Two weeks ago, in a meeting room at the Casa Munras Hotel in Monterey, a small band of 75 World War II veterans, their wives and widows gathered together for the last time. It was a fitting place and time for the last reunion of these vets, some of the last living members of the U.S. Army 54th Signal Battalion. The battalion was activated at Fort Ord in 1941, and they''ve come together to relive old times every year for the last 54 years.
On a Wednesday afternoon, the men--most of them in their 80s, some in their 90s--bellied up to their private bar and swapped war stories, some of which have been told over and over again, mutating just a little with each passing year. Their wives and the widows, sitting together at one table, pored over a photograph album compiled by one soldier''s sons to preserve the group''s wartime experiences.
WWII is long over and even Fort Ord has passed away, but various compilations of the 2,000 or so soldiers, who served together from 1941 until 1945 when the battalion was deactivated, have come together since 1947 to "eat, drink and talk," says reunion organizer Dave Ferrari. (Indeed, the liquor flows as freely as the tall tales at these reunions: "They ran us out of Santa Cruz ''cause they ran out of bar glasses," confesses former soldier Gary Stegall.) These days, most who make the trip are from California, where the reunions are held, but others traveled from Arizona, Nevada, Montana and Michigan to say good-bye to old friends. This was to be their final party together.
"We''re all getting old and decrepit," says Ferrari matter-of-factly. "And it''s too much goddamn work."
Be that as it may, the old soldiers chattered on like schoolboys as they recounted memories collected from five years of service together. After field training at Fort Ord, Fort Hunter Liggett in south Monterey County, and in Washington state, the battalion''s Company B, consisting of 365 men, boarded a ship in the San Francisco harbor and embarked on a journey to a secret destination, known only to them by the code word PLUM. They were at sea less than 24 hours when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Company B''s ship returned to San Francisco and the men headed the other direction to serve a two-year stint in Iceland.
Camped on a barren, windswept plain, the men installed, maintained and operated signal equipment vital to radio communications supporting the Allied war effort in Europe. The loneliness, the cold, and the isolation of their remote island post bonded the men together. "We didn''t live there," Ferrari says, "we existed."
The memories they share recount mostly the good times spent at play, as if the wartime despair has simply melted away--or is locked up deep inside their hearts. The soldiers did what they could to keep the boredom at bay. One form of entertainment was a game in which the soldiers would stick a funnel down their pants and try to land quarters launched from their foreheads into the funnel. One evening, a soldier dubbed "Red"--whose peers describe him as "not too bright"--wanted to join in the game. "Red comes busting in the door, puts a funnel into his pants and puts a quarter on his head," reminisces veteran Larry Colvin. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Red, another soldier poured beer into the funnel. "The beer was to his knees before he realized what was happening," Colvin says, breaking into his signature loud cackle.
With little to do during downtime, much of their entertainment centered around alcohol. Enlisted men were forbidden from drinking, but that certainly didn''t stop them. They bought booze from cab drivers in the nearby city of Reykjavik, paying up to $45 for a fifth. When precious bottles weren''t available, the boys got creative. A group of soldiers from Virginia employed their hillbilly heritage to harvest hooch from leftover fruit and potato peelings. And the battalion cooks, famous for their exquisite lemon pies and puddings, requisitioned lemon extract in bulk. Before the extract ever made it into a dessert, the cooks froze it to separate the alcohol for drinking. "You can really get looped on extract," Ferrari says, "it''s strong stuff."
One time a group of enlisted men, resentful of the privileged officers who could lawfully sip cocktails in their comparatively cozy officers'' club, cut a hole in the club, ripped off the officers'' liquor stock and hid it in a riverbed. And when the officers'' club caught on fire, the enlisted men were ordered to squelch the flames by forming a bucket brigade and transporting water from a nearby river. "We had about 200 guys, and each one would spill a little water," remembers Ferrari, "and the guys at the end put gasoline into the buckets." The enlisted men watched with mirth as the officer''s club burned to the ground. "In 57 minutes it was gone," he says. "And who had to rebuild it? We had to rebuild it."
But the 54th Battalion doesn''t just reminisce about the war. The reunions themselves have been material for a collection of amusing stories, some of which sound typical of fraternity parties, not reunions of WWII veterans. Like the time the group got busted by hotel security for hitting golf balls down the hall. Or when one ex-soldier was dragged off to the Santa Cruz city jail for fishing--in a hotel lobby fountain.
For all the good times and bad times, the laughing and crying, both during and after the war, this extended family of vets seem little distraught by the fact that this was their last collective brouhaha. Who knows, maybe they''ll have just one more get-together next year.