole bunch of people, something like me.  Guys from all around the country, but mostly the south.  Some actually were great souls.  Jason Lockett was a black kid from Los Angeles who had natural talent for leadership.  He said he worried about the way I moped around.

I’ll cut to the end of the story here:  I got further and further out of touch with my fellow soldiers until I had to leave the aviation training station and lived in a park in Memphis Tennessee like a homeless person.  Desperate, I returned to the base, got in trouble, got harangued by a Major, he asked me to hit him “If I were a man,” so I let him have it.  Wouldn’t you have?  Of course you would.  So did I.  No big deal.  Just that I faced up to 10 years imprisonment.

Fortunately the Military Justice System had a sense of humor even in 1970 and they ultimately forgave my indiscretion.  After all, hadn’t Major Wadell asked me to sock him?  Yes, indeed.

Many years later I told this story to one of the doctors at Lame Deer, Montana, Indian Health Clinic, and he thought it was a good one.  Then he said that if I had just flicked the Major’s nose with my finger, it would have carried more of a humorous impact.  I had been way WAY too scared to think about humorous impact.  I thought that when I socked the Major my life would be over.  It was not over.  In fact, the light of day started shining in my life and I felt hope for the first time in many months.

In fact, I forgot about Bud.  I began writing to a young lady, Penny Meakins, in Montana, a woman I had become close to prior to my joining the Marines.  Penny gave me hope again.  In fact, I think the Marines got tired of confining me and reassigned me to Southern California to a helicopter squadron supply office.  I continued to correspond with Penny after I got to California.   After a few trips to Lewistown, Montana, we agreed to marry.  That occurred January 30, 1972.  I don’t believe I thought about Bud at all.

Penny and I made our home in Southern California and our babies arrived 1,2, [assignment in Japan for 1 year] 3.  My brother Tom came to live with us in Tustin, California, and brought with him a family tree, he had written.  In Tom’s book Bud had died In the English Channel Christmas Day, 1944.  I remember focusing in on that bit of information.

Tom and I delivered newspapers in Santa Ana, California.  I swear that our District Manager was a fellow named—Jesus Christ—and he had all of the self-confidence and knowledge necessary to impress us.

I heard Jesus Christ, a rather chubby cigarette smoker, listen to another carrier, a guy tell how he was going to replace the engine in his Chevy Corvair Monza with an engine from a more conventional engine-in-the-front car.  Jesus Christ glibly replied without missing a beat.  “Great,” he said.  “Trouble with that is, you’ll have 4 speeds in reverse and 1 speed forward.”  Just like that.  Nobody could top Jesus Christ, District Manager for the Orange County Register. 

Bud maintained a low profile for me.  One problem with Missoula when I had aspired to being hip, was that I didn’t think I would ever be able to talk face-to-face with a policeman or other straight authority figure, such as a journalist might have to do in his day-to-day work.  I really hoped that being a Marine would allow me to experience a kind of fellowship with mankind.  Yes and no.

I got out of the Marines and Penny and I and the family returned by truck to Montana.  Missoula, that is, to return to school.  The best part was living in student housing with so many sketchy people all around us.  My mother died in 1976 and I felt lost again.  All of the universe had rejected me once more and I was alone with my family.  I wished that I could go somewhere safe and just lick my wounds like a cat.

Bud did not really enter in to my thoughts then.  In order to find my position in the universe after my mother’s death, once more, I wrote a biography of my late father from the voluminous papers he left behind.  This was under the aegis of working for a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, which I earned in ‘78.  I got an A for the biography, of course.  In it I stated that Bud died in the English Channel on Christmas, 1945.  I didn’t realize then how that made no sense.  What was the difference of 1944 to 1945 to me?  That error might give you an inkling why being a reporter was really out of reach.  I applied for an internship one summer at the Daily Missoulian.  On the form that asked for my professional goal, I wrote that I wanted to write a news article without any errors.  I did not get the internship.

My family would not survive on my dream of being a newspaper reporter when I had almost zero ability to record and report facts.  I kept getting things wrong!  I could sense that if I persisted my family would disintegrate.  Penny and the children couldn’t live on a fantasy any more than I could.  I was 30 and I had a good talk with myself as I walked around the block in Missoula about 4 or 5 times.

My family stayed together.  I stayed in school and became a pharmacist.  Bud didn’t enter into my brain again until decades later near Busby, Montana, when I was rear-ended by a semi in 1998.  Tom was dead by then and I was taking Zoloft, an antidepressant.  I discovered the internet.  I found the ship Bud died on by finding a History Channel web site that proclaimed that the government had covered up the disaster for 50 years.  I immediately bought the taped episode and watched it numerous times.  I wrote to a man who wrote a book, three books, actually, and he told me that Bud had died instantly from the torpedo.  So much for the engine room fire.

The real big breakthrough happened when I sent an email message to a man named Allan Andrade, who wrote a book quoting many survivors of the SS Leopoldville sinking.  He emailed me a short message back:  Telephone Bill Moomey.  He remembers your uncle.

I was alone in the house.  I hollered “No WAY!” and I was already dialing the phone number.

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