The man behind the typewriter paused to make a very private and profound decision.
Reassessing the risks and benefits for the thousandth time, he made up his mind.
Would he have the guts?
He lowered his head and attacked the keys.
One day you’re working in the Post Office, selling stamps to chatty pensioners, and the next thing you know, you’re staring into a towering mountain packed with pissed-off Germans unleashing thunderous machine guns in your direction, all hoping to God they can shatter your skull with one of their bullets.
Grab a seat. Life’s in session.
Born in 1916 to first generation Irish immigrants, Joe grew up in the grim city of Worcester, Massachusetts. In his true crime masterpiece, In Cold Blood, author Truman Capote described Worcester as “a Massachusetts factory town of steep up-and-down streets that even in the best of weathers seem cheerless and hostile.” Fort Lauderdale, it was not. Hell, on a good day it could barely give Akron a run for its money.
Once a hotbed of anti-Irish sentiment, Worcester nonetheless harbored an abundant Irish population who gamely stepped into whatever jobs they could secure in its blue collar wonderland. Joe’s father was a janitor at a local grammar school who did well to provide an apartment for his wife and four boys. Joe’s mother, orphaned at age 7, spent her childhood working in a barroom while her peers enjoyed the benefits of public education. Naturally, the virtues of hard work and self-reliance were enthusiastically celebrated in Joe’s boyhood home.
Possessed of an uncommonly deep understanding of chemistry and languages, Joe made it into college, graduating in 1937 with a liberal arts degree from the local Jesuit institution. With the Great Depression still in the rear view mirror and stormy skies gathering across the Atlantic, he was happy to find work in the local Post Office, where he dreamed of one day becoming a chemist.
Of course, by the turn of the decade, no one was making any long term plans. Germany’s Nazi regime had begun horse-whipping the rest of Europe, leaving the Allies and the rest of the planet wondering if the big kid across the pond was ever going to step in and help.
The Imperial Japanese Navy resolved that uncertainty on December 7, 1941.
Joe began checking the morning mail for his draft card.
Joe was drafted on February 2, 1942 and sent to Fort Devens, in Ayer, Massachusetts, for basic training. Four months later they shipped him off to Camp Croft, in South Carolina for infantry training.
It was hard to swallow- four years of college and five more in the workforce all amounted to this- the bottom of the bottom of the United States Army. Cannon fodder.
“The infantry man is the lowest man in the company,” Joe later said, “The lowest man in the whole organization. They thought we were all dumbbells.”
To those who speak military, he was assigned to K Company, 180th Regiment, 45th Division, which was based out of Oklahoma. Originally comprised of National Guardsmen from Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado, the division’s motto was (and still is) “Tanap nanaiya Kia alhtaiyaha,” which is Choctaw for “ready in peace or war.” This was a tribute to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, whose removal and relocation in the 19th and early 20th centuries became known as the “Trail of Tears,” yet who nonetheless sent many of their boys to fight with the 45th.
Ironically, before World War II, the 45th’s insignia was a swastika, a symbol of good luck to Native Americans. Understandably, Mr. Hitler’s choice of flag rendered the 45th’s banner somewhat unusable, and the division wisely adopted a less-incendiary emblem that still embraced its storied lineage.
In the sticky heat of South Carolina, Joe and the rest of his battalion were indoctrinated into the U.S. Army way of life.
“They change you right away. Before you know it. You might go in there saying ‘they won’t change me,’ but they do. Even today I don’t put my hands in my pockets. When I go into a building, I take my hat off. Nobody has to tell me that. That’s what they did to me.”
As Joe was keeping his hands out of his pockets, the Chiefs of Staff were planning several European invasions through both Europe and Africa. It didn’t take Albert Einstein to figure out the kind of invasion for which the fighting 45th was being trained.
Their lieutenant was a red-haired Choctaw, curiously named Fitzpatrick. Early one morning he led the platoon to the South Carolina shore where a Navy man stood, a boat anchored not far behind.
Lt. Fitzpatrick began barking out orders, sending the entire platoon into the sea and up the ramp into the back of the boat. Slogging through the waves and the tepid salt water, every single man understood the significance of the drill they were about to rehearse.
Once all were aboard, the boat headed out into the open sea, pulled a U-turn and then stormed towards the beach. When the engine stopped revving, the ramp would drop and the entire platoon would burst out and charge toward the shore, rifles in hand, with some banking right and others left.
“Go! Go! Go! Keep that rifle up, boy!” Fitzpatrick barked.
“You’d have to be pretty dumb not to realize what you were getting ready for,” Joe dryly observed.
They repeated the drill several times until Fitzpatrick rhetorically asked, “any questions?”
Joe raised his hand.
“Yes?” asked the lieutenant.
“Sir, we’re always taught in a defense action to bring the machine guns back to the tree line so you can catch the invaders when they hit the beach.”
“Well, don’t you think the enemy knows that, too?”
“Boy, you can’t have the Navy with you all the time!”
That was the moment when Joe knew he was fucked ten ways ’til Sunday. He went home and began saying his goodbyes to everybody.
“You’re never gonna see me again,” he told them.
All fear stems from the anticipation of losing something you’ve already got or not getting something that you want.
When your fear is imminent death, both sources flow with abundance.
The man behind the typewriter was ready to make his move.
He had not just seen the writing on the wall- it was in the very missives that he typed. An administrative clerk in Regimental Headquarters, he sat in the presence of officers and strategists as they plotted the invasion of Europe. Tucked deep inside the brains of the regiment, he was among the first to receive intelligence and he knew what the rest of the guys had long suspected- that the entire regiment would be heading straight into the belly of the beast.
Combat was assured. Survival was not.
Fuck that, he thought. He wasn’t ready to cash his chips in just yet.
And so the man quietly slipped off of the base without telling a soul.
Absent Without Leave.
His name was Tobin.
The officer entered the barracks and called out to Joe.
“Go to Regimental Headquarters, pronto. They need some help up there.”
“Yes sir,” he replied, hoofing it up to HQ.
For the rifle-toting rank and file of the infantry, HQ is like heaven. That’s where all the strategic planning occurs, so while HQ moves with the rest of the regiment, that section tends to be physically insulated from the front lines. Basically a whole lot of hell has to rain down before the guys sitting at their desks in HQ are required to pick up a rifle and start shooting.
Joe found the Adjutant of the regiment and reported for duty.
“This is the situation. The army regulations have to be brought up to date. There’s a big book of corrections here- just cut them out and paste them in over the old regulations. You think you can do that?”
It turns out that HQ had recently been audited by the Army Inspector General (AIG), who determined that while a considerable number of regulations had been changed, those updates were not reflected in the regiment’s manuals and Hell was in the midst of being paid.
“Yes sir,” Joe replied, “that’s just like changing mail schedules. We do that every week in the Post Office.”
The Adjutant could not have given less of a shit what they did at the Post Office. He just wanted the AIG off of his ass. Apparently the old clerk, catching wind of their impending deployment, had gone AWOL, leaving a mountain of work behind him.
“What happened to the guy who was doing this,” Joe asked.
The errant clerk’s folly was short-lived and he was quickly retrieved, relieved of his duties at HQ and returned to the lowest rung of the regiment.
“Who was he?”
Realizing his outrageously good fortune, Joe kept his head down and his mouth shut, quickly becoming a de facto authority in army regulations.
When an opportunity came to apply for a seat in Officer Candidate School, he leapt at it. Surrounded by officers all day long, Joe knew that his overall quality of life, as well as his odds of surviving the war in one piece, would be vastly enhanced by an officer’s commission.
“I knew there was a difference between being an officer and an enlisted man. I knew.”
He approached the Sergeant Major, a guy named Jim Arnett from the Oklahoma National Guard.
“Look at this, Jim,” he said, producing his completed application, “is this OK?”
“Just let me know when you need to get it done and we’ll push it along.”
With Arnett bringing his influence to bear, Joe’s application was fast-tracked straight to The Adjutant General of the United States Army, with explicit directions that the application be moved to the head of the AG’s “To Do” list.
The response arrived three days later.
A guy from the regiment strode into HQ with a telegram in hand and walked up to the Sergeant Major. He gestured back at Joe, sitting at his desk, and said, “well, you gotta salute him now…”
Joe was “to be commissioned directly in the Army of the United States as a Second Lieutenant and ordered to report to the Commanding General at the Port of Embarkation in Brooklyn, New York, immediately.”
Joe did three months in Brooklyn before being shipped over to the North African Headquarters, stationed just outside of Casablanca at Camp Cazes, where he was awarded command of a postal regulating section- the 40th PRS.
They promoted him to Captain, and after a couple of years, the PRS began preparing to move the base post office out of North Africa and into Europe. It was during those initial preparations that a sheaf of papers came through the post office with some stunning news.
A new man was being transferred onto the base.
The man was from K Company, 45th Division.
His name was Tobin.
“This is the guy!” Joe exclaimed when he realized who had just arrived at Camp Cazes. “Bring him in here,” he told his clerk.
He had so much to say to him. Whatever the man’s motives for going AWOL, Joe felt obliged to extend his gratitude. Had Tobin not fled when he did, Joe would have missed out on the opportunity to attend Officer Candidate School and receive a commission. At the very least, he’d buy him a drink.
Then Tobin shuffled into the office. His trembles and sunken eyes told a story that his voice never could.
“Tobin!” Joe reached for his hand, but no familiarity registered. “Don’t you remember me?’
“No sir,” Tobin replied with the unfocused weariness of the thousand-yard stare.
“Weren’t you that guy who went AWOL? You know, I got your job and that’s why I’m here today.”
“I don’t know that, sir.”
It was clear that Tobin had been through the wringer and that in his condition, formalities were impractical. Perhaps he could pass along news of Joe’s old buddies.
“Well then tell me, how about Donnelly? How’s Donnelly?”
Donnelly was the envy of the Company because he had a highly-polished metallic plate that fit into the pocket directly over his heart. It would take a pretty special bullet to stop Donnelly’s ticker.
“Donnelly? He’s gone. They’re all gone.”
“Donnelly? No,” this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about, Joe thought, “didn’t he have that plate? Remember that plate? The silver plate?”
“How did he die?”
Unwilling to accept what he was hearing, Joe offered up another name.
“Gone.” Tobin replied, “Sir, they’re all gone. I’m the only one left.”
“You’re the only one left?”
“Where did it happen?”
Upwards of 200 men- Joe’s old friends and barrack-mates, stormed the beach that day and all but Tobin were killed.
They stood face to face for a moment before Joe dismissed Tobin.
The gravity of what he had just learned pulled him down into his chair. The faces of his buddies flashed in his mind.
That was supposed to be me, he thought.
Had an office clerk named Tobin not gone AWOL, Joe’s life would have met a bloody end on a pitiless beach in Italy.
Maybe he would have been the one to beat the odds and ended up like Tobin. He couldn’t decide which sounded worse. He just knew that his message has been received.
This is your one shot, boy. Make it count.
Joe made it through the rest of the war in one piece and reunited with his parents and three brothers in Massachusetts, where he went back to work for the Post Office.
He was recalled to serve during the Korean War, finishing his military service as a Lieutenant Colonel. Returning home once again, he resumed employment with the Post Office, but this time they gave him a gun- he served as a United States Postal Inspector for many years, eventually finding his way back to his hometown of Worcester.
One day as Joe was leaving his post office for lunch, a co-worker asked him to wait a moment. The co-worker then asked a brunette at the counter, “Hey, you got any lunch plans?”
“No,” she replied cautiously.
“Well, Joe, why don’t you take her to lunch then?”
Grudgingly, Joe ended up taking the girl out to lunch. A few years later they were married in St. Peter’s Church in Worcester- a couple miles from Joe’s boyhood home.
I was born in August, 1968- their first child, and my sister came along in 1976. We grew up on Worcester’s west side- a small, happy family that was ripped apart in 1989 when cancer took my mother from us. Nonetheless, we did what the rest of the world does when they lose a loved one- we moved on.
My sister and I have fluttered all over the world, graduating from colleges and grad schools, living in cities and countries across the globe, ever anchored by our father back in Worcester.
What a ride it’s been.
My dad still lives in our old house back on the west side, about a mile up the road from my sister, her husband, two daughters and their dog Ray. Hardly a day goes by that my dad and I don’t chat on the phone for at least a few minutes, and I return home from California once or twice a year. While I miss San Diego’s sunshine and beaches whenever I’m away, when I’m home with my family in Worcester, I feel like everything in the world is perfect.
My father, Lt. Colonel Joseph W. Daly, turns 95 years old today- September 16, 2011.
Happy Birthday, Dad. Enjoy your day.
And Tobin, wherever your light now shines, rest well, soldier.