Friday, May 7, 2010

VE-Day: The WWII Persian Gulf Command, the first American soldiers in Iraq

Today is VE-Day, and as we fight on in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am taking a blog entry to remember the first American fighting force in Iraq, World II's Persian Gulf Command.  My grandfather was stationed in the Persian Gulf from 1943 until 1945, as part of the 762nd Railway Shop Battalion.  The main purpose of this unit was to maintain the tracks and trains that ran war supplies into the Russian Front, and sometimes ran refugees out of Russian and Poland.  They called themselves 'The Forgotten B***ds of WWII" but the war might have gone very differently without them.

When American soldiers went to Iraq, they were given this guide.  Reading it, I am amazed at how little has changed.  I've also read Joker One, and wonder what the soldiers in our current war would make of the information my grandfather was given, including these samples:

YOU HAVE been ordered to Iraq (i - RAHK) as part of the world-wide offensive to beat Hitler.
You will enter Iraq both as a soldier and as an individual, because on our side a man can be both a soldier and an individual. That is our strength—if we are smart enough to use it. It can be our weakness if we aren't. As a soldier your duties are laid out for you. As an individual, it is what you do on your own that counts—and it may count for a lot more than you think.
American success or failure in Iraq may well depend on whether the Iraqis (as the people are called) like American soldiers or not. It may not be quite that simple. But then again it could. 

Iraq Is Hot! As a matter of fact, you may be so busy when you reach Iraq that you won't see much of anything for awhile. Probably you will feel Iraq first—and that means heat. Blazing heat. And dust. In the daytime Iraq can be one of the hottest spots in the world. If you happen to travel by train in the daytime, the leather seats may get so hot that you'll have to stand up. Most work is done between 6 a.m. and noon and perhaps an hour or two in the early evening. And yet the nights of these hot days are often uncomfortably cool. 

You probably belong to a church at home, and you know how you would feel towards anyone who insulted or desecrated your church. The Moslems feel just the same way, perhaps even more strongly. In fact, their feeling about their religion is pretty much the same as ours toward our religion, although more intense. If anything, we should respect the Moslems the more for the intensity of their devotion.
There are four towns in Iraq which are particularly sacred to the Iraqi Moslems. These are Kerbela (ker - be - LAA), Nejef (NE - jef), Kadhiman (KAA - di - MAYN) (near Baghdad), and Samarra. Unless you are ordered to these towns, it is advisable to stay away from them.

The guide proceeds to give a list of dos and don'ts (don't spit or smoke near mosques, do respect the Moslem women, etc.)  It also includes a list of useful phrases and conversions, and a history of both the country and the Muslim religion.

These soldiers supplied Russia with 192 thousand trucks and thousands of aircraft, combat vehicles, etc.  In 1944, there were 30,000 US soldiers serving in Iraq and Iran.  My grandfather was primarily stationed at Ahwaz, working on the diesel train engines that ran the supplies.  After VE-Day, he was sent to Munich to repair damaged engines in Germany, in order to get supplies moving through the rest of war-torn Europe.  He didn't get home until early 1946.

We have made so many mistakes in the current war in Iraq.  Maybe one of them is our lack of history, our inability to look back and remember the soldiers who were there before, their experiences, and their potential insights.  The veteran's group for the Persian Gulf Command was essentially disbanded in 2007, because there weren't enough veterans left to gather and remember.  But their stories are worth reading, and their contributions to the war should be remembered on this day.