Eyewitness to 1984, Part Two

The Second Visit

This is the second part of Armand’s story about traveling in Albania.  In Part I he discussed his first trip there with a private aid group originating in Naples, Italy.  At that time Armand was staying with my first wife and I just south of Naples, while I was stationed there with NATO.  Several months after his first trip, Armand went back on his own to perform additional relief work and explore. This is his account of the second trip.
 
Armand wrote and attempted to have his story, “Eyewitness to 1984,” published about 1997.  He did get Part I published in a travel magazine that folded immediately afterwards.  As Armand retained copyrights and publications rights, he let me also publish it on a travel website I operated at the time.  However, this is the first time the second part of his story has ever been published.
 
This has been edited for obvious spelling and grammatical errors, and formatted for best presentation on this website.  Otherwise, this story is exactly as Armand wrote it.

Chapter One – Ulli

It was with a sense of apprehension and anticipation that I embarked on my second trip to Albania in August, 1992. I wondered if my mixed emotions were due to the fear of undertaking a journey alone to a strange country. But I considered myself a seasoned traveler and I had been there before. So I had to admit to myself that my hesitation had something to do with discovering that perhaps some of our unfinished projects were just that. I realized also that I looked forward to seeing the lady doctor again. There was only one certainty—this trip would be on a more personal level than the first one.
 
The company operating the ferry lines institutes a strange policy (to me anyway) in July and August. In what should be its busiest months, it limits passenger capacity to available cabins and seats. There is no standing room on the decks. The boats leave Italy on Saturday and Wednesday nights and return the next day, whereas, there is only one weekly sailing from Bari the rest of the year, on Saturday. For some reason, I could not comprehend that type of business arrangement. Consequently, the ferries are jammed on Saturday nights as I found out much to my chagrin. I could not buy a ticket, so I had to return to Naples. But the delay was not a total loss since I became acquainted with Ulli.
 
He had just spent a year in Italy studying modern furniture making at a technical institute maintained by the Italian government to educate citizens of Eastern European countries and was returning home with the intention of passing his knowledge on to his countrymen. Ulli was determined to do something about the deplorable economic situation. He spoke very good English, was well read and knowledgeable about current events. Camus was his favorite author; Bob Dylan his revered singer. It was he who alerted me to the changed sailing schedule as we stood in line to buy tickets in the chaotic ferry terminal.
 
In Naples I made reservations at a travel agency. On Wednesday I retraced my steps and found my seat on the boat with no problem. We left at 10:00 p.m. At 10:05 I met Ulli again. We greeted each other like lost relatives; we even had adjoining seats.
 
Ulli was a patriot and an atheist, a product of the education system foisted on the people by the party. As I soon discovered, he was no friend of America. I could not really fault him on that since I’m not always crazy about it myself, especially when it does not act in a democratic and honorable manner. But his dislike seemed to go deeper than mere verbal hostility. It was rooted in ideological beliefs instilled in him since infancy and probably never questioned by any outsider like myself. That thought sobered me into taking pains to be on my best behavior and not get rattled by any hostility on his part or on my own for that matter. I guessed I was the first American he had ever encountered: he was my first communist acquaintance. It proved to be an interesting relationship.
 
Neither one of us could sleep so we paced the decks talking about—everything. Inevitably our discussion turned to the role of America in the world’s affairs. Why doesn’t the U.S. do something about the burgeoning crisis in neighboring Bosnia, he wanted to know? Was it because there was no oil, unlike the situation in the Gulf? Or was it from dislike of Muslims in Europe? I had no answers. In return I tried to explain the limits of the president’s power as outlined in the Constitution and the fact that such action as intervention in Bosnia could only be undertaken with NATO’s consent and cooperation. He should have known that from reading Italian newspapers.
 
To his questions as to why the West was not helping his country, I pointed out the problems plaguing Europe and America: unemployment, drug abuse of all kinds, criminal depredations, economic assistance to Russia, defusing potential explosive situations elsewhere. And besides, I rebutted, his countrymen must do something to prove that they can handle outside assistance: it should not be all one sided. How, queried Ulli? They need to go back to work, they have to make an effort to get the country moving again, I replied. Then Ulli hit me with the $64,000 statement: there are no orders for manufactured goods to allow the country to buy raw materials; therefore, we cannot build any credit ratings. We are caught in the proverbial endless vicious cycle, he pointed out quite vehemently. I had no answers for him.
I changed the subject as discreetly as I could. Without wanting to sound preachy and condescending, I discussed with him the concept of independent thinking, the germination of which had never been implanted and cultivated by the party. But now that the country was independent it would be obligatory for the people to ingest the notion that they were now responsible for their own destiny to a great extent and could not depend on anyone else for all answers: the government for example or the West. That notion was as yet foreign to most Albanians. He was not stupid by any means. So I kept talking, clarifying, explaining; I kept hoping that I was getting through to my friend. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, I could feel my companion’s mistrusts dissolving into uncertainty and doubt. I was extremely patient, conscious of my role as ambassador of good will.
 
“Ulli”, I said,” have you ever read or heard of a book called “1984”?
“No”, he replied,” I never have.”
“I am not surprised. It was certainly not a book the communist party would allow its people to read. It was written by a concerned and compassionate Englishman named George Orwell in 1948, an enemy of totalitarianism in any form. He opposed fascism as well as communism, the two types of political systems that deny to its citizens any kind of personal freedoms such as free speech, free religious choice and free press. Socialism had just been introduced in England and the government had nationalized many private industries such as coal mining, transport, steel making, etc. Orwell was afraid that the English would, over time, lose some of their freedoms. So he projected the situation into the future, 1984, and depicted a society in which the people’s lives are totally managed by the ruling party. We get the expression “Big brother is watching” from that book.
 
Life was hopeless. Chronic shortages of food, clothing, housing, medical facilities force the people to become walking zombies devoid of any hope for a better tomorrow. Through incessant and intrusive propaganda and brain washing techniques, the party is able to persuade the citizens to support it as it wages a war, total fiction of course, against enemies on distant continents. Hence the people accept mental and physical deprivations in the name of national defense. Does that ring a bell, my friend? Remember the thousands of concrete mushrooms in your country? I could go on and on about the contents of the book. It’s very depressing writing.
 
But Orwell awoke the world with his warning of unbridled government power. His prophecies did not come to pass totally in the western world, but we remain alert just the same. It’s quite conceivable that your late unlamented leader read that book and learned how to imprison a whole country for forty years. Communism is dead. Marx had some good ideas about making the worker’s lives better, but the application of those theories ran counter to human nature. You have read Camus. He would say to you to live as best you can even in an absurd world. Whether you like it or not capitalism has won the cold war. Adjust, my friend, to that fact. You may even like it and make money. That would be your revenge against Hoxha”.
 
So we passed the night. In the morning we docked at the port of Vlora. I had to wait patiently in line for two hours to retrieve my passport. Ulli’s wife had come down from Tirana to greet him and they invited me to ride with them to their home. I accepted gladly. I would dearly have gone to visit the orphanages again, but Ulli maintained that by the time I reached Shkodra it would be late at night. So he advised against it. At his apartment we parted on what I thought were friendly terms. He gave me his address and told me I was always welcome there. He promised to write and tell me about future progress. Ulli then made arrangements with someone to drive me to my destination. We said goodbye. I hoped I had made a friend for my country.
 
CHAPTER TWO – DOCTOR ODETTA
 
By the end of the afternoon we reached Skrodra. With some difficulty we found Odetta’s house. I use the word difficulty because there are no street signs in any city that I could see. How the mailman finds his around is a mystery, at least to me. I had been sure that my reception would be cordial, sincere and warm-hearted. I was not disappointed. I felt at home. It was the beginning of a wonderful two-week stay in which I would meet many family members, friends and acquaintances. After dinner I gave out news about the other members of the original party. But I was extremely anxious to find out about the unfinished projects.
 
So the next morning after a hasty breakfast, the doctor and I took the bus for the hospital. Once again I was treated deferentially and given the best seat. The road was crowded with pedestrians, bicyclists, horse drawn carts carrying produce, goods and people. I marveled once again at the ability of the people to survive, to make the best of things. And so we arrived at Bushat.
After a quick greeting with the missionaries, I hurried to the hospital. I was not really surprised at what I found. The contractor had finally dug the well, but had stopped there. It then dawned on me that we had might have miscalculated. There was no reservoir tank. I could not imagine that the Major would have forgotten that. Perhaps he knew that one was in the area. I was baffled. At our recent meeting he explained that there was no room on the van. It would have been acquired locally. The pump had not been installed since the fuse box was not in place and the reason: it had been stolen. Of course no other electrical work had been done. Furthermore, the “patriotic” custodian had absconded with most of the materials we had left behind. It was a fine “kettle of fish” indeed.
That was bad. But in the rest room someone had dropped a heavy object on the fragile porcelain basin that served as a human waste receptacle, totally annihilating it. The sewer pipe was blocked of course. I did not ask why no one had fixed the problem. We had installed a flush box, but with no running water it was useless. With a sinking heart I felt that we were back to square one.
 
I put those problems aside as I joined Odetta in the dispensary. Most of the people suffered from the same causes: malnutrition, lack of vitamins, ignorance of basic hygienic concepts, inadequate pre natal and post natal care, unavailability of modern sanitary facilities. The doctor dispensed whatever she had in the way of medicines and drugs, counseled her patients and instructed them in the proper ways of boiling the water before drinking it. The water came from a ditch since someone had stolen the pump from the village well. She was surprised no epidemic had as yet broken out. At times she was sympathetic; at times she scolded the patients for not following her instructions.
 
But what really set her off was the refusal of many villagers to accept modern medical procedures and their determination to cling to the old ways. One cannot change these mountain people, she once lashed out angrily. People are slow to change; they will see things your way, I said, once they adjust to their new status of independence and learn to think for themselves. I counseled a bit of patience. What exacerbated an already difficult medical situation was that from time to time someone would break into the dispensary and steal medicines. The missionaries warned the villagers to be patient and share whatever was available. Greed, being universal, carried the day and one morning the dispensary was closed. It remained closed for a week. I have no way of knowing whether or not the people dealt with the thieves.
 
Every morning I accompanied the doctor on her calls to the home based patients. The villagers were quite friendly and curious about the stranger in their midst. I drank strong local coffee till I felt as if I floated on air. The homes were sparsely furnished but clean. We lunched in some of them. Odetta was paid with vegetables and fruits, especially melons.
 
I must digress here and talk about melons, to try and make the reader understand a bit about politics, Balkan style.
In the summer of 1991, the first full summer of Albanian independence, the neighboring countries of Yugoslavia and Greece had bought up surplus fruits such as melons. Consequently, and with sound economic reasoning I believe, the Albanian agricultural ministry had encouraged the farmers to increase their production of fruits for 1992, especially melons since the buyers had snapped them up so quickly. In the interval politics interfered, ruined a perfectly good decision and dealt the Albanians another economic blow. Greece became petulant and querulous about the unmanageable illegal influx of job seeking Albanians and its petty quarrel with neighboring Macedonia concerning a name change.
 
It seems that Greece wanted and, still does at this time, that the latter country drops the last two letters from its official name and call itself Macedon for two reasons. The first reason for that somewhat imperious demand was the idea that the country (Macedonia) would one day lay claim to the northern Greek province of the same name in the spirit of reunification. The second (reason) was that because Alexander the Great was born there, there should be only one Macedonia. Macedon (ia) denies that. It says that it is too busy worrying about the spillover of the Bosnian fighting to do as Greece claims it will do and besides, say the Macedonians, Alexander was a Macedonian and not a Greek making Greek objections totally moot at this time. Consequently, Greece forbade any importation of produce from Albania and so did Yugoslavia for unexplained reasons.
The Albanians could not logically understand why they should suffer from that petty quarrel. In any case Albania was awash in unsold melons. As I write this article, Greece is again for some reason or other in the news with its warnings that it will vote against western development money going to Albania. The birthplace of democracy is not covering itself with glory in its anti-people behavior. It is impossible for a westerner to understand Greek politics. It escapes rational explanation. The real victims of this criminal chicanery were the peasants of Albania, again. One day I hit political pay dirt: I met a bona fide commissar, an ex- really.
Odetta and I had traveled to a neighboring village driven there by an interesting Muslim named Hassan whom we will meet again. The patient was an elderly woman; the other occupants of the house being an old gent sporting a long, white, elegant, true Balkan style handle bar moustache and a younger man who gave off an aura of arrogance characteristic of people in power. I remember thinking to myself that the old boy had not been someone to step aside in any situation. My own moustache looked out of place.
 
The commissar and the doctor were not friends as that became obvious when they engaged in a debate after she returned to the living room from treating her patient. The argument was of a political nature; anyone could see that by the tone of the doctor’s voice and ferocity of her arm movements and the flushed face of her opponent. She proved to be a formidable adversary, not giving much ground. I took it all in while quietly sipping the ubiquitous thick coffee. Hassan had a wide grin on his face. It was pay back time for him and the doctor, I guessed. When the debate became quite loud and meaningless, the patriarch said one word while looking at me. The forensics ceased. Shortly afterwards we took our leave. Both men said goodbye to me in a gracious manner, but the good doctor kept muttering all the way home about that terrible Albanian, that dreadful man. I gave her the fight on points: she had shown a combative trait that bode well for her future.
If I had been incarcerated anywhere, I would have wanted Hassan as a bunk mate. He was garrulous, outgoing, humorous, a born “scrounger” and quite intelligent. He and the Major would have been quite a team. Even though he knew nothing about the language, I had the funny feeling that he got the gist of every English word spoken by the doctor and myself. I could never figure out (among other unfathomable oddities) how he and Odetta communicated. He lived in a different town; there was no telephone, no obvious way to get in touch. In a country full of question marks, Hassan represented the $64,000 query: where and how did he have the means of acquiring a car in the first place since private ownership had been banned for such a long time; where did he get gasoline and spare parts in a country with few gasoline stations; finally, what income did he have to maintain a car? Please do not misunderstand me. It really was none of my business, but I was puzzled, perplexed and mystified by the way he lived; by the way everyone survived in this strange land for that matter.
Chapter Three – Social Life In Shkodra
 
There was no social life in Shkodra as we know it in the western world. Coffee houses and pubs did not exist, a fact which disturbed the doctor immensely because, as she explained in an angry tone of voice, there are no places for people to come together and discuss social issues and personal matters. Consequently, socializing only took place in the home, the street or the city square. That was not really a good social climate for the young people since there was no place to foster relationships, a situation exacerbated by the poor economic conditions that forced them to live with their families. Any romantic attachments on anyone’s part would have been academic because of it.
 
She was very dissatisfied with that arrangement. I could see her point. Even at home the doctor could not enjoy privacy. Neighbors constantly knocked on the door asking for medicines and medical advice. I helped to ameliorate that situation by taking her on walks in the evenings. We usually strolled to the park in the center of the city. It seemed to be the popular meeting place for the populace. The people walked about, many of them in colorful native costumes. Occasionally a horseback rider came galloping up the street sometimes accompanied by a rear passenger holding on for dear life.
 
The park was fairly attractive with a large water fountain, grass areas and benches. Adjoining it was a huge square (how communists love big squares!). In the middle of it lay a flag and a bouquet of flowers, changed daily, commemorating the spot where police had killed demonstrating students in 1989. In retaliation the people had dragged party officials out of their offices and had shot them.
 
Since the family used an antiquated wood burning stove and an electric hot plate, the doctor and her mother had to start cooking several hours before dinner time, but the meals were always appetizing. Since the parents were on a meager pension, I felt strongly about sharing expenses and I was a bit annoyed because they would not accept any money whenever I accompanied them to the produce market. Vegetables and “melons” were plentiful but not meat. Prices were slowly going up auguring a coming bout of inflation. Odetta’s brother was present at times for dinner and we all engaged in lively talk, political usually. He told us some hair-raising stories about his search for work in Greece. The police were more brutal than the soldiers, he exclaimed heatedly; whenever he and his friends were caught the former would set the dogs on them, whereas the military people would buy them a ticket back home along with an admonition.
It was on our visits to the square that I introduced Odetta to the nuances, complexities and beauties of American English. I baffled and discombobulated her as I explained such marvels as: “you’d better believe it; tell me about it; don’t beat around the bush; welcome to the club; get with the program; right on, baby”. But what really floored the exasperated and confused doctor was Groucho Marx’s old bromide: “take two pills and call me in the morning.” She could not believe that professional people used those idioms. Certainly doctors would not say that to their patients, she exclaimed. She demanded in an imperious manner that I explain further. I did. Everyone uses those expressions in America because they get to the heart of the matter, I explained patiently. Doctors do not talk like that, she countered; they use proper language. I was speechless, defeated. I let her win the argument. Nonetheless, before I left I heard my Albanian doctor shout exasperatingly; “tell me about it”. “Bravo”, I quipped, “right on, baby”. She became hysterical and blurted out: “The American language is impossible to understand” (she obviously had forgotten the complexities of her own native tongue). I did not resent losing that argument. Any time she laughed was a reward in itself.
One day the country was ablaze with the news that a distinguished visitor was in our midst: Mother Teresa was coming home.
 
Few people realize that she was born in neighboring Macedonia of Albanian ancestry. She would be taking part in a Mass in the missionary house. So we all got up early to join her. But we were a bit late. The villagers were already swarming around her, hoping to touch her or be touched by her. The press of people prevented me from accepting the priest’s invitation to join her up front. Some supplicants crawled on hands and knees; others were carried by relatives or friends. I could only watch and marvel. As a result of such a display of faith I contented myself with taking pictures of that living saint. To my ever lasting regret the roll of film did not develop correctly.
 
She is a small woman in stature, but a giant as a human being. The Mother spoke in English; she no longer speaks her native language very well. I remember that it was a brutally hot day. I’m sure she was aware of that; hence the brevity of her sermon. Odetta translated and also accompanied her on a trip to neighboring villages. Again I was shut out of another golden opportunity. I would have been honored and delighted to have been in her entourage.
 
Chapter Four – The Search
 
I had to remind myself that the main reason for my visit was to work on the unfinished projects. But since I lacked the Major’s expertise the next best thing that I could do was to secure materials. That was easier said than done. I scoured the market places at different times of the day on the theory that materials would show up irregularly. I could get lucky and be at the right place at the right time. But that only works in novels and movies, not usually in the real world.
I did manage to find a few wall outlets, plugs and hose clamps. I bought things that might never be used by the hospital people on the theory that one never knows when one will need that particular gadget. A sound capitalist principle I believed. I did connect on one thing, a porcelain floor toilet basin. I had the funny feeling the word had gone out that I was looking for that particular object because someone approached me and told me in perfect English that he could obtain that item. Fine, I told him. Then I asked him if he could bring it to the doctor’s home that afternoon. Sure enough he did.
 
His asking price was twenty dollars American. A donnybrook developed when I did not bargain for a reduction in price. I explained to my friends that negotiations do not work very well when there is only one item for sale and many buyers. Odetta’s family got quite vociferous in its objections. I understood by this time some of the local customs and that one of them entailed complicated economic give and take. But I do not have the mental facilities and patience for that sort of thing. In time, they understood this and I acquired a toilet basin. I could not install it, so I made the missionaries promise that someone else would do it.
 
Finding plumbing supplies in Shkodra was out of the question. So one day Hassan showed up at the house (mysteriously as usual) and the doctor and I accompanied him to Tirana. He drove like all Europeans and never missed a pothole. That city is pleasant enough with tree lined streets, a first class hotel, some parks, minarets, a museum dedicated to the late unlamented jailer (I’m sure it will be used for a better purpose in time to come) and a giant square. But this one contained a memorial of a different nature. It was the statue of Skanderbeg, a far different man than Hoxha. Of course, the sculpture was romanticized to a certain degree, depicting an extravagantly handsome man, with the noble and resolute features of a proud warrior that indeed he was. Still, if one knows something about his story then one must admit that the depiction could have been a fairly accurate one. I liked the monument.
 
I heard my first Muslim call. I could not locate the voice at first, but when people stopped, kneeled and faced a certain direction it dawned on me that I was in a multi-religious country and that the devout Muslims were being called to prayers. This statement seems to fly against my earlier assertion that the country was an official atheist society. We in the West know that religion never really dies. It may lie dormant for a while or go underground. So it was in Albania. For centuries Islam had co-existed with Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. It would have taken more than a “tin horn” dictator to change that. The Muezzin was at the top of a minaret not far from Skanderbeg’s statue. It seemed appropriate that it should be that way.
 
Odetta introduced me to her uncle who at one time was a top surgeon. A quiet, gentle man, fluent in French and Russian, he had received his medical education in Paris and Moscow, in the process accumulating a fairly good sized library and much knowledge about the western world. He was a widower, had been for four or five years, I realized. He soon told me a sad story that epitomized all the cruelties and stupidities of dictatorial rule. It seems that his wife, also a doctor, had become ill. Since the local hospitals had no facilities to deal with her sickness, it was deemed necessary to send her to Vienna for treatment. But the lady required a travel visa.
 
Time after time it was denied. It was impossible to obtain, she was told. Meanwhile the disease now diagnosed as cancer spread through the woman’s body. Finally an old family friend, a government official, intervened and the doctor received her visa. But she reached Vienna too late. An operation was of no benefit and she died there. The man’s voice faltered at this point and he stopped talking. I then changed the subject and we discussed other matters.
 
It was not until our return trip that I heard the rest of the story from Odetta. There was retaliation. It came when the surgeon was accused of incompetence and forced to resign his post. That, I believed, happened before the fall of the party. Since then the doctor had become a devoted television fan. Life was meaningless for him now. I wondered why he did not offer his services to the new government. The reasons were none of my business really, but when I returned to the states I sent him information about international organizations that were recruiting medical personnel. I have no idea if anything came of my suggestion.
 
Hassan needed tires. He also knew exactly where to go. I cannot remember all the strange places we visited and the amount of time spent in search and negotiations. But Hassan was a marvel. It was a delight to watch his scrounging technique. Several times after he left Odetta at various places he would disappear. If the doctor arrived at the car before he returned, she would become highly agitated and mutter incomprehensible words concerning his behavior. I was totally amused by the whole scenario, but I dared not show it. I wondered how she would do in a battle of the sexes. I debated with my male psyche if it would be worthwhile to provoke her. I lost. I saw no tire shop, no “Pep Boys”, not even a garage. I could go and on with superlatives about Hassan’s abilities at scrounging. As I said before he would be the quintessential bunk mate.
 
But miracle man that he was he could not locate what the Bushat hospital required. However, we returned home not quite empty handed; Hassan had his tire. Even now I remain amazed and dumbfounded by that strange society’s adaptability and will to survive.
 
Chapter Five – I Leave Odetta
 
It was time for me to leave; I had been at the doctor’s home for two weeks. Since I had made my airline reservations, it was imperative that I leave on a certain day to catch that all important ferry to Italy. I made arrangements with the missionary director, Father Sebastian, to travel with him to Vlora. But I was determined to do something for the family.
The kitchen stove was over eighty years old and completely useless. I approached Odetta and explained my intention of buying a Yugoslav made electric replacement, a four burner and oven combination that I had been eyeing in the local market place. She was adamant in her refusal. Her answers to my questions were based on age’s long traditions: they could not possibly accept any gifts from me because I was a stranger. I reminded her that I had been living in her house for two weeks. It was the closest that we ever came to an argument. I did not want to anger her in any way, so I came up with an “ingenious” solution. I persuaded her to look upon the money as part of a business transaction and nothing else. She mulled that over and after an animated discussion with her parents they all agreed. The cost was one hundred fifty dollars. I gave her the money; we signed a note. Was I intrusive in family matters? I don’t know. It just seemed to have been the right thing to do.
 
My last evening there was a quiet one. Once again Odetta talked about her future. I only made one comment. If she desired to realize her ambitions she would find a way to do it even if it meant leaving her country. She was appalled at the suggestion. I did not elaborate any further. I left at four the next morning. It was a subdued departure. I made her promise to write. I, in return, proposed to mail her books and medical journals. We both had blurry vision as we said goodbye.
 
My traveling companion was the director, a priest from India. We discussed the unfinished projects. There was only one way to finish the job that I could see. Somehow he needed to find some kind Italian volunteer workers who could do just that. I also mentioned one more thing. I emphasized in no uncertain way that he had to do something about the lady doctor before she broke down because he had the political clout to do so. He promised that he would.
 
After I returned to America I lost no time in contacting Albanian organizations that could be of some help to my friends. I had the quixotic idea that perhaps Odetta could come to the States. I had helped her and a friend fill out Fulbright scholarship applications. I did receive information such as the list that I sent to the doctor in Tirana. But I heard nothing from the lady. I became worried. So I got in touch with the missionary house in Rome. I received good and bad news.The lady had indeed become quite ill after I left. The priest had then brought her to Rome and found her a position in a clinic. I like to think that the decision was not of his making, but of some higher authority. He would not tell me where she was, however, since he was honoring her request for privacy. I made plans to return, but each time something interfered.
 
And what about Ulli? We corresponded for a long while. He was not optimistic about social and economic improvements. My last letter from him came at the beginning of the year.
 
The good news concerned the projects. Two Italian engineers traveled to the hospital and finished everything: the well, electrical hook ups for the heaters, the washing machine, and the stove and installed the toilet floor basin. Finally everyone would have drinking water. That was good news indeed.
 
I am not too concerned with Ulli. He will ultimately find a way to get furniture production moving forward. There will be western investors helping out and Greece will not be able to hold up development money forever. The doctor’s story is another matter.
In June of 1994 the Major, now promoted to Lt. Col., returned to Rome on a military assignment and contacted the lady doctor. She had indeed suffered a breakdown. I guess that accounted for her protracted silence. She is now an intern in the Rome Catholic Hospital. At the same time the doctor is employed by a clinic. The good priest also brought her mother to Rome to receive treatment for high blood pressure. Talk about pulling strings!! The Col. informed me that Odetta was more optimistic about her life, that she can now see possibilities of realizing her dreams about her role as a woman and a doctor. She was constantly smiling and joking, he informed me. She told him that her father and brother were in Albania and doing well, but she hoped that the family would be reunited someday. The High Authority is watching and maybe another miracle will take place. Who knows? The Col. had another piece of good news—the family has a new stove! That should make things better in the kitchen. I am glad that I followed my instincts and broke the rules.
I do not know why I waited all these years to tell this story. Perhaps it was meant to be. At my age I have stopped looking for rational explanations for incidents that defy any. If I had written this sooner there would have been no happy ending, the whole report would have been just another travelogue about an obscure back water country.
 
Odetta has overcome many obstacles. I know she will be a good doctor. But more importantly I hope she realizes her dreams about becoming a complete woman. She’s come a long way and deserves a break.
 
As for myself I like to think that I played a role in a story that promised no happy ending but which beat the odds. We Americans are “suckers” for happy endings and we remain eternally optimistic. So do I. I’m grateful to the Col. and his wife for all the latest information. I intend to go to Rome and visit my old friends, perhaps at Christmas. That would be an appropriate time! After all someone owes me money.
 
Epilogue
I returned to Rome for the Christmas Holydays in 1994. There I met doctor Hasaj once again. She had finally achieved one of her goals: she was a European doctor. She was much chipper than she had been on my previous visit. I was thrilled to see her at the airport. We had indeed become good friends. Even though she was very busy with her life she found time to be with me as we explored parts of Rome not found in travel guides. With the help of the good Father Sebastian, I attended Midnight and New Year’s Day Masses celebrated by His Holiness, the Pope. Because of scheduling problems I was not able to visit Albania to see my friends. That will have to wait another day.
The lady is not quite sure about her plans. She will finish her internship in a few months. Her future is a bright one. She can only go in one direction and that is -up. I wish her well and I intend to remain her friend.  As for the promissory note, I ripped it up. It was paid in full at Christmas.
 
“Those who expect to reap the blessings of Freedom must, like all men, undergo the Fatigue of supporting it.”
Thomas Paine, Sept.17, 1777 American Crisis #4

Armand did meet Odetta once more after he wrote this story.  He made a spring trip to Naples, Italy, about 1998 and managed to visit with her in Rome.  He mentioned she seemed happy and was doing well working there.  I think he mentioned she had a boyfriend, or at least a male companion.  I do believe he maintained some correspondence with Odetta for several years after.

He never did get back to Albania.
 
Armand suffered a stroke in September 2002 which left him half paralyzed and incapable of taking care of himself.  My brother Howard, and his family, took care of Armand as long as they could, but finally had to move him to a nursing home.  Armand was incapable of helping clear out his apartment or sorting things out and as a result, many of his documents and addresses were scrambled and lost.
 
Armand passed on in February, 2004.  Regrettably, we had no way of knowing how to contact Doctor Odetta to tell her of the news.

One of Armand’s life-long dreams was to work with the Peace Corps.  After his retirement and third divorce he did apply.  He made it through the interviews and was accepted for an assignment in Africa, pending completition of a medical exam.  During the medical exam, the doctor diagnosed Armand with heart troubles – which several years later proved to be an incorrect diagnosis. However, the diagnosis disqualified Armand from any Peace Corps assignment in isolated regions as they could not assume him of access to propler medical facilities.  Armand was essentially permanently disqualified from work with the Peace Corps. I have always thought that this small bit of work Armand did in Albania with the Major’s group, and his return trip to Albania, made up for not being able to work with the Peace Corps.  In a small way, I think his work and visits to Albania satisfied one of Armand’s life-long dreams. Armand Charest Eyewitness To 1984 March 1, 2007




The Memoirs of Armand Charest Part III

Armand CharestThe Charest-Frenchette Family in America: A Success Story

Editors Note: Shortly before my father had his stroke which ultimately was fatal, I managed to convince him to write some stories and family history. I promised him I would get them at least published on a family website if he did. Well, with a lot of “encouragement” from myself and possibly my brother Howard, Dad did write some of the family stories. This is part III in a three part series.

I have taken the liberty of re-formatting Dad’s writings to be suitable for this website. Otherwise, I have posted them as written. I may on occasion add some editorial comments of my own; these will be clearly marked when I do.
   Ron Charest

Part III: Winding Down the War, and Afterwards Chapter 17

Rest, Relaxation, and Retraining

Map of Biak Island

The division entered a period of rest and rehabilitation. New recruits filled the depleted ranks of the rifle companies; we received new clothing and weapon all line companies entered into extensive training, melding the new inexperienced soldiers with the veterans. So, at the ripe old age of nineteen, I was a veteran.

At the same time, in the summer of 1944, the army decided to rotate men back to the States who had accumulated a certain amount of points based on their time in the service and time overseas. The division had arrived in Australia in February of 1942. The surviving members had been overseas for over two years. Therefore, two men from each company were picked from a lottery and sent home each month. This process continued until the last original soldier departed in January of 1945, exactly three years after his arrival in the South Pacific.

The war picked up momentum at this time. Fresh divisions reached the theater and went into action in different areas. The First Cavalry Division, an amalgam of various cavalry regiments, cleaned up the Admiralty Islands. The New Zealanders and Australians dislodged the Japanese from islands in the Solomon’s group and New Britain. Several divisions took over and moved up the New Guinea coast. The High Command then announced that the New Guinea campaign was over. We chuckled over that report.

The tough Japanese soldiers had only been ousted from their coastal bases and not entirely defeated. They merely retreated to the interior. Even though they were cut off from supplies and support from their country, they continued the fight. E Company was now stationed at the end of the line, so to speak. Ours was the last outpost this side of no-man’s land. A high ridge marked the demarcation line broken only by a Japanese built road that cut through it and meandered to the other side of the island. This is where the serious re-training took place.

Patrols, made up of new men and veterans, went out every day into the interior and inevitably ran into enemy soldiers. We were under strict orders to bring in prisoners and we did. They were useful because they pointed out hiding places of other Japanese. There were sections of the road that turned our brains to jelly. I still remember a canyon that dipped downward into which the sun never penetrated. It was dark, gloomy, and ominous. We first reached it in late afternoon. The Lieutenant in charge called a halt and he and his Sergeant debated the point of moving on or staying put for the night. They decided to move on. Two scouts went ahead, slowly and warily. We had gone barely one hundred yards into the canyon when the scouts came back and reported the news that the gorge extended for a long distance and they were of the opinion that the patrol should turn back and spend the night at the entrance. The officer agreed. It was a lucky and wise decision. That night we were attacked and a vicious fight took place in which we suffered several casualties. From that time on, no patrol ventured through that canyon in late afternoon. The honor of being the first through Hell’s Canyon fell to the next patrol because our Lieutenant decided to return to camp with the dead and wounded men.

The rest and rehabilitation period provided E Company with many light moments. For instance, one day the Southerners decided to do something about their age-old avocation—moonshining! To this day I have no idea where the boys acquired the materials for the still they built on our side of the ridge. All I remember was a strange odor that wafted over the area one bright and sunny day.

Sometimes the boys would get a bit feisty and they would decide to settle their century-old differences with the Northerners. So it was rather amusing to hear the boys from the South stand in the company street and invite the “Yankees to come out and settle this thing once and for all.” A request from the company commander, himself a New Yorker, to get some sleep usually defused the situation. No one ever mentioned the incident as we all took part in the next patrol.

I must mention another comical incident before we move on.

One day the company commander received a call from the Air Corps supply base commander for some help in guarding the supplies. It seems that the previous watchmen had turned into “crooks” who stole widely and indiscriminately. So a call went out to the first squad, first platoon to get into gear and to prepare to move out that same afternoon along with its rations and equipment. Let me say a few things about rations.

The army classified rations by letter: “A” rations stood for the hot food served in regular camps and forts throughout the country; “B” rations indicated the hot food served overseas in regular camps; “C” rations indicated the food that the troops ate in the field if they had cooking facilities: that may include camp stoves or something called canned heat, a small can the size of a tuna fish can. A “C” ration can was the size roughly of a tomato can containing various and mysterious foods such as: spaghetti and meat balls made from unknown animals, meat loaf made in enemy countries, beef stew canned during the first world war; pork and beans, of course, that eventually gave away our positions to the Japanese.

The next ration was called, “K” for no reason that we could figure out. The box was about the size of a crackerjack box. It fit in very well in our wide pants or deep shirt pockets. The box held a small can of condensed food: bacon and eggs for breakfast, ham and cheese for lunch, unknown ingredients for dinner. It also had a pack of three cigarettes, coffee or lemonade, sugar, cookies and a chocolate bar Since I did not smoke, I was a very popular figure as most smokers tried to be nice to me. The next ration was called, “D”, a large chunk of chocolate that contained thousands of calories. Fortunately, it was used only in an emergency. The best field rations were called 10-in-one rations that came in a large box. Here again the designation baffled us. A squad of men contained twelve men, so we had to ration the rations. Why no one ever told the packing companies about the twelve men was another unexplained and unexplainable mystery.

So we reached the air corps supply base in late afternoon and we proceeded to set up quarters in two large tents.

The next morning we moved to our designated guard stations. Then we looked around and made some startling discoveries. The people ate like bloody millionaires. We gaped at the boxes of fruit cocktail, canned pure chicken, first- class beef stew, real eggs. No less startling were the warehouses full of clothing and shoes! We took one look at our rations, another at the air corps rations. We dug holes and the Cs disappeared. We proceeded to gorge ourselves on the fruit cans and boned chicken. All of us acquired new clothes and shoes. It was a great life—for a week. Then we got the bad news: we were going home.

The First Sergeant clued us in upon our return. It seems that the Colonel who had made the original demand called up and demanded that E Company take back the crooks who had replaced the other crooks. To his great credit our company commander reminded the Colonel that these same crooks had made it possible for the Air Corps to be here on this island. He also wanted to know where the same man was at the time of the fighting. The man simply hung up the phone. But as we disembarked from the truck, every man was ten pounds heavier, wore new clothes and also each man had ten shirts, ten pairs of pants and ten pairs of socks that made it difficult to walk. What made the whole episode worthwhile was the smile on the Captain’s face.

I need to make two more comment about life on the islands. One concerns the movies. Each company could borrow movie projectors from Special Services. The problem was that the same movies went from company to company. Therefore, they wore out. It seems that every time we had movie night, two things happened: the film broke sometime during the showing and it rained, not your ordinary summer rain but usually a downpour. So we sat on coconut logs getting soaked and stomping our feet and yelling while waiting for the projectionist to repair the film.

The other event occurred one day as the first platoon headed out for a regular three day patrol in which we checked for enemy activity, sometimes engaged in a fight and sometimes brought back prisoners. In early afternoon of the first day the first scout reported a strange thing. He had come across a waterfall where none had previously existed. Sure enough there it was, a beautiful falls tumbling down into a large reservoir. The Sergeant took one look and declared the war over for two days. We had lemon powder and sugar in our rations so we got sick on lemonade. The water was cool and refreshing.

So we spent two days splashing around in the pool and getting high on lemonade. When we returned to camp, we passed the word along to the other men about the waterfalls. Strangely enough no one, including ourselves, ever found it To this day I wonder if I dreamed the whole thing up or did the river dry up in some ways.

Our rest period ended when we received the news: we were headed for The Philippines. In late 1944 we went north to renew our war.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
   A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Chapter 18

Armand Goes to the Philippines…

In the meanwhile other Charest family members were participating, foremost among them being Louis George. Even though he was severely handicapped, he joined the Merchant Marine that was responsible for bringing supplies and men to all theaters of war. Without the help of the brave civilian sailors who sailed through waters dominated by German and Japanese submarines, we could never have won the war. Here’s a salute to all of them.

Adrian Paquin joined me in New Guinea; Leo Forand landed in Europe; John Danese landed in North Africa; Lionel Hurteau went to North Africa.

The first island we hit was the large island of Mindoro, in the Central Philippines. Then we moved on to invade Mindanao and capture the city called Zamboanga, the second largest in the islands. It was my first and only taste of house-to-house fighting, the cruelest kind of war activity. Then followed a series of landings throughout the Southern islands: Basilan, Palawan, the Jolo archipelago are places that I remember most vividly. There occurred an incident on Palawan, the westernmost island that typified the cruelty of war.

Word reached headquarters of the 186th Regiment that the Japanese were holding a group of American and Filipino prisoners of war. The men hastily embarked on whatever ships were available. Even after a quick journey, the men were too late. Upon hearing of the impending rescue, the enemy high command ordered the prisoners to their barracks, whereupon the doors were locked and the buildings set on fire. Anyone who tried to escape was shot dead. There was no trial after the war to punish the guilty. Why, who knows?

We crossed the Bay and moved into the central part of the large island, in those days still largely uninhabited. I remember exploring the rivers as passengers on Amphibious Engineer boats and feeling that I was back in time. Most of the military actions concerned hills, climbing them while chasing away enemy soldiers. One particular hill has remained in my memory. It was somewhere on the Zamboanga peninsula. The Air corps (again) said it needed the area air base. All air bases were important, especially those the Air Corps boys and pilots did not attack on the ground.

We hit this particular hill overlooking the base at sun-up. The first and second platoons went up side by side with the third platoon in reserve. I was a machine gunner by then, so my main job was to give covering fire. It meant that I would fire live ammunition a few feet above the troops’ heads that had the hoped— for effect of keeping the enemy soldiers from hitting our own. Every time I received a certain signal I would then raise my sights, thus keeping my fire ahead of the attacking troops. At one point, perhaps because I was inattentive, the company commander screamed at me; “Frenchy, (as I was affectionately known) raise those blankety sights, you blankety dummy. You are in danger of hitting your own men.”

Eventually, the men reached the top, dislodging the enemy soldiers. I then moved my gun to the hilltop where I concentrated on protecting the boys. In some cases the Japanese would retire to the reverse side of the hill and would continue the attack by using hand grenades and mortars. It is now time to talk about that.

The Japanese hand grenade was shaped differently than ours. It had a pineapple shape, like ours but with a long neck. American grenades were stable unless the soldier pulled a pin that activated the powder train. When that occurred, the grenade exploded 4.5 seconds after the soldier threw it. On the other hand the Japanese grenade had a long neck and it was necessary for the soldier to hit the tip of the neck against a solid object like a rock or his helmet. We were awake to that sound. When we heard it, someone would yell: “grenade”. We would take appropriate action to avoid it as it came hurtling toward us.

Due to the Japanese method of training, Japanese military personnel were told not to surrender because the American soldiers were under orders to kill prisoners and civilians. That belief forced thousands of Japanese women to throw their babies and themselves over cliffs into the ocean. That happened on the islands of Saipan and Okinawa. In our situation sometimes when we heard the knocking noise we would see bits of belt buckles, shoes or helmets fly into the air as Japanese soldiers, who felt themselves trapped, would commit suicide by holding their grenades against their bodies.

We spent several months on Mindanao Island sometimes chasing, sometimes coming under fire, sometimes bringing back prisoners and American casualties and sometimes running into problems with Muslim guerrillas also called the Moros, the same people causing agonies to the present Filipino government. A funny incident happened that needs retelling. The Filipinos were crazy about American cigarettes. Since I did not smoke I exchanged my smokes for chickens.

One time I had a dozen chickens in my possession. I did not know how to hold them. So, I hit on the brilliant idea of tying them to the machine gun tripod. All night long the animals chipped and chirped, thus keeping the whole company on full alert. At daybreak came the fateful order from the company commander for that blankety-blank Frenchy to get rid of the blankety-blank chickens or else. We had fried chickens for several days!!!

Along with the local liquor concoction called Tuba, a vile smelling drink imbibed through a long bamboo pole. In the month of July, we got word to return to Zamboanga. We were not told the reason but we knew there was only one target left to hit: Japan itself.

We were right in our assumptions. That’s exactly what we were told. So once again we went into training with new recruits, new weapons and new techniques. There was one major difference. We would train and maneuver with other large bodies of men. To us that meant a major offensive somewhere on open land and no more jungle warfare.

At this time there had been some deep changes in the company roster, all the original National Guardsmen had gone home. It saddened me as well as delighted me that the old boys had survived and were going home for a well- deserved discharge. In the month of August there occurred two events of great importance: I became twenty-one; we dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The end of the war was in sight. We were relieved that we possibly would not invade Japan in an unfriendly way. On August 14th, the Japanese high command threw in the towel: the war was over.

Chapter 19

Armand Goes to Japan as Part of the US Occupation Forces…

In the beginning of September we embarked on transports bound for Japan. It was a perilous journey since it was also typhoon season. Things moved along peacefully until we entered Japanese waters. Our destination, the naval base of Kure, was located at the southern tip of the main island, Honshu. It was also the location of the remnants of the Japanese fleet that at one time was the world’s largest after Great Britain and the United States. The surrender terms obligated Japan to bring its remaining ships to Kure. The way to the base lay through a narrow channel that meandered between rocky islands. Sure enough the tail end of a typhoon hit us just as we entered the narrows. The ship reared and plunged into the deep troughs, rolled sideways, dipped and twisted, rocked and rolled. We were told, needlessly it seemed to us, not to bother the sailors (as if we would). Most of us were too sick to do or say anything. I was never so afraid in my life. How the naval crew brought the ship into port remains a mystery. My hat’s off to them all!

Kure was a large city but we saw signs of war everywhere. I don’t think I need to explain once more war’s destructive fury. The 162nd Regiment had to move into Japanese Naval barracks, perhaps ten miles from the debarkation point. We saw no civilian the first day. Our march proceeded without incident. It was an eerie feeling that put us on edge. We certainly realized that there were just a few thousands of us and several million Japanese. We thought we were on a typical war movie set. Japanese policemen lined the streets with their backs to us as they faced the houses. The only sound was that of marching feet. We realized that we were making history since we were the first foreign soldiers to set foot in Japan. To their great credit the Japanese population accepted occupation with a brave face. A week later we were all mixing like a big family.

We were in the area for two reasons: to disarm the military, that is to find and destroy all weapons of war; to set up road blocks leading into Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bomb drop.

During the last week of September we visited the city in truck parties. No one was allowed to stroll or to wander through the ruins. There were only a few buildings still standing, although the stairs had crumbled and the windows had disappeared. It was a desolate and sad, lonely place. Picture Los Angeles with only a few buildings with the rest of the city a heap of jumbled stones and burned out houses reaching from the ocean to the Santa Monica Mountains. I saw no living human beings except ourselves. The bridges over the river had been cut in half. At the airfield on the city’s outskirts the remains of countless airplanes were jumbled up in one corner of the field as if a giant hand had flung them there.

We observed from a distance the bomb’s destructive power. Miles from the city center houses tilted away from the blast’s effect; closer yet, roofs had disappeared and windows blown away. We saw very few people in the general area.

Our daily routine consisted of going on jeep patrols into the surrounding hills looking for concealed or emplaced weapons. We would bring in reports to headquarters. The weapons were then carted off to be destroyed.

We were surprised by the number of large storage tanks in every village into which the people dumped their nightly accumulation of human waste. The farmers would then scoop up the mess, by means of long-handled buckets, that would be used as fertilizers. Due to our lack of resistance to this farming method we were under orders not to eat local food.

In Kure lay a vast dry-dock loaded with midget submarines. The engineers dumped everything into it including the kitchen sink. The dock was eventually towed away and sunk in the ocean. There was also guard duty in town and at the checkpoints leading into the city. These were handled by the military police. We stepped aside and allowed the scientists and moralists to visit Hiroshima. Then they would write about the immorality of dropping the bomb. The act itself was not immoral. What made it immoral was the building of more and bigger bombs after the war.

The city buildings were filled with concrete bunkers, shaped like igloos with large openings through which soldiers could fire weapons, thus preventing other enemy soldiers from moving forward. We had two weapons to destroy bunkers. There was something called a “satchel charge”, a large cumbersome device shaped like a suitcase filled with explosives that some unfortunate soldier carried as he sneaked around the back, climbed on top and heaved the case through the opening.

The other weapon was the flamethrower, a combustible fuel discharged through a nozzle attached to a flexible line. The fuel came from two tanks that a soldier carried on his back. Upon depressing the nozzle button, the two fuels in the tanks combined. The result: a tongue of fire shot out and traveled perhaps thirty feet that found its way into the bunker through the opening. The result was horrifying. There is no need to say more. I have always refused to contemplate the fall-out from an armed invasion. It would have been a bloodbath of infinite order.

The civilian population was rather friendly, even though it faced the possibility of mass starvation in the winter of 1945-46. The army did its best, distributing whatever food it could spare. It did not prevent the civilians from searching through our garbage dumps for food. It became so bad that the army stationed troops at the dumps. The idea being to limit the possibility of disease.

It took a while for us to make friends with Japanese families. I suppose that in their own ways the Japanese people gave us back our humanity by their acceptance of foreigners, even some who probably had killed their family members. I remember speaking to families who had relatives disappear in the South Pacific Islands. But we seldom if ever discussed the war and certainly not the dropping of the bomb. It was as if all of us were extremely tired of war and killing.

In October we moved up the Eastern Coast of Honshu; other companies went to the West Coast to continue the disarming of Japan. Believe me there were plenty of armaments to destroy. I still shiver today when I contemplate the U.S.Army’s effort to fight the Japanese in their home territory. By early December the division was deactivated. At Christmas time we headed for home.

Chapter 20

On Justification for the Atomic Bomb…

Hiroshima lay in a basin similar to the city of Los Angeles with mountains on three sides. When the bomb exploded at 7,000 feet, the hot wind traveled at supersonic speed toward the mountains and then ricocheted to the city catching the population outside their bomb shelters. At this point it may be the right time to discuss the bomb, its effect, the reasons for using it and ramifications.

There have been countless books and articles written about that event. By and large most authors condemned the use of the bomb. Some writers objected for theological reasons, some for humanitarian reasons, and others for political reasons. Very few writers discussed the war from the point of view of the men fighting the war, the men who died every day the war went on.

As late as July, 1945, the Allies meaning the United States, China, Great Britain, Australia, Holland and India were suffering a huge amount of casualties; some historians estimated as many as 7,500 per day. Japan was far from being defeated. True, its navy was reduced to a few ships and its air force consisted mainly of airplanes flown by suicide-prone pilots. But its army was still intact. Its strength on Japan proper was placed at two million men; in Korea, Formosa (Taiwan), China there were over two millions; in French Indo-China (Vietnam), Thailand and Burma, over 200,000; in Indonesia and The Philippines, over 300,000; in the by-passed Southern Pacific Islands well over 100,000 still roamed the jungles.

The U.S. Navy was losing one ship per week; the British and Indian armies were fighting in Burma; The Philippines and Okinawa had still not been pacified; fighting was still going on in the Solomon Islands, 1,500 miles from Japan. There’s no way to estimate the Chinese casualties. In fact, Great Britain was already planning the invasion of Malaya in September 1945. So Japan still showed much fighting ability.

Some historians insist that Japan had already approached Russia with overtures of peace. That is correct. The terms included the right to keep conquered lands. The idea was never taken seriously by the Allies.

I leave it to Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, to further instruct the readers concerning the war’s last days.

“As we understood the situation in July 1945, there was a very strong possibility that the Japanese Government might determine upon resistance to the end, in all areas of the Far East under its control. In such an event the Allies would be faced with the enormous task of destroying an armed force of five million men and five thousand suicide aircraft, belonging to a race that had already amply demonstrated its ability to fight literally to the death.

Map of Kyoshu Island Drawn by Armand Charest

The strategic plans of our armed forces for the defeat of Japan as they stood in July had been prepared without reliance upon the atomic bomb, which had not yet been tested in New Mexico. We were planning an intensified sea and air blockade and strategic air bombing through the summer and early Fall, to be followed on November 1 by an invasion of the southern island of Kyushu. This would be followed in turn by an invasion of the main island of Honshu in the spring of 1946. The total U.S. military and naval force involved in this grand design was of the order of five million men.

Let me interrupt the narrative.

I have drawn a map of the invasion of Kyushu Island scheduled for November 1, 1945. The reader will notice that the Marines were given the dangerous job of taking the city, a major port and industrial center. The 4ls Division (mine) along with two others would have had the mission of cutting the peninsula off from reinforcements most likely rushed in by the Japanese army. It would have been a fight to the finish because the Japanese soldiers as well as the civilians would have fought to the last survivor. After so many years I still shudder at the thought of it! I have already described the prevalence of bunkers in buildings. I forgot to add that there existed larger bunkers on every major street intersection. The large Bay would then have become the staging area for the invasion of Honshu Island in the following spring. The area could easily have accommodated the entire American Pacific Fleet. The Secretary continued with his assessment:

“We estimated that if we should be forced to carry this plan to its conclusion, the major fighting would not end until the latter part of 1946, at the earliest. I was informed that such operations might be expected to cost over a million casualties to American forces alone. Additional large losses might be expected among our Allies and, of course, if our campaign were successful and if we could judge by previous experiences enemy casualties would be much larger than ours.

It was already clear in July that even before the invasion we should be able to inflict enormously severe damage on the Japanese homeland by the combined applications of conventional sea and air power. The critical question was whether this kind of action would induce surrender. It therefore became necessary to consider very carefully the probable state of mind of the enemy and end his will to resist.”

Stimson wrote a memorandum to the President on July 2, 1945 on the proposed program toward Japan.

1) The plans of operation up to and including the first landing have been authorized and the preparations for the operation are now actually going on;

2) There is reason to believe that the operation for the occupation of Japan after the landing may be very a very long, costly and arduous struggle on our part. The terrain, much of which I have visited several times, has left the impression on my memory of being one that would be susceptible to a last ditch defense such as been made on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The home islands are very much larger than either of those two places.

3) If we once land on the main islands and begin a forceful occupation of Japan, we shall probably have cast the die of last ditch resistance. The Japanese are highly patriotic and certainly susceptible to calls for fanatical resistance to repel an invasion. Once started in actual invasion we shall in my opinion have to go through with an even more bitter fight than we had with Germany. We shall incur the losses incident to such a war and we shall have to leave the Japanese Islands even more thoroughly destroyed than was the case with Germany.”

The Secretary goes on to question whether it would be worthwhile for the U.S. to give Japan a warning, thus giving it time to think about surrender. He then wonders if a demonstration of the bomb’s destructive power would serve the same purpose. But since the country only had enough materials for two bombs, the decision was made to drop them on Hiroshima on August 6 and on Nagasaki on August 9. After much deliberation among the Japanese commanders and politicians failed to produce a decision, the Emperor settled matters by agreeing to peace terms. And that’s how your grandpa lived to a ripe old age. May I say one final word on the subject?

President Truman was duty bound to use every weapon at his disposal to end the war and prevent more American casualties. He could not, in good conscience, ignore a weapon that could end hostilities. He had to use it. It was not the dropping of the bomb that was immoral, it was what happened after the war when the leading powers, with the help of scientists of all nations, continued to develop more dangerous weapons such as the hydrogen bomb and intercontinental missiles some of which carried as many as ten warheads, capable of hitting ten different targets and obliterating every one of them. When will the human race ever destroy its nuclear arsenals? I don’t know but I pray and hope that future generations become wiser than the previous generations and eradicate them once and for all, before the weapons eradicate the human race!

I hope and pray that every Charest child studies and remembers this story. Grandpa possibly participated in the last major war on this suffering planet. I feel at times that the sacrifices and lives we lost were in vain, especially when I perceive that the world’s leaders are still uncaring and corrupt, that the munitions makers and bankers still profit off the misery of the working classes. Then I think of all my wonderful family members, children, grandchildren and great- grandchildren. I smile and I realize that there is my reward!

Chapter 21

Armand Comes Home From the War…and His parting Words

We all returned from the war and settled down raising families. There was a big and warm welcome party for me. I had been gone for two long years. I still remember the voyage home in a big lumbering navy transport. We docked in San Francisco with a brass band on the pier and ladies from the Salvation Army handing out coffee and donuts. We proceeded to camp aboard a ferry through the bay with another big band on board. The first meal at midnight consisted of steak along with all the milk we could drink; it was the first taste of milk in two years! We traveled to Mass. in a special train to be discharged. Mine came on January 20, 1946. The war was really over.

Alphonse Charest died in January 1945; Emilie Charest followed him in October 1957. Some children of the next generation followed us into the service: Roger Forbes served in Germany; two of Theresa’s boys served in the Marines. My oldest son, Ronald, served in the navy for 22 years retiring as a Senior Chief, the top rank among enlisted personnel. A son-in-Lazslo Fodor served in the army in Germany. The oldest of the nine Charest children died in 1994. At this time the remaining eight are still in relatively good health. Some of the grandchildren have married and are raising families of their own. And life goes on, one generation following another. I have placed our ancestors on a family tree, hoping that those who follow think of them once in a while.

In 1954 I met Miss Martha Wilkens in New York, the only child of hardworking German immigrants, at a dance in the local YMCA of all places. We had four great children and twenty years of a good marriage. I had moved to the New York area in early 1951 to search for work. I intended to pick up a few dollars and then to move on to Calif. As it turned out I stayed for 25 years.

I retired in 1987 and I then toured to country for four months. I saw beautiful scenery and then I met Joe the Greek. I had heard while overseas that a shadowy figure somewhere in the division had the moonshine (again) concession. He sold the stuff at $5.00 per gallon. Nobody really knew who he was. On my trip I happened to have been in Western Montana on Labor Day weekend. I noticed a sign in the local motel advertising the meeting of the 41 St Division survivors. I took what was possibly the last available room in town. As stepped out of my room I encountered an ex-soldier. You guessed it. It was Joe the Greek!!! We had many laughs during those few days. One night got drunk on liquor and old stories. I looked for men of E Company. None showed up. It was the final chapter and the last roundup.

It has been a generally good life for the Charest family. Tragedies have been few and far between. We were all blessed with good genes from Alphonse and Emilie. May the good times roll on for all of us!

Epilogue: 

It is now time to speak to my children, my grandchildren and all other beautiful children who will succeed them.

I end the Charest family history with a few thoughts for its descendants. You must become more civilized than the previous generations, as all generations should do. That means working for peace, striving for understanding between nations, cultures and religions. You must abolish wars. If you intend to live Christian lives, then live them m practice, not only in beliefs. No one has the right to take another’s life, not even the state. The real evils are ignorance, the absence of civil rights, the lack of educational opportunities, the abuse of the working class by employers and governments alike, a corrosive weapons-building industry that keeps the world in turmoil, that makes it possible for ambitious politicians to acquire those weapons at bargain rates to subvert and overthrow governments, thus preventing those same governments from devoting resources to benefit all their people. It is a sad thing to say but our own government is the world’s biggest weapon supplier.

Future generations must reverse that situation if they want to feel civilized. The Constitution must be preserved and strengthened, especially the First and 14th amendments. To deny rights to someone because others do no agree with. that someone is to run the risk of denying those rights to everyone at some time or other. My descendants should heed the words of a Roman poet by the name of Virgil who wrote in the First Century BC: “The majestic roll of circling centuries begins anew; justice returns with a new breed on men from heaven and the iron age shall cease, the golden age arise and wars will be no more.”

I wish all my descendants good health, good fortune and good lives!

Signature of Armand Charest

Editors Note: Armand was still active and healthy until late August 2002. Then one morning he fell in the lobby of the senior citizens home where he was living in Costa Mesa, California. There was a subsequent series of cascading events, and a week later he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. He recovered somewhat, but was confined to a wheelchair and required constant medical care. His middle son Howard and Howard’s wife Pam, daughter Katie, took care of him in their home in Whittier, California for the next year.

Armand’s health continued to deteriorate during the year, and by September 2003 he needed to be in a nursing home with 24 hour care. During this year all of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were able to come out for a visit. He lost his last battle and passed away the evening of February 14, 2004. He was buried as per his wishes in a Military Cemetery in Riverside, California with full military honors. I received his flag.

Armand, at the age of 79, was only the second of the nine children of Alphonse and Emilie Charest to pass on.




The Memoirs of Armand Charest Part II

Armand CharestThe Charest-Frenchette Family in America: A Success Story

Editors Note: Shortly before my father had his stroke which ultimately was fatal, I managed to convince him to write some stories and family history. I promised him I would get them at least published on a family website if he did. Well, with a lot of “encouragement” from myself and possibly my brother Howard, Dad did write some of the family stories.
 I have taken the liberty of re-formatting Dad’s writings to be suitable for this website. Otherwise, I have posted them as written. I may on occasion add some editorial comments of my own; these will be clearly marked when I do.
 Ron Charest.

Part II – The Pacific Engagements

Chapter 6

Armand ships out for the South Pacific and Combat Action…

I reported to Texas in late August of 1943 for seventeen weeks of basic infantry training. It was rough going at first, especially the long hikes over dusty Texas roads. But soon enough I became accustomed to the daily routine of exercise, training and close-order marching. I gained twenty-five pounds and grew three inches in height.

In December I received leave and I spent Christmas with the family in Rhode Island. My father accompanied me to the train taking me back to the war. I knew instinctively that I would not see him again.

I reported to the San Francisco area from where I shipped out to Australia in January of 1944. I joined the 41st Division, a division made up primarily of National Guardsmen from the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, in the city of Rockhampton in the part of the country called Queensland. I discovered Australia to be a friendly one whose inhabitants were very grateful for the Americans’ presence. I had spent a few days at a camp outside the large city of Brisbane. We were not allowed to visit the city without a pass, which was never given.

So we found a way out of camp through what we called the Burma Road and checked out the city, making sure we avoided the MPs. We then traveled to Rockhampton by rail, a trip that took several days as we moved through the empty outback country. At the end of

January, by which time we had acclimated to the hot weather, the division sailed for New Guinea, a strange world inhabited by strange but gentlepeople. We were stationed at a place called Lae, the departure town for the famous aviatrix, Amelia Earhart who later disappeared over the Pacific and has never been found

On April 27, we landed at Hollandia, just inside the Dutch part of the island. There was not much fighting because the Japanese troops fled into interior, leaving us much food and tea, hot tea. The next landing occurred on May the 27th and that is where my military experiences really began. For many years I had put the whole war behind me but a small boy brought it all back one day. I wish to explain to my descendants the pain, horror and destruction of war as well as the bravery, courage and devotion to duty of all participants, on both sides of the war.

Chapter 7

Armand’s First Encounter with Sergeant Theodore Brown…

I stood at curbside absent-minded watching the drum and bugle corps swinging by on Main Street. The flags snapped in the light breeze coming off the Pacific Ocean. It was’ Memorial Day, 1994, a truly exciting occasion for the onlookers who remembered the reason for the parade. I did not quite know why I stood there. As a general rule I avoided parades since I had seen so many in the past, especially in the military. A small voice interrupted my reverie.

“Hey, gramps, ain’t you got no politeness for the flag? Ain’t you gonna salute?”

Startled, I looked down at a freckle faced redheaded boy about the age of ten. He was eyeing me in a quizzical manner, his smile removing any sting from his remark.

“Sure I replied, “I guess I just forgot.”

I pressed my hand to my heart and came to attention, alertly watching the flag. The flag, I mused. It’s been fifty years since I defended it with my life, but it seems only yesterday. Where has the time gone? Soon we will be celebrating the big invasion: D-Day, Normandy. There will be the usual ceremonies at the beaches where the politicians will be up front making speeches, pointless and self-serving for the most part; they will then lay wreaths in the military cemeteries while piously proclaiming the need for understanding among nations. I am sure that for centuries soldiers have heard the same thing.

Perhaps some returning veterans will be interviewed and will be asked inane and dumb questions such as: “How did it feel to go ashore on June, 6th? What outfit were you with?”

For the most part they will be patronized and perhaps viewed as doddering half-senile old coots. They certainly will not look like soldiers, certainly not like the trim and tough men who hit the French beaches. The stomachs will protrude a bit, the faces will be fleshier, the hair thinner, the backs a bit more stooped, the legs no longer as strong. I sighed as I thought back to that time.

I realized that it was May 29th. I let my mind drift back fifty years to May 27th, 1944, as my division approached the island of Biak, off the northeastern coast of Dutch New Guinea, which is now part of Indonesia.

We had been told by G-2 (military intelligence) that the island was essential to the leap-frogging strategy of the high command. Since it was mostly coral, the Japanese had constructed three large first class airfields on a huge plateau.

We were solemnly assured that the Air Force and the Navy needed them as they prepared for their assault on the Philippines. So the job of seizing the island was given to the 41st inf., a veteran division, comprised mostly of National Guardsmen with a leavening of draftees, many of who were untried replacements.

I had joined the outfit in Australia and I had already participated in an invasion. At the age of nineteen I considered myself a seasoned soldier. I was also a first class griper. It was during one of my tirades that I made the acquaintance of T. J. Brown, staff sergeant in the third platoon. I was in the first so we had not met frequently before. He happened to be walking by as I was sounding off:

“What are we doing here anyway in this God forsaken place? Who cares if the Japs control these empty islands? There’s nothing here but palm trees and a few savages? By the time we’ve cleared them we’ll all be dead and for no good reason”.

No one answered me. My listeners were new arrivals with no opinion. But then T.J. stepped forward. He had a kind, smooth shaven face, clear blue eyes and a mustache that he always kept trim. Sgt. Brown was, without argument, the most popular man m E Co. He was a strict but extreme1y fair leader. The men of the third platoon knew that he would always look after their interest, would always be there to talk about their problems. T.J. Brown was loved and respected by all. Due to his leadership abilities, E Co.2nd battalion, 162nd Regiment was a first class outfit. He answered me in a soft voice:

“Easy, young fellow, easy. Don’t let your anger cloud your mind. Have you forgotten Pearl Harbor? Don’t you know that the Imperial forces of Japan have been fighting in China for the past ten years? That makes the Chinese people victims of aggression, the same as Americans. They happen to be in the way of Japanese plans for control of East Asia.

God has not forsaken us. He never will. Sure, many of us will die. No one lives forever anyway. And, remember this young man, you may be taking part in the last major war in history. Men cannot keep killing each other forever. Sooner or later reason will prevail and we will find other means of resolving national differences without war. Our sacrifices here, yours as well as mine, may possibly prevent our grandchildren from having to repeat this someday”.

I fell silent, mollified, thankful for his intervention. Sergeant Theodore Jefferson Brown had just won one more admirer.

Chapter 8

The Battle of Biak Island, D-Day May 27, 1944…

Editor’s Note: This starts Dad’s description of the battle of Biak Island. I have done a bit of research and located some websites that describe present day Biak island, which is now part of Indonesia. These websites will be listed at the end of each chapter of the Battle for Biak Island. The present day descriptions of Biak corroborates Dad’s narrative.

I have to wonder if Dad’s narrative is the only eye-witness account of the battle written.

Map drawn by Armand Charest of the Biak Island Engagement

Let us fast reel forward. E is hitting the beach in an ungainly but deadly efficient ship called an L.C.I. (landing craft, infantry). This guarantees us dry feet as the boat will ease up to a jetty and we will walk down a ramp onto it. I am restrained by space to explain fully the intricacies of sea borne invasions as carried out by the U.S. Navy, to describe the awesome power of an attacking fleet and the make up of a W.W.2 army division.

A beach landing was a difficult undertaking requiring precision planning and timing. After many such operations, sometimes tragic, the navy had succeeded in achieving a high degree of professionalism. We GI Joes appreciated the skill and dedication of the crazy sailors. Let me take some time to explain the details of a beach invasion.

The size of the fleet depended on the size of the landing force that depended on the area to be invaded. In a typical landing the landing force ranged from a division of 15,000 men to a regiment of 3,000 men. The attacking force usually sailed on giant troopships each carrying several thousand men. Navy ships traveled in lanes: the outer lane held any aircraft carriers; next sailed battleships; then came the cruisers and transports. Destroyers circled the fleet, watching for Japanese aircraft or submarines.

Aircraft usually opened festivities by taking off from carriers and dropping bombs on the beaches or further inland. Battleships then opened up and sent 16-in. shells from 20 miles away on designated targets. The whole panorama of war was extremely thrilling. Perhaps that is why men love war so much. Here you had planes swooping low over the beaches, dropping bombs or sometimes strafing targets; shells coming in would sound like trains one hears from a distance. At a designated time the army troops would line up next to the ship railings preparing to climb down cargo nets.

Down below small boats able to carry forty men or one platoon maneuvered close to the transports, bobbing up and down like a worn out cork. The four platoon Sergeants were the first ones down into the boats. Their job was to steady the nets and advising the men when to jump into the boats. If one jumped too soon when the boat was on the upswing, one ran the danger of suffering injuries. If one jumped too late, then one took a chance on breaking a leg. The men had to tie their steel helmets securely or someone down below could get hit by a flying steel pot.

My machine gun was passed down very carefully from one man to another. All in all forty men could scramble down in a few minutes. When the little boat became filled it moved out and another one moved in. You must remember that there were two or three loading stations on each side of the ship. The little boats then circled while waiting for further instructions. This part of the operation was usually classified as SNAFU (situation normal all fouled up).

As the Little boats circled, the boatswain would watch for a flare shot off by a naval officer. When it came the boats formed into a straight line and waited. This operation was called TARFU (Things are really fouled up). It was called that because the boats were not usually in the proper places, so they did not have full companies together. When the second flare shot up, the boats sped away toward the shore. At some close point all aircraft and battleships ceased activities. Then the lucky sailor sitting up on the stem opened up with his machine gun and raked the beach until we hit it or until he ran out of bullets. What happened after we hit the beaches constitutes another story. Suffice it to say that at this point the acronym was FUBAR (fouled up beyond recognition).

Our L.C.I. was equipped with dozens of rows of quick firing rocket tubes. So as we approached the beach we witnessed the first ship-to-shore rocket attack in the South Pacific as the tubes belched hundreds of 3-in rockets. We were awed and appalled as those terrifying messengers of death rained down on the beach area and surrounding jungles. It was a dreadful sight. There is no limit to man”s ability to inflict pain and suffering on his fellow man. I remembered again T.J. “s words and hardened my heart. Some rockets hit the ridges and ricocheted into the air like screaming banshees right out of hell.

Ours is the second wave. The first battalion has preceded us and is already on the march to its objective (see map). The second is to move along the coastal road to the airfields. Since the first has the longer distance to cover, we are given the job of securing the landing area before moving on. This we do. Patrols fan out across the hog back ridges. The third battalion is kept on the ships in reserve. It will land on the second day.

We wonder at the inactivity of the tough Japanese soldiers. It is not their nature to be so passive. We should have suspected something, but in our arrogance we deride G-2″s estimate of ten thousand China war veterans. E Co. sustains a few casualties on the first day, but we are not alarmed. We spend the night in makeshift corrugated-roofed huts. That does not turn out to be a good idea. It rains all night. The noise keeps us awake.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Chapter 9

D-Day Plus One…

Map drawn by Armand Charest of the Biak Island Engagement

The second day is uneventful. Early in the morning E Co. leads the advance followed by G and F, with the heavy Weapons Company H dispersed among the three line outfits. It is a great day for a hike. The sky is cloudless and the air fresh due to an onshore breeze. A navy destroyer covers our left flank. It moves along slowly, in a zigzagging manner. We can see the lookouts keeping an eye on us. We are thankful for the support. The invasion is turning into a picnic.

The only problem is the lack of drinking water. But that is soon rectified as the engineers find abandoned wells that they restore to working order.

The National Guard veterans, who have been in the South Pacific area a long time, do not share our joviality. I remember First Sergeant Jim Duncan advising us to be cautious and not to take things so casually. We pay little attention; we should have because the next day”s events prove him to be correct.

The scouts move along at a rapid pace; they report no enemy activity. We become complacent and careless. We bed down for the night on a section of beach reminiscent of the movie scenes where the boy and girl discuss their future under a full moon with an ebb tide for company. The only problem arises from relentless attacks of gigantic army ants as they fed on us the whole night. So it is with relief that we assemble the next morning and leave the field to our tormentors.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Chapter 10

D-Day Plus Two… The morning engagement and first Banzi charge

Map drawn by Armand Charest of the Biak Island Engagement

This day G Co. takes the lead followed by. F. and then E. G moves out cautiously since the map shows that we are getting close to the airfields. I can feel the tension mount. We no longer joke. Scouts move up the road and on the right flank. We are hindered there because the ridges angle more and more to the left; in effect limiting our maneuverability.

As a result we cannot deploy and are forced to stay in file formation. I then notice that there are now two navy ships and that both of them have moved closer to shore. We can feel danger all around us. All talking ceases. We hold our weapons at the ready. My throat feels dry all of a sudden. My heartbeat ratchets up a notch or two. I have difficulty with my breathing. I grip my weapon more tightly. My eyes move up and down the ridges. I become afraid.

The road dips down into a hollow and goes along that way for perhaps a quarter mile before gradually rising onto the plateau upon which are located the three airfields. At that point the beach disappears into steep cliffs. G moves cautiously, slowly into the depression. The scouts increase their vigilance, methodically feel their way ahead, clamber over obstacles. We feel that the ridges are impassable so no G.I. is up there. Big mistake!! I have a premonition of disaster, as if we are about to be overwhelmed by a calamity.

I look back and feel relief to see medium “Sherman” tanks following close behind. The order comes through: keep alert, close up the order of march. I can feel the adrenaline pumping a bit faster. My pulse rate increases. At mid-morning the invisible Japanese make their presence known and the 2nd battalion, 162nd Inf., is in a deadly fight for its existence.

First to be hit is G. As it emerges onto the plateau and before it can deploy into open order, the well-trained Japanese smash into it like a whirlwind. First to go are the lead scouts. The enemy troops circle around and slip between G and F. To the crackling of rifle fire are added the deep devil”s tattoos of heavy Japanese machine guns as their bullets search for unlucky G.Is and the whomping of murderous mortar shells as they fall among us like angels of death.

It is no contest. G never has a chance. In minutes, literally, it is overwhelmed and ceases to exist as a fighting unit. The few survivors, those nearest the cliffs, take refuge there and await relief. The navy crews become aware of the situation, pump shells from their twin 20 mm. guns upon the onrushing enemy infantry and rake the ridge tops with covering fire. But the human tornado moves on.

F Company has a little time to get ready and since it is on softer ground the men are able to dig in a bit. It slows down the juggernaut, just enough for E to deploy and form a line from the beach to the ridges. By this time the artillery has been alerted and soon the “long toms”(155 mm. rifles) back at the landing area start searching for targets.

Their heavy shells sound like freight trains as they pass overhead; the ground shakes as they land. F”s machine guns go into action. The air is rent with the noise of exploding shells, the sharp reports of rifle fire, the crash of destroyed tree tops, the cries of the wounded. All is bedlam. But F cannot hold and it receives orders to fall back through E. By this time E has dug in and has established a solid defense line and the weary survivors of F stream through to serve as a reserve.

I remember thinking about the unexplained courage of soldiers everywhere who without hesitancy hurl themselves upon enemy guns knowing full well they have no chance to survive. The attacking Japanese are no exception. With that in mind I crouch in my foxhole waiting, watching, praying, hoping that I would prove capable of being called soldier. We do not wait long.

We hear the war cry that has guided and animated the Imperial forces to conquest after conquest. From hundreds of voices comes the dreaded “Banzai”. Without being given an order to do so, we open fire with every weapon at our command. The noise is ear splitting. To the whomp whomp of the navy guns is added the shriek of heavy artillery shells.

By a stroke of dumb luck my foxhole is next to the road. So I have a clear view. The Japanese come on with fixed bayonets. We are not able to contain the charge entirely. Some get through, but are dealt with by the reserves. Dead enemy bodies lie next to me on the road. I hear a clanking noise. Two “Shermans” move into position adding their firepower to ours. I do not look up when I hear a crunching noise. I pray it isn’t what I fear it is.

Fortunately for the average soldier a firefight usually does not last long and he is too busy to be afraid. The fright comes before and after. I am too occupied to think of fear. My main thought is about survival. The Japanese wave washes up to our guns, hesitates, recoils, rolls forward again and then falls back-but only for a short while. Twice more the courageous enemy soldiers move forward screaming their blood curdling battle cry. Dead bodies cover the ground in front of our foxholes. The Japanese do not hesitate to climb over their fallen comrades to get at us.

But E has not escaped unscathed. I hear cries for medics and stretcher-bearers. A call comes in from the navy: “You have company on the ridges. We think the enemy is trying to circle around you”. We thank the sailors. F co. men are sent up to prevent further encroachment.

During the excitement the non-coms are everywhere: directing fire, keeping the men calm, pointing out targets. None is more visible than T.J. Brown. He is an inspiration and a rock. He is the quintessential soldier, the reassuring voice, and the glue holding the company together. But we caution him to keep down a bit. He has to be reminded from time to time about his worth to us.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Chapter 11

D-Day Plus Two… The afternoon engagement

Map drawn by Armand Charest of Biak Island engagement

By mid-afternoon there is a break in the fighting. The enemy pulls back to regroup. Treetops lie everywhere-covering friend and foe alike. The smell of cordite hangs heavy in the air. Navy guns cease firing. Our heavy artillery keeps up a desultory fire. We count heads, drink some water, replenish our ammunition supply, and take some rest.

Our friends will come back: we know this through bitter experience. T.J. is his usual self, cracking jokes, looking to the men”s needs, counseling and advising the living, comforting the injured. He is a true father figure to the new men. Even though there aren’t as many of us now, Sgt. Brown assures us that we can hold. We believe him. A few scouts go forward, report that the Japanese are re-grouping, massing for another attack.

They return with tanks this time. They throw everything at us. I”m very busy for a while. I cannot describe adequately the noise and confusion, the bravery and discipline of the attackers, the resolute defense of E, the glory and terror of war. True, it is a minor skirmish and not too important in the greater picture, but I have had a bellyful of war by that time, enough to last me a lifetime.

The Navy guns come alive, join in the cacophony of sounds filling our world. My iron and steel neighbors are unremitting in their cannon and machine gun fire. They concentrate on the enemy tanks, put them out of action. I am a ringside spectator to the first tank action in the area. Dante could never have pictured this kind of inferno. We take a frightful toll on the enemy. To this day I have no knowledge of how long the battle lasted. When the Japanese finally retire in the gloomy twilight, we get the idea that they will not soon return. We have no idea how wrong we were!

The silence that follows the cease firing order is eerie and mind-boggling.

Our ears still resonate; it takes a while to adjust. We flinch as we survey the immediate area. Bodies are stacked everywhere in debasingly grotesque positions. I feel that I”m in a giant cemetery. We talk in hushed tones as we once again count heads.

The sailors blink some kind of message; we thank and congratulate them in return. The ships do not leave. I”m happy to see that T.J. is still on his feet. Now I feel that he is truly indestructible. It is time to rest, but we make our positions stronger, remove the wounded and the dead; more men move up to the ridge as a precautionary measure.

A quick count shows that the 2nd battalion has absorbed about four hundred casualties. Only E is still intact out of the three line companies. We do not have the desire to check the Japanese dead. We leave that unpleasant task to the Intelligence people. G and F companies are merged with E. A quick foray to the cliffs brings in the G survivors.

We spend a very disquieting night. It rains, of course. During all my time in combat, this situation never changed. Rain always fell after a battle making friend and foe equally uncomfortable. We could not have slept, anyway; we were all so keyed up. There was no need to post guards. No one talked, not even in whispers. The enemy showed no activity. Even they had had enough for one day.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Chapter 12

D-Day Plus Three… Retreat and Regroup

Map drawn by Armand Charest of the Biak Island engagement

Just after dawn the call goes out for volunteers. A reconnaissance patrol is needed to check on the enemy’s dispositions. Naturally Sgt. Brown is first in line. The Captain frowns on this, believes that T.J. takes too many chances. The Sgt. insists on going.

A dozen men step forward. At the same time the Japanese resume mortar fire. That is ignored for the most part since that weapon is notoriously ineffective and inaccurate. The consequences are tragic and unforgettable. As the patrol is forming up, one shell lands in the middle of the group. Five men are killed and the rest wounded. The dead are: Able, Anderson, Grove, Miller and one Sergeant Brown.

I’ll never forget the shock that swept through E at the news:

“T.J. bought it”
“The Japs finally got Brown”
“You’re joking, not Brownie”
“He was indestructible!
“Oh God, no.”

The patrol is called off as the Japanese move forward once more. By this time the heavy machine guns of H Co. have finally arrived, so the attack is blunted quite easily. We do not realize that the frontal attack is a diversion, however. The enemy has succeeded in turning our flank and is now positioned in back of E Co, cutting it off from regimental support. F or all intents and purposes E Co. are surrounded on three sides. The only escape is by sea!

After a conference between the company commander and regimental headquarters, it is decided that E Co. will pull back to a staging area where

Amphibious engineers will be waiting to take it off the beach. The high command has also arranged for the air corps to give E Co. cover from the air in the form of B-25 bombers, the best plane for that operation. At two P.M. E Co. leaves the foxholes and moves to the rear. The tank crews will take their tanks through the rear Japanese lines. They cannot be evacuated by sea.

At 2:10 the planes come roaring down the road with their four nose machine guns spewing hundreds of bullets per minute. From the air friend and foe look alike, so the air gunners in the lead plane make a terrible mistake. Bullets meant for the pursuing Japanese hit American G.Is. For some mysterious reason I am spared but men on each side of me are hit. Their heads disintegrate. I freeze in place. A Sergeant gives me a shove and I resume the march. Fortunately, someone from the ground reaches the pilots so the mistake does not recur as following planes move further up the road before opening fire.

We finally reach the beach and climb aboard the amphibious boats for the long trip back to the starting point. We have no idea what will happen next, but we are sure of one thing. The fight for Biak Island has just started.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Chapter 13

D-Day Plus Four… The Morning Engagement

Map drawn by Armand Charest of the Biak Island Engagement

We were in a foul humor when we disembarked on the jetty, our initial landing spot. To make matters worse, a torrential downpour blanketed the entire beach area so that we had no idea where we were. Not only did we feel humiliated we were also hungry. Sergeant Duncan put things in perspective when he announced that hot coffee and donuts were waiting for us thanks to the good ladies of the Salvation Army. He lightened the moment and made life bearable again.

It was complete dark and still raining when we disembarked for the second time. We filed up to empty shacks that afforded shelter from the rain. The k-rations were still k -rations, nothing had changed. We did have Canned Heat cans that heated up our coffee. So we spent another night listening to the raindrops beat a crazy tattoo on the roofs. We could hardly wait for the morning and get back to the war (Huh?).

This time the top command decreed that the 2nd battalion (what was left of it) would follow the First over the ridges and come onto the fields from the rear. The rain had let up, something that cheered us up, but not for long. The ridges are straight up and straight down. The coral raises hell with our shoes and clothing.

We pass through guard detachments provided by the engineers. Let me say something about engineers. The war could not possibly have been won without the engineers. Their main reason for existence was to provide the infantry with drinking water and food. That they did admirably and without complaints. My hat is off to them!

As we move up to the ridges, we are overjoyed to see the Third Battalion come ashore. It will move back over the beach road, clear the roadblock and make contact with the Second battalion. It is not long before we run into trouble again. A patrol from the 3rd platoon is sent forward to scout the next ridge. All goes well until it reaches the ridge top. Somehow, the Japanese infiltrate the patrol”s rear and cuts off its retreat route.

Once again, E CO. is ambushed. The Captain brings up the two light machine guns and sets them up to clear away the ambushes. Soon, the ridges resound to the deafening noise of staccato machine gun fire. Runners bring up all available ammunition. The first platoon sends a patrol around the right flank; the second platoon sends one around the left flank. The boys scramble up the ridges and surprise the enemy soldiers who find it unpleasant to remain. The trapped patrol returns bringing back casualties, among whom is young Quinones from New York. He has both kneecaps shattered. Mercifully, he is under sedation and does not feel the pain—at that point. I never learned what became of Jose.

We move on past the dead Japanese. We heel grateful in a way that we will not have to deal with the corpses. I never learned who had the un-envious job of disposing of corpses. Soon we clear the ridges only to run headlong into a worse enemy—the jungles.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Chapter 14

D-Day Plus Four… The Afternoon Engagement

Map drawn by Armand Charest of the Biak Island engagement

It is noon as we start chopping our way through the rain forest but already we cannot see the SM. No sunlight filtrates through the thick foliage and we are in semi-darkness. The work is crippling and debilitating. We cannot use the First Battalion”s route since the enemy has closed it off. So we must create another way to the eastern ridges to bypass the initial point of contact on the beach road which is now in Japanese hands. No one can hack away at the thick foliage longer that ten minutes.

We cannot send any patrol forward, so we must trust to luck. We cannot maintain road silence, of course. But we believe that the Japanese have moved all their troops forward to protect the airfields. We feel safe, somewhat. In any case there is nothing else to do; we must reach the ridges before nightfall, so we redouble our efforts.

It is complete darkness when we hit the eastern ridges. We bivouac for the night trying to find flat spots among the rocks. It is an uneasy night. The Navy is shelling Japanese positions and we listen apprehensively as the shells pass overhead. We jump from the shock as they hit their objectives, we hope. We sleep the sleep of the dead since we are completely exhausted. No one bothers to make coffee; we are not in the mood.

We begin to climb the ridges again the following morning. This time we follow the First battalion”s route. There is evidence of a fierce fight: dead Japanese soldiers are sprawled all over the landscape, on top of rocks, in crevasses, off the main trail. Here and there we spot cloth-covered bodies. We know who they are. We hurry past the dead American soldiers. We do not wish to look at ourselves.

The plan of attack is a simple one. The Second will move out onto the plateau but will turn south and move back over the site of the ambush and connect with the Third battalion moving up the coast road. It works perfectly. E Company heads for the coastal cliffs by cutting across one of the airfields. It receives attention from the enemy from the back ridges. We ignore machine gun and artillery fire coming from caves in which the Japanese have hidden them. Since E has the largest amount of riflemen, it concentrates on the coast road. The remains of F and G Companies concentrate on the caves.

By late afternoon we hit the coast road and find ourselves in the same ambush area as on the second day, but this time we face the other way. It is an eerie feeling. We feel dispirited. This time we send scouts on top of the cliffs from which the Japanese punished us so severely. They report that the enemy is not there. They return to the company. By nightfall we occupy our old foxholes. At two A.M. the Japanese send in greetings in the form of an unremitting mortar attack. Once again E Company suffers casualties. The Navy is still out there. Two destroyers move in close to shore and return an extensive counter-fire. The night is illuminated by gun flashes, streaks of light from outgoing shells. We discover much later that the island is honeycombed with caves that the enemy cleverly exploits to move around us at will.

We move quickly to other, safer areas because we realize that the Japanese have our positions zeroed in. The company medic gets no rest. I must say a word Or two Or one thousand about the roles played by certain support troops, notably the company medics, the engineers and the Navy Seabees, the construction outfits. Never in my days overseas were we ever refused food, coffee or shelter at anyone of those support troop camps.

Dawn brings very little relief. We are told that the Third battalion needs help. So we form quickly and move on to help. We hit the enemy by surprise, for a change. The fight turns nasty. We are forced to use hand grenades and flame-throwers, wicked, devilish weapons. Some unlucky riflemen carry a double tank on their backs: one contains gasoline; the other contains a chemical. When the soldiers depress a button, both products mix and shoot out the nozzle of a long flexible tube in the form of liquid fire. The stream is directed at the mouth of caves, dugouts or fortifications.

The result is predictable. Enemy soldiers come running out as burning bodies. Out of compassion they are shot to put an end to their misery. No soldier in his right mind volunteers to carry a flame-thrower; the act of using one is suicidal.

By nightfall the Second and Third battalions link up. We forget the war as we collapse in complete exhaustion and we settle down for a good night”s rest. The artillery troops in the rear also take time out. We are all tired of the war!

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Chapter 15

D-Day Plus Five… First Platoon is Ambushed

Map drawn by Armand Charest of Biak Island engagement

By noon that day the Second battalion or, what is left of it, receives new orders.

It is to turn around and retrace its way back up the coastal road, climb some new ridges and take up positions on the First battalion”s left flank. It seems that the enemy troops have retired to caves and prepared themselves for a final stand The Third battalion heads for the lower ridges and concentrates on eliminating the Japanese guns that prevent the Air Corps from using the three fields. We receive rations, ammunition and pep talks. There is nothing said about human reinforcement. In the meanwhile the 34th Regiment of the 24th Division comes ashore at the jetty. It will be used when necessary. That comes soon.

It rains, of course. In my time in the South Pacific I never saw it fail: a move was always accompanied by rain, not ordinary rain but usually either a downpour or a deluge. This time it is a combination of the two. We march along with our rifles pointed downwards to keep them free of water. Our so-called waterproof ponchos, which are actually rubber sheets with a hole for the head, soon prove to be ineffective. To this day I remain amazed that a country that could produce so many efficient weapons could never produce decent shoes or rain gear for its army.

When we come under attack from hidden guns along the beach, a patrol from the first platoon locates them and puts them out of action. The medics do another superb job with the wounded. They can do nothing for the dead.

At noon we take a break. Then comes the news we all dread: it”s time to make contact with the First battalion on the ridge to our right. E Co. is assigned the task of taking the lead; the first platoon, again, is told to provide the scouts. Sergeant Doescher looks to the first squad, his “favorite” as he calls it. Guess whom he picks? You guessed it. I am now the first scout, entrusted with the company”s safety. My job will be to move up a makeshift road and make contact. I am told the password. I will repeat it a million times during the march.

In some instances the scouts had the safest jobs. The Japanese had adopted tactics that were very simple. Since there was limited visibility on each side of jungle trails because of the thick concentration of trees and underbrush, they would let the scouts through and then attack the oncoming patrol. Sometimes it worked; other times it did not. I had no way of knowing if or when the Japanese would attack. So I told myself a short prayer and took position up front. There was a second scout behind me to whom I would relay messages such as stop or come ahead.

The rain continues as I lead off. Twenty paces behind me is Burke, one of my trusted buddies. We run into occasional patches of sunlight that throws false shadows to my eyes. I look constantly to right and left stopping occasionally to listen to strange noises. That is probably the wrong word to say since a jungle is always full of strange noises whether from tree swinging monkeys or parrots or other unidentified animals. Let me say one word in favor of monkeys and parrots. We came to know that as long as they scampered about treetops while chattering, then the safer we were from marauding enemy troops. They served as unofficial sentries.

By mid-afternoon the animals are quiet. The rain ceases. I stop and take inventory. I send Burke back to check with the Company Commander about the possible location of C Company, our target. He returns with the news that C should be about four miles off to the right, another two hours” march. I figure that we should get there just at sundown.

The quiet is getting on my nerves. I motion to Burke that he should move closer to me. We now move steadily ahead. I watch the left; Burke checks out the right. My eyes move about constantly. We try to be on complete alert. It proves worthless. I hear a familiar noise. It is that made by a Japanese soldier cocking his machine gun. I signal back to the company. We all hit the ground as bullets rip through the jungle and pin down Burke and myself.

We cannot see the enemy gunners, but we can feel their presence. Fire now comes in from the other side. E Company is neatly ambushed—again. Burke and I lob a few grenades toward the suspected locations. We only have two apiece. I begin to wonder what has happened to the rest of the company. I soon get an answer.

Two patrols fan out to either side of the trail and come close to the enemy before being detected. A firefight takes place. Burke and I snuggle deeper into the ground as bullets rip through the covering foliage. The sound of exploding grenades fill the air. The fight lasts only a few minutes. Company E suffers some more casualties, but the Japanese disappear into the jungles, leaving dead and wounded behind. American wounded and Japanese prisoners are escorted back to Battalion headquarters. The Army always insisted on picking up prisoners to get important information. But prisoners are few. The Japanese soldiers are

Indoctrinated from an early age in the belief that American soldiers will kill them if they surrender, thus explaining the high ratio of dead Japanese soldiers to captured soldiers. I believe I have done my job of first scout.

We take up the march again. Just before sundown I make contact with C Company. That company was decimated by a previous enemy attack. The survivors leave at first light. Company E takes responsibility of covering three converging trails and prevent the enemy from escaping the battle of annihilation occurring in the valley below where the First and Third Battalions have pushed the remnants of the 10,000 man Japanese garrison into caves.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

Chapter 16

D-Day Plus Six… The Cave Battles

Map of Biak Island drawn by Armand Charest

E Company, now down to less than twenty-five men, is now witness to the strangest battle of the War in the South Pacific. For the first time the infantry has to deal with enemy soldiers taking refuge in caves.

I am told that when this particular island rose from the ocean bottom, it was primarily a hunk of coral that through centuries of ocean corrosion had developed an extensive system of interlocking caves. That explained why the enemy soldiers always infiltrated our rear and attacked supply and engineering outfits. They made their way through the caves!

In this situation a long but narrow valley led up to mountains honeycombed with caves. The two attacking American battalions blocked the only exit at the lower end of the valley. The Japanese could not escape, but they tried, oh how they tried. Every day, the division band members, trained to be gunners, turned their quadruple truck-mounted .50 caliber machine guns on the cave entrances. I can still see ricocheting bullets climbing the steep mountain walls and screaming into the air. In the intervening quiet spells, Australian civilian Japanese speakers relayed messages to the enemy soldiers through their bullhorns. According to the American soldiers with whom we talked, the Japanese could be heard arguing among themselves. Then, our boys said, they could hear shots inside the caves. Then there was complete silence.

Then the Royal Australian Air Force came in for some action. Their daredevil pilots were a cocky group as was the ground army. In my opinion the two best armies in the war were the German army and the Australian Imperial Forces also known as the A.I.F. composed of volunteers who went overseas to fight for England. They were very equally effective in North Africa and the jungles of New Guinea. The pilots flew antiquated but marvelous airplanes, the P-40 Kittyhawks, whose nose sections were decorated with Tiger shark teeth. The idea was for the pilots to leave the neighboring airstrip, come up the valley and skipbomb their bombs into the caves. It was a great idea, but it did not work.

We watched the planes fly low and drop their bombs, watched in fascination as the bombs skipped along the valley much like a stone skipping on water, watch in disappointment as the bombs hit the mountain face and exploded. Plane after plane tried it with no luck. No bomb entered the cave. When one plane could not climb away from the mountain in time and hit the wall, the exercise was called off.

Next came the engineers. Somehow they managed to drag barrels of heavy oil to the mountaintop. Since fissures were evident everywhere, pouring the oil into the cracks was a simple operation. This they did with alacrity. Next came the torches. The engineers just tossed them down and we watched as burning oil came cascading through the cave openings. This was done for the following three or four days. The Japanese did not surrender.

Meanwhile, E Company had its hands full maintaining its position at the crossroads. The survivors ran patrols every day while keeping lines of communications open to other companies. At the same time we had to deal with Japanese soldiers trying to escape from the caves. The night brought the sounds of war very close as the enemy soldiers tried time after time to escape. They came onto American positions in waves only to be cut down by concentrated machine gun and artillery shells know as canisters, deadly shells that were nothing more than enlarged shotgun shells. They died by the hundreds. First thing every morning, bulldozers would chug up to the First Battalion lines and push the corpses into shallow trenches.

Company E soldiers soon became victimized by a severe attack of diarrhea, known as the G.Is. Most of the boys were incapacitated, too weak for patrolling. The dozen men still operating, Burke and myself included, now ran three patrols per day. The came a fateful decision by the high command.

The Regimental Commander ran out of patience. He ordered the caves to be sealed. He said that we had used up enough time and his regiment was too decimated. So, once again the engineers climbed the mountain. This time they carried explosives that they set at intervals on the mountain face. At a signal they set off the charges. We watched as once again man demonstrated his infinite capacity to harm his fellow man.

The whole mountain face came crashing down, effectively blocking the cave entrances. The remnants of the 162nd Regiment along with the reinforcing 34th Regiment left to establish a perimeter defense of the three airfields which the Allied Air Forces were already using to bomb Japanese targets further North. Thus ended the battle of the caves and the official campaign for the island of Biak, off the New Guinea coast. The Second Battalion started the campaign with 500 infantrymen. Less that two weeks later, we could only muster about fifty. E Company had less than twenty men still on their feet.

Was the enterprise worth it? Who knows. Were those islands worthy of the sacrifices of thousands of young allied lives, mere boys who never had a chance to live? Once again, who knows. We continued with patrols for several months, bringing in Japanese survivors but also losing some boys as well.

I thought of Sergeant Brown for many years. I never forgot my reaction as the medics carried his body past us. I cried like a baby.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 Biak
 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.




The Memoirs of Armand Charest Part I

Armand CharestThe Charest-Frenchette Family in America: A Success Story

Editors Note: Shortly before my father had his stroke which ultimately was fatal, I managed to convince him to write some stories and family history. I promised him I would get them at least published on a family website if he did. Well, with a lot of “encouragement” from myself and possibly my brother Howard, Dad did write some of the family stories. This is part I of a three part series.

I have taken the liberty of re-formatting Dad’s writings to be suitable for this website. Otherwise, I have posted them as written. I may on occasion add some editorial comments of my own; these will be clearly marked when I do.
  Ron Charest


Part I – Growing Up in Rhode Island

Chapter 1

The Charest family traces its ancestry with any definite knowledge to Canada as early as 1812. The ancestral home in France has never been definitely established. Some family members feel that the earliest settlers in Canada came from Central France; others feel that Normandy is the likeliest home; others say that the first Charest came form Lacadie, France.

In any event it is most likely that the Charests came to Canada before 1763 since, in that year of the English conquest, the British government forbade immigration from France. Therefore, we can say with a certain amount of truth that the Charests arrived in Canada in the early or the middle of the 1700s or possibly in the 1600s. However, we must also say in all honesty that since the territory contained few French females, the probability exists that the first Charest males might have taken Indian women as wives. This statement might offend some descendants, but the possibility is there, nonetheless.

We have been able to trace the Frechette family as far back as the late 1600s in Canada. We have no way to know where they came from in France However, we must limit this story to the exploits and lives of Alphonse and Emilie Charest, a prolific and energetic couple.

Alphonse was born in the village of St. Gabriel, in Quebec province. Not much is known about his early years. Emilie was born on a farm in St. Didace, also in Quebec province. We do know that she received a fairly good education from the convent nuns. She read books and did receive a daily newspaper from Montreal when the family lived in Woonsocket. I and my children inherited the love of reading from her. She and I spent many evenings discussing world politics and the approaching war.

They first met in the year, 1912, on the road to Lincoln Park, an amusement park somewhere between Fall River and New Bedford, Mass. According to the popular belief, Alphonse and his brother, Armand, were two men about town who enjoyed flirting with the ladies who traveled on the streetcars between the two cities. It so happened that Armand knew the lady who accompanied Emilie on that particular day and she introduced Emilie to Alphonse and the rest is history, as people tend to say.

Due to a health problem Alphonse’s doctor advised him to travel out West where the pure air might cure him. Subsequently, Alphonse became a cook on the Canadian Railroad somewhere in Manitoba or in one of those Canadian provinces where no one can say whether it is east of British Colombia or west of Ontario. He also found work in the lumber camps.

He returned sometime in 1914 and promptly signed on with the Canadian government as a cook on the icebreaker, the Laurier, that according to tradition or rumor had picked up survivors from the Titanic.

By 1916 Emilie is supposed to have stamped her foot and demanded, yes, demanded that Alphonse choose the care-tree life or marry her. According to family legend the young man is supposed to have scratched his head, mumbled something about freedom, walked the floor, argued about the demand but he finally gave in.

So Emilie and Alphonse were married in Joliette, Quebec on October 4, 1916 by the Reverend Msgr. Forbes. According to family legend the couple took up residence in Quebec City where, and this information cannot be verified, Alphonse found employment at the famous Hotel, the Chateau Frontenac. Emilie spent one winter on that iceberg and gave Alphonse another ultimatum.

So the couple moved to a city called Grandmere (grandmother). The first Charest children were born there: Marguerite Albina on Sept 19, 1917 and Louis George on October 4, 1918. The couple’s need for milder weather eventually made it relocate to Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1919. Two more children made their debut: Therese Jeanne D’arc on June 9, 1920 and Rita Edmire on Sept 21, 1922.

At that time Alphonse won the food concession at the new factory built by the J.P. Coats Thread company. It was a prosperous time for Alphonse and Emilie who were able to furnish an apartment with the latest appliances including an electric sewing and washing machine. At the expiration of the contract Alphonse opened a restaurant in Pawtucket.

We have no explanation why the couple then decided to move to a bustling textile manufacturing city called Woonsocket where two more little ones joined the growing clan: Lucille Evelina on Dec. 13, 1922 and Armand Gabriel on August 16, 1924. I believe that Alphonse still kept his restaurant open with the help of two brothers.

A business opportunity presented itself so Alphonse moved the family to a small town called Manville where he bought a country house and opened his second restaurant at a busy intersection in the village. It was also a happy and prosperous time for the family. I remember distinctly the house that sat next to a bubbling brook and the swamp to its rear where Alphonse raised his pigs. The final three children came into the world in that house: Claire on November 2, 1925, Noella on Dec 15, 1927, Rosaire on November 7, 1930.

Chapter 2

The Great Fire and Killing Hogs. The family stories continue…

An incident of great importance occurred around 1930 that must be told and seen as an exercise in misplaced enthusiasm.

One fine summer afternoon Rita, myself and a local boy whose name I do not remember found some matches and set off for the neighboring hill to do something. Meanwhile big brother George who may have been all of twelve years old and his buddy, Lionel, who later married Theresa, persuaded the three of us to play fireman games with them. They had put together a big fire wagon along with buckets of water, a hose and some ladders. The idea was for us to ignite a small patch of dry grass and then to call them. In turn both boys would have become heroes as they put out the fire.

It did not really turn out that way.

The three arsonists piled up grass and someone lit the match and applied it to the dry pile. In no time at all the flames shot up and then began to spread In a panic Rita screamed for the firemen. The two “heroes” came running up and tried to douse the flames. It was too little and too late.

All of us ran to the house where we alerted my mother. Luckily we had a telephone so she called the fire station. In those days the firemen where all volunteers so by the time they arrived on the scene the fire was racing along very well. It raced downhill toward the house only to be turned aside by that wonderful swamp; it then took off toward a small village called Albion some miles away.

By that time the local fire chief had alerted fire departments throughout the state that arrived on the scene through the afternoon. It was a real mess because in 1930 communications were primitive compared to modem times. Nevertheless, the truly heroic firemen stopped the fire at the edge of the village in the growing darkness. However, rumors persisted that the fire had demolished a local factory and that the owner had died of a heart attack.

The chief questioned all of us, but could not press charges. It was a lesson to all of us. In later years I remembered that sober experience and that made me a bit more lenient and tolerant of people who make mistakes, including my children.

There were fun times also. As I said before Alphonse the chef had developed quite a reputation as a hog farmer. The swamps in back of the house were ideal for raising those noble animals that grew to enormous size. In September or October the villagers gathered at our house for the annual event of pig butchering. Festivities began early in the morning as people moved in for lunch. I don’t remember if Alphonse served breakfast but, knowing him, I would not have been surprised if he had. The big event took place in the late afternoon.

I was six years old and my father gave me a big job. I was to hold a gallon jug nest to the hog’s throat and catch the blood that would come pouring out. A group of husky men were designated “pig handlers”. Their job: hold the pig down and let Alphonse slit its throat. I still cannot comprehend that activity on my father’s part. He was normally a tender, calm person, but he must have rationalized that someone had to do the job, or so I have thought all these years.

In any event the men led the pig to its destiny, pushed it to the ground and held it there while my father did his job. I held the jug in place and watched the blood flow in that would be used to make blood sausage. This one time the pig screamed and took off across the yard. I still remember my father’s words: “catch the blood, catch the blood.”

I followed the bleeding hog and caught as much blood as I could. It was a very frightening time for a six-year old. Eventually the poor animal collapsed and died. The men then dumped it in a large pot of boiling water so that it could be skinned, hung up and its belly opened so that the excess blood could flow out. Then, and only then, did everyone continue the festivities.

There was a dark side to the hog fanning. Once in a while the poor animals would crash through the restraining gates and take off on a rampage through the village or countryside. My father would enlist the help of his friends who would then engage in a hunting expedition. Legend has it that one of the hunters returned to my father’s restaurant, collapsed and died.

Chapter 3

Of making moonshine during Prohibition and the onset of the great depression…

I must add one final story. It concerns the making of moonshine.

The 1920-decade saw the enforcement of prohibition laws against the making and selling of liquor. Some misguided people back in 1913 believed that the working class, at that time consisting mainly of immigrants from Europe, was spending too much of its money on liquor and not enough on supporting the families. The real culprits were the miserable living and sanitation conditions that deprived the older people of a chance to enjoy the benefits of democracy.

In defiance of the law many people decided to make liquor at home a process that became known as, “making bathtub gin.” In the early 1920s Alphonse had a food concession at the construction site of a J.P.Coats Company factory that would become famous as a producer of sewing threads.

One day so the story goes the manager approached Alphonse with a proposition too good to turn down. He had a problem, he said. The work schedule was falling down because the workers would head to other cities on payday, get drunk and then they would show up whenever they sobered up. He could no longer tolerate that. As an alternative he proposed that Alphonse should undertake the task of making moonshine himself. We could, said the man, dig under the stand and built you facilities to make the stuff while guaranteeing freedom from police interference. In return Alphonse would make quality liquor and sell it to the workers at a reasonable price. Management hoped that the workers would stay in the vicinity and thus be able to work on Monday morning.

Things went swimmingly for some time. Alphonse equipped the apartment with first class furniture including an electric sewing machine and washing machine. To Emilie’s questions about the origin of so much money, Alphonse would only say that business was good. The construction work retained its schedule. All was well in Mudville until one day, a day that still lives in infamy disaster struck the Charest family and J.P.Coats Company. The mother-in-law came for a visit.

Grandmother Charest had a taste for the finer things of life that tragically included the love of liquor. She asked Emilie to go with her to the stand. While there she asked Alphonse the $64,000 question.

“Can I have some of that good liquor that you are making?”

Emilie replied in a shocked tone, “Liquor, what liquor?” (I am merely reporting what I heard through the years. I am not making it up.)

Alphonse is reported to have stammered an answer, mixed with a barrage of accusing daggers at his dear mother. He is also reported to have shrugged his shoulders in total defeat. Emilie went on the offensive.

“You are making moonshine here? Is that where all the money is coming from? Shut that business down right now!”

Needless to say management was in an uproar; Alphonse faced the danger’ of a broken or damaged family; the workers face a crisis about their drinking activities. Alphonse merely, shrugged his shoulders one more time and shut down the still. Thus ended an enterprise founded in noble ideas but destroyed by an unfortunate trick of fate.

In 1932 dark times intruded into the Charest family and made life very unpleasant for Alphonse and Emilie: the Great Depression was on.

Chapter 4

The Great Depression and the start of World War II…

Like many small businessmen, Alphonse was unprepared to face the economic catastrophe that hit the country in 1932, the result of the stock market crash of 1929. The closing of the local textile factory, the biggest employer in the area was the final blow. Alphonse lost two restaurants and a house. He moved the family into several apartments while he looked for work in different locations including Woonsocket and a hotel in Maine. In 1933 the chef finally got a break.

A well-known businessman in Woonsocket opened a first class restaurant and hired Alphonse as chef. So the Charest family settled in Woonsocket as it tried its best to survive while waiting for better times in the country. Alphonse’s reputation as a dependable, creative and hard-working man spread through the city in the next several years. Business was good at the restaurant and the owners prospered.

Since Alphonse could not read or write English, I had the pleasant job of going with him very early to write out his day’s menu. We became close that way. As a reward the chef always prepared a breakfast for me fit for royalty. It usually consisted of a giant piece of ham along with potatoes and eggs, or a giant steak with hash browns and toast. I would then go home carrying a jug of the previous day’s soup and leftover pies. At times the soup would spillover the brim and I would smell like a soup pot.

An ugly economic situation had hit the country. By 1932 it was estimated that 25% of the people were out of work. The textile industry began to move out of New England and New York for non-unionized states in the South, mainly North and South Carolina, where the wages were lower and the politicians and the brain-washed workers friendlier to big business interests. In Woonsocket a factory employing 7,500 workers dismantled the machinery and said goodbye to the city. The resultant unionization was pushed in an atmosphere of mistrust and hatred of the ruling class. It was no surprise that a dangerous riot broke out in 1937 that threatened the safety of all residents. Since the majority of the textile workers were women, the factory owners found it easy to intimidate them into not joining unions. It was the same throughout the country.

The automobile and coal mining industries became unionized, but not until intervention of the courts on the side of the workers. President Roosevelt, himself called a traitor by the ruling classes because even though he had been born in money and privilege he favored the working classes, persuaded the American people to stay calm and to trust in the Constitution. He and the Democratic Party passed laws that reformed the banking system thus reigning in abuses. The forty–hour workweek went into effect; in 1935 the Social Security system became law; welfare laws went into effect, thus making it possible for people to receive help.

Storm clouds were gathering overseas. Japan attacked China in 1931, invaded it in 1937; lta1y invaded and conquered Ethiopia in revenge for an ltalian defeat inflicted by that country in 1896; Spain endured a terrible Civil War from 1936 to 1939; Russia attacked Finland in 1939; Stalin killed off his top generals for fear of a revolt; Italy invaded Albania in 1940, moved into Greece; Hitler persuaded the German population that since Jews were responsible for Germany’s defeat in 1918, they should all be executed; America closed its eyes and mind to those troubles and concentrated on its own. That was a major mistake.

The nine children were not really aware what the depression meant. Compared to most families ours lived quite well. Since our father was a chef, we had plenty of good nutritious food. We never were deprived of all the milk, bread and meat we wanted. We went to a good parochial school, S1. Anne’s, run by dedicated nuns who spared no effort to teach us more than reading and spelling. We engaged in games and sports activities, enjoyed family get-togethers in which aunts, uncles and cousins counseled and advised us on life matters and who also kept us on a straight path, something that is perhaps not done today.

By the time I was twelve years old I had read through the local library. As much as I enjoyed sports, there were times when I wished for rain on Saturdays so that I could spend the day browsing through the book stacks. The 1930s were carefree years for children, perhaps the last generation to enjoy such times. We spent the time attending story-telling sessions at the local library, playing sports depending on the season: softball, swimming, volleyball in the summer, football in the fall, ice hockey and basketball in the winter, soccer in the spring.

We lived in an age noted for creativity in music and the movies, a time that saw perhaps the greatest concentration of musicians and movie performers ill our history. We danced and sang to the tunes of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman; we wept with Bette Davis; we charged enemy lines with Errol Flynn and Victor McLaughlin; we laughed with the Three Stooges and became hysterical with Laurel and Hardy; we solved crimes with Charlie Chan; we thrilled to the romantic behavior of Clark Gable and Lana turner.

Two weddings took place in the late 30s. Therese married Lionel Hurteau, her childhood friend and one of the brave firemen; Marguerite married Andrew Paquin, an ex-soldier. In October 1941, Alphonse and Emelie celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with a formal ball and a gala dinner. A tragedy based on a giant misunderstanding darkened the family life. Alphonse quit his job!

Chapter 5

Alphonse changes jobs and Armand gets drafted…

The man’s honesty had always been above reproach. He had been able to buy food for the family through the restaurant owner’s good credit rating. One day a lousy pound of butter disappeared. The owner’s wife accused Alphonse of taking it. His reaction was one of outrage. He removed his apron and walked out.

On his way downtown when he tried to cool off, another restaurant owner asked him what he was doing, Alphonse told him the story. The man replied to follow him to his own place. My father had a new job. But at that time his health was beginning to crack. He had developed throat cancer some time previously and it was beginning to spread. This was 1939.

In desperation he spent the summer at my Uncle’s house at the beach. Both men opened a hamburger place. I joined Alphonse for the summer where I learned to peel potatoes and cook hamburgers. In 1941 I believe Alphonse borrowed some money and went back into the restaurant business by buying an empty establishment and running it so well with the family’s help especially George that my mother was able to sell it for a very good price after Alphonse passed away. We had fun without really realizing it. We thought the good times would never end. Then came Pearl Harbor and the lives of the Charest family along with million others, changed forever.

We were at lunch on a Sunday afternoon when we heard the news over the radio. Most of us did not really know where Pearl Harbor was. I believed that the war would be over before I could get involved. My father was quick to re-assure me that my wearing eyeglasses would exempt me from service. So I relaxed.

In June 1942, I graduated from high school and began my apprenticeship as a toolmaker with a well-known tool and gage manufacturer. The country was united in fighting the war. The government began to draft millions of men to build up its military forces. Women began to work in defense plants taking the men’s places; many would never return to the kitchen. In January 1943, I received my first draft notice, but since I was involved in national defense work, I was deferred. In July the roof caved in and I received my second notice. I immediately volunteered for the CBs, the construction section of the Navy. I had some experience by this time and the Navy was desperately in need of experienced workers. But lo and behold I was turned down due to bad eyesight.

So I took the bus to Providence where I took my physical examination for the army. I believed I was home safe when at noon someone announced: “Those men whose names I call will stand here to the right.”

He went through the first two letters and I held my breath as he came to “C.”

He went right by and so I sighed in relief. Then came the crushing news.

“Those men that I have called out put on your clothes and go home. The rest of you prepare to take the oath. You are now in the army. Congratulations!!!”

It might be the time to write something about the events that took place in the intervening years between the two world wars so that the grandchildren may know the reason for the war. It is widely believed that the main cause of the first war fought by the countries of Europe was because Serbian terrorists had assassinated the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. In actuality after one hundred years of peace, the Europeans might have been tired of it and they sought excuses for going to war, a war in which over twenty-five million people perished, five monarchies disappeared and the map of Europe was once again re-drawn.

Germany became a nation of disaffected, disillusioned, disappointed people. When in 1933 a man named Adolph Hitler came to power, the stage was set for another war. He mesmerized the German nation into believing that the Jewish population was responsible for all economic and social problems, including the betrayal of the army in the first war.

He frightened France and England into not opposing him as he took the Rhineland, a land bordering the Rhine River, Austria, the Sudetanland, the part of Czechoslovakia containing many Germans and, finally, he took the country itself. When in September 1939, he attacked Poland under the excuse that Polish soldiers had fired on Germany proper, France and England declared war.

The war lasted until the month of May 1945. Eventually, America entered the war when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The country mobilized for the first time in its history and by the end of the war it had over fourteen million men and women in the military services.

The members of the Alphonse Charest family who took part in the war were: Adrian in the army, Armand in the army, Louis George in the merchant marine, Lionel Hurteau in the navy, Leo Forand in the army, Armand Duclos in the air corps, John B. Danese in the army. Adrian and Armand served in the Pacific Theater; George traveled the world bringing supplies and weapons to the troops; Leo Forand served in Europe, John Danese was in North Africa and Italy; Armand Duclos served as a mechanic instructor in the air corps; Lionel Hurteau was stationed in North Africa.

I cannot write about the experiences of others, I can only put down what I saw and did, primarily for the benefit of my children and grandchildren.




Eyewitness To 1984

An Aid Mission to Albania

This story was written by the late Armand Charest in May, 2001, recalling his experiences performing relief work in Albania. This is Part 1 of a two part story. This story was edited for format and obvious spelling errors, but is otherwise exactly as written by the author.

Prologue

In June, 1992, I joined a group of American military personnel, who were stationed at the NATO base in Southern Italy, to do humanitarian work in two state run orphanages and a missionary hospital in Albania. An air force officer, Major Harvey Leister and his wife Maureen, a dedicated couple who had collected a sum of money through donations and fund raising activities to buy tools and hardware needed to modernize those institutions were the prime movers in that enterprise. Our desire was to help, in some way, the citizens of that stricken country after the overthrow of their oppressive dictatorship in 1989.

My account of that trip is not only a travelogue, though it may appear to be at times; it was rather a chronicle of what I saw, what I heard, what I learned from the people with whom I came in contact, what we accomplished and failed to accomplish. In short, that was a dispatch from a new type of war zone where a newly independent people confronted the traumas and joys of freedom and where that same unschooled body politic struggled with its travails and ordeals as it came to grips with the mysteries and pitfalls of democracy for the first time in its long history. In no way was that report meant to belittle, derogate or humiliate the Albanian people. For over forty years they were oppressed and victimized by one of the most brutal of post WW 2 communist regimes.

Whereas Russia and other countries of Eastern Europe were exposed to some kind of western influence, albeit restricted and censored, Albania was totally closed to the outside world. Its only commercial and educational channels were through the USSR and communist China. But after the ideological break with the Soviet Union only the latter country, itself not exactly the paragon of glasnost, maintained any contacts with Albania.

As a sop to the people the party allowed tightly censored Italian television. In 1975 a university was established which, in spite of rigid government control, turned out well educated people who spoke English, French, Italian and Russian besides their native language. In many homes I saw books of western and Russian writers: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, a young socialist London.

Throughout their centuries of captivity and misrule, first by the Romans, then the Byzantines, followed by the Ottomans, their own warring tribal chiefs, Mussolini’s Italians and finally the communists, the one unifying trait the people clung to was their pride, not a misplaced or an overweening pride, but that pride peculiar to mountain people who have developed the instincts and strengths necessary to not only endure, but to persevere in their determination to outlast and overthrow all tyrants and oppressors. We were perplexed and frustrated during our stay there by that great virtue when the Albanians declined to accept gifts of money or food. What is not a “big deal” to us is not necessarily so elsewhere in the world. Nonetheless, in time we understood and admired that special characteristic.

This, then, is my analysis and commentary about a journey into another world, a strange, singular and sad society, startling to an outsider. I do not know of any similar culture anywhere else in the world. I could not help but compare the situation to George Orwell’s masterpiece about total government control. As a spoiled and pampered member of an indulgent social order, it was a shock to me both economically and culturally. I realized for the first time in my life how fortunate I was to be living in a developed country with a level of sophistication that is mind boggling when juxtaposed against most societies. The experience humbled me and seared itself in my mind. Never again will I take American democracy for granted and neither, I hope and pray, will any reader.

Come, join me in a voyage back in time, back to 1984 and try to comprehend what Orwell only imagined.
“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston.”

Winston replied: “By making him suffer.”

“Exactly,” retorted O’Brien.

George Orwell, 1984

Part One: The First Visit

Chapter One: The Adventure Begins

“Guess what, dad; I volunteered you today at the office.”

“You volunteered me? What did I do to deserve such good luck.”
“You are always complaining that you’re bored, that you have nothing to do. The major is taking a group of people over to Albania to do some humanitarian work. So, I volunteered you to help out.”
“Where’s Albania and what will I be doing?”
“Oh, you’ll be doing things like carpentry, plumbing, wiring, that sort of thing.”
“I know nothing about that and remember I’m retired.”
“Well, you can always hand out tools or supervise. You’ve become good at that in your retirement.”
“I have a comedian for a son. When are we leaving?
“The Major said week after next. Really, dad, he needs help. Many people have dropped out for one reason or another. I would go but I have office duties that can’t be postponed. You’ll be going by ferryboat.”
“By ferryboat.”
From which port?”
“From Bari on the East Coast of Italy.”
“On the East Coast”
“There must be something wrong with this house. I keep hearing echoes.”

This scintillating conversation took place between my son and myself in his villa about twenty miles north of Naples, Italy, in the middle of June, 1992 where I was spending an extended vacation following my retirement. My wonderful son had just offered up my name to the Major as previously noted who had organized his project following the much publicized adoption activities in Romania when Italian and American nationals rescued many orphans. The hastily organized system worked well until the lawyers and bureaucrats in Romania established political and legal roadblocks. Subsequently, would-be adopters were now looking to Albania, about one hundred miles east across the Adriatic Sea. Hence the idea about the humanitarian work.

All of the “volunteers” met in the Major’s home one night where he outlined the plans for the expedition. In a previous visit to the orphanages and the hospital he and his wife had seen for themselves the appalling living conditions and vowed to do something to alleviate them in some way. So, they planned accordingly. Besides the money they both collected, the Major applied his remarkable talents as a “scrounger” to find discarded surplus items such as electric stoves, washing machines, a large refrigerator and steel pipes. It was a tremendous effort on his part. With the money he bought copper piping, tools, plumbing hardware, water heaters and showerheads. We rented an Italian van to carry all those “goodies” across the “pond.” One of the ladies took her own van for our personal belongings.

Albania is not an American household name. The size of Delaware, perhaps, it is squeezed between Yugoslavia to the north and Greece to the south to which runs the only road. To the east are Kosovo and Macedonia, two areas very much in the news today. The latter country is the birthplace of Mother Teresa, the saint of Calcutta. In 1989, after the death of Dictator Enver Hoxha (pronouced Hodza with a hiss) and subsequent weakened communist control, the Albanians regained independence after a forty year imprisonment. For all those years no one could leave or enter without official permission, seldom given unless he/she was a member of the party. That humane person imposed that regimen in order to keep his brand of Marxism free of corrupting western influences.

Personal freedom, free press, free speech, free religious choice was non existent. Anything anathema to the party was banned. Atheism was declared the official government doctrine of the state, the only country to ever do so. Because of this forced isolation, the country’s economic, intellectual and social life stagnated. The money system was worthless on the international market. Most damaging to the people’s welfare was the Kafkaesque approach to social management that reduced them to the level of chattels, serfs and animals devoid of hope, impoverished both in spirit and body, unsustained by the regenerating powers of religion and new ideas. What was truly grotesque and horrifying was that he truly believed his own agitprop. So he imprisoned a whole nation to prove his point: Great Man! Great Patriot!

When the GREAT ONE proved himself to be mortal, and the party lost its grip on the nation being replaced by an interim government, the Albanians celebrated by going on an exodus to Greece and Italy where they failed to exercise proper restraint. As a result many of them were rounded up and shipped back home; restrictions were then put in place on exit visas to neighboring countries. A new prison had been exchanged for the old one and in some ways was more cruel and inhumane. I found the people mired in despair, defeatism and discouragement. Many felt they were no better off than before.

Picture if you will a country devoid of bookstores, libraries, video stores, shopping malls, department stores, class restaurants, movie and drama theatres, discos, appliance and furniture stores, up-to-date office buildings, traffic jams, modern busses and trains, hotels, fast food places, pizza parlors, all the thousand and one things which we, in the western world, take for granted. This, then, was the situation we faced when we arrived one bright Sunday morning in late June.

We had left Naples the day before, crossed the Apennines and reached Ban in late afternoon where we purchased tickets for the trip across the Adriatic Sea. The ferryboat was a gigantic ark measuring anywhere from 700 to 1000 feet long. Through the large jaws moved vans, semis, small trucks, cars and people in a procession that stretched through the embarkation area.

We were settled into our cabins by 8:00 p.m. They were small airless boxes, but were more comfortable than the steel deck plates. The cafeteria food was surprisingly good and reasonably priced. We viewed our fine supper as a good omen. The next morning the “real” adventure began. At 7:00 am we lined up outside the cafeteria to reclaim our passports and pay a ten dollar fee for a visa. The port’s name was Durazzo, a dusty and chaotic place (many Albanian city names were Italianized after Mussolini’s conquest in 1939).

I was completely flabbergasted by what I saw.

Rusty, used-up, burned-out, decrepit and antediluvian port machinery such as loading cranes and large winches clogged the dock area; mysterious, atrophied equipment from obscure sources defying rational explanations for its usage either jammed the jetties, thus negating proper utilization of those facilities or were scattered about the yards in a tumbled, tangled clutter. Coal burning donkey engines shuffled, huffed and puffed, sometimes pulling, sometimes pushing cargo carriers, sometimes just wheezing about in a haphazard manner. Damaged, deteriorated warehouses and assorted buildings, many without roofs and windows were aligned to one side of the harbor and adjoining streets like dead party functionaries. Next to the dock area could be seen charred, antiquated, superannuated, pillaged railroad engines, rail equipment and coaches, busses, trucks, farm machinery (I have no idea what it was doing there either). The whole mise-en-scêne would have gladdened the hearts of the Road Warrior and the Terminator; it was a mute testimony to inefficient, incompetent and incontestably insane political and economic systems.

Exiting the ark, large trucks carrying everything from used cars to assorted supplies from various worlds charitable organizations deployed, maneuvered, navigated, squeezed, elbowed each other in a frantic and sometimes comical effort to be first in line to leave the port, passed on by sharp eyed Albanian customs police aided by Italian Coast Guardsmen. Most passengers were Albanian nationals. They left the boat carrying suitcases, traveling bags, bundles and packages of every size and description, boxes of electronic components such as television sets, stereos, recorders bought in Italy. Happy friends and relatives jammed the arrival area, all gesticulating and talking at once. It was quite a show.

Meanwhile our expedition had assembled its two vans and personnel in a quiet area away from the tumult and confusion. The fun began when the Major met his Albanian interpreter, Bennie, and both of them proceeded, with much arm waving, pidgin Italian, dialectic English, all interspersed with American military idioms to make some kind of deal with the port masters, both the Italians and the Albanians. The problem was that we had to go south with some equipment and north with the rest of the supplies. To complicate matters the Italian van had to be returned that same day to Naples.

Eventually, the Major reached an agreement with everyone. The goods going south were loaded aboard an Italian army truck that was part of a convoy. The remainder was placed in a van and locked up in a secure military compound in the harbor area. At this point I must explain the Italian military presence. It was there to secure and deliver supplies from international relief organizations and the generous Italian people. The Albanian government, then in the throes of structuring a new economic system, simply did not have the vehicular infrastructure to do the job. So, the efficient Italian army assisted by its own Coast Guard ran Operation Pelicano (Pelican).

The Major had prudently secured a document from his Italian commander that clinched the deal. It would not be the last time that the Italian military was to come to our help. With the assistance of a friendly army captain, we left the port. I still chuckle at the Albanian policeman’s pithy remark: “cold war kaput. Raus with you” (or something to that effect). We did exactly that with alacrity. After a wonderful, almost epicurean meal at the Italian mess, we headed south to the city of Vlora.

The whole coastline is one long stretch of unspoiled, clean beaches. To the west of the road facing the sea were hundreds of small mushroom shaped concrete pillboxes that were built to accommodate a few persons or to house a small platoon. Those, explained our guide with a straight face, were built to protect the people from a western invasion. During our stay we were to see thousands of such protectors all over the country. It is useless for me to comment further on the mentality of power mad tyrants who squander precious capital on such worthless and unproductive projects instead of furthering the citizens’ welfare. I saw the definitive application on a giant scale, of the old, old doctrine used by despots to maintain their hold upon the governed: distract their attention from their miseries by raising the specter of foreign intervention in the country’s internal affairs. As a result of those scare tactics, proved time and time again, the people rally to the government’s defense. We do not seem to learn much from history.

Incidentally, just in case American readers take comfort in smugness, may I remind them to look back on forty years of international crises as the civilian and military leaders, helped along by CIA charts and self-serving Congressmen, explained in dramatic fashion how a certain “unfriendly” country was always out producing America in every weapon category which, of course, placed us at a disadvantage in the coming Armageddon. What really stumped me was how this was possible after the expenditure of trillions of dollars on our part in a cold war against a country that could not even feed its own people. Strangely, those crises always occurred at times of budget reduction debates. Needless to say the politicians always found money for extra spending. However, in my opinion, that money could have been spent more effectively for commercial product development or for social projects beneficial to everyone. As I said before, scare tactics work every time.

On each side of the road for mile upon mile, poignant and heartrending, was evidence of the people’s grim determination to survive. All the trees had been cut down. Our guide was self-consciously vague about the reasons for that. We did not push the issue. But we all knew that it had been done for firewood or for building materials. We passed many deserted factories and warehouses. It took me a long time to realize that the distressing lack of capital was the main factor in keeping the workers away from their work and nothing else. The small villages through which we passed were uniformly drab, dreary and doleful, offensive to the eye, as if they had all been built from one master plan drawn up by sadistic, neurotic, sociopath planners bereft of any sense of human feelings and compassion. I wondered if those architects ever lived there. The inhabitants milled about the town squares talking, smoking, wheeling and dealing for goods and services. There was very little vehicular traffic, but many bicycles, horse drawn carts and even horse back riders. I did not see many smiling faces. What was there to smile about?

Paralleling the road was the strangest aqueduct that I had ever seen. It was a three-sided concrete box affair about two feet wide supported by cement posts. The strange conduit snaked over hills and valleys not more than ten feet above the ground. It was badly in need of repair; it leaked like a sieve. The water flow was gravity controlled in many areas. At intervals pumping stations, some functioning properly, some intermittently helped the flow of water. That accounted for the sporadic service in the cities where the inhabitants could only count on a few hours of service per day. Since it came from mountain sources, the water was uncontaminated. In my estimation it rivaled Rome’s water both in purity and freshness.

We reached our destination in mid afternoon and checked in with the Italian military to retrieve our supplies.

 

Chapter Two: The Orphans

Our first stop was an orphanage housing perhaps fifty to one hundred children from the ages of three to about six. The building, a two story affair made of concrete and stone, sat back from the beach about three hundred feet. For the first time that day we heard sounds of laughter and cries of joy as the orphans ran out to meet us. They were an exuberant group as only children can be. The sight and noise of those little angels energized us after our tiring journey. It did not take them long to get in trouble with their nurses. They just had to finger and inspect our van, tools, hardware, sleeping bags, personal luggage and the containers of food and water. Their guardians tried in vain to control them. We did not interfere. We soon adopted some of them (or maybe it was the other way around. I was never quite sure!). My keeper was a little girl whom I named Alice. She followed me everywhere; she even became my 6:00 a. m. alarm clock. After we had unloaded the van (with many helpers), we set about planning our activities for the next day.

On Monday morning the Major, Bennie and the directress by the name of Victoria, met with the town judet (ex party official acting as mayor) to obtain permission to work at the orphanage. I suppose that was necessary since the school was government run. The mayor explained that since the Italian charity organization, Caritas, had already agreed to do the job of modernization then any major work on our part would be superfluous. We had come prepared to do a job, so we set about doing it without the man’s approval.

After a quick breakfast we brought in the refrigerator and one electric stove that had so mysteriously become surplus back in Naples. As my son had so accurately predicted, I handed out the tools to the Major and the guide as they hammered their way through a foot thick concrete wall to run new wiring and rip out the existing antiquated cables. Both dedicated men bled a lot and shook their numb fingers but did not complain. If the ladies were delighted with their new acquisitions, they were totally ecstatic with the washing machine. 

We three men took turns pounding holding devices into the unyielding wall for the water heater, copper piping and the valves. When we finally turned on the machine, the “oohs”and Iaahs” sounded like music to our ears. The guide patiently explained to the ladies the action of the agitator and the importance of the sequence of operations. We hoped that he impressed the staff sufficiently to insure a long life for the machine. The directress begged us for a shower hookup, but we had to refuse her because we did not have an extra head. We tried vainly to rig up something. We felt badly about it, but the matter was out of our hands. It took a while for the guide to get that point across; nevertheless, our inability to help the lady did not diminish our feeling of regret.

At one point Alice took my hand and with a mysterious and secretive look on her face walked me over to the communal wash room. She pointed to the water gushing out of the faucets at full force. The Major had brought replacement parts. But I made a big deal out of the discovery, expressing surprise and dismay. I looked around for the shut off valve but I could not find it. I was on the verge of panic when a neighbor who had been supervising the whole operation came to my rescue. He directed me to the beach area where we found the proper mechanism. In no time I had the water shut off and the dozen faucets repaired much to the delight of Alice and the other children. I guess they figured us to be miracle workers. I did not dare tell them the truth.

The ladies treated us to lunch one day. They fussed and flurried about the kitchen serving up all sorts of foods, the names of which I could not comprehend, cooked in true Balkan style. The meal was marvelous and so were the ladies. Their shyness slowly disappeared. From out of nowhere we heard all sorts of English words (we marveled at their fast learning abilities!). A picture taking session followed the meal. The proverbial “ice” had been broken. As the house staff posed for posterity, great smiles transformed their faces into things of beauty, both physical and spiritual. We felt good about ourselves, not only as altruistic Americans, but as fellow human beings. We went back to work with a lightness to our feet and renewed strength in our arms.

After supper each night we bedeviled the children with American games and pranks (I was never really sure who bewitched whom!).

One day we took tools and goods to the neighboring nursery. It was the home of babies two years old and under. We installed a showerhead, two water heaters and ceiling lights. The heater in the laundry room cheered the women working there. Finally, they all exclaimed at the same time, we have hot water and will not have to work like animals any more. “Amen” to that we said. We only had to look at their arthritic hands to agree fervently with them.

The nurses voiced much approbation for the showerhead, crying out that they could now wash themselves and their babies properly. But the babies seemed to be in pretty good health considering the fact that the nurses were operating under extremely trying conditions: few amenities, few medicines. I had not seen so much joy expressed by so many people over so few gifts in a long time. I must comment here about a seeming paradox. Even though the Albanians are hesitant about accepting personal presents, they appreciate donations made to the community.

We finished late at night and since the ladies had absconded with the van after they had done a great job as ceiling light installers, we were faced with the prospect of lugging everything on foot or leaving the equipment behind. So I volunteered (again) to stay. It wasn’t that we mistrusted anyone; it did not seem prudent to leave so much valuable stuff unguarded. I spent a pleasant evening conversing with the three night nurses in English, French and sign language. We sat around a small heater plate boiling water for tea. As I surveyed the nursery that night, I was touched by how so much adversity and material shortages in poor countries such as Albania are overcome by the love and devotion of the caregivers. In my travels there I saw the same pattern repeated time and time again. But actually they were no different from all the other caregivers the world over: nurses, doctors, nuns, parents, teachers, medical personnel, members of the clergy, devoted, efficient, sometimes appreciated, sometimes maligned, sometimes even murdered. God bless them all, I prayed.

Late Wednesday afternoon we finished our chores in Vlora and made preparations to leave for Tirana, the capitol and the guide’s home. It was a sad departure. The children insisted that we stay. After a photo taking session and many hugs and kisses from everyone, we drove away. The children ran alongside the van for a distance yelling and waving their arms. We waved back until we no longer could see them. I was relieved to see that mine were not the only misty eyes in the van. I have carried that scene with me for a long time. It was late in the evening when we arrived at the guide’s home. Some of us stayed with him and others spent the night at a neighbor’s. We had a delightful evening. Our hosts impressed us with their interest in the outside world, especially the U.S. It was illuminating to discover that they had retained a natural curiosity after a lifetime of brain washing and anti- western propaganda.

I became aware of that great pride and self respect mentioned before. To sit and talk to someone who had gone through that hideously debasing and chilling iron rule of tyranny imagined by Orwell and executed by Hodja was a humbling lesson, something that all Americans should experience for themselves. However, I bad forgotten that these people were mountain folks, proud descendants of those tough warriors who had fought with their national hero, Skanderbeg, holding the Turks at bay for twenty five years in the fifteenth century when those fierce conquerors were at the height of their power.

That night I introduced my hosts to the joys and benefits of Irish coffee. After ignoring admonitions to take it easy on the local firewater, I proceeded to make a fool of myself. I did what every two fisted, red blooded American male does: I “chugallugged “a few jiggers and then poured one into the coffee. My hosts paled when they observed that. The combination of thick Albanian coffee (strong enough to revive the dead) and firewater was an eye opener for me. It hit me like a bomb. But I refused to show the effect. Needless to say I did it only once.

The next morning by some Byzantine, under handed finagling, the Major obtained the use of a Chinese made truck. With that worthy vehicle we headed west to Durazzo to reclaim our supplies for the next campaign. Our two intrepid ladies went directly north with our personal belongings. At the port we once again bad the pleasure of lunching at the Italian mess hall.

The road followed the coast for a while and then turned east and north to run sandwiched between the inland mountain range and a long agricultural valley that we quickly titled “the Albanian Central Valley”. It seemed to be that productive. Our destination was a hospital, in a small town named Bushat, maintained by the male auxiliary arm of the Missionaries of Charity, the world wide organization led by Mother Teresa. The town had the usual collection of nondescript houses about which I have already commented. The hospital, a jerrybuilt concrete affair, bad an emergency room, a dentist office containing rudimentary equipment such as a foot operated drill, a dispensary and about a dozen patients’ rooms, some with lights, some without. There was no running water and no washing facilities. In fact there was no water anywhere in the community because someone had stolen all the piping, the holding tank and even the pump itself.

The missionaries did their best, but here again shortages of medicines and modern equipment made the job of care giving seem almost impossible. The ignorance of basic hygienic practices among the population was not assuaged by the national government, itself suffering from an acute shortage of funds. Still, the locals managed to survive largely due to the help and advice of a remarkable young woman doctor by the name of Odetta, Odetta Maria Hasaj.

 

Chapter Three: Odetta

 A well formed young woman, her long dark hair framed an attractive Slavic face even devoid of make-up. She spoke English and Italian very well. However, she was a doctor first and foremost, as she reminded me when we were introduced. To my bantering question: ”You are a doctor? You are a good doctor?” She replied, a bit of color suffusing her face, “Sir, I doctor. I am a very good doctor”. With that she turned up her nose and stalked away in a haughty manner. The ugly American strikes again, I thought. I decided that discretion would be preferable to brashness in dealing with that lady. So I avoided her for a while. But the doctor proved herself to be a good sport and soon we were joshing each other like old friends.

As I found out she was the only daughter of an intellectual couple: her mother was a math teacher and her father a biology professor. She insisted and I mean insisted that we stay at her house during our stay. The family home was in a city called Shkodra, the second largest in Albania, just south of the Yugoslav border. Neither parent spoke English, but we all got along well. When in 1945 after the Abanian and Yugoslav partisans had expelled the Italians and the Germans and the communists had seized power with all the concomitant “trappings” described previously, the doctor’s family home was divided in half and that second section given to a deserving second party (read: communist party official).

The Shkodra post office contained the only telephone exchange in the city, a five piece antiquated network almost impossible to use because of the demand. Once I had to call my son in Italy and I was ushered to the front of the line. I was naturally embarrassed, but since I was a foreigner no one protested. That’s one reason for my liking those people. There was a university in the city: even pure communism requires educated administrators.

The three days passed swiftly. We were very busy with installing new wiring, ripping out old electrical lines, hooking up copper tubing for the washing machine, the shower, the water heater, installing ceiling lights.

There were two casualties among the troops. As I was trying to pound my way through a resisting concrete wall, I gave my thumb a good solid whack with the hammer. My cry of pain mixed with a few Americanisms brought the lady doctor running to my help. She quickly soaked my injured member in some kind of native liquid solution while muttering something in her language. The inflection in her voice made the meaning obvious. I agreed with her much to the delight of herself and a few onlookers. After we had installed the flush tank above the floor toilet, the Major gave the chain a good pull.

Of course some dummy was standing in front and got a good soaking as he hopped up and down trying not to drown. I have never quite understood why those things happen to me!

One day the Major, the doctor and the missionaries entered into negotiations with a local building contractor. Now I know what the terms Byzantine, convoluted, Gordian knot really means. The idea was to get someone to dig a well. In America one calls up a well digger, asks the price per foot and then either accepts or rejects the offer. It does not quite happen that way there. Following a prolonged explanation by the Major that the idea of digging a well near the hospital was to offer some kind of protection since the holding tank would be located inside the building, the negotiations began.

After much haggling among all parties, the contractor finally signed a contract. But no one had ever bothered to tell him that a contract had to be honored once signed. Therefore, he was back that same afternoon with a demand for more money the missionaries agreed. Lo and behold the very next morning the man was back again with more demands. So, the paper was reworded and the deal sweetened once more, but with an admonition of finality to extra demands. The saga of the well, which was to serve also as the village water supply, will be told at a later time.

But our stay was not all pain and sweat. Odetta’s family treated us like royalty. Her mother was a great cook; the quality and quantity of her dishes hid the fact of their meager financial resources. All of them were hungry for news from the west. Odetta was especially interested in the world wide woman’s movement. Those were pleasant evenings.

One night Odetta and I stayed up after the others had gone off to bed. By that time she and I had become friendly and I guess I bad gained her confidence. In any case she began to tell me about her aspirations concerning her professional life and her hopes of fulfillment as a woman. I listened attentively realizing that this was no time for some dumb flippant remarks. “My life here is hopeless,” she said in a low bitter tone, “there’s no future for a woman or a professional person; my expectations and dreams will never be fulfilled in this poor, backward country.” She became more and more astringent, more and more dolorous, more and more melancholy as the words poured out of her in a soft voice. The doctor soliloquized on the grief and misery of the late national imprisonment.

She called the land an accursed land, one that God had completely and irrevocably forgotten. I listened quietly. There were few marriageable men in this society, she declared. She was probably right about that. Professional women as a general rule seldom marry below their station: they seek out professional equals. There were few of them in her world. In any event, she declared, she had already eschewed all desires to marry, had rejected the idea of motherhood because she did not want to bring children into this rotten world. I dared not tell her that love seeks us out and not the other way around and that for her to enter into a loveless marriage would be the worse kind of imbroglio imaginable.

Odetta commented during her catharsis that once she had placed first in a test for a prestigious position in the country’s top rated hospital. But the post had gone to the son of a high party official. Now why was I not surprised to hear that? Welcome to the club, what else is new, I muttered sotto-voce. She continued her lament, saying that she never smiled or joked with anyone. Then she apologized for taking affront at my first wise crack. A hell of a way to live, I reflected. I am no doctor, but I could see that the good lady was chasing a gigantic nervous breakdown.

Her chances for advancement were non existent due to the isolation which had precluded any chance of the local medical community from interfacing with international organizations to develop modern techniques, update teaching curricula, import medical journals, revamp the doctor-patient relationship, educate the people in modern hygienic practices. There was no hospital construction and thus no openings for young, dedicated, ambitious professionals like herself, Her salary was the equivalent of eleven American dollars: that, in effect, prevented her from having her own home where she could have privacy and a chance to continue her studies.

At that point her reserve broke down. She began crying, deep, heart breaking sobbing. I let her cry, not wanting to stop her. I felt that anything I said or did would be cavalier behavior on my part. She wept for some time. As I looked and listened, I could not help but reflect upon all the pain, misery and wretchedness inflicted upon the world by self-centered rulers and our acceptance of their behavior. Not only are we consistently and universally governed by political opportunists, cruel, incompetent tyrants and self-servers, we actually, sometimes willingly place those leaders in positions of power. What is more unpardonable and incomprehensible we support them with all the energy and fervor at our disposal and more grotesquely we venerate them by building monuments to their vile memory.

The doctor’s plight was not unique.

There are Odettas everywhere in the world, even in America. Dedicated, intelligent, selfless people are denied recognition, material benefits and professional advancement because of race, religion, sexual orientation and political beliefs. Silently, I cursed all the enemies of the people: corrupt politicians, power brokers, bigoted demagogues and preachers of hate of all colors, race and political leanings. I damned them all too ever lasting hell.

After a while Odetta stopped, cleared her throat, looked at me sheepishly and apologized. I told her: “There is no need to apologize. It was good for you to speak of your troubles. Do not be ashamed. I have also cried” It was not the time to blurt out platitudes about the possibility of a better future for herself or her country. As I think back on that episode, I wonder if there was anything else that I could have said or done. But I had listened and that had to count for something. Long after I went to bed I could still hear in my mind her sobs and bitter words.

Saturday was our last full day at the hospital and we still had much to do. We had to return to Durazzo the following day to catch the ferry back to Italy so we stepped up the pace. The Major had planned for a stay of ten days back in May. However, the ferryboat company changed the schedule in June to one sailing per week and that only on Sunday from Albania. Subsequently, we could not finish every project. We left surplus hardware with the custodian and instructed him on the finer points of wiring the washing machine and the heater. By that time only the Major and myself were left from the original group along with his wife and another lady. He literally did the job of two men: he gave me instructions in plumbing and electrical work, as well as doing his own work.

Our farewell evening with our hosts was a subdued one. The lady of the house had outdone herself at serving us a sumptuous dinner. Odetta was more animated than any previous night, laughing at our jokes and becoming downright hysterical when once again I made a fool of myself with the local firewater. I noticed with much satisfaction and joy that the doctor smiled more frequently, even cracked some native jokes and stories, the meaning of which were vague to us. I marveled at the change in the doctor’s demeanor. Perhaps, I thought, our visit had done her some good after all.

Our parting the next morning was not an entirely happy one. We were quiet as we packed our belongings, tools and equipment and loaded up the van. Odetta asked me if I could stay longer. I declined as graciously as possible, but I told her I would be back in August. That prospect seemed to cheer her up a bit. There was the usual photo taking session. There were also tears as we kissed each other goodbye. On the trip to the port city, I reflected on the unusual week we had spent among proud, friendly, newly independent people. I wondered how they would adjust to the novel idea of thinking for themselves as they embark on the rough and dangerous road to democracy. Would the western countries understand the situation and be patient with the Albanians? More importantly, to me anyway, would or could the lady doctor realize her dreams and aspirations?

These questions troubled me as I stood at the boat’s railing and watched the disappearing shoreline. I wondered if I would ever get some answers. Only time would tell. Meanwhile, I reflected on the great job that the Major and his wife had done, proving once again bow great hearts can overcome great obstacles. They are to be commended.

“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor

is the mind of the oppressed.”
Statement as Witness
Steve Biko, May 3,1976