Blake: Permanent Second Lieutenant
By the time late August had rolled around in 1943, we had known Blake nearly a year and a half. By that time, too, the Sicilian campaign had ended and the 157th Infantry Regiment was in bivouac on the north coast of Sicily. General Montgomery and the British and Canadian troops of his 8th Army were busy at the far eastern end of the island preparing to cross over into Italy and continue chasing the Germans. For General Patton's American 7th Army, the fighting was over. We were back in a rest area and our 2nd Battalion aid station was comfortably situated in a grove of ancient olive trees on a hillside overlooking the peaceful, blue Mediterranean, about midway between the cities of Palermo, thirty miles to the west, and Cefalu to the east. We use the phrase "comfortably situated" reservedly. At least we were stationary, no one was shooting at us, and, for the first time, we were able to shed the dusty woolen clothes we had lived in for weeks. The kitchen units were functioning (also for the first time) K and C rations were forgotten temporarily, and we were eating three prepared meals a day sitting at a makeshift, wooden-trestle table in the shade of the olive trees.
The weather remained hot and dry, but the burning, daylight sunshine was tempered by a constant sea breeze which also brought a pleasant chill to the nights. We had set up our aid station tent for the first time, and the men had paired off into their shelter-half tents. Most of us, however, still preferred to sleep in the open on top of our bedding rolls and sleeping bags under a tent of mosquito netting. The mosquitoes weren't bad in our location, but the flies were plentiful and ferocious. We had captured an Italian officer's field bathtub, a flimsy aluminum affair tacked onto a board base. It leaked alarmingly around the nail holes attaching it to the wood, but with someone pouring water into the perforated tin can shower head that hung from an olive branch, it was a joy to bathe standing on something smooth and clean again instead of bare, rocky soil. After showering, we used the accumulated soapy water in the tub to wash clothes.
Apart from the daily visitors who came by regularly for minor medical treatment or conversation, we had a small chummy group who made our luxurious, aid station country club area its home, Abba Messe, the Assistant Battalion Surgeon, Jack Weiner, the Battalion Intelligence Officer, George Viereck, Weiner's Intelligence Corporal, Bill Galvin, the Regimental Intelligence Officer, and Blake. We joined in the softball and volleyball games. We played bridge, gin rummy, drank lemon powder drink spiked with grain alcohol, we laughed at Weiner's Yiddish stories and talked endlessly. Most of all we loved to get Blake started on stories.
Blake was undoubtedly the star of our gathering. He had been born in Reading, Pennsylvania, the younger of two sons of a wealthy manufacturing family. His parents had died young, and his upbringing and education had been taken over by a devoted brother. His four years of secondary schooling were spent at New York Military Academy. He had just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania when he was drafted into the Army. He had attended OCS at Fort Ord in California, and then joined the 45th Division as a Second Lieutenant in the spring of 1942. In his time with the Regiment, he had been shunted around into every conceivable job that a shave tail could hold, and had remained unpromoted. He was known as an incorrigible goof off, a permanent Second Lieutenant.
Blake was extremely intelligent and willing. It was just his complete unconcern with the thousand petty annoyances and obligations of military service, and his complete disregard of time and punctuality that kept him in constant hot water with the brass. We knew his story by heart: after four years of model behavior during the regimented life at New York Military Academy, where every hour of every day was scheduled down to the fraction of a minute, on the day of graduation he threw away his watch and vowed never to look at another timepiece again. He had coasted through the University of Pennsylvania in unscheduled, happy go lucky fashion and somehow had gotten through officer's school in the same manner. He had survived, with no change of habit, more than a year of stateside training with the Division. He saw no reason to alter his philosophy then and, actually, the free and easy life of real combat suited him best of all.
Blake was neat, trimly built, dark-haired, quite handsome and extremely attractive, especially to women. We had watched and marveled at his exploits during weekend leaves on the streets of New York, Boston, Worcester, Richmond, and wherever. In the middle of a sightseeing stroll down the streets of a strange city, if a particularly beautiful girl passed by and caught his fancy, he would turn abruptly on his heel, pursue, discreetly engage her in conversation, bring her back to the strolling group, introduce her pleasantly as a long lost friend or cousin, borrow the key to someone's hotel room, and have her in bed all within a few minutes. Sometimes he might join us again later in the day, but more often he would only reappear back in camp on a Monday morning, four hours late again for duty. We didn't doubt at all his California stories about Hollywood and young starlets, nor did we dispute his claim to be a cousin of Prince Mike Romanoff, the outlandishly phony Russian nobleman (a renegade Blumberg, according to Blake), who intimidated movie industry moguls. We figured Blake's chutzpah came naturally. In combat, most of us never even caught a glimpse of a Sicilian Signorina. Blake invariably located the village beauty, the mayor's niece, the local Duke's daughter, or even a lonesome Countess. Most of the rest of us were dull, overly inhibited, and married. We lived vicariously through Blake.
Nothing bothered Blake. Nothing fazed him. He was always smiling, always cheerful, and always nonchalant. Toujours gai. He played at soldiering like an actor - a dashing combination of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Jr., John Wayne, Ronald Coleman, Errol Flynn, Lord Mountbatten, and Lawrence of Arabia. It was his perfect imitation of that incomparable paragon of military competence, Sgt. Blake of the Army Training films that earned him the name by which he was generally known. Many years after the war, on seeing the slim and youthful Jack Lemmon when he first appeared in the movies, the manner and physical likeness were so striking that it was hard to believe it wasn't Blake himself.
Blake was also terribly nearsighted. Without glasses he could see nothing but a blur of forms and faces. In spite of this handicap, in earlier years, he had been the New York State Golden Gloves boxing champion of his weight class. In combat, his nearsightedness did occasionally create problems, mostly hilarious ones; like the time he misread a signpost and directed his driver, "Legs", onto a dusty road and followed a retreating column of German supply trucks for miles into enemy territory. Or the time on a night mission with a patrol from his platoon when, crouching behind a rock wall, he heard and thought he saw a squad of Germans approaching and gave the order to fire. When the shooting stopped he discovered a dead white Italian cow. Nonplussed, Blake had the men skin and quarter the animal, and hauled the meat back to the platoon for a barbecue breakfast.
It was in Italy, more than a month later, after we had pushed out of the Salerno beachhead and were moving up toward Avellino, that we heard the news about Blake. He had been transferred into the 3rd Battalion's I Company, still a Second Lieutenant and still leading patrols. A German sniper's bullet had killed him. Someone brought his steel-rimmed spectacles and helmet back to our aid station. We didn't know what to do with them. The glasses were shattered, and there was a neat hole almost directly through the gold, Second Lieutenant's bar welded to the front of his helmet.
(c) "The Doctor's Lounge", The Bulletin of the Muscogee County (Georgia) Medical Society, August 1977