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Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.
Half of America would have been speaking German and the other half Japanese by 1945 without good old-fashioned Yankee scroungers.
A strong statement? Yep. Easy to justify? Absolutely. It’s no secret that the World War II supply system had more snarls and snafus than a wind-ripped barbwire fence. Savvy skippers knew that midnight requisitions by first-class scrounging teams were the only way to ensure that the boys at the front had the right stuff to do the job, win and make it home alive – which is why master scroungers were as treasured as good mess sergeants.
In post-World War II Italy, right after the Big War, when the Army was so broke that even shoelaces and rifle patches were hard to come by, scrounging – or liberating – became standard drill. Under our World War II sergeants’ deft tutelage, my buddies and I learned how to knock off everything from tank engines to ammo to chow. Because of these seasoned vets, we were always combat-ready when the Reds made their moves, although seldom very legal.
As long as I served in the Army – from 1946 to 1971 – a cunning unit scrounger was one of the most important assets a commander had. From Korea to Germany to Vietnam, my guys were always officially short everything, but never lacking in anything. We had hot jeeps, trucks, tents, kitchens, weapons and provisions of all types. I not only encouraged my trusty liberators to bring home anything that wasn’t nailed down, I frequently ordered them to de-nail goodies that were needed – like generators – and haul that stuff home quicksmart, too.
In Vietnam, one of my scroungers arranged a trade with an enterprising aviation commander who later went on to three stars: Four of our hot jeeps for one Huey helicopter that wasn’t on his squadron’s books. We’d just about closed the deal when I chickened out: Even in an Army, where scrounging was the acceptable standard, possession of a hot chopper seemed like pushing it.
But with our extended Army in Iraq, it appears that time-honored scrounging is fast becoming as dead as Douglas MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” to many self-serving senior officers.
A case in point: Six reservists were recently court-martialed for a relatively mild version of do-it-yourself midnight shopping. Even though Darrell Birt – a chief warrant officer with the 656th Transportation Company out of Springfield, Ohio, and one of the soldiers court-martialed for theft, destruction of Army property and conspiracy to cover up the crimes – was decorated not long ago with a Bronze Star for his “initiative and courage” in a combat zone, he’s still been dishonorably discharged and stripped of all military benefits, along with his commanding officer, Maj. Cathy Kaus.
When Maj. Kaus’ unit was ordered to march into Iraq from Kuwait, the company didn’t have enough vehicles to do the job. No problem. Birt and his buds had the good sense to knock off two tractors and two trailers left in Kuwait. Several weeks later, Birt and fellow scroungers commandeered an abandoned cargo truck and stripped it for parts. Meanwhile, Kaus, like any caring skipper, looked the other way.
For Birt and Kaus, the courts-martial and confinements are a devastating end to extraordinary military careers. Both are praying that the Army brass will grant them clemency so they can continue to play their parts in defending America.
Birt is now out of jail, fighting to redeem his honor. Although he didn’t steal a thing for personal profit, just knocked off stuff for his unit – as American soldiers having been doing since 1775 – he’s been dishonorably discharged and can’t vote or be buried as a vet. “We could have gone with what we had, but we wouldn’t have been able to complete our mission,” the 26-year Army vet insists.
In any outfit of mine, I’d have given Birt and Kaus each a Medal For Necessary Scrounging “above and beyond the call of duty.”
Reckon we all need to send up a Christmas call-to-action on this so that our lawmakers make sure these very screwed-over troops have a “Happy New Year” – which my wife, Eilhys, and I wish for each and every one of you as well!