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Cutting the Tension – VHP Narrators’ Cracks, Jokes and Quips

The following is a guest blog post by Owen Rogers, Liaison Specialist for the Veterans History Project (VHP).

Among VHP’s oral histories, memoirs and correspondence, we frequently find humorous anecdotes about jokes, pranks and creative punishments. This post began as an “April Fools” ruse developed from some of the more absurd scenarios recounted by veterans (especially two Arkansan American Legion members who visited the VHP Info Center recently; however, I realized that their levity masked the stress, tension and fear inherent to aspects of military service.  In the spirit of April Fools and with a respectful nod to several of VHP’s narrators, read how jokes, pranks and creative discipline effected lasting memories for several generations of American veterans. 

As an employee of the Library of Congress, my love of books should come as no surprise. Honestly, this includes anything from the latest historical monograph to pulpy space operas. You might call this a family trait, and fortunately, my grandmother’s frequent babysitting duties paired perfectly with her reading habits. She kept tall stacks of Reader’s Digest, and while I prioritized issues with archival cover art and veterans’ reflections, I never skipped “Laughter Is the Best Medicine.” Years later, veterans’ oral histories afford a natural intersection.

Humor is only one of many human coping mechanisms. Among the VHP collections, oral histories, memoirs and a few well-timed photographs preserve lifelong memories of comrades’ cracks, quips and jokes that broke the tension of a stressful situation. These range from the routine, such as Louis H. Erwin’s orders to fetch “100 feet of waterline,” to longstanding naval traditions such as “Shellback” ceremonies. (What’s a Shellback Ceremony? Read Megan Harris’ October 14, 2014 Folklife Today blog post and learn all about it.  Altogether, a VHP database search for “jokes” yields thousands of examples!

Edwin M. Trawczynski; Caption: “The ‘General’ after the Battle.” Edwin M. Trawzynski Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/76819.

Edwin M. Trawczynski; Caption: “The ‘General’ after the Battle.” Edwin M. Trawczynski Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/76819.

When I think of the Vietnam War, snow doesn’t immediately come to mind. In the spring of 1969, Edwin Mark “Butch” Trawczynski completed Army medic training and expected orders to Southeast Asia. Although he wouldn’t know his unit assignment until after he reached the Republic of Vietnam, news of the war was dire. The 101st Airborne, Trawczynski’s eventual assignment, had been recently bloodied at the Battle of Hamburger Hill, and U.S. forces were only months removed from the 1969 Tet Offensive. What could any 19-year-old Private First Class do in the face of immediate danger? Looking through his photograph album – and reading its captions – we learned that the “General” rallied his troops for a sweeping snowball fight,  and although the battle ended in defeat – with a wet and cold commander – it offered a meaningful distraction from imminent orders to Southeast Asia. One can only hope that in the heat and humidity of South Vietnam, “Butch” reflected on his comrades’ snowball fight.

Donald F. Gardner during VHP interview, October 2003. Donald F. Gardner Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/15988.

Donald F. Gardner during VHP interview, October 2003. Donald F. Gardner Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/15988.

Humorous anecdotes occurred so frequently that early VHP field kits included them as a theme for potential interview questions. When prompted, some veterans immediately recall their brush with absurdity. Some of the more humorous traditions evoked through veterans’ oral histories describe creative discipline in lieu of administrative action. For example, Korean War veteran Donald F. Gardner describes the consequences of two soldiers who went “over the fence” while on leave in Japan. In the 40th Infantry Division, non-commissioned officers whose soldiers attempted to go “AWOL” (Absent without Leave) were considered culpable, and their punishments were creative, indeed. Gardner recalls the meted punishment:

…a squad leader had to take a full field pack with your tent draped over it, along with the guys who had done the wrong thing, and we had to walk across the valley, across the river, and up a mountain. I tell you what, that was unbelievable but I was on R&R in Japan and my platoon sergeant had to do it and he told me ‘in a nice way when I got back,’ that you had two naughty boys and I had to take the Field Pack and go with them, otherwise, it’d have been you.

After a weekend in Japan, a rucksack march across the Korean landscape saw a lesson learned!

James Handy during VHP interview, October 2006. James Otis Handy Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/48905.

James Handy during VHP interview, October 2006. James Otis Handy Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/48905.

As a millennial, veterans’ oral histories give evidence to an America I never experienced. I was born more than 20 years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, and my rearing, education and life experiences depicted segregation as cruel and ridiculous. During the Second World War, as well as “de facto” segregation in Korea, African Americans serving in the U.S. armed forces were faced with an absurdity – one that reflected our society as a whole. For James Otis Handy, a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Corps and a Tuskegee Airman, progress came in the form of a VIP visit to Tuskegee, Alabama, where he met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt arrived, toured the field and then promptly asked for an African American flight crew to take her aloft – all to the horror of her escorts. Beaming, James Handy recalled:

The FBI … with Mrs. Roosevelt called the President and asked, ‘should we let her go up?’ And the President said, ‘she’s been doing everything she wants to do and she’s not going to stop now!’ And she didn’t stop. She crawled in that plane and they took her up. That was a big step forward.

When we laugh together, we know it’s a good joke. Although we lost Mr. Handy in 2013, know that his stories, as well as 100,000 others’, are preserved among the collections of the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. For generations to come, their experiences will inspire us to learn, and, at times, to laugh in the face of unimaginable pressures.

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