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Henny and Sal

by Joseph S. Salemi

My father, Salvatore J. Salemi, was a noncommissioned officer in G-2 (Military Intelligence) during the Second World War. Although he was 29 years old in 1942, he was drafted for a specific reason. The American Army knew that an invasion of North Africa, Sicily, and Italy was in the works for 1943, and that a large number of interpreters who knew both Italian and its dialectical variants would be needed to interrogate Italian prisoners of war (POWs).

At that time in America, the only persons of military age with those particular qualifications were young males from the many Italian-American neighborhoods of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and New Orleans. They were the sons of immigrants who had come here between 1880 and 1920. The American Army specifically sought these young men, and they were drafted without too much attention paid to anything except their language skills. They went through basic training for combat, but it was expected that their main job would be to interrogate Axis prisoners.

The same held true for young males of German-American extraction, whose fluency in German would be useful in interrogating Wehrmacht POWs. And so it was that the 26-year old Henry Yost, of the Bronx in New York City, was also drafted at the same time. Yost and my father served as an interrogation team in the 10th Mountain Division, my father questioning Italian POWs, and Yost the German ones. Yost (whose nickname was Henny) and my father (whom everyone called Sal) became close friends, and their friendship lasted long after the war ended. As a child I knew Yost as “Uncle Henny,” and his children referred to my father as “Uncle Sal.”

Because our two families visited each other often, I heard endless stories about the war and the adventures of “Henny and Sal.” Besides serving as interrogators, they saw real combat on many occasions, and both men were decorated with the Combat Infantry Badge, the Bronze Star, and in my father’s case the Purple Heart for serious wounds. The stories they told us were sometimes frightening, sometimes comic, sometimes bizarre, and sometimes gruesome. As Henny once said to me in the 1960s, “Joey, I wouldn’t go through it again for a million bucks. But your dad and I learned things that you could never have learned in any school.”

What I especially remember about Henny and Sal’s postwar relationship was the “secret sharing” that they seemed to have all the time. They would look at each other and smirk when something came up in conversation at the table, or when a random comment dredged up an old wartime memory. Sometimes they would exchange a word or two, which made reference to a place or a person or a military situation, and not say anything else. As a child, I knew even then that my father and Henny Yost had a complex of shared experiences that could not always be explained or described to anyone else in the world. I recall how they would briefly refer to “Borca di Cadore” and then laugh heartily, not saying anything else to the rest of us. Only years later did my father explain that this referred to their discovery of a huge German Luftwaffe dump of alcoholic beverages (rare wines, liquors, and hard spirits from all over Nazi-held Europe), stored in a deep cave in a mountainside in Borca di Cadore in northern Italy. My father said “We discovered it, but we didn’t report it to G-2 for three days. We simply went on a drunken bender for that time. When we finally did report it, it took a fleet of Army transport trucks over a week to empty out that cave. The amount of liquor in that mountainside was staggering.”

My father and Henny once told me (after I had reached adolescence) that when they questioned any POWs, the first half hour of interrogation concerned which local women the prisoners had slept with, what they looked like, how good these women were as sex partners, whether they were easy to approach, and what were their addresses and phone numbers. Once that crucial information was gathered, only then did they ask them about troop movements, enemy strength, artillery positions, and all the other things that were only secondarily important to soldiers in their twenties.

There were other more somber things—stories of bombing, of machine-gun nests, of artillery barrages, of strafing runs from Messerschmitt fighters, of atrocities committed both by Allied and Axis troops. There were remembrances of the British and Canadian soldiers, the New Zealanders, the Italian partisans, and of the blood-soaked inferno that was the Anzio beachhead and the Liri Valley. Above all, there was the tangible possibility and sensed presence of death everywhere, ready to leap out, like an uncaged tiger, at any moment. It changed men forever, if they survived it.

And many did not survive. Neither my father nor Henny could talk of fallen comrades without intense emotion, and so they avoided the subject most of the time. All of us in the family learned very early not to bring up the subject of the dead unless it was first alluded to by the two men. I realized that what the Brits call “Remembrance Day” is every day for veterans of a war. It was no surprise for me to learn that the writer Rod Serling, who served in the Pacific, woke up screaming from nightmares nearly every single day of his life after the war ended in 1945. Or that when I visited Germany in 1970, the woman who ran my Gasthaus pointed to a darkened room where her husband stayed, in total silence. She lowered her eyelids and softly said to me Der Krieg… two words that explained everything.

For children growing up in America during the 1950s, World War II was a living reality. Almost every adult male under fifty had experienced it in some way, shape, or form. Army-Navy stores were overflowing with surplus equipment and weapons from the conflict, and there were thousands of war souvenirs and mementos in curio and pawn shops, as well as private homes. Some of my earliest memories were of understanding the difference between a German Luger pistol and a P-38, why C-Rations were better than K-Rations, and what emblems represented which American divisions. We did the Manual of Arms with our small toy rifles. Hitler and Mussolini were familiar names, and everyone knew what had happened at Pearl Harbor. If my brother or I got into some childish scrape where we were hurt and bleeding, our dad would comfort us, dry our tears, and then humorously pin his Purple Heart Medal on our shirts to indicate that we were wounded warriors. That always helped, for some psychological reason.

It took me years to realize it, but the war had given Henny and my dad something that is achingly absent in many persons today. What I mean is this: a rock-solid, unbreakable psychic wall against solipsism. Solipsism is the conviction that you, and you alone, are the single existing being in the world, and that everything and everyone else around you is pure illusion that serves solely your own needs, whims, and desires. Today we live in a world where millions of narcissistic individuals act on this assumption, even if they haven’t heard of the term. But spending years in combat, where you must face a recalcitrant reality every single moment, and where death, dismemberment and terror are palpable and inescapable facts, makes solipsism impossible. The experience of warfare not only sharpens your perceptions and quickens your reaction time, but makes you well aware of your limitations, and acutely conscious of the fact that there may be an enemy soldier on the other side of the battle line who is a lot tougher with the bayonet than you are.

And paradoxically, the dissolution of personal solipsism makes you more conscious of your own essence, your own definition, and your own irreducible self. You are in touch with extra-mental reality, and for that very reason are more genuine, more honest, and more grounded in your God-given unique human character. Any kind of suffering or tribulation will do this, but warfare does it very quickly.

There is something new in the psychology of modern warfare that makes it not quite the same as pre-modern conflicts. In the ancient epics, warriors are from an elite aristocratic class, and they go into battle primarily to gain the honor and repute that publicly certify their manhood and social position. In the Iliad, heroes like Achilleus, Hector, and Ajax are driven by the desire to establish their aristeia, or excellence as fighters. But in modern wars fought by masses of ordinary civilians, something else is required to motivate military duty. The politicians generate such motivation by speaking of patriotism, and demonizing the enemy. The generals do it by appealing to esprit de corps. Fellow combatants are held together by camaraderie and small-unit loyalty. But the deepest and most elemental thing that bonds one soldier to another is close friendship, and the linkage that only shared danger and mutual protection can foster. Letting down a comrade (either by cowardice, or shirking, or selfishness) is the ultimate sin, and most men would rather die than be guilty of such derelictions. The same is true for police officers, whose loyalty to their patrol partners is legendary. “We have each other’s back,” is a common sentiment heard from a cop about his partner.

When my father was badly wounded by a mine in North Italy, he faced the frightening “triage” system of dealing with maimed soldiers. Those who had only minor injuries were treated quickly and sent back to the line as soon as possible. Those whose wounds were more serious but non-lethal would be evacuated to military field hospitals. And those whose wounds were hopelessly serious were just made comfortable and left to die. The distinction between these two last categories could be fluid and vague, and no doubt many soldiers who might have survived were left in the third category, especially when the combat situation was critical and pressing.

My wounded father was placed in the third category. But Henny and some other comrades would not hear of this. They went and quietly picked him up, changed his triage tag, and unofficially placed him among the second category going to a field hospital, where he was treated and survived. I never learned of this until the late 1960s, since it was considered the sort of thing that could only be shared by those who had been a part of it. Henny only told me of the event in passing once, and made it very clear that I was not to tell my father that I knew it. Some things in friendship are as private as the intimacies of marriage.

So it was for Henny and Sal, for they never met without the strongest expressions of friendship and joy. And their wartime experiences were so detailed, so intricate, so complex, and so unforgettable that the memory of these events served as a complete world for them—a world which outsiders could only glimpse on occasion from their stories and reminiscences. And I think that it was from these glimpses that I began to understand something about the world of literature, and fictive mimesis in general.

Like the varied experiences of warfare, literary composition is not simple at all, but complex and intricate. It frequently does the unexpected, and it can be transgressive and upsetting. It has its dangers. It is contemptuous of conventional and bourgeois pieties, and pays little attention to them except as satirical targets. It demands from its creative participants the same kind of obedience to orders and rules that the army demands from soldiers, but within those boundaries it does whatever the hell it likes. Like battle-hardened veterans, it is self-contained and proud, and does not lust after an audience.

What are the required “orders and rules”? Well, there are the categories of genre, and in poetry the added restrictions of meter, along with the manifold tropes and figures. Then there are the fixed demands of one’s language: its grammar and syntax, its different ranges of diction, its levels of usage, and all the stylistic quirks that make up an individual writer’s on-page persona. Put all of this together—inherited formulae, generic expectations, the vast ammunition-dump of language, and individual style—and you have the quasi-military experience of fictive mimesis. It’s like going into combat, but always with the confidence that your comrade-in-arms has your back, and will be there when needed.

Who is that comrade? He is your interior audience. He is the unique mix of aesthetic principles and preferences that are yours alone, and that are a living part of your creative self. He’s been created by years of work and endless false starts, of linguistic labors so demanding that it is hard to imagine going through them ever again, and of your pride in the very best that you have done. And here is the crucial point: Nothing that you ever write will betray him, or dishonor him, or ignore him. He is your buddy (the Brits would say “your mate”). And you and he have been together for too long, and through too much, ever to change or separate. And you have a private relationship with your interior audience that is off-limits to anyone else.

And something else, very important. You are, like a good soldier, incapable of being a solipsist. You are profoundly aware of an external world of hard, recalcitrant reality, while at the same time knowing that as an artist you can manipulate and reconfigure that world in whatever fictive manner you choose. The world may be hostile and dangerous, but you have your weapons to face it.

One thing about my father and Henny. You never could push any bullshit or fakery on them. They saw through it at once, with the piercing beam of a laser. I was often nervous when speaking to them, because I feared that any slight tone of falsehood or pretentiousness in my speech would evoke their laugher or sarcastic ridicule. Therefore I trained myself to be brutally honest and open, and as concise and direct as a Spartan.

So I recognize that my father (and Uncle Henny) played a real part in my character, my view of life, my habits of thinking, and certainly my foibles and preferences. And what would my poetry be without those things? I would never have written a line if it hadn’t been for the example of two young men from New York who went into combat. If I have a sharp and perceptive side, I owe it to them. Mille grazie! and Vielen Dank!

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Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine TRINACRIA and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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12 Responses

  1. Brian Yapko

    Joseph, I very much appreciate this fascinating memoir of the profound influence two WWII heroes had on you as a poet, critic and general thinker. This essay is not just a portrait-of-the-artist type of memoir however. It is a valuable description of history that may one day be lost — certainly it opens the door on details of World War II that I’ve never heard before that are fascinating. There is darkness, but there is also human foible: the rules of interrogation, for example — the seeking of all those prurient details — are strangely hilarious. I think the battle-medical metaphor concerning triage, following the rules and breaking the rules is quite brilliant. But in the end what I most like hearing about is the close friendship that developed between these two men and their families — men who had shared experiences that cannot be taught in school or found in a book.

    At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I think you could write one helluva poem called “Borca di Cadore” based on what you’ve described. The imagery, the history, the sheer personality of this anecdote cries out for it!

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many thanks, Brian. I wrote the essay in a white heat, still thinking about the questions that many of us have raised here in connection with the current denigration of masculinity in the West.

      I’d love to write a poem about Borca di Cadore, but I can’t think of a narrative peg to hang it on. The really fascinating thing about the incident was the huge treasure-trove of strange and unusual liquors and wines from all over Europe, and my tendency would be to slip into a “catalogue” poem. It wouldn’t work.

      Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    I loved this essay, Joseph. My own father, who was in the Army Air Corps during WWII, was stationed in Attu, from where he flew bombing missions over Japan. I only learned this from my brother-in-law, because my father never talked about it to me. Perhaps he just wanted to spare me the horror or simply did not care to relive his experiences. As a lad growing up in the 50s, I spent a lot of time playing at combat with my friends in the neighborhood, wearing some of the chest medals that any soldier is bound to accumulate, which my father gave to me. But now, as writers and poets, both you and I are fighting from a different sort of trench, with little expectation that things will ever get bloody.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Many veterans never told their children anything about their war experiences. Some of my father’s most horrific experiences were not told told me until I was an adult, and even then only after I had pointedly asked him to tell me.

      Yes, as kids in the 1950s we all played combat, wearing the canteens and web belts and knapsacks that our fathers had brought home.

      Reply
  3. Sally Cook

    Oh, Joe, what a beautiful tribute to your father and his friend Uncle Henny.
    My father was of the generation before yours, and married in his late 40s. later. He was bright, and after volunteering in 1914 was sent to Texas to serve in the medical unit of what was then the Army Air Corps; later changed to the Air Force.
    He loved the Army. Most importantly, it got him away from his domineering mother.
    Airplanes were in their infancy, and he managed to get a seat on one. After they landed, he telegraphed his mother “Mother –have just had the most exciting experience of my life . Love , your Son.

    Back flew an answer:””Who was she? Love, your Mother.”
    That was “Aunt Maud” (my grandmother) for you !
    Soon, he was transferred to a base on Long Island, and from there, on November 11, 1918 my father found himself on a ship just about to sail for France.
    I often think of how narrowly I escaped not being born. No matter how much we later disagreed, I will always owe him that.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Sally, no matter how domineering your grandmother Maud was, she certainly seems to have understood men very well. When a young guy talks about an “exciting experience,” he usually means something female.

      It looks like we both came close to missing out on existence! Henny Yost made it possible for my dad to come home alive from the war, and the calendar saved your dad from going overseas!

      Reply
  4. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Joe, I love this admirably written essay because it speaks to me of my grandfather and great uncles who fought in WWII. All these men played a significant role in my childhood, and I know exactly what you mean when you say “You never could push any bullshit or fakery on them. They saw through it at once, with the piercing beam of a laser.” I too developed a forthright honesty together with a resilience and humor that deflected the leg-pulling they were so fond of indulging in. It was only later my grandfather spoke of the horrors he had witnessed, and that was just before he died. I was lucky enough to have my grandparents’ influence until I was in my forties. I owe much to them, and it pains my heart to see the young men of today emasculated in a society that has no respect for male traits, without which we would never have enjoyed the freedoms that we’re so rapidly losing. Henny, Sal, and all those men who fought for our futures deserve much gratitude for who they were and the world they helped to shape. My thanks to them and to you… a chip off the old block.

    Reply
  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Susan, I also knew all of my grandparents well, and all of them were still alive during my college years. That makes for a very firm solidity in a person’s character — you know where you come from, and what your inherited identity is. My earliest training in poetry came from my maternal grandfather, who was born in 1882.

    And you’re right — persons from those earlier generations had what Ernest Hemingway called “a built-in, shockproof crap-detector.” Could they lie and deceive and flatter when necessary? Sure. But none of them would have dreamt of spouting the kind of mealy-mouthed, vague, sentiment-soaked chickenshit that is choking us today — the language of bureaucratic boilerplate, of political pseudo-piety, of corporate vaporings, of mainstream media Newspeak, and the insufferable drivel of NGO propaganda.

    Reply
  6. Paul Freeman

    The comradery between Henny, your father and their fellow soldiers shines through in your writing, Joe. It felt like watching ‘Band of Brothers’ for the first time.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Thank you, Paul. Some of the “Band of Brothers” shtick was sentimentalized and dry-cleaned (it never dealt with Allied atrocities), but it did focus on the cameraderie that held units together during the war.

      Reply
  7. mo

    Joe,
    Your article reminded me of my dad, who was in the Army Air-force during WWII. He was in intelligence. My regret was that we never got to discuss “grown up” things, because he died of a heart attack when I was 16. He did leave me a legacy, however, of “habits of thinking,” “character” and my “preferences of thinking.” Sometimes I wonder if those qualities are inherited or melted into me through example. Probably both… Either way, thank you for the article. It was a kind of gift to me.

    Reply

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