By David Caplan, Special to Chicago Jewish News
After basic training in the early part of 1942, my dad, Aaron Caplan, had a short leave to go home, and then it was on to field artillery school. Or so he thought.
Aboard the train, my dad asked a porter if he could tell him which field artillery school they were going to. The porter told my dad he wasn’t going to any field artillery school. “You’re in the Air Corps now,” he said.
The train headed south from Illinois to Barksdale Field in Louisiana. Unbeknownst to my dad, he had been selected for the Army Air Corps while he was home on leave. His civilian occupation was portrait photographer — he had run the Goldblatt’s photo studios on State Street and in Hammond, Indiana — and to the Air Corps, that meant he could do reconnaissance work.
In Louisiana, the boys took him up in the air and he found it beautiful, but he wasn’t crazy about the idea of lying in a Plexiglas bubble and flying behind enemy lines to take pictures. He bowed out — reconnaissance work was voluntary — and instead was trained to service armaments for and load heavy bombers.
Bforong he was on his way to North Africa on an Italian freighter with a British crew that served inedible mutton. They had a Navy escort for the first day, and then they were on their own. A few days out, a periscope was spotted in the water. My dad’s ship took evasive action by zigzagging so sharply he thought it was going to keel over on its side. But they got away intact, and when it was over, the captain came on the loudspeaker and said it was time to give thanks with prayer. There wasn’t a Jewish chaplain on board, so my dad’s buddy George Ferry, an Italian boy from New York, said “Come on Cappy, pray with us.”
The Mediterranean was too dangerous for Allied ships to cross, so they took the long route, around the Cape of Good Hope. When they arrived in Suez after their 30-day voyage, their quarters weren’t ready and German bombers had, as my dad put it, plastered the port the night before. So they boarded a train for Palestine. There they slept in the fields of the kibbutz at Ramat David next to the British airbase of the same name before returning to North Africa some days later.
In the North African desert, they burned up during the day and froze at night. And the flies. And the dust. And the sanitary facilities. He swore that if he ever got out of the desert, he’d never miss a daily bath, and it was a resolution he rarely broke.
Bearing the brunt of the fighting, the British Eighth Army held the Germans in Egypt and then began to push them back across North Africa, where they would be sandwiched by Allied forces from the west. The Americans provided air support. My dad was in a B-24 outfit, the 98th Bombardment Group of the 9th Air Force, also known at the Pyramidiers.
The group’s leader during World War II, Col. John Kane, was dubbed Killer Kane by German intelligence for his successful disruption of the shipping that supplied Rommel’s army.
Sometimes when we watched a war movie together on late-night TV, my dad would complain that they always showed B-17s and never B-24s. Hollywood had made an icon of the streamlined Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. In contrast to its sleek lines, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator had a squarish fuselage with a deep belly, high-set wings, twin tailpieces that looked like elephant ears, and a blunt nose. Its nickname was the Flying Boxcar. The B-24 was a newer plane than the B-17 and considered better able to weather the desert sands.
With their longer range and greater capacity, the B-24s were chosen for Operation Tidal Wave, the famous air raid on the German-controlled oil refineries around the town of Ploesti in Romania. My dad said the planes practiced low-level flying for months, and in August 1943, they flew the 1,200 miles from Benghazi, Libya, to Ploesti.
According to my dad, half the planes didn’t come back. It must have seemed that way. The actual figure was 30 percent — of 179 planes that took off, 54 didn’t return. Ploesti was heavily defended, and the refineries, although damaged, were not put out of commission as hoped. In 1944, though, operating from bases in Italy, American bombers returned to Ploesti and leveled the refineries with repeated strikes.
On a two-day leave in 1942, my dad and his buddy Paul Jacobson posed for a photo sitting on camels with the Sphinx and a pyramid in the background. He was proud of Jacobson, an enlisted man who went to bombardier school, which was originally only for officers. And Jacobson turned out to be the best. “They all dropped on his mark,” my dad would say. He felt the loss deeply when Jacobson didn’t make it back from a bombing mission in 1943.
My dad paid the Egyptian photographer and left an address but didn’t expect he’d ever see the picture. But the photographer did send it and, forwarded from place to place, the picture finally caught up with my dad several months later. The 8×10 enlargement is well composed, and the quality of the print is good except for the streaks of light in the lower right corner. As a photographer himself, my dad recognized that they were due to a pinhole leak in the bellows of the camera.
One day in Italy, my dad heard an airplane mechanic playing the guitar in the barracks. He said it was wonderful to hear music, and it gave him an idea. He put up a notice for musicians and from the various squadrons was able to assemble an 11-piece band.
My dad obtained permission to requisition the instruments they didn’t have, and he sent to the States for orchestrations. The band rehearsed in a barn with an old broken-down piano, and when they were ready, the Red Cross arranged a dance in town.
As I imagine it, the night the band made its debut unfolded with the glossy perfection of a scene from an old movie. According to my dad, the GIs were in their dress uniforms and under strict orders for decent behavior. Nurses were officers and didn’t go to dances for enlisted men, but there was a good turnout of local girls. My dad got up to make the introduction, and when he turned around and said “One O’Clock Jump,” the band took off. I think it was the finest moment of my dad’s youth.
After that, the band was in business. For any outfit that wanted a dance, my dad’s terms were $10 for each member of the band, $10 for him as manager, and all the food and booze they could consume. The band was composed entirely of enlisted men, and my dad liked it that way. When the officers wanted a dance, they had to come to enlisted men to ask for it.
Once a black outfit came to my dad to request a dance. My dad said okay, but the Southerners in the band objected. My dad had never turned anyone down before. He told the Southerners the black servicemen were doing the same job they were doing and asked if they would play as a special favor to him. They said, okay, Cappy, we’ll do it for you.
The same Italian girls as usual showed up and danced with the black GIs, and they were very appreciative. My dad always said he wasn’t a hero, but he made a few people happy. At the end of the war, he received a special written citation recognizing the contribution he made to morale through his work with the band.
My dad had a computer in his room at the retirement home he lived in for the last several years of his life, and with the help of my cousin Charlie he found a 98th Bomb Group association on the Internet. In the list of names, there was one my dad recognized, George Ferry. My dad sent George a letter, and he replied with details of his career and family life. George wanted to know if my dad was still taking pictures.
It was great the way the vets looked out for each other at the retirement home. In the last year of my dad’s life, one of his buddies drove him out to the VA hospital in North Chicago and helped him with the paperwork so he could get his expensive prostate cancer medicine at no cost.
He was in the service nearly four years. When he returned from overseas, he was stationed in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, while waiting to acquire enough points to be released. There he met my mother, who was working as a typist in a government office. “Wherever I go, I get into trouble,” my dad once quipped.
One of my favorite stories about my dad’s military service was his account of his induction physical. In the exam room he mentioned to the doctor that he had flat feet. This was true. He had exceptionally narrow, size 11½ A feet with visibly fallen arches.
“Come over here and stand on this mat,” the doctor said. My dad would act out the doctor’s imperious tone and the quizzical expression with which he looked at the impression my dad’s feet made. Then came the verdict. “You have a low arch but it’s a very good arch,” the doctor said. “You’re 1A.”
Another of his anecdotes was his description of the food the British crew served the American GIs on their Atlantic crossing in 1942 and their reaction to it. “There was almost mutiny,” he would exclaim. His clothes didn’t fit him — he had lost two full sizes —by the time they arrived in North Africa.
In his later years, on Sunday afternoons at his retirement home, my dad shared memories of the war I’d never heard before, small things that would come back to him. He recalled that he had left a blue serge suit hanging in the back room of the Goldblatt’s photo studio in Hammond. His assistant, a young woman named Anna, sent him a letter that reached him overseas. “Dear Fatty,” she wrote. She used to tease him with that nickname. He was five-six and had a 42-inch waist when he entered the service. “I hope you don’t mind but I made an outfit from your suit pants.” He said that’s how big he was before the war — she made a whole outfit just from the pants.
His canon of funny stories had always included one from his temporary service as a medical assistant. The first time he had to give a shot he couldn’t do it. “Here, Cappy, I’ll help you,” the patient said, and wham, he jammed the needle in himself. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, my dad shared a different side of his medical duty. The guys had pulled a man who was burned off a B-24 and brought him into the infirmary. “The doctor wasn’t around and I didn’t want to wait for him,” my dad said. He went to the cabinet where narcotics were stored and gave the burned airman a shot of morphine. When the doctor arrived, he told my dad that he had done the right thing.
I am now in the process of writing a memoir about my dad’s adventures during World War II. I regret being unable to pull the story together during my dad’s lifetime, although I did ask him some questions and made notes in preparation. A year after he died, I decided to take another crack at it, maybe because his military service was on my mind. I had ordered a government-issue gravestone, which he was entitled to as a veteran, and modeled it after the one of a vet buried near him, simply but beautifully done in rose-colored stone with the Star of David and the designation “U.S. Army Air Corps.
As for the story, I decided I would tell it with aspects of his voice but in my own way. And I would try to address the question my dad rhetorically asked when concluding his reminiscences on Sunday afternoons: “What’s in a life?”
The weather was perfect for the graveside unveiling on a July morning in 2006. I began to read the story aloud. Jewel, the widow of my dad’s cousin Marty, was beside me, the sole remaining representative of their generation on my dad’s side of the family. Feeling shaky, I stopped halfway through and asked her if she’d like to speak.
Picking up on the war theme, Jewel said that when my father was home on leave, he had filled in as the best man at her wedding to Marty. Marty’s friend who was supposed to be best man had been caught in a snowstorm in Michigan and never made it to Chicago. I knew the background from my dad — he was home on the two-week leave he’d won in the monthly lottery that was held for GIs. After two and a half years overseas, he had decided the Atlantic crossing was worth it. With the Straits of Gibraltar and Mediterranean now more firmly under Allied control, two weeks were knocked off the travel time. He would recall that it was snowing the night his ship arrived in Boston Harbor. He found the scene beautiful, and there were tears in his eyes.
“I can still hear Aaron’s rough voice,” Jewel said. It wasn’t exactly rough, I thought. The voice itself was deep, with a clear timbre. But the words — yes, those had a rough edge, informed as they were by the attitudes and colloquialisms of Depression-era and World War II America.
When she was done speaking, Jewel turned to me. “Finish the story,” she said.