Something for a Memorial Day weekend. Fanfare for the Common Man by Aaron Copland. Composed in 1942, it was Copland’s reaction to the US entering World War II. This song brings back memories to me from 43 years ago.
Back in the summer of 1976 I was on vacation between my freshman and sophomore years at the University of Illinois. My father ran the steel shears at a truck body plant in Paris, Illinois. They were hiring summer help and I got a job working on the factory floor. Although I liked the idea of earning money, I was less than enthused by the job. The factory floor was not air-conditioned, and the summer was hot. Additionally I had never worked in a factory before, had no experience with heavy machinery and did not know what to expect.
I was placed under the supervision of a regular worker at the plant. He looked like he was a thousand years old to me at the time, but I realize now that he was probably then around six years younger than I am now at age 62. I would assist him at a press in which we would manhandle heavy sheets of steel and use the press to bend them into various shapes. Before we began he pointed to a little box and said that if I lost a finger or a part of a finger as a result of the press, I should toss it in the box and proceed with the job. Thus I was introduced to his macabre sense of humor.
I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but he was engaged in a rough and ready form of instruction. He had to take a completely green kid, and teach me various tasks, all the while keeping up with the jobs the press was assigned. He did it pretty skillfully, and I learned. I never got to like the job, but I learned how to do it. I also learned to grudgingly respect my mentor. He obviously wasn’t well read, but he was handy with machinery, and under his tutelage I learned how to operate the press without losing one of my digits, or costing him one of his. He kept me out of trouble at the factory, and included me in his conversations with his fellow veteran workers. All in all I probably learned more that summer of future value for me in life, than I learned from any of my courses in college.
One day during the half hour we had for lunch, I asked him if he had served in World War II. I was in Army ROTC at the University, and I had a keen interest in military history. He told me that he had been an infantryman in the Army and that he had participated in Operation Torch.
Operation Torch, the landings of which began on November 8, 1942, were the liberation of French North Africa then controlled by the Vichy government. These landings by British and American troops would seize Morocco and Algeria and allow the Allies to attack Rommel’s Afrika Korps in a pincer movement, between American and British troops from the west and the British Eighth Army moving from the east from Egypt after the British victory over the Afrika Korps at El Alamein, which concluded on November 4, 1942.
Operation Torch was the largest American amphibious operation up to that time and taught valuable lessons as to improvements needed for future landings.
I was impressed that my fellow factory worker had taken part as a young man in such a momentous event. He, on the other hand, did not make much of it, a reaction similar to what I have found with most World War II veterans. They had a job to do for the country, they did it, and then they came home, took off their uniforms and went on with their lives. Normally they didn’t talk much about the War unless they were with fellow veterans. If asked they would talk about it, but it obviously was not foremost in their minds.
At the end of my summer, my mentor and I went our separate ways. When my father died in 1991, he was part of the American Legion honor guard. We chatted a bit. I learned that he was retired, and he learned that I was married and an attorney. That was the last time I saw him.
Of the over 16,000,000 Americans who put on their country’s uniform during World War II, slightly under a half million are still alive. 348 of them die on average each day. Soon, sadly, World War II will pass from the living memory of the men who fought it. I hope my mentor is still alive and in good health, he would now be near the century mark if he is still alive, and when the 77th anniversary of Operation Torch rolls around in November, I hope someone will remember to give him a salute for a job well done.