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Courage is a Quiet Thing

by Howard Fast

Heroism is sometimes found far from
the noise and dirt and blood of battle
At the age of 31, Howard Fast is firmly established as one of America's most talented novelists, with such solid works as "Citizen Tom Paine," "Freedom Road," "Conceived in Liberty," and "The Last Frontier" to his credit. Rejected by the army, Fast served until 1943 in the Office of War Information. In the spring of 1945 Coronet assigned him to cover some of the forgotten spots of the war: spots where American boys were fighting a war of their own against loneliness, boredom, disease, and oppressive heat. This poignant article tells what he found on one of his journeys.

I told a story to some of the men stationed near Sharjah, in Saudi Arabia. It concerned a questionnaire a New York newspaper ran asking girls who had volunteered for overseas service where they wanted to go and why. One girl answered that she would like to be sent to Saudi Arabia because she was certain it was the most romantic place on earth.

When I finished telling the story, the men smiled a little, and one of them said softly, "I wish she had come here. It would be nice to have a girl here."

"It would be romantic," someone else said.

About fifty men were stationed at the ATC base near Sharjah then, in the spring of 1945. They serviced a small airfield, and they kept the installation going. In the daytime, the heat frequently rose to 157 degrees.

The base building stood like a brown sore on an endless white expanse of glistening sand. There was nothing anywhere, no place to go to or come from, just the heat; not a tree, not a bush, not a cloud. It was easy to understand why, once in a while, someone there went mad.

Courage is a very quiet thing. I was in Cairo, and they told me the story of the Green Project. A revolutionary step in air transport, the Green Project was a plan whereby fifty thousand men a month would be shipped from the European and Mediterranean theatres back to the States, without interruption of the regular air transport schedules.

This was a gigantic and visionary movement, and it was being accomplished as smoothly as though a new air age were not being ushered in. I was shown charts and maps and statistics. The loaded 46s and 47s, slipping in and out of Payne Field, told the rest.

"They'll be home in three days," the public relations officer said proudly. "Just think--a year, two years overseas, and they'll be home in three days."

The faces of the men showed what they were thinking. You saw them come out of the fat-bellied cargo planes, and they stood and looked at the sky, at the airport, at each other.

"Of course, there are some hitches," the PR officer said. "Mistakes happen. Things go a little wrong in anything as big as this. They're bound to. Nobody wants it to be that way--but the Army is so big, so much bigger than anything we ever had before. One of those mistakes makes a peculiar story. I don't know whether it would be worth writing about."

"Is it over?"

"It's not over," he said. "That's it." He nodded at a group of boys who stood uneasily against the processing counter. "You know, we decided to take the 8th and 15 Air Forces back by plane, which was only right. They've been over a long time. But that's a big job, and we're short of personnel; so we asked them for a few hundred men to help out, ground crew. They only right, isn't it? But one of those slips happened; they must have just pulled out whole units, and among them were a dozen bomb handlers with thirty months overseas. We have no bombs in ATC, so someone must have been puzzled about what to do with them, and then someone else got a bright idea and orders were cut, and when something like that starts it seems there's no way to stop it. So there are the guys, and they're bound for the milk run stations in the Persian Gulf Command. It's tough on them after all that time in the ETO."

"What are the milk run stations?" I asked. I hadn't heard about them.

"A set of fields through Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Baluchistan. Desert stations--just a few men, lonely and hot. Those kids don't know, in fact, very few people know, about that lousy PGC. No romance, no fighting, just fields."

I asked whether something couldn't be done about those boys. The PR officer thought that eventually something would be done--in a few weeks or a few months. Those things happened, and then unscrambling them was like unscrambling eggs.

We went over and talked to the boys. They were tense, vacant-eyed, tired-looking. The European war was over; they thought they were going home, or at least on furlough, and here they were going east to an ATC field. They were bomb handlers; not mechanics, not maintenance men, just bomb handlers. It didn't make sense. They were all quite young; they had come out of the European winter, and their skin was still white and pink against the Cairo sunburn.

This was one of the small and unimportant tragedies of the war, a little mistake that would be rectified sooner or later; but I got permission to go along with them to their stations. I wanted to see what happened, what they would do when they saw the places which would contain them for the next weeks--or months.

The first scheduled stop was to be Abadan, which has a very wide reputation as the second hottest place on earth. Where the hottest place is doesn't matter. Three of the boys were scheduled for Abadan. We took off in the evening, and we lay on blankets on the floor of the C-46.

In the sunset, we flew across the Sinai Desert, and as far south as you could see there was nothing but jagged mountain ranges. The bomb handlers still didn't speak. Some time during the night, the tower at the British Oasis of Habbinya signaled us that we had no recognition signals, and to land and lie over until dawn. That was very early in the morning. We landed, and the boys stood at the edge of the desert airfield, looked at the bright stars, felt the cool breeze, and joked a little and even smiled. After that, we had some food, drove through the oasis in a truck, and crawled under the netting in a British barracks.

The boy next to me, who was tall and raw-boned and looked like a Texan, was from the Bronx. He said, "Anyway, nothing ever looks like the Bronx." The rubber bands had gone out of his face. We couldn't sleep, and we talked until daybreak. He spoke about patience; everything came to an end--battle, bombing, sickness; you had to make the adjustment inside of you, otherwise you never found any peace. He was twenty years old.

In the early morning, the oasis was cool. We drove back to the airport through green groves, farms, and a little Arab village. Then it took only a few hours to reach Abadan, a little airport on a brown desert waste, with heat rising in ugly, demented waves. No one had been prepared for this kind of heat; the "second hottest place on earth" is meaningless until you feel it. There is a classic description of going to bed in Abadan: you throw a bucket of water on your bed, soak your sheet in water, wrap it around you without wringing it out, and lie down on the wet mattress--and you wake up an hour later dry and gasping for breath.

And it's not only the heat--it's the utter loneliness, the devastation, as if God had vented all His anger on this land.

Into this, the three bomb handlers stepped; this was their assignment, and it was no use to talk about the years in Europe. They walked toward the airport building, and the GIs stationed there watched them stolidly.

At Bahrein Island, the desert looked the same. The heat was a little--just a little--less intense than at Abadan, and the drinking water was dirty green instead of crawling brown. Three more bomb handlers had reached their destination. They grinned when they saw the place. "Those poor guys at Abadan," they managed to say. But they stood there and followed the C-46 with their eyes as it took off again.

The boys who were scheduled for the ATC base near Sharjah asked questions about the place--plaintively, because the uniqueness of their punishment was that it wasn't punishment at all. It was just a manifestation of the war, and a completely unimportant one--so no movies could be taken and no record kept of a few Americans who would have made many others very proud of them. But it was the quietest, deepest courage I have ever seen.

Sharjah might have been hell, except that there were no real flames; the GIs have a name for that part of the east, but it isn't printable. Sharjah is the point of their phrase; white sand that is endless and sight-destroying, and heat like molten metal. And nothing anywhere, no place to go, no men, no women.

Johnny didn't die, although each year the heat kills the flies. Johnny can live through nearly anything, as he has shown. At Sharjah, three more bomb handlers left the C-46. They were in ODs; they had even sewn on the overseas bars to be proudly displayed when they came home. And the plane took off, some hours later, and went on to Baluchistan.

It ended up at Jiwana in Baluchistan. More desert, more heat and loneliness. The last of the boys from the 8th and 15th Air Forces stood there, reassigned, on a new tour of duty. They might have cursed, sworn, wept, griped--all of which they do when the trial is a lesser one.

When it was like this, they took it dry-eyed, knowing that a time would come when it would be over, and that they were tough enough to last it out.