A Son's Words

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Dad and I pose for a picture under the tree on Christmas morning, 1961.  My new record player was my favorite present that year.

           My father was the last person who would have claimed to be a hero, and yet he was.  Of course he was my dad, and what boy doesn’t look up their dad?  But a true-blue American hero?  It took me a long time to fully understand that.

            I grew up in a large suburban neighborhood in East Brunswick, New Jersey, a town which experienced a massive building boom from the early 1950s thru the 1960’s.  Lots of little Cape Cod houses on quarter-acre lots.  Lots of young working-class families experiencing the American Dream of owning their own homes, having large families, owning television sets, and living the life.  One thing that distinguished my parents from those of most of my friends was that they were both college-educated.  That was still a bit of a rarity in much of America back then, and in a lot of places still is.  My dad grew up on a farm for much of his childhood, but the folks around our neighborhood didn’t know that.  Unlike the dads of most of my friends, mine wore a suit when he went to work.  I guess it was the suits, my dad’s tendency to mind his own business, and the college thing that might have caused neighbors to think he was a little uppity at first.  But those feelings ended when they had a chance to talk to him.  He wasn’t the slightest bit pretentious, and Dad loved talking to all sorts of people.  And when he did, they almost always came to like him.  But that didn’t prevent them from having a laugh at the “college boy” when he attempted to make repairs to his house.  Dad was highly accomplished when it came to making a yard that started out looking like a desert into something beautiful, but his carpentry and roofing skills were not exactly the best. 

            I had a lot of friends my age in my neighborhood, and there was this big field behind our houses where we played.  Each week, we’d watch a new episode of the television show Combat, a popular one in those days, and then in the days afterwards, we would play war in the field.  We’d dig out foxholes, use planks of wood to support ceilings of dirt and grass, and then sit in those holes to plan our strategies against the “enemy”.  We set up booby traps for each other to fall into, threw dirt bombs at each other, and stuck the muzzles of our toy guns into the mud so that we could shoot clods of dirt at each other.  If you got hit with any of these things, you were officially dead for the day, and the last ones standing were the winners.  A lot of things we used to do were very dangerous in retrospect.  Occasionally, playtime would be cut short when someone ran home crying, but for the most part, we all survived just fine.  Everyone wanted to pretend they were Lieutenant Hanley or Sergeant Saunders and the Americans.  We would duke it out and if you lost, you had to be a German.  We used to call these people “Krauts” or “Jerries”, because that’s what they were called in the television show.  For some reason, we were never fighting the Japanese.  No one wanted to be a “Jap.”  You never saw those people on Combat.  Girls weren’t allowed to come out in the field while we were playing war.  We used to tell them to go play with their dolls.  I’d forgotten about that until Sharon R., a friend of my sister Linda reminded me of it four years ago.

            It’s very clear to me now that in all these games we played, what we were really trying to do was pretend to be our fathers.  Just about every one of us had dads who’d served in World War II, mostly against the Nazis in Europe. A lot of my friends would brag about how much action their dads saw and how many enemy soldiers they had killed.  I didn’t usually have much to say in all this, because my father never really told me much about his time in the war.  When asked, I told them that Dad served in Burma.  “Where’s that?” they would ask, and then laugh when I told them I didn’t know.  Of course, they didn’t know, either.  “He fought the Japs,” I would finally say.  And that would be the end of that conversation, because nobody knew much about Japs.  They weren’t on the television show.

            I didn’t tell them what Dad did tell me about his time in Burma when I asked.  He had thought for a moment, smiled and said “Well, to be honest, for a lot my time there, one of my biggest battles was keeping my socks dry.  That and the bugs and getting sick were usually worse than the Japanese we encountered.”

            Wet socks?  Bugs?  ‘What the heck is that?’ I thought to myself.  I tried to press him further.  “What else did you do?” I asked.

            “We were in charge of a whole lot of mules which we used to carry the big guns and supplies when we were on our marches,” he said, warming to the topic.  “They could go everywhere that jeeps and trucks couldn’t, so they were pretty important, and they needed a lot of taking care of.”  He’d told me a little more, but none of it sounded very exciting.  I didn’t know the difference between a mule and a donkey, but I did know that I’d be a laughingstock if I told my friends that my dad spent the war leading around a bunch of donkeys.

            I was in Boy Scouts for a number of years and I remember going on all these hikes and camping trips.  On a lot of them, we kids would often roam around the woods without too much parental supervision.  We would use our new hatchets to chop down trees and in general, do a lot of dangerous things.  I have to give credit to the dads who went on these trips and gave of their time, but I do remember that a lot of beer was brought on these trips, also.  That was probably one of the main reasons why we kids were not watched too closely a lot of the time.  Late at night, after we kids were sent to sleep in our tents, the fathers would keep watch around the campfires outside.  I remember the flickering firelight on the walls the tent as I was dropping off to sleep.  And from the shapes of the shadows of the men near the fire, quiet talk of battles in Italy and France. And the Germans.

            On one of the very first camping trips, I came home with a hole in my foot from a nail that had been stuck in a log that had rolled out of the campfire.  Stupidly, I had tried to stomp the fire out with my foot and the nail went right through my sneaker.  The joke of it was that we all earned our Tenderfoot badge that weekend.  Get it?  Tenderfoot?  I guess I took that a bit too literally.  Two things came as a result of that weekend.  First, Dad drove me to the doctor to get a tetanus shot.  Shortly afterwards, he took me to the store to buy me a good pair of hiking boots.  And the story of how young Georgie became a “tenderfoot” became a cautionary camping tale for new scouts in Troop 82 for years afterwards.

            My father didn’t go on any of those overnight trips, and as a boy I found that a little disappointing.  On one hand, he kept me well equipped with Boy Scout uniforms and gear, and even gave me the backpack he had used in Burma, with his name neatly stenciled on it.  On a side note, that backpack was rather hard to handle, because it was made for a much larger man than the boy I was at the time.  One could put a whole lot into it, but the thing sagged halfway down my back and the straps cut into my shoulders after it was on me for a while.  But I loved that it had been his, and never told Dad that maybe I could have used another backpack more my size.  My parents always went to the award dinners the troop leaders occasionally had. Dad “helped” me to build a Pinewood Derby car that won all the races that year.  To be honest, Dad made the whole thing, but I didn’t care.  That car was a thing of beauty, which I still have and take out to look at sometimes.  My father appreciated that other dads went on the overnights and he seemed to get along with them all right.

            So why didn’t Dad go on those trips?  Probably for some of the same reasons why he never joined any of those war veterans groups back then.  In retrospect, I guess the beer and the war stories might have put him off. Sure, he bragged about me and my sister, my brothers, and my mom all the time, but never about himself.  Besides, that wasn’t the pleasant kind of talk you wanted to have around your loved ones.  I’ve come to learn that a lot of heroes are like that.  It’s usually the quiet ones who have done the most and seen the worst things.  Braggers rarely do.

            But a lot of times, kids don’t understand that.  As far as they can understand, if a person doesn’t talk about those things, they must not have seen or done them.  Simplistic thinking, yes.  But that’s how kids are.  And as it turned out, there was a lot more going on back then that we Haupin kids were being told about.  For much of that time, my mom’s mother was terminally ill with cancer.  Even Grandma didn’t know about it, since the doctors instructed my parents to keep it a big secret.  That’s an awful burden to carry.  Of course Dad didn’t want to leave my mom alone to deal with it.   

           Boy, was my father in love with my mom!  Betty, my mother, was a schoolteacher, who left her job to stay at home so that she could be there for her young kids.  She was beautiful, smart, and the nicest person you’d ever want to meet, and she was the perfect mom.  She still is all those things.  And yes, when I was a boy, my mother dressed like the 1950’s Harriet Nelson stereotype in dress and apron.  She was sometimes in the kitchen baking cookies when I came home from school.  When Mom wasn’t having babies and taking care of them and keeping the house in order, she was the president of the local P.T.A., a tutor for children who were unable to attend school, a soprano in the church choir, and a host of other things.  A classically-trained pianist, she could fill the house with music of all different sorts.  I wish I’d let her teach me to play when she tried to on several occasions.  But from her I got my lifelong love of classical music and books.  Mom’s culinary skills were largely intuitive.  She wasn’t big on recipes, but she knew how to cook a lot of good food quickly, and most of the time we loved it—except when she was trying to serve us lamb or something.  That didn’t happen very often.  She liked to stick to making things she knew we’d eat. She always tried to have supper ready by the time Dad got home, sometime around 5:30.  And then we’d all sit around the table as a family and eat and talk together.  This custom has become a rarity these days, and I believe our culture is the worse for it.

          During the 1950’s and most of the 1960’s, my father was an industrial engineer for E.R. Squibb and Sons, a large pharmaceutical firm in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  For a lot of this time, I wasn’t very clear on exactly what he did there.  As it turned out, he did a lot things, ranging from cost assessments, performance and efficiency evaluations, and setting up preventative maintenance programs—all very nebulous for a kid to comprehend.  He lived for his family.  In spite of the fact that money was always in short supply growing up, we children never wanted for anything we really needed.   Christmases and birthdays were abundant, with presents-galore.  It’s no wonder that paying the bills was always a challenge.   But aside from all the financial things, Dad showered us with his time.  In all the years that I played Little League baseball, he never missed a game.  And there were all of those baseball catches we had…  And watching me in all those football practices and games.  He was there for all of those things and far more.

          In my years growing up, I never once heard him say a curse word, although he did have a lot to say if I did something dumb like kids do.  He was a superb athlete, and for most of my childhood could outrun and outswim me.  He was scrupulously honest and willing to take people at their word, almost to be point of being naïve in today’s world.  When he was relaxed and happy, he would play the piano sometimes.  It was kind of amazing, really.  He never played from reading the music, but all he needed was to hear a song once or twice, and then he could play the whole thing from memory with chords and all.  He loved the old standards, but he also loved Schubert’s Serenade.  I can still see him now in my mind’s eyes, leaning over the piano keys, and gently tapping his foot to the beat of the music.  He was also quite artistic, and dabbled with oil paint and watercolors in his younger years.  One of his paintings still hangs in my mom’s living room.  And Dad loved taking pictures of all of us.  There are rows and rows of photograph albums in that same living room, each filled with pictures which have documented almost every major event in our lives growing up, and those of our own families.  Photography and now videography continues to be an important family tradition today.

          Like many men who have served in the armed forces, my father started smoking cigarettes while in the army and remained a heavy smoker for much of his later life.  When he was a young man right out of the war, he drank an occasional Bacardi, although this seemed to have completely stopped by the time he got married.  When I was growing up, alcohol was rarely in the house and I never saw my parents drinking anything more than a shot glass of wine at home on New Year’s Eve.  That bottle of Manischewitz in the kitchen cupboard lasted for years!  When he was younger, Dad had several poker buddies who would meet once a month at one of their houses to play cards for pennies.  If Dad had a big night at one of these events, he would be jubilant to have won maybe five or ten dollars in change, enough for a few groceries in those days.   In his Squibb days, he was a fair golfer when he played for the company team, and for many years enjoyed bowling in various company and church bowling leagues.  He was very active in the Church to which my family belonged, and served on church council in many capacities for many years.  He was also a deacon, a church elder, and for a while sang in the choir with my mother.  All of these things, plus a circle of close friends filled out my parents’ social life.  Sure, they were busy, but always seemed to be home in the evenings when we kids needed them most.

          For much of his life, Dad was a bull of a man with tremendous strength, but he still had to endure a number of health issues.  Throughout is life, he battled skin cancer and had to have several operations.  Most of the doctors believed the cancer came from his days in the army under the Burmese sun.  From what I’ve read, though, it might have been partly due to the DDT that was regularly sprayed around to kill the malarial mosquitoes and typhus mites that plagued the soldiers in the jungles.  Their clothes had to be dipped in that stuff regularly, too.  Dad had a lot of problems with his teeth, and was prone to blinding headaches which made it hard for him to sleep at night.  And then of course there were the heart problems and emphysema that would eventually kill him.  He bore these problems quietly and could take an incredible amount of pain without complaint.  If you asked him how he was, he was always “swell,” even if he was lying in a hospital bed.  Sometimes the day-to-day frustrations would get to him, but he was always a rock in a crisis.  We had a few family crises back in the later 1960’s.

          I had a few personal ones, too.  When I was growing up, I was rather large for my age for much of the time, and quite strong. I was also very mild-mannered, and it took a lot to get me really angry.  Sometimes, those traits make a big kid just as much a target for bullies as being a little one.  I had to deal with that a little back in those days, and somehow my dad found out and asked me about it.  He listened as I haltingly explained about a few of the kids that were giving me problems.  Then he smiled and told me that he’d had the same problem when he was young.  “If this world was perfect, everyone would just get along with each other, and you should always try to do that when you can,” he said.  “But George, sometimes in this life you have to fight.”  His next piece of advice surprised me a little.  “When you do, it’s best that you finish it quickly before you get too tired.  Don’t spend a lot of time dancing around trying to box.  Just grab hold of the guy, take him down, and punch them in the face.  Getting a bloody nose will teach them to leave you alone.  It only has to happen once or twice and then the word will get around, and your problems will be over.”  It’s funny thinking back on this conversation so many years ago.  As a teacher in a public high school today, I can say that my dad’s bit of advice runs counter to everything the kids are told.  More often than not, both participants are taken away in handcuffs, regardless of who started the fight.  I guess we live in different times.

          But you know, the advice sure worked back then.  Anyone who has ever seen the movie A Christmas Story will remember the part where the Peter Billingsley character takes on the neighborhood bully and wins. I had my own “Ralphie” moment one winter when a neighborhood kid named Barry and his toadies cornered me in my own driveway.  It was one of those defining moments for me.  Barry was pushing me around, and his minions were laughing.  There was no way out for me.  And then something snapped inside my head and I went a little insane, grabbing Barry around his torso, and throwing him to the ground.  Before the astonished onlookers, I jumped on Barry’s chest and started punching him in the face, bloodying his nose and starting him crying like a baby.  Barry ran home to his mother, and everyone else quickly disappeared, leaving me suddenly alone.  And that was when my father came out of the house.  He’d watched the whole thing from the window.

          “So, you just got in a little trouble with the boys around the block, huh?” he asked with a straight face.  I just looked at him, waiting to be yelled at.  Then he slowly started to smile.  “I would say you did very well for yourself today.”  The pride in his face started to come out, and I started to feel kind of proud of myself, too.  “Now,” he continued.  "For your punishment for fighting, I want you to go downstairs and clean the cellar.”

          “Punishment?” I repeated.  Talk about conflicting messages here…

          “Well, yeah,” he said, trying to keep a straight face again.  “Fighting is inappropriate behavior, and doing it has consequences, even though in this case it was worth it... And besides, your mother will be back from the store in a little while.  She’s not going to be too happy when she hears about all this.” My collie dog lived down in the cellar during the winters in those days, so you can guess the things I was cleaning up for the rest of the afternoon.  But you know what?  I was never bothered by a neighborhood bully again.  And my father was right.  Sometimes, getting into a fight is worth it, even if there are consequences.

          Dad knew his way around all sorts of guns, but he never kept one in the house all the years we kids were growing up.  Well almost never.  He and my mom watched the news every night with a growing worry about the conflict in Vietnam.  Americans were starting to die in alarming numbers there, and it became clear that our country might not be done with this war before I turned 18 and was eligible for the draft.  So early on, my father decided he needed to teach me how to shoot.  He converted a part of the cellar—not the part where the dog was—into a pistol range and taught me how to shoot pellets from a CO2 pistol.  Later on in the backyard, I learned how to shoot a rifle that could shoot pellets and BBs.  Then one Christmas, I got my own air gun—another “Ralphie” moment!  For a kid, it was great fun, as well as a chance to spend more time with my dad.  He never told me why he was doing it until many years afterwards.  When I turned 18, my draft number was 25 out of 365, making being drafted almost a sure thing.  But then that fall, President Nixon announced that the Vietnam War was over and no more men would be drafted into the armed forces.  My parents were so relieved, and to be honest, so was I.  But I have to admit that I still love to shoot when I get the chance.  I don’t get many of those these days, though.

            My father was an avid sports fan.  He loved all kinds, baseball, basketball, Olympics.  But most of all, he loved football.  Back in his high school days, aside from swimming on the school swim team, he played first-string guard position for Bloomfield High School, and his team won the State Championship.  When he returned to college after the war, he played semi-pro football for various town teams in upstate New York.  Much later on, he loved the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers, and the New York Giants.  I have this vivid memory of those many weekends in the living room, where he would use the television and a few transistor radios to monitor up to four games at a time.  And he long-dreamed of the days when his son George would play on the East Brunswick High School football team.

            How could I deprive my father of this dream?  I did not share his passion for football, but I adored him, and always wanted to please him.  So sure enough, I did go out for football at Churchill Junior High School, and made the team.  Because of my size and strength, my position was tackle, and I actually wasn’t bad at it, although I didn’t enjoy it.  By that time, Dad had switched jobs to a company in North Jersey, and spent a lot of time commuting, but he still was able to make it to as many games as he could.  The following year, when I started at the high school, my father never missed the Saturday games, even though by then, I was spending quite a bit of time “riding the pines,” which was another expression for sitting on the bench.  I was second-string, but not really so bad as a tackle.  The coach gave a lot more game time to this other fellow whose mother just happened to be mayor of the town.  It was kind of hard to compete with that, even though I’d beaten the kid in face-offs during the practices.  So now, I not only hated being on the football team, but also couldn’t even give my dad the pleasure of letting him see his son play.  The whole thing started to happen again the following year, and it got me really down.  Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I had to tell him how I felt.

            “So let me understand this,” he said to me, after I’d spilled my guts.  “You’ve never enjoyed playing football.”

            “Not really, no,” I answered, miserably.  There was sadness on his face and I hated myself for disappointing him.

            “Then why have you done it all this time?  Was this all for me?”

            I confessed that it mostly was.

            He was quiet for a moment, and then he told me he was sorry.  “I wish you had told me all this a long time ago.  You could have been doing so many other things than this.  What a waste.  Listen, if you want to quit, then quit.”

            “I feel like if I did, I’d be letting you down,” I said.  “The coaches have this saying that if you quit the team, you’ll be a quitter for life.”

            “Look, George,” he said.  “I know who you are, and you’re no quitter.  You’ve done better in school than I ever did, and you’ve always been a good boy.  Your mom and I couldn’t be prouder of you and that won’t ever change.  But you should be doing the things in school that you want to do—not things just to please me.  That was a mistake that I made when I was around your age.  My father always wanted me to be a civil engineer, because that’s what he’d wanted to be before he became a schoolteacher.  I hated civil engineering and I wasn’t good at it.  When I got out of the Army, I went back to school at Cornell, and it didn’t work out too well.  It made me feel like such a failure, until I found something that I did want to do.  Is there anything else that you’d like to do instead of football?

            I said there was.

            “Well then, do that.  Just do something that you like.  But you know, I still like going to the football games.  Maybe now you can sit with me and we could watch them together.  Would that be OK with you?”

            That sounded pretty good to me.  So it wasn’t too long after that that I became the sports writer for the yearbook club.  And it was a lot more fun sitting with my dad in the bleachers and reporting about the games than trying to play in them.  And writing has stayed with me all my life.  I’ve written a lot of things over the years...Stories, historical accounts, family memories, and such.  And I have to say that there’s more than a little bit of my father in all of them.

            It wasn’t long after I quit the team in my junior year of high school that I was called down to the Guidance Office to talk with my counselor about my future.  I’ll always remember that conference.  Mr. Osborne sat behind his desk his little cubicle office and looked at me for a moment with that indulgent smile of his.  “So George,” he asked.  “What do you think you’d like to do for a career after you graduate?”

            “Well, I’ve always kind of liked history, and a number of people in my family have been teachers,” I answered.  “I’ve been thinking of being a history teacher.”

            “A history teacher, huh?” he said, grinning.  “Before I went into Guidance, that’s what I was.  And I have to tell you that it’s not so easy.  There aren’t very many jobs in that, either.  And looking at your SAT scores, I couldn’t honestly say that career’s for you.  Sure, your grades are OK, and you might even get into a decent school.  But for you, I think finding a job teaching history is a bit of a stretch.  Why not go into special education, instead?  That’s what I can see you as.  A special education teacher.”

            Dad was furious when I told him about the conference that night.  “Is that what he said?” he demanded to know.  “That you’d never get a history teacher job?  Well, we’ll just see about that!”  And then he set about proving Mr. Osborne wrong.  There were no SAT test prep courses back then, but he got me some test prep books and set up a study schedule for me to follow.  My scores did improve significantly. Mostly through Dad’s efforts—not Mr. Osborne’s—I got accepted to the history education programs in seven schools, and eventually picked Montclair State.  My father was a proud man four years later when I graduated Magna Cum Laude.  And I did become a history teacher, I’m happy to say.  Through the years, I’ve often wondered what Mr. Osborne would say about that.

          Back to my father and the War… When did I first realize that there was a lot more to his war experience than what he’d told me?  I guess it as in the winter of 1972, when Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China.  What a huge moment in history… Our nation’s foremost anti-Communist visiting a Communist nation that we hadn’t formally recognized in twenty-three years!  Nixon was there for the better part of a whole week, and every night on television, we sat and watched the news coverage of the visit.  All of the happy faces of smiling, waving Chinese people, and well-fed, well-clothed Chinese citizens at that!  Maybe communism wasn’t as bad as it seemed, at least in China.

          Then my father made an interesting pronouncement.  “Boy, China sure looks a whole lot better than when I was there at the end of the War.”  I hadn’t talked to him about the war since that conversation about wet socks and mules many years earlier.  And China?  He’d never mentioned that part of the story.  He grinned at the look of surprise I must have had.  “Of course, back then there were a lot of bullets flying around and the people there were so poor they were looking in the trash for food.”  This was a part of my dad’s life that I’d never heard before, and it took many years to pry the particulars of his war experience out of him.  A lot I had to find out on my own.

          My father served in the 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pack), which during World War II was attached to the 475th Infantry Regiment.  Together, these units made up about half of the 4332nd Brigade (Provisional), activated in July of 1944 and given the name the MARS Task Force.  The mission of this special forces unit of the U.S. Army was to go deep behind enemy lines into central Burma and drive the Japanese away from Burma Road, thereby reopening the land supply lines connecting India and China.  Some historians erroneously credit the 5307th Composite Unit (a.k.a. Merrill’s Marauders) for completing this task.  Although the Marauders certainly started this job, it was the Marsmen who got the job done.  The Burma mission was the only one conducted by United States soldiers on the Asian mainland during the entire war.  It has also been one of the most ignored and forgotten chapters of the war, despite the fact that in this action American soldiers operated deep in Japanese territory against an implacable, tenacious, and merciless enemy that was far larger in number, in perhaps the most hostile and deadly environments in the world.  The men who fought in Burma suffered casualty rates that were as high or higher than in any other theater of the war.  And they had won!

          The men of the Mars Task Force typified the best soldiers that our country has placed in the field anywhere, and at any time.  Physically, they were chosen for their size and strength, and received all manner of training in weapons, close combat and martial arts.  They were trained to march at rapid speed over incredible distances in terrain ranging from dense rainforests to high mountains, and then to fight when they got to where they were going.  Working with mules was a central part of the job of every Marsman, because these animals carried the components of the artillery guns, ammunition, and a lot of other things through places that no truck or jeep could go.  When the mules died or went lame, the men themselves had to carry the loads.  The men who served in Burma endured the all types of disease-bearing insects, dangerous and sometimes venomous animals, and dangerous drinking water.  Those who survived these conditions more often than not came home with significant long-term health problems.  And then, of course, there were the Japanese to fight.

          My dad was a BAR man.  The largest and strongest men were chosen to carry and operate the Browning Automatic Rifle.  My brother Rob recently commented that if Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” character had been real and fighting in World War II, his weapon of choice would have been one of those BARs.  The high velocity bullets those heavy guns could spit out could penetrate just about anything, even at long-range.  It was the BAR men who marched at the head of the column.  They were also the ones who defended the gun crews when the big artillery pieces were firing.  It’s funny, though.  Dad never came across as a Rambo-type to me when I was growing up, but I guess in the war he was.  He served two major combat missions during the time he was in Burma.  And yes, he saw some terrible things.

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The Haupin Family in 1973.  In the back row is George Sr., Linda, George Jr., and Betty.  In the front are Robbie and Jimmy.  This picture of us was taken by my Aunt Jean during a visit to see her in Ithaca, New York.

          Many years passed after that night in 1972.  I went to college, got my teaching job, fell in love with a girl and married her, built a house in South Jersey, and raised my daughters.  Dad retired from his job in 1991 after he had his first heart attack, but he soon recovered, and my parents finally had a chance to take some of those trips they’d always dreamed about.  Around that time, my father finally joined some of those veterans’ groups and went to a few army reunions.  It was during those years, at my mother’s urging, that Dad finally got around to writing down his war experiences.  It took quite a while to accomplish, many months, and Mom helped him as his interviewer and secretary.  In 1998, I received a package in the mail.  In it was the memoir and a copy of a nice letter of congratulations from Woody Woodruff of the Mars Task Force Association.  Mr. Woodruff said in the letter that excerpts of the memoir would appear in the Association newsletter over several issues.  I don’t know if that ever happened, but I suspect it didn’t, because I think I would have heard about it.  At any rate, the account was a revelation for me, and I told Dad so when I called him on the phone.

          “I know you’ve wondered about my time in the Army for a long time,” he told me.  “Now you know.  I don’t really care if anything more comes from my story.  At least my children and grandchildren will know now.”

          My father had just a couple of more healthy years after that before his heart problems started to limit his lifestyle.  He did make it to several golf get-togethers with my brothers Jim, Rob and me.  He held his own for the first few, but the in the later ones just sat in the cart and watched us play.  Although my brothers are excellent golfers, I have to say that I’m a rather poor one.  It really didn’t matter much, though.  Sure, we played some golf, but we spent a lot of time talking and laughing together, too.  We will always have those golfing days with dad in our memories.  Thinking back, the only thing that would have made them better would have been if we’d thought to invite my sister Linda to come along.  Granted, it was kind of a “guy thing,” but I think Linda wished she could have been there with us for those times.

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The Haupin Men on one of our golf outings.  From left to right are George Haupin Sr., George  Haupin Jr., Rob Haupin, and Jim Haupin.

          In 2007, I was chosen as “Teacher of the Year” in my high school.  It was a very flattering and also humbling experience for me, in that I have been very fortunate to be able to work with many very excellent and talented teachers through the years.  It was truly a great honor, and probably the highest honor of all was to be asked to give a speech on excellence at the spring “High Honors Breakfast” for all the students with straight A’s. When I was planning what I would say that day, I though back to the greatest teachers I have had in my own lifetime—my parents.  They were both very much on my mind when I stepped to the podium, and started to speak. 

          I talked about how my father would always advise me to do my very best, and leave it at that.  I said that I always thought was reassuring, but thinking back it was also a very clever thing to tell me.  How do we really know what our “best” is?  Isn’t there usually something more that we might have done to make our “best” better?  Excellence, I said, begins with becoming self-motivated learners, who continue to try hard even when the external rewards like money and “things” end.   We need to do more than we are expected to do, to seek challenges, and to set goals for ourselves that are always just slightly higher than we think we can achieve.  Excellence is fairness, honesty and integrity—not just getting the high grades.  And learning and excellence are life-long.  They never end.  These were the lessons on excellence I learned from my parents when I was young, and I have lived my life trying to follow them.  I wished the same for the young people sitting in this room. 

          Very soon after that day, I was sitting with Dad telling him about it.  By this time, he wasn’t very mobile, and he needed an oxygen machine to breathe comfortably.  But the same youthful liveliness and enthusiasm was in his eyes as he listened to me.  When I got to the part about his “doing your best” saying, he smiled and shook his head slightly.  “You’ve always done that,” he said.

          “What?”

           “You make me out like some kind of sage, with all these wise sayings I’m supposed to have said.  I’ve never been all that.  I’m just a man who loves his family.  That’s always been the most important thing in my life, and every one of my children has done so well.  You’ve all made me so proud.”  Then he paused for a moment, and grinned.  “Hey…Do you remember that guidance counselor who said you’d never be history teacher?  You’ve come a long way since that day.”

          “Yeah…Mr. Osborne,” I said.  “I wonder if he’s even alive anymore.”

          “Well, it doesn’t matter, you know,” he said, smiling.  “You sure showed him!”

          Yes Dad, we did.

          As the months passed after that, I think we all sensed that we wouldn’t have Dad around much longer.  I’m sure that he knew it more than any of us, but you wouldn’t know it from his upbeat attitude whenever we went up to visit Mom and him.  He was always so thankful to see us, almost like we were giving him a kind of gift, and I guess to him we were.  In 2008, my father had a very fine death—one that I think everyone wants.  It was fast and painless, and he died in the arms of the woman he loved.  As sad as that moment was, it was also beautiful in a way.  It’s been a little over four years since that night, and I still can’t believe he’s gone.  I miss him every day.

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 This is the last photograph I have of my father.  We'd come to visit just a few weeks before he passed.  Standing behind Dad from left to right are George P. Haupin (me), my daughter Stephanie, and my wife Regina.  Mom (Betty Haupin) took the picture.

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Of course, Dad, ever the photography enthusiast, wanted his chance to take a picture of all of us.  Mom is on the right.  I believe that this is the last picture my father ever took.  It's also the last time he ever saw me.

          Every year around Memorial Day with my classes, I talk about veterans who have made sacrifices for our country, and often use my father as an example of one of the heroes who have quietly lived their lives among us.  I tell them that they need to remember that if it wasn't for these quiet heroes whom we often see every day, we would not have the life that we Americans take so much for granted these days.  I ask them to walk up to a veteran, offer to shake their hand, and say thank you for what they've done for our country.  I've been doing this for years, and my dad was always touched by this when I told him about it.  In the past four years, it’s been one of the things I do to keep my father alive within me.  I'm only about two years out from retirement, and I've been thinking for some time that once I retire I won't be able to do this anymore, and got to thinking of other things I might do instead.  

          And then I remembered Dad's memoir, which was still safely tucked away in my night table in the bedroom.  Reading it again, it occurred to me that I was holding in my hands a piece of history that is a rare thing to find—a primary account about a remarkable chain of events, written from the point of view of not some famous world leader or well-known personality, but instead a lowly private in the United States Army.  I have taught Advanced Placement history courses for many years now, and I can say that accounts like these are the stuff of history.  And yet, most people seldom see them.  As I thought about the document I was holding in my hands, my thoughts turned to another American private from an earlier war.

            During the Revolutionary War, there was a man who served on the American side as a private, and his name was Joseph Plumb Martin.  This son of a preacher was raised with an education until age 15, when he defied his uncle’s wishes to impulsively enlist in the Connecticut state troops, and later the Continental Army.  He served for the entirety of the Revolutionary war, and was a witness to many famous events.  In 1830, Martin published a remarkable and anonymous account of his time in the service, calling the book Private Yankee Doodle.  Today, the book has come to be called A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier.  Most histories tell their stories from the points of view of the men “at the top,” the policy-makers and strategists.  Martin’s account is a story from the opposite direction, the bottom.  Enlisted men did not have the luxury of being able to sit back and make the big decisions.  Instead, they had to deal with the results of those decisions made by others.  Unlike George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and the rest, Martin experienced extreme starvation, marching long distances on bloody feet, diving into shallow holes in the ground to escape incoming artillery fire, having to sleep on wet ground with nothing to cover them from the weather, and every other suffering an enlisted man might endure.  He also had to endure the agony of seeing one of his closest friends torn apart by flying shrapnel.  My own father fought in a different time and in a different war, but he nevertheless experienced these very same hardships. The Martin memoir remains the best surviving primary account of a common man fighting in the American Revolution.  Today, historians return to this uncommon source again and again to gain insight about one of the most familiar and written-about wars in American history.

            Much has been written about the American Revolutionary War.  By contrast, the Burma theater of World War II is perhaps the most forgotten chapter of that war.  The most familiar part of it involved the so-called Merrill’s Marauders, officially named the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional).  There were two phases of the Marauder episode.  The first, code named "Galahad” sent 3000 hastily-assembled and lightly-equipped combat veterans deep behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Burma.   These men beat the odds to capture several key enemy strongholds, but by the time they succeeded in taking the airfield at Myikynia, they were spent, with only a handful of the original force remaining.  Several books have been written about this legendary unit, perhaps the best being The Marauders, by Carlton Ogburn, who was also a member of the unit.  This book was also the basis for an interesting but depressing 1962 film named Merrill’s Marauders, starring Jeff Chandler.  The film glossed over a great deal and was misleading in many regards, perhaps the most glaring being the fact that Brigadier General Frank Merrill had so many heart problems that he never actually led the unit in combat, even though he does in the film.  The film’s ending also implied that the original Marauders won complete victory in Burma, but this was far from the truth.  Although Galahad won the Myikynia airfield, they did not control the city itself, which was a couple of miles away.  Myikynia itself was still occupied by many thousands of Japanese troops, who were now fully dug in.  Winning this city would be the job of the new infusion of men sent to replace the Marauders, who were now code-named “New Galahad.”  These troops were immediately thrown into nightmarish battle conditions, with no time to adjust to the Burma terrain, nor to build a working relationship with their soldier comrades.  Nevertheless, they succeeded in driving the Japanese out of the town to further south.  The few history books that even mention the 5307 Composite Unit (Provisional) mostly lump “Galahad” and “New Galahad” together and still insist on incorrectly calling them Merrill’s Marauders.

            The survivors of the “New Galahad” operation were merged into a whole new unit brought to Burma to finish the job of routing the Japanese forces in Burma and reopening the Burma Road, a major supply route which linked British-owned India and China.  This unit was named the 5332nd (Provisional), otherwise known as the Mars Task Force.  Unlike the earlier U.S. units who fought in Burma, the MTF was much larger, composed of roughly 8000 men.  Many of these men knew each other very well, having trained together back in the States for as long as a year or more.  Unlike the earlier action, they also included artillery units, and large numbers of mules to carry the field pieces and extensive amounts of ammunition and supplies.  Marsmen also knew how to care for these mules far better than their Marauder counterparts, who had lost and/or eaten most of theirs.  It was the Mars Task Force who accomplished the long-awaited goal of ridding Central Burma of the Japanese forces and reopening the Burma Road.  Most history books don’t even mention this group of heroes.  To date, there has only been one book written about them, Marsmen In Burma, written by John Randolph in 1946.  The book is partly autobiographical, since Randolph had served in the 124th Cavalry, which made up about one-half of the MTF.  The book has been out of print for many years now, and is very hard to find, and very expensive.  Several years ago, when a second limited printing run of the book was made, my dad saw to it that he got a copy for each one of his children. It's a wonderful book about a remarkable adventure.

            There were a number of reasons why the United States Government had kept the Burma action a secret while it was ongoing.  For one thing, the Japanese forces in the region vastly outnumbered the American forces.  Had the Japanese been fully aware of the what the Americans were up to, this would have placed the entire mission and the lives of American troops in great jeopardy.  As it was, when the guns of the 612th and 613th units opened fire upon the Japanese from the Nawhkam Ridge the morning of January 17th, 1945, it came as a complete surprise.  So in this respect, the news blackout must have worked.  The U.S. Government had another more political reason for underplaying its involvement in Burma; it was a British colony.  By the 1940’s world opinion was turning against the British and their efforts to hold on to their colonies, particularly in India and the surrounding region.  The only reason why American soldiers were in Burma at all was because Winston Churchill had pleaded for President Roosevelt to send them.  It is interesting to note that as soon as the Burma Road was reopened, the Mars Task Force was quickly disbanded and the men were whisked away to China to support Chiang’s government.  So it’s understandable Burma did not get much attention in the American media while our men were fighting there.

            But what about after the war?  Why has the achievement of the Mars Task Force in Burma been largely ignored by modern-day historians?  Largely because by the spring of 1945, the Burma Road had become a moot factor in the war against the Japanese.  How ironic, in that three years earlier, the fall of Burma to the Japanese had threatened the Allied position in the entire war.  From Burma, Japan could have directly attacked British-held India, which if that had fallen, would have made possible the linking of German and Japanese Axis forces.  Moreover, Japan had steamrolled over China, closing virtually every seaport of that nation to reprovisioning.  The Burma Road had been the only supply line that Chinese forces under Chiang Kai-shek still had open, aside from the limited and dangerous flights over the Himalayas, dubbed “The Hump.”  Retaking the Burma Road was seen by the British and U.S. Governments as the only way to keep China in the war.  And why was that so important?  Because if we were ever to defeat the Japanese on their home soil, we would need to make use of bomber bases in northeastern China, a region which at that time we did not have.  So it all came down to taking back Burma and reopening the Burma Road.

            By 1945, the war picture for the Allies was decidedly different.  The “island-hopping” technique of the Allied war in the Pacific had placed several viable island airbases in U.S. hands, so the Americans now had a clear ability to bomb Japan without using China as a base of operations.  In fact, American planes were already bombing Japan heavily, and were even in the final stages of deploying atom bombs against that country.  The war against Germany was nearly won, and within a few months, the United States would be able to devote its full attention to defeating Japan, with or without the help of the British or the Russians.  Our leaders knew it.  The military high command knew it.  Too bad they never informed our soldiers on the ground.  Those men fought those final actions in Burma, winning the day, and completing the mission they were sent there to do.  The fact that so many died unnecessarily makes them no less a group of heroes.  And their service to our country has largely gone unrecognized.

            There are other primary accounts of the Burma action to be found.  A few of them are scattered around the Internet.  One of these is an interesting report written by Captain Martin Ness of the 613th Feld Artillery Battalion in 1954.  A few years ago, with the help of his daughter Connie, he published a small book containing a section providing a much more personal recollection of the time in Burma.  Connie Ness is the current president of the Mars Task Force Association and also a professional writer who has helped a number of other people author their own books.  She tells me that several other members of the 612th and 613th have written their stories, but have not as yet done anything with them.  Aside from the Randolph book, the only complete military memoir in full book-form that I have found for sale anywhere is Memories of Military Service (A Teenager in Burma), by Richard F. Bates of Michigan.  Reading it turned out to be a kind of revelation for me, and it affected me deeply.

      There were so many similarities between Mr. Bates and my father that it’s almost hard to believe they didn’t know each other.  Both men were of about the same age, and went through much the same basic training, but at different camps (minus the mules and artillery for Bates).   Richard Bates sailed to India on the same ship as my father did, but three months earlier and across the Atlantic Ocean instead of across the Pacific like Dad did.    Bates got to Burma just in time to join New Galahad, the second phase of Merrill's Marauders.  Later on, he was merged into the 475th infantry, to which my father’s artillery unit was attached.  Dad's gun batteries supported Mr. Bates' infantry unit.  Bate's dead comrades were buried alongside those of my father in the same regiment cemetery at the foot of the Ridge.  The list of similarities went on and on, and I began to wonder whether the two men knew each other.  Shortly after I finished reading the book, I wrote Mr. Bates a letter.  He called me on the phone a few days later.

            As it turned out, Mr. Bates had not known my father, but the two must have crossed paths many times, both in Burma and in China afterwards.  After the war, Mr. Bates reentered civilian life, finished high school, got married and went to college, became a teacher and later a principal.  During all this time, like my father, he rarely spoke about Burma, partly because it brought back too many bad memories.  But when he retired, he made himself available as a war veteran guest speaker to schoolchildren, and later was interviewed extensively as part of a large World War II oral history project.  Finally, his wife Joyce asked him why he was willing to tell strangers about his time in the war but not his own children.  This was what finally moved him to write the book.  In the months after our phone chat, Mr. Bates sent me a lot of things--documents, pictures, commentaries, and such.  We have become very good friends, although we have yet to meet face to face.  I am also certain that if my father were still in this world, he and Mr. Bates would have a lot to talk about. 

            The same can be said of another new friend of mine, Mr. W.B. “Woody” Woodruff, who was actually an acquaintance of my father a number of years ago.  Mr. Woodruff was in charge of the Mars Task Force Association for many years.  I wrote to him in late March of this year, and he began sending me a whole series of wonderful typewritten letters, as well as some email messages.  I got the distinct feeling that I gave him a lot of fun for a few months there.  I know that I had a ball going through all the documents he mailed to me.  Of particular interest was the Hughes diary, which shed a great deal of light on the “separate mission” my father was on when the main force was doing battle with the Japanese at Tonkwa.  At his suggestion, I became a member of the Mars Task Force Association, and have begun receiving the newsletters in the mail.  At my suggestion, he read the Bates book and Richard Hale account which I sent him.  Both things were new to him, and he enjoyed them a lot.  He informed me that next month (September, 2012), the surviving members of the 612th and 613th Artillery units would be having their next and possibly their last reunion in Fayetteville, N.C.  One of the highlights would be the dedication of a stone at Fort Bragg honoring the Mars Task Force.  This has been one of their pet projects for many years, particularly for Randy Colvin, the longtime Association historian, who passed away just a few months ago.  Finally, some recognition!

            This brings me back to my father and the memoir.  This was a piece of history, and I wanted to do something important with it.  When I retyped it into digital form, I saw that it came to about fifteen pages—not yet long enough to fill out a book.  Regina and I were having my mom come down to visit us one weekend in March, so it was an opportune time to ask her what else remained from Dad’s army days.  I had remembered that there was an album of old photographs, but imagine my surprise when Mom also handed me two shoeboxes full of old letters my dad had sent home to his family.  There were about 160 letters in all, and after my grandmother had assigned each one a reference number, she had lovingly banded and wrapped them into three bundles, each sealed in plastic bag.  Virtually all of the letters have survived almost 70 years in pristine condition, the ink as clear as the day my father penned them.   I was ecstatic when I saw this mountain of letters, all in my dad’s familiar handwriting.  I felt like I just found buried treasure.

            I spent from March to June of this year reading and retyping each of the letters, and to some extent, it has almost been like having my father back to talk to.  But this is a different man from the one I knew growing up.  This one is still just a kid, who at times gets a little homesick.  When he speaks about soldiering, he seems supremely proud and confident in his abilities in the field.  And yet, like so many men in the military, he is full of doubts about himself when he thinks about civilian life afterwards.  In a lot of ways, my father was still trying to find his way in the world.  What kid isn’t?  He so much wanted to please his parents, particular his father.  And yet, had so many doubts about himself and what his future would hold.  The man I knew growing up had conquered these demons.  The man in the letters was still a work in progress, much like I was at his age, and many of the kids I teach at school these days. I will have more to say about the letters on another page of this site, but I loved touching minds with my father during the months I was retyping the letters.  By the time I was done, they filled about 100 pages of a Word document.  Some of the other memorabilia in the shoeboxes gave me a little bit more material to work with on my “project.” 

            So now it was time to decide what to do with all this.  My mom would dearly love me to make a book out of it, but how can I top what my dad has already done?  And there is all that business of finding a publisher to print it, and the cost of it all.  Instead, I wanted to create a permanent venue where all current and future family members, friends and historians can have access to this important record of this great man.

            My father…Was he truly an American hero?  He absolutely was.  Like many men of his generation, he answered the call when his country needed him the most and served with distinction in the place to which he was sent.  Because sometimes in this life, you have to fight…  Some people might wonder why I have singled this man out for an honorary website when there are so many who deserve one as much as he.   The answer to this question is obvious.  George William Haupin was my father, my mentor and my role model.  And he was my greatest hero long before I even knew what he did in the war.  In many ways, he typifies a whole generation of heroes, who went to war to save the world from tyranny and evil.  When the war was won, the lucky ones like my father came home, and quietly picked up their lives where they had left them.  They didn’t need medals to know they had done a great service to their country.  All they wanted was a life, so they put their uniforms away and got to work.  To honor one hero is the same as honoring them all.  But I give a standing offer to any veteran of the China-Burma-India action of World War II.  If they would like their own memoirs published on this website or one dedicated to the Mars Task Force, I would be happy to oblige, at no cost to them.  It would be my honor to honor them.

            About two months ago, I sent a Memorial Day message to my friend Richard F. Bates, thanking him for all that he has done for this country of ours.  I talked about my lesson to my students in school about the Mars Task Force, and the job they did against all odds in reopening the Burma Road.  In his acknowledging message, he thanked me for my thoughts and wished me well.  “You know,” he added.  “You are probably the only history teacher in New Jersey who has ever even heard of the Mars Task Force.”

            Well Mr. Bates, that is about to change.

                                                                         George Proctor Haupin

                                                                        August, 2012

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The Haupin Family in 2000.  In the Back row is Brian Curry, Linda Haupin Curry, Rob Curry, George Jr., Lisa Haupin, Rob Haupin, Molly Haupin, Sally Haupin, Jim Haupin.  In the middle row are Laura Curry, Stephanie Haupin, Regina Haupin, Elizabeth Haupin, Zachary Haupin, Teddy Haupin, Andrew Haupin, Emily Haupin, Julie Haupin and Jamie Haupin.  In the front row are Betty and George Haupin Sr.


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© George P. Haupin 2012