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The Greatest Interruption, continued

B-17 navigator Ralph Nutter with other crew members

War Stories

In one letter dated September 3, 1943, Walter Morey described the British invasion of the Italian mainland across the strait of Messina: the silence at 3:43 in the morning before "the 500 guns barked at once and the sky lit up and then for the next 45 minutes there was a solid roar with flashes going hundreds per minute." Finally, after dawn broke, he saw "the most magnificent sight," the strait of Messina packed with Allied vessels.

"I know I would rather be here than any place in the world," he wrote. "If a Joe Louis fight is worth $100 at the ringside, my OP [observation post] is worth a million."

In his letters he touched on the dangers he encountered with the bravado of a young man, tempered with the understated humor that still characterizes the 83-year-old lawyer today. After several especially hellish months in North Africa under heavy German shelling, he recapped one incident for his fianc»e: "They made a direct hit on the gun and wounded seven men of the crew. Needless to say I was in a trench at that time, studying up on my religion." He added, "The heartening thing about being under fire is it is so funny afterwards, except for the unfortunate guys who get nicked."

After Tunis fell to the Allies on May 7, 1943, Morey flew up in a little plane to see the thousands of German soldiers behind barbed wire. He later found a few who could speak English. "I asked, 'What battles were you in?' and we discussed things." For Morey, it was natural to want to talk to them. "You fight these people and shoot these people, and so of course you want to know what they're like."

Morey and his heavy artillery unit spent more than a year in Italy, much of the time supporting the French Expeditionary Corps. They reached Rome the night after the Italians had surrendered. A few days after Rome was liberated, as Morey wandered unescorted in search of the Sistine Chapel, he came upon four men moving through a crowd with another on their shoulders seated in a chair. Pope Pius XII was blessing people, and when he saw Morey in his uniform, "taller than most Italians," he asked him whether he was American. "I didn't know how to address a pope, so I said, 'Yes, sir,'" Morey remembers. He received Pius XII's blessing. "I don't know if it took," Morey said, "but I lived through all those bombardments, all this life afterwards, so I'll give him his share of the credit."

Some 57 years after this benediction, in preparation for talking about his experience, Morey has assembled a wartime's worth of materials in the basement of his Decatur home. (He served in Korea as well, but that, he says, is another story.) There are maps and newspaper articles, medals (three awarded by France and two by the United States), his uniform and helmet. As he flips through the stacks of letters and photos, both pleasure and occasional sadness flicker across his face. He stops at a picture he took in France. When the Germans had finally surrendered, he remembers being in the city of Nancy. Odd, he reflects, that after all the fighting and the noise it should end in such a quiet place.

People think the military is the epitome of organization, but often it was mass confusion, Marshall Levin says. After his training in midshipman school, Levin expected to be assigned to a battleship or a cruiser, but instead he found himself part of an amphibious unit. When he asked, he learned he would work "in communications." Although it was unclear to him what that would mean on the landing crafts that unloaded infantry and equipment during invasions, he industriously taught himself Morse code and semaphores in preparation. As it turns out he never used his flag-waving skills, except while horsing around with a comrade on the far reaches of the deck of the USS Philadelphia that carried them across the Atlantic.

After landings in North Africa and Italy, Levin was eventually stationed for a year in London, where he deciphered and enciphered messages, many of them Franklin Roosevelt's to and from Stalin and Churchill. Marshall Levin in 1941Levin recalls that, despite the war, London was a wonderful place for someone who was young and single. Before arriving, he'd made a connection with the British socialist Harold Laski, who invited him to his house, where he got a taste of the city's intellectual life. As for the German bombings, you got used to them, he says, or at least as much as British citizens did. You learned to listen for the noise of the V-1 "and then the silence that let you know it was coming down, and you'd just hope it wouldn't get you." Levin remembers one night after his eight-hour shift waiting impatiently for his replacement so he could get out to one of city's nightclubs. The communications headquarters was located 100 steps down, below a concrete barrier. He heard a tremendous bang, and when he and the others went up the steps, they saw the carnage: debris, bits of hair. A V-2 had hit, just as a sailor was passing through.

Levin knows it was dumb luck that kept him safe during the war. But when he had the opportunity to add privilege to luck, he declined. After he was abroad for nearly three years and his father pulled some strings to end his son's overseas service, Levin wouldn't have it. "I wanted to be home," he said, "but I just felt that it wasn't fair. "

When Ralph Nutter finished his initial combat tour--25 B-17 bombing missions over France, Belgium, and Germany--he knew he was lucky too. But it's the sort of luck that would give some people nightmares.

Nutter had been quickly promoted to group navigator, flying with Colonel Curtis LeMay, a man he greatly admired. He had been awarded commendations and a flying cross and congratulated by U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. from his home state of Massachusetts. General Heywood Hansell had just put him in charge of the navigation for the B-29 program over Japan.

But the B-17 daytime bombing raids over Germany had lost as many as 16 percent of their planes per mission. Without radar or fighter support, the so-called flying fortress was extremely vulnerable to enemy fire. From Nutter's initial group of 22 navigators in training, he was one of only two survivors. He'd seen his friends and comrades shot down. He'd watched as men who dangled helplessly from their parachutes were strafed with machine-gun fire.

Convinced that the war against Hitler had to be won, Nutter heeded LeMay's advice not to dwell on the losses. He'd witnessed men in the B-17s literally blinded and paralyzed, not by enemy fire but by fear. The rest of them did what they had to not to think about it. Nutter felt bitter at the loss of his friends and comrades. But he remembers LeMay telling him, "Ralph, you're probably going to get killed, so it's best to accept it. You'll get along much better." And that, Nutter says, is what he did.

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