JPRI Critique Vol. XXI No. 11 (November 2015)
Review of Battle Rattle: A Last Memoir of World War II by Roger Boas
Sheila K. Johnson



I first met Roger Boas in 1963, when he invited my late husband, Chalmers Johnson, to be a regular panelist on the television program World Press. Roger was then a fortyish businessman who had just been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and who wanted to become known for something more than owning the local Pontiac dealership. The weekly program, which aired on San Francisco’s local PBS channel KQED, was eventually broadcast over 185 PBS stations and ran until 1976. It was the brainchild of Roger, who believed—at the onset of the war in Vietnam—that Americans were poorly informed about foreign countries and that we could gain a better idea of their concerns by studying their newspapers. To this end, he invited a group of Bay Area professors—most of them political scientists or historians—to tell viewers what the “big story” was in the countries they covered. My husband reported on both “Communist” China and Japan; other regulars reported on Great Britain, Germany, the USSR, France, and, on occasion, Israel or India. When important visitors passed through town the program occasionally had a chance to interview them. I remember appearances by Moshe Dayan, the French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel, and others.

Roger was the ideal moderator of this panel. He never tried to dictate the subject to be discussed but always telephoned each panelist the night before the program aired (and it was always broadcast live) and asked what they would be reporting. Roger would simply listen to the reports and then ask questions—and they were always the common-sense questions that one felt the audience was also wondering about. At the end there was sometimes a general roundup—an attempt to gain an overview of how various countries were reacting to a global issue—or else the final segment was reserved for human-interest stories. The program finally fell apart when it was assigned a producer who declared that it was “all over the place” and that he intended to give it some structure—i.e., give it his spin. Roger and the longest-serving panelists formed a “suicide pact” and decided that whoever told the producer to go to hell first, all the others would follow suit and quit. In the end, it was Roger himself who concluded he’d had enough.

During the thirteen years that World Press aired, I don’t believe I ever heard Roger Boas talk about his youth in San Francisco or his World War II military service in Europe. Only now, at the age of 94, has he published a memoir, Battle Rattle, about his experiences in which he also ponders deeply how they affected the rest of his life. “Battle rattle” was the World War II term for what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. [1]

The first half of the book is a sort of Bildungsroman, and I recognize the irony of using this German expression to describe this account of his early years. Roger was the only child of a well-to-do Jewish couple—his father owned the Pontiac dealership that Roger inherited after the war, and his mother, educated at Bryn Mawr, came from a Jewish family that had converted to Christian Science in the 1880s. Raised in the Christian Science faith, Roger had no inkling that he might be the subject of anti-Semitic slurs until he was subjected to them by some of his Catholic neighbors and when he failed to be invited to join a fraternity at Stanford.

In the summer of 1935, when he was about to turn 14, his mother took him on an extended tour of Europe. Of this trip, he writes, “Maybe she wanted to see things for herself, or show me the continent, before it was too late.” She was well aware that Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 spelled danger for all of Germany’s neighbors, and although she took her son to visit Austria, Poland, and the USSR, she refused to set foot in Germany.

During his Stanford years (1938-42) Roger majored in political science, was a star debater, and joined ROTC, where he chose field artillery because the ROTC’s WWI weapons were still deployed by horses and he loved to ride. By the time he graduated, in the summer of 1942, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and began his training at Camp Roberts in southern California. There he learned to handle more weapons and became a sharp shooter. After 30 days he was transferred to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, where he learned to handle 150mm howitzers, whose 50-pound shells exploded at over 200 decibels. I cringed as I read about this part of his training since I knew, even back in 1963, that Roger had begun to lose his hearing. Now I knew why. No one thought to supply the troops with earplugs.

As Roger explains in his book, artillery fire breaks down into two components: manning the guns and firing them, and forward observation to guide the firing. “One officer and a small support team go out in front to find a vantage point where they can see the enemy, track the impact of the artillery shells, and phone or radio back adjustments to help the battery hit the intended targets.” This dangerous job of forward observer proved to be what Roger calls his “forte.” I don’t know whether it still exists in today’s army. Perhaps drones now take the place of human forward observers, but Roger lost several close friends who served with him in this capacity and very nearly lost his own life.

After training at Fort Sill, he waited for a combat assignment but instead was sent to the Mojave Desert for more training in desert warfare, perhaps in preparation to be sent to North Africa. However, after Rommel surrendered what was left of his Afrikakorps in May of 1943, Roger and the rest of his Fourth Armored Division was sent first to Camp Bowie in Texas and then, on Christmas Eve of 1943, shipped out to England. There he and his comrades were to spend another eight months. Roger writes of this period:

I had been in the army eighteen months and do not recall any training, or even discussions, on how to manage fear in combat. For most of the troops, myself included, the antidote was either not to think about the consequences of battle or to adopt the fantasy, “It won’t be me.” Another antidote was drink, of which I now partook with regularity. [As a Christian Scientist, Roger neither smoke nor drank, nor swore, until he entered the army.] Also there was nightly poker, with its natural companion: bravado. No surprise here; macho posturing is guaranteed to occur any place where rowdy men are confined in close quarters.

Roger’s war began in earnest the night of July 10, 1944, when his Fourth Armored Division crossed the English Channel and landed on Utah beach in Brittany. This was a month after the famous D-Day landing that cost so many Allied lives, but as Roger and his comrades waded ashore they were met with a solid line of stretchers holding the seriously wounded waiting to be carried back to England in the landing boats they had just vacated. Not long thereafter he and a fellow forward officer spotted two German soldiers walking toward them and shot them dead point blank.

From July of 1944 until May of 1945 Patton’s army, of which Roger’s unit was a part, was almost constantly on the move. There’s a map in the book showing the towns through which they moved—across France, up through Belgium and the battle for Bastogne, across Germany, eventually winding up in Czechoslovakia. Some of the fighting was horrific and several of his close friends were killed. But perhaps the most searing experience occurred on April 4, 1945, when he and a fellow forward officer entered the German town of Ohrdruf, recently abandoned by Nazi troops, and discovered “a huge pyramid-like stack of corpses, seemingly murdered by shots to the head within the last few hours. Nearly all the bodies had Jewish stars on their tattered ‘prison’ uniforms.” They had stumbled onto Ohrdruf concentration camp, a subsidiary of Buchenwald. A few years ago he was asked to speak about World War II to his grandson’s eighth-grade class, and there he met another survivor, a Romanian Jew who had been imprisoned in Ohrdruf. As they embraced, Roger wondered “What were the odds that his daughter just happened to be a teacher at my grandson’s school? It felt like we had been delivered to one another.”

Also in April of 1945, Roger’s outfit found itself on the outskirts of Bayreuth, which had just been liberated. Waiting to find out where they would be sent next, Roger and a friend decided to check out Wagner’s famous opera house and Villa Wahnfried, where Wagner had lived and where Winifred Wagner (widow of his son Siegfried) had entertained Hitler during the war. Although Bayreuth itself was heavily bombed, the opera house and a part of Wagner’s villa were in good repair. “The villa itself seemed empty when we entered, but we were soon met by three young servant girls, who turned out to be Polish slave laborers.” Roger and his friend were shown the living room with its grand piano, and ultimately the bedroom, which, they were told, Frau Wagner had built expressly for Hitler to spend the night when he came to Bayreuth to hear Wagner’s operas. They were evidently expected to spend the night in Hitler’s bedroom. “It seemed a little creepy,” Roger acknowledges, but “our exhaustion and the sheer absurdity of the situation trumped everything. Why the hell not?”

It would have been nice if all of Roger Boas’s memories had been that light-hearted, but of course they were not. Over the years, he made several trips to revisit old battlefields and to find the graves of his fallen comrades. At a reunion of veterans of the Battle of the Bulge—the huge battle at Bastogne in which he took part—he heard two psychiatrists lecture about PTSD. “They answered questions and spent the afternoon interviewing us. I met with them several times after that and we concluded that I had indeed suffered from PTSD for years, an all-too-common occurrence among war veterans.” Roger regrets that he didn’t learn this sooner and consult a psychiatrist in 1946.

He furthermore notes:

The army had trained me for a year and a half to prepare me for combat. But what about teaching me how to reenter into civilian life? Why is it that the army does relatively little to help its soldiers reintegrate into society? The Department of Veterans Affairs is there as a safety net. But what about more proactive programs? God knows we’ve done this enough times to know that war messes with the minds of service personnel. It should be built into the cost of war as a line item in every military budget—some kind of training program to teach soldiers how to put down their guns, clear their minds, and return to their families and the civilian work force. Reentry boot camp—I sure as hell needed one.

Roger Boas’s book holds a number of other messages for today’s warriors and the rest of us. Far from considering himself a member of the “greatest generation” he calls himself “a dinosaur—one of the last men left standing in the last war we had any business fighting.” He recognizes that wars are fueled by propaganda—it’s “us” versus “them”—and that the worse we can make the enemy appear and the less human, the easier it is to kill them. Not only is it important to dehumanize the enemy, but distancing oneself from the killing also helps. “That’s why technological developments in armaments have been about increasing the space between you and the enemy soldier you’re expected to kill . . . With long-range artillery you can be miles away from people you kill and never even see them. With missiles and drones you can be halfway across the world. It makes it a lot easier to push that button, which is why hawks love this stuff.”

What can I add, except Right On, Roger! And thanks for writing this book.

Sheila K. Johnson, Ph.D., is an anthropologist and the author of The Japanese through American Eyes (Stanford University Press) and Idle Haven: Community Building Among the Working-Class Retired (University of California Press), along with numerous articles and reviews. She is on the Board of Directors of JPRI, and the widow of its founder and first president, Chalmers Johnson.

NOTES

[1] Boas, Roger. Battle Rattle: A Last Memoir of World War II. Stinson Publishing, 2015. Available from amazon.com. In addition to serving as a producer and moderator for PBS TV and a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Roger Boas served as State Chair of the California Democratic Party and Chief Administrative Officer of the City of San Francisco. [Return to Text]


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