Sunday 25 Sep 2016

Private Snafu
AJ Robinson

My father told me many stories of his service in the US Army, during World War II. These days, we tend to have a rather idealistic view of the American soldiers: red, white and blue, all-American boys and girls fighting to overthrow tyranny. Well, okay, they were all that, but they also had their limitations.

No insult intended, merely stating a fact. After all, those that fought in WW II grew up during the Great Depression, which means formal schooling was sometimes not something they didn’t complete. Yet, they were still sharp; most had life skills and street smarts.


Mel Blanc, of "The Jack Benny Program," was the voice of Private Snafu.

My dad told how sometimes some of them could be a bit dim; hence the creation of Private Snafu. The term “snafu” comes from the military. It’s an acronym, which stands for: Situation Normal, All “Bleeped” Up.

I’ll let you figure out the missing word. During World War II, it came to stand for something else, that is, the main character in a series of cartoons intended to help soldiers learn some basic skills. The voice of Private Snafu was Mel Blanc, best known for his work on “The Jack Benny Program.” You can hear and sometimes see the full variety of his cartoons on YouTube.

For its time, WWII, Private Snafu had some rather risqué adventures. This was appropriate, given the target audience. Each of his adventures taught the soldiers an important aspect of military life.

Private Snafu learned the importance keeping secrets and taking care of his equipment; the dangers of malaria and other diseases and so on. More often than not, poor old Private Snafu was dead or in a prisoner of war camp at the end.

Yet, everything was humorous. This was all the better to teach the new recruits. One cartoon dealt with the subject of booby-traps, a subject my dad had to deal with first hand.

Here’s the thing about war, it tends to be messy and disorganized. Watching movies or television, we always see big battles and much action, but not every act in war is about such things. My dad, who was in charge of supplies and ordinance, didn’t see many battlefields, but he faced action on a number of occasions.


The adventure of the booby-trapped road.

One time, he had to deal with a booby-trapped stretch of road. He was leading a convoy up the “boot” of Italy, toward Rome, when they came across a stretch of road with trees on both sides. Normally, that would be cause to smile, but not this time.

The trees all had boxes of explosives strapped to them and wires ran from box to box. It looked as if the trees had been wired to blow and, yet, hadn’t. My dad wondered: were the explosives tied to a trigger that would go off if when his convoy drove past. Leaving his men at the front of the lead truck, he walked over to check out the first box.

It didn’t seem dangerous. Of course, there’s that little word, seem.

He decided to test his theory. Going back to his truck, he got a pair of wire cutters and told the men he was going to snip the wires. He thought it was the “Last Man Our Syndrome.”

His soldiers were confused. They asked what he meant. He explained it this way.

When an army is in retreat, they want to slow enemy progress: bridges blown up, minefields, booby-traps, of all manner of objects, just as they’d learned from Snafu, cut cables and so on. This time there was the fly in the ointment. It was the duty of the last man or group of men to carry out those acts.

My dad pointed out that, as the last man was, by definition, the last man in the area, if he didn’t do his job, who would know? Sure, he could do his duty and take hours to perform his assignment, but he never knew when that dust cloud coming down the road was just the wind or the advancing enemy! So, what if he just hung around for an hour or so, then high-tailed it out of there, took his time to report to his commanding officer and told him everything was hunky-dory?


If he was wrong, he was dead.

My dad thought that was the case with the bombs. Of course, if he was wrong, cutting the wires might set off the explosives, which is why he insisted on doing it himself. Standing there, wires wedged in the clippers, he had serious second thoughts. Yet, he didn’t see any way to avoid it.

My father briefly toyed with the idea of scrunching himself down into a tight ball next to the box and closing his eyes. If the bomb did go off, maybe he’d survive. He quickly dismissed that as pointless.

Survival was not an option. He stood tall and proud; he turned to look over the countryside. Italy was a beautiful place, almost as wonderful as the one spot he loved most, that was Martha’s Vineyard. He figured, if he was going to die, what better place to have it happen. He also decided he would rather die a man, standing on his own two feet rather than cowering on his knees on the ground. If the last thing he saw was the glory of Italy; so be it.

Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.

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