|Edited by John Morrow||Jack Kirby Collector celebrates the life and career of the "King" of comics through interviews with Kirby and his contemporaries, feature articles, and rare & unseen Kirby artwork. Now in tabloid format, the magazine showcases Kirby's art at even larger size.|
Jack Kirby On: World War II Influences
The second installment from a work-in-progress entitled "Conversations with Jack" by Ray Wyman, Jr.From Jack Kirby Collector #27
Essays in first person based upon interviews with Jack Kirby and his family between August 1989 through June 1992. Copyright 1999 by Ray Wyman, Jr.
Author's Note: Although always a gentleman when it came to the public, privately Jack could indulge in a bit of profanity from time to time, particularly when discussing his soldiering days. Couple that fact with my own propensity for the same linguistic crutch and there were times when the bluster of four- and five-letter words (and various combinations) was so thick that Roz—Jack's wife of 50+ years—had to step into the room and politely remind us that our voices were 'carrying.' We must have sounded like a couple of old GI's resting our bones on a park bench, cursing away the afternoon. Roz asked me to not encourage him, but really he needed no encouragement—in this he was fairly self-sufficient. So, sensitive readers, beware.
Kirby pencils from Our Fighting Forces #159. Losers ™ and © DC Comics, Inc.
Well, I can't remember what happened yesterday; I could not tell you what I ate for breakfast this morning, but I recall the faces of everybody that was in my unit. I recall their names, I recall where they came from, I recall the manner of their speech and even the common everyday things they did; unimportant things that make the whole event real. That is how the mind works: It retains the significant events of our lives by memorializing the important moments. It happens when we are faced with events that are pleasurable and those that are unpleasant, especially when we are faced with danger—at times when our lives are hanging by a thread. It was like that nearly every day of the war. The threat was never far from our thoughts, I can tell you.
I am not a master on how the human mind works but it seems fantastic that the mind stores all the little things that make up a period of your life; a string of incidents will fall into place, you know, from all your memories, and that is what produces the image we have of ourselves. Still, it kind of amazes me that I went through all of that. I'm amazed that I'm still here to tell you these things. These interviews, these questions are good for me to reflect and bring back all those times; small things, big things, sometimes insignificant, but all of them are stored right here for the asking.
For instance, you ask me how it was during the war and just the mention of the word brings to mind the first time that I saw General Patton. My outfit was lined up and Patton was there with my Colonel and all the other officers. We were all mustered together and the officers stood there talking. We were freezing our asses off; those French winters are extremely cold. A heavy coat is nothing; a heavy coat didn't mean a damn thing. Whatever you were wearing, it didn't matter. Only walking saved you from the cold; any physical exertion was better than just standing at attention in the cold. There was no snow yet, but it was unforgettably cold. It didn't matter to the officers; these guys were arguing over something, most of it I couldn't hear very well, so what I remember is what other guys told me.
We were in Northern France very close to the border of Germany and Belgium; and like I said, it was so cold, every one of us was shivering in our boots—not because we were afraid, you know. My outfit was a strong group of fighting men. Every one of them you could trust with your life; we had to, we had no choice.
Well, there was Patton, sore as hell. Sometimes he was agitated, but their voices kept low. We couldn't hear them very well. He wanted to know why we were screwing up his map. He came there with this big map and he spread it out over the hood of this jeep and got all the other officers in my outfit all around to look. Then he looked up at each one of them and said, "What the f*ck are these guys doing here?" and he pointed at the map again and yelled, "What is this? What is this? You're fouling up the whole f*cking thing! If you're here, then why the f*ck aren't they dead? They are all supposed to be dead." I myself was saying, "Well, sh*t on you. I feel great."
But like I said, I couldn't hear most of what he was saying, except when he raised his voice and all the other officers stepped back like he was going to slap them. Of course, that wouldn't happen in an American army, not in public at least where all the GIs could see. So, this went on for—I don't remember, I was too frozen to care, but it went on for quite a while. I heard that Patton ordered replacements. He thought my outfit had been wiped out. So some foul-up I guess, signals crossed, messages mixed up; it happened quite a lot during the war.
The Colonel had fouled up Patton's schedule and his ability to predict what went on on the battlefield. This is a personal opinion, but I think he was a great General; he kept all of the outfits moving—you can't win a war just by digging in. He kept his troops moving constantly so the Germans never got any rest—never, at least not in my sector. So in that way Patton was a good leader, a soldier's General. While he kept us moving, he kept everything else moving with it; we got the best meals and medical care—and if his Colonels needed new troops, he'd bring them himself; and that's what happened. There he was, mad as hell with our replacements, and there was my Colonel standing there like a common private, scared sh*tless.
World War II didn't happen overnight. There are layers of history, a whole series of occurrences that brought us to that critical moment when war was inevitable. I think the British actually knew that but were too proud to admit that they had already failed to contain Hitler. To understand what happened you would have to go back to Napoleon, the Kaiser, the Russian Czar, the British Royalty; these guys never liked each other, they were horrible to each other. They never could keep a promise. They were so busy trying to outdo each other that they lost touch with their own people. Then there was the Great Depression; it hit everybody, not just here. In Germany it took 2 million marks to buy a loaf of bread. Hitler was an opportunist. He knew that people were about to revolt because things were so bad by then.
At that time, the common man felt downtrodden; it was the same for Americans, we were feeling the same pressures back then, but we had Roosevelt and they had Hitler. It almost happened here; Hughie Long tried the same approach as Hitler. He wanted to take things over and run things for himself. Guys were unemployed and would listen to anybody. They thought he had a better idea; that he could fix the situation. I forget where he came from, but he was always making a big deal about everything. Somebody finally got fed up with him and had him shot. Hitler was immune to this because he was the one doing the shooting.
After he took over Germany he grabbed Czechoslovakia, Austria, Poland; he wanted everything and we all knew it was coming. Everybody could see that, but Chamberlain missed the signs. People do not think of him as a good leader because a good leader has to see all of this at once. Now, if you ask if I blame Chamberlain for this war—well, that is possible, but when something happens, who gets blamed? Usually the loser. If we had lost the war they would be blaming us for the whole thing. Poor judgment is only part of the whole story; the rest is buried in everything that happened before you were ever around and what comes out at the end.
I was drafted June 7, 1943. I found out the same way as everybody else: They sent a telegram. You get two free telegrams from the Army: One to tell you that you are drafted and one to tell your wife that you are coming home in a casket. Sure, I was drafted, but I didn't mind going. You didn't complain about it because it was the thing to do. All my friends were gone, even Joe. You did this sort of thing without asking questions. It was your duty—but, I can tell you that I wasn't happy about Basic Training. I was at Camp Stewart, Georgia during the Summer; it was always hot and humid. I hated it there and they always gave me a hard time. I am not a guy who likes to be disciplined. I hate discipline of any kind except the kind of discipline I make for myself, like when I draw. If it is not right I'll redraw it 19 times until I get it right, but Army discipline I wasn't ready for.
"Stand straight. Get up. Lay down. Do this. Do that." They would wake us up at two o'clock in the morning and make us hike 50 miles, 25 miles up and 25 miles back. That is a long walk with a full pack, a rifle and everything else—that's a long walk without them. And at two o'clock in the morning, are you sleeping or walking? And you are doing this all on roads as rough as hell.
I was not prepared for the military experience personally; most of what I knew about the world came from the papers, books and movies—mainly movies. Like everybody else I was fed stereotypes by the movies, by writers who were pulling down big dough for writing that stuff; they didn't realize that it was a kind of a beginning of an education for most of the country. There were very limited communications: A telephone was very hard to come by, not like today. To own an automobile you had to be semi-rich, and nobody ever took a cab; those were taken by rich people too. And airplanes? We all took trains back then and you only went on a train when you really had to go someplace. All the things we take for granted today were as far away from us as the sun. I know I may sound like an old rehashing-type, but those were different days.
But I did appreciate the opportunity to meet all sorts of people from all over the country. It was a great opportunity, I can tell you. There were guys from Florida, Michigan, Utah, Texas—I don't think there was one state that wasn't represented there. The experience helped me appreciate the variety of the country, in the people, the language, and culture. It is incredible to think that we are as diverse as we are and how we have held together as one country. Really, it is the one clear fact of this country that makes it unique to the world.
Communications were very poor back then. We had no idea where some of the places were. Some guys didn't even know where New York was. Once I told a Texan that I was from Brooklyn and he asked me, "What's a Brooklyn?" Those were the times when convention collided with new beginnings. I mean, the world was changing; the attitudes were changing. Movies had a tremendous role in that change. No matter what people say, we learn from what we see in the movies and read in books. Through them you began to meet different types of people and learn about different types of cultures.
I met Southerners for the first time. That was a big experience. I didn't know anybody who spoke like that. Well, they spoke like that in the movies, but here it was live and real. I met Texans. I met people who had grown up on 40 acres of farm and never seen a person they didn't know for years, never seen a big city, and here I was from the big city and all I ever saw was a lot of people I didn't know. In that particular way, I think the war did a lot for uniting America; it was a galvanizing experience. It united the states because it forced people to work and live in close quarters with each other; it forced us to meet each other on common terms, but I can tell you that there were times when these meetings weren't the happiest of meetings.
And I was right there; I was one of them. I had never seen a Texan in the flesh, the Texan had never seen somebody from New York; it was a country of people who had never met each other. I never saw a Texan until I got into a truck with one during the war. I wanted to talk to one and so I did and I can tell you that it was harder to do than I had imagined. It turned out that he had never talked to a New Yorker either; he thought we were all swells, wise guys with money to burn. Well, I corrected him on that and he was very surprised, but so was I; he had never ridden a horse in his life, he was from a big city like Houston, and he didn't know anything about ranches—but he was still a tall man that talked like a Texan, so at least some of what I expected held true. I can't say that about myself; I was not the stereotype of a New Yorker of the time.
The thing is that we all met. I met people from Georgia. I found people of my own religion living in Georgia. There are a lot of Jewish people living in Savannah and there were a lot of Jewish people living in other parts of Georgia, in all parts of the South—even in Texas. I realized that there were a lot of similar people living all over the place. I began to get a feel for the United States in a way I never had before. I could envision the United States as the American flag, the stars and the stripes—the meaning of it.
We were sent for the POE, the Port of Embarkation, in August and boarded this big crowded ship. I don't remember the name, but it was part of a large convoy of ships escorted by small battleships and destroyers. We had what we called "baby battleships" which were pocket battleships, and large cruisers. There was a line of those on both sides of us. We were all there, together stretched out on the deck; pooped as hell. And, of course, the ocean was tossing everybody around. And no matter where you slept or stayed, you got seasick.
I think we reached England at nightfall. We landed in Liverpool. England was in a terrible state. They were still suffering from the Blitz. The German Stukas and bombers had dropped bombs everywhere. The people were still sleeping in the subways—the Germans had made a mess of Liverpool—but we didn't stay there long; they immediately took us out of Liverpool and we reached Gloucester. I remember a lot of walking and a lot of waiting. We were tramping through the streets there and were on our way to another POE. I got a glimpse of the English countryside when we reached the embarkation area near Dartmouth and it was like a garden; it was the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen. We were there for about 2 days, then we left for France and landed on Omaha Beach.
It was some days, maybe weeks after D-Day. I don't remember the exact day; they still hadn't finished cleaning the place up. It was still quite a mess and I still remember parts of it like it was yesterday. They moved us very quickly into the hedgerow country and into waiting trucks, put us on more trucks and drove down so many roads that I could never tell you where I went. After a while you just forget how long it took and where you were. But I remember the villages that we drove through. Those villages are still etched in my memory, really, because they were in utter ruins. Utter ruins! You could see the former beauty of these places and I felt very sorry for the former inhabitants because I am certain that many of them were killed. I felt sorry because I knew that we would probably add to the destruction, but it was a necessary sacrifice, one that was apparent to everyone. We bypassed Paris—I never saw the city—and joined the rest of the forces that were being gathered together for Patton.
If you have a place where there is communication between different people, you are going to have collisions because of the stereotypes that have been learned. Many stereotypes live longer than many of the truths they originally exaggerated; some of these stereotypes are still with us today and are part of how we perceive the world around us. Back then the stereotype was a closely-held truth, something that you did not dispute. If you saw a Texan in a movie, you believed what you saw. So, what did I know about a Texan? That he would talk differently, that he was tall, he lived on a ranch, and rode horses for a living. Now if you ask me what we thought about Germans, it was a very different picture before the war than during the war. That's one thing about stereotypes: They can change with the times and the situation. When they were peaceful friends, we thought of them as happy, jovial types—they had a beer stein in one hand and a sausage sandwich in the other—but as our enemy they became high-stepping big jerks with an even bigger jerk for a leader.
The first German I met on the field was a German officer. He bawled me out. He said, "Look at you, you look like a prick. You're covered with mud. You look like garbage. Look at me. My uniform is pressed, three guys worked on my boots this morning." He pointed at the mud on my helmet and said, "I can't fight a guy like you. No wonder we are superior to you guys."
So, I pointed my rifle at his direction, like this to make a point, and I said, "I'm sorry you feel that way, but you are my prisoner and my CO says you have to get into the truck." He shut up after that and got into the truck, but this is what we saw; that's the communication we had with them, so what else could we think? They probably believed everything they thought about us; they had a very effective propaganda system back then. I heard them say "We make better soldiers than you guys" more than once— so there must have been a reason they believed it—but usually we would yell back "I don't really know about that" and that's when everybody would start shooting at each other.
Most Americans have an image of war—especially that war—that it was a carefully planned event; groups of men—groups of professional fighting men—going up against other professional soldiers, moving in columns, aiming their rifles, all under the orders of their commanding officers. Well, let me say that guys are guys no matter what the circumstances may be and different rules apply. We called each other names all the time; we were cursing each other in English, German, French, Hebrew; I had quite a large vocabulary by the time I got back—I could cuss somebody out in four different languages. Sometimes a shot was never fired but we'd still be yelling at each other to 'go to hell' or 'go sh*t on yourself'; but you never said anything about somebody's mother, not unless you wanted somebody to take a potshot at you.
Once while I was on patrol I entered a street and somebody from a window started calling me all kinds of names in German, and he was laughing. "I'm going to kill you," he said. "I'm going to shoot you right in the face." I stepped back against the wall and pulled back the bolt on my machine gun. I was ready to wait this guy out, but then he said something about my mother. I forget what, but it gets me pissed—I mean really pissed—so I stood back and began spraying where this voice has been calling. Then he started spraying me and soon the whole street is riddled with bullets. I guess there was more than one guy because I could hear them running through the buildings. We all ran like hell, but I never saw these guys. I think I hit two of them, but I didn't stick around to count. I ran like crazy, the whole place was filled up with flying stuff. We were always calling each other names; we were always cursing each other and yelling slogans, like "Sh*t on Hitler" and whatever seemed appropriate for the moment. It was like what we did in my neighborhood, only here we had guns and bombs—so it was very serious business.
I was a Scout in the infantry. If somebody wants to kill you, they make you a Scout. So, I was a Scout. I don't know who wanted to kill me—maybe somebody that I upset somewhere, I don't know. You don't pull that kind of duty just because you're a nice guy. Nice guys don't get Scout duty. Maybe I was the new guy, so they said, "Give Scout duty to the new guy." That's probably what happened. You don't pick some guy that you like to be a Scout; you'll never hear the end of it.
I remember that I walked into this town where they had the Command Center. This Lieutenant called me over and said, "Private Kirby?" I said, "Yes, sir." He said, "Jack Kirby? The artist?" I said, "Yes sir. I drew Captain America..."
"And Boy Commandos," he said. Lots of guys knew who I was, so this did not surprise me—you have to remember that the Simon/Kirby name was very popular at the time and many adults were reading comic books back then. "So you can draw?" he said. "Yes sir," I said, "Of course I can draw." I was thinking, "Great, some officer wants me to draw his portrait." Then he said, "Good. I am making you a Scout. You go into these towns that we don't have and see if there is anybody there. Draw maps and pictures of what you see and come back and tell us if you find anything."
Well, I can tell you that was one time I was not happy to be known as an artist—but, I did my duty of course; I did what the Lieutenant told me to do. I went into these towns and it was like they show it in the movies, nobody was around and the place was a mess; buildings burned out, shattered rubble everywhere. I saw lampposts twisted into shapes, bent like pretzels. I once saw a piece of metal, an iron fence post, imbedded into the side of a brick building like a javelin, stuck right into the wall. It was probably thrown there by a huge explosion or a big German—probably by somebody that I didn't want to meet.
Once I entered this village, I was sent out with my platoon to scout for Germans. I went up one corner and looked into these store windows. All of them were empty of course; the place was completely uninhabitable. It was like walking in on a movie set; I was walking around these foreign towns in full gear, full uniform in these bombed-out French cities—it was like a dream or a nightmare. Then I came to this French hotel. The front door was charred and still hanging from its hinges. It had a big winding staircase in the lobby—probably a swanky place where all the swells went to pick up girls. When I pushed the door open, I was startled by a sound from behind a pile of rubble. I was ready with my weapon and I said in German and French to come out with your hands up. I waited for a moment. Nobody answered so I got worried and I called out again; this time I was thinking that I was going to see some action.
Then this big dog came out from behind the pile. It was a great big hound that was badly injured; it was cut and burned all over. They must have blown the building when the dog was in it. It stopped in front of me and just stared. It didn't growl or whimper, it just looked at me with these deep accusing eyes; it was the most human expression I have ever seen on an animal. It was like he was saying, "You, you did this to me!" Oh, I felt so guilty. I felt just terrible and so hurt, because to me it was like an accusation by a dumb creature that didn't care why I was there or anything about the Germans. All he knew was that I was there and he was hurting; that's all this animal knew. All this was happening around him and even though I had nothing to do with it, I'm still the cause. I didn't have the courage to look this beast in the eyes any longer. I lowered my rifle and it limped past me out of the wreckage and onto the road. He kept giving me these dirty looks, terrible dirty looks. I think I stood there for several more minutes before I continued my sweep.
On another patrol I was with this guy, he owned a furniture store in Michigan; I was never in Michigan in my life and I had no idea what you did in Michigan. We probably called him 'Mitch'—all I remember about him was that was all he would ever talk about. We came to this field and saw nine Germans on the other side; they were about 100 yards away. I remember there was high grass on either side of a narrow path. We saw each other and started yelling names; both sides were on patrol and you really didn't stop to shoot unless you had to, unless some officer was there telling you to—the common German foot soldier felt the same way as we did. But this guy gets tired of yelling and said to me, "I'm going to get me that first one." He pointed to a tall one and said, "I'm going to get him right in the eye." I said, "You're crazy. There are nine guys there, we are only four and we are on patrol at that. Now, let's go and report what we saw." He said, "No, I'm going to get me one of them."
You know—a guy gets stuff into his head; suddenly he can do this and that and all hell breaks loose. I was thinking, four guys against nine wasn't really good odds, and you can't hit a bucket at ten yards with an M-1 rifle. The standard issue GI weapon was the M-1 rifle; M-1s buck in your hand, you can't hit a damn thing with an M-1. It is not a sniper's rifle—the M-1 is a sh*tty gun—so if you hit something you are aiming at at 100 yards away, then it is by luck. So, I'm thinking what this guy will do is miss or nick somebody and then they'll put fifty holes in us. So I yelled at him, more forceful because I can see it in his eyes that this guy was getting serious. "Get in the g*ddamn f*cking jeep." He said 'no' and stood out there where they could see him with his rifle raised like this, and they see him. He said, "Watch me do it" and from 100 yards—an impossible shot with an M-1—he gets this guy square between the eyes, just because he convinced himself that he could do it. Of course everything broke loose then and we all took off in a big hurry. In the Army we used to say, "Taking off like big-assed birds." Well, we took off like big-assed birds, you know? There might have been fifty Germans after us for all we knew, coming down from the other direction.
We were on patrol, constantly on patrol. On patrol you see the strangest things—things that I can tell you are beyond anything you could call normal. Once I had an old guy with a little gray beard run over to me. I can hear his thin little voice as he looked into my eyes. Tears were running down his cheek. He couldn't believe his eyes. He blinked a couple of times and he said, "You're Jewish." I said, "Yeah, I'm Jewish." So he said, "Come with me." So I ran after this little old guy with the rest of my squad behind me. It's a long road; I remember some farm buildings and a factory. It could have been an ambush, but we figured that it probably wasn't—I mean, what would the Germans be doing with this little gray beard? Then we came to this walled-in place, this stockade, and he pointed. "There, there," he said. I stopped. German guards were leaving by the dozens; I could see them jumping over the wall and getting out of there the best way they could. They knew that I am a Scout, they knew that this big division was right behind me. I was standing there looking at them as they yelled out 'f*ck you' in English. They all said that by that time. They thought it was a big insult, but I don't think they really knew what the word meant.
There they went, over the side, and then my buddies and me opened up the stockades. I thought I was going to see Prisoners of War, you know, some of our guys that got caught in some of the early fighting—but what I saw would pin you to the spot like it did me. Most of these people were Polish; Polish Jews who were working in some of the nearby factories. I don't remember if the place really had a name, it was a smaller camp—not like Auschwitz, but it was horrible just the same. Just horrible. There were mostly women and some men; they looked like they hadn't eaten for I don't know how long. They were scrawny. Their clothes were all tattered and dirty. The Germans didn't give a sh*t for anything. They just left the place; just like leaving a dog behind to starve. I was standing there for a long time just watching, thinking to myself, "What do I do?" Just thinking about it makes my stomach turn. All I could say was, "Oh, God."
Well, my outfit was not too far behind me. They never sent us too far ahead. We knew the Germans were out there, we just didn't know where and what kind of troops they had; and the Germans—well, they knew we were coming. That's why they ran. They saw me and thought that the rest of the Army was right behind me. The Germans never fired a shot; what the hell were they going to waste time with me for? What the hell was I going to do? They knew I was just a Scout. They probably said, "Screw him. We'd better get out of here," or else they would have all been prisoners or worse. I'm sure it would have been worse when my outfit had seen what I had seen and captured any one of them. We would have gone crazy on them. They probably knew what would happen and tried to get out of there before we realized what they had done in that place. My outfit finally caught up with me. They were as astonished as I was. Whatever went on, I certainly didn't have charge of it. I went wherever my Lieutenant posted me. I never knew what really happened later. I don't know who took credit, but I can tell you that I found it.
War is a sequence of events; you've probably heard that there were these long periods where there was nothing to do but to sit and wait. Then you walked a lot, and then there were those times that you knew that any second it was curtains. I had a few of those moments. Most of the time was when they were shooting 88s at us; the German 88 was an anti-armor gun, but it was also a very effective anti-personnel weapon and they used it quite a lot on us. You could shoot hundreds of 88 rounds in a minute; a battery of 88s would churn the ground around you and pulverize bricks in an instant. The 88 was a fairly big shell, not like long-range artillery, but big enough that if you came into contact with one of these things you'd never see tomorrow. Once we came up against some of these things; they were all coming in and stepping up and shooting, pumping lead. I was lying there just shooting away with my rifle—that's all I had. My whole division was pinned down. Eventually our artillery cleared them out, but not until a bunch of us were killed. It was a holy mess. You could hear the shells fly past your head like a high-speed mosquito. That was when you knew you had a close call. But not just the sound, you could feel the pressure. I experienced that more than once.
Once during a fight some guy crawled up to me from the back and he grabbed my feet. I almost shot his head off. He said to me, "Pick out five men and go see Marlene Dietrich." This was while this fighting is going on! I turned to this guy and said, "You are out of your mind. Report to the doctor." I was at the end of this rock wall and chunks of it were flying around from 88 shells, the earth around me was going up in big clots, all the rest was being pounded by machine guns, and I was laying there talking to this big jerk. This guy said, "If you don't want the detail then I'll get another guy." I said, "All right, all right. I'll take the detail." I still didn't believe this guy, but I picked out five other guys—they thought I was crazy too—and they came along with me.
We crawled about 100 yards and walked another 400 where there was a truck waiting and other GIs were getting on. So these other guys and me got on this truck and they took us about 7 miles down the road away from the action. And sure enough, there she was, Marlene Dietrich, along with Bing Crosby, Martha Raye, and some other actors. They put on a show for us; comedy, Vaudeville acts, singing, dancing—all that in this hell on Earth. I couldn't believe it, the guys with me couldn't believe it—our jaws must have dropped and hit the ground. After a while I wasn't even thinking about the friggin' war. At one time Marlene Dietrich came out in GI underwear and it was crazy as all hell.
Meanwhile the Germans had deepened their defense and some of the fire reached this little theatre they had set up. A shell hit not far away, I felt the concussion, and we all expected to be called back to the action, but the show went on. Bombs fell closer and gunfire got clearer, and all the while these actors kept the show going as if nothing else mattered. It was a real morale booster for us. It upped my respect for these performers immensely; for all performers everywhere—they were really what they said they were, real troupers. There they were right up near the line; I mean, how far is 7 miles? They took the risk almost as much as the soldiers did. It was a crazy war, but the next big war will probably be crazier still.
There were no atom bombs back then. We had no technology to speak of, nothing that was very reliable. Our radios barely worked and the telephones were almost as bad; the lines were always getting cut. In many ways I think that war was the last human war. We were just a bunch of guys with guns. The danger was always very real—there wasn't an unknown enemy figure coming up against you, you could see their faces and you fought them at very close quarters. It was very personal. The danger was especially real if you were a Scout. Now we use satellites and high altitude aircraft to watch the enemy from a safe distance; but a Scout can be captured and have the sh*t beat out of him—you'd probably never get out alive. Scouts were treated like spies even though we were covered under the Geneva Conventions. We had a very high mortality rate. You didn't live very long as a Scout—but you still did your job. Sooner or later you got so you just didn't care about the danger or you just got stupid. That is the way it was.
Soon it was the middle of Winter and the winds were bitter cold—colder than before—and there was snow all over the place. When you are in the field there is no place to sleep except in the snow. My outfit was about to move into Bastogne but I was withdrawn, my whole unit was withdrawn. We were beat up and replacements had to take over. Myself, I had a bad case of frostbite on both feet and lower legs. Don't think I just got nippity-ippity frozen—they were frozen. It took them a year to even get back some of the original color. I was in the hospital, but part of my outfit went on to Bastogne; the others went further to Metz. One of the publishers who published comic books, his young cousin was in my regiment and he was a replacement for what was left of my regiment. He was one of the guys who went to Bastogne and Belgium with my outfit and he told me about it.
I was in the hospital for several months for my legs and I was in the hospital for a little over a year waiting for my feet to recover. They were considering amputation; my toes were black, but I eventually recovered. It was a hell of an experience. So they could send me home, but I missed the Queen Mary. I caught a cold in England and they wouldn't let me go aboard; so I missed the Queen Mary and they put me on this g*ddamn tug, a hospital tug that went like this, back and forth all the way across the ocean. I heard that they gave us the best meals in the world, but I couldn't eat them. I almost starved myself to death because I was so seasick.
I was so seasick. Once I fell out of bed; I was glad to fall out of bed so I could feel pain someplace else in my body. I was sick as a dog. There were thousands of other guys on that ship, doing about the same thing: Lying out on the deck like dead men. I was never so sick in all my life. The Queen Mary was back in three days; this ship took nine. It was a slow ship, and it had a lot of men on board. I didn't see nurses; I didn't see anybody except the other guys that were on this ship.
The funniest thing I saw was a Lieutenant jerking off because the Germans shot one of his balls away. He wanted to see if it still worked. This guy was uncertain. I just saw him working away on it. This gave the whole event a little lightness because most of the other cases were very serious; many men lost limbs, some lost part of their faces. I saw guys with half a face; one you could look inside part of his head. And I saw a lot of guys who were scarred deeply in other ways. Listen, I was doing all right compared to most of the other guys.
Once I got into a game of poker with some paratroopers; it was like going to a party with a bunch of killers. These guys are off the battlefield, but still they have the instinct to kill. They were in wheelchairs, and I was in a wheelchair, but these guys are playing cards like we were going to kill somebody. Some of them were sending home the jackpots they won—I heard some guys really raked in the cash that way—but in this game, the jackpot was only a couple of hundred dollars. I forget exactly how much was in the pot, but it was a pile on the floor of stuff that looked like French coupons. They were occupation marks and the pile was starting to get bigger and these guys are getting quieter—and the worst part was that I was winning. I don't win card games, I don't win anything, but in this case I hit the jackpot. They got pissed and started chasing me down the deck in their wheelchairs. I said 'sh*t on this' and got out of my wheelchair and took off. It was funny as hell because I won—I won that jackpot—but I took off and the money went flying through the air. I don't know what happened to anything. We caused a riot on the whole ship. Whoever won that jackpot would have gotten the same treatment.
It was a whole nutty affair. War itself is a nutty affair, but somehow I think it may get worse. Look at Russia and Afghanistan. The Russians are a great big power and she goes down over Afghanistan and kicks the sh*t out of their people, but then she runs like hell. Why? The Afghanis have one thing that the Russians haven't got—they like to die. That is part of their religion and they are very religious. The Russians had never run up against that and I can tell you that the war in Europe would have been very different if the Germans were like that. A guy from another culture wouldn't know what to do. The Russians didn't know what to do. I mean, what do you do when you fight an enemy who has a martyr complex? I myself, as a General, if I came up against a culture that was completely different than my own, I would investigate it thoroughly. I don't believe that the Russians were that thorough with the Afghani and this was their fatal mistake.
They assumed they just were peasant people and they could just mow over them with their high technology. The Afghani had some technology and I imagine that plenty of them got killed by what the Russians threw at them, but they held their line and they held the Russians back. There were plenty of dead soldiers around—thousands—and it was these farmers and peasants who were doing most of the damage.
Soon, even our technology will not protect us. Our opponents will have a different mind and we will find it very difficult to understand them. The Russians are very much like us and our soldiers have a lot in common. Can either army afford the odds of losing thousands and thousands on a war? We will have to find another way to settle our differences. It is in that way that I would say that war is senseless.
There is nothing that you would call "romantic" about war. Sure, in the movies and on television they paint a great picture of the fellowship that it creates. I've seen war bring lots of people together, but I can tell you that the cost is extremely high: Not just in terms of lives, but in the human spirit. I think that we are diminished by war; our character as a race is somehow reduced by each war that we allow to happen. Hitler had to be destroyed, there was no choice and I was glad to do my duty—but if there were another way to bring him down I would have preferred it. Perhaps the Germans would have been defeated by their own ambition; they could not possibly hold all of Europe forever—the more you force people down, the more they will push back. It is human nature to be free and I feel that eventually there would have been a revolt. Perhaps it was the right thing to do, but I do not think that this applies to other wars that this country has fought. This country has always been at war—it was started by war. Perhaps that is how it will end.
Parting Note: Private First Class Jack Kirby returned to the United States January 1945 and was honorably discharged July 20. He was awarded a Combat Infantry Badge and the European/African/Middle Eastern Theater ribbon with one Bronze Battle Star. There was only one negative comment in his official records regarding an incident just before his discharge when he apparently left the base without leave, but that's another story.
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