As I watched portions of the five-day funeral of Senator John McCain, it reminded me of the exceptional characters I have known. One Army officer would make McCain look like an amateur prankster. He was a US Military Academy Graduate and a Lieutenant Colonel when I served in his organization in Bremerhaven, Germany in 1957-58.
Ltd. Fred Smaltz was a combat veteran who participated in the Normandy Invasion of WW II. Smaltz was a striking figure, well over 6- feet tall, shaved head and an unruly mustache. His wife Gail was a tall, red headed nurse.
One day Smaltz called me on the office phone and invited me to meet him outside the German Air Force hangar we occupied. Without a word, we walked across the street to a storage building and he opened a foot locker and pulled out a magazine and handed it to me. He opened the publication and said: “Read this!”
He never explained why he did this, however I concluded that it was his way of introducing himself to a young second lieutenant. The months ahead were to be an exciting adventure.
The publication was a West Point Alumni magazine and the article he directed me to read was written by a former superintendent of the Academy who became one of the top generals during the war the general told the story of two cadets who faked their death and attended their own memorial service. Cadet Fred Smaltz was one of the pranksters.
The article that I read more than 60 years ago went something like this:
Smaltz and a friend went down to the bank of the Hudson River and rented a canoe from a vender. They rowed out to a passing river boat, got out of the canoe and shoved it into the side paddle wheel of the river boat. Of course, the boat was smashed to bits. The cadets swam to shore and hid out. The authorities reported that they were presumed dead. A memorial service was held in the academy chapel.
The cadets were able to get past the guards and into the chapel the night before their memorial service. They observed their funeral from the bell tower. That evening they were caught by guards as they left the chapel.
The General wrote that it was his policy to interview cadets who were expelled from the academy in order to learn from the experience. After hearing their story, he decided it would be a waste of talent to expel them. The winds of war were swirling in Europe as Hitler moved through Eastern Europe.
The general concluded that should we become involved in a war, we would need leaders who would be daring enough to take risks in order to assure victory. Both cadets were reinstated and went on to graduate, served honorably in World War II and retire as old soldiers.
Not all generals appreciated Fred Smaltz. He was the military leader that convinced me to become a career soldier. One of his practices that taught me a lot was invaluable to a young officer. He would not only give you a chance to correct your mistakes, he would insist that you find a solution and implement it. We became very involved in processing Hungarian refugees during the Hungarian Revolution.
Col Smaltz called me one morning and said he had General Bruce Clark on the phone and Gen Clark had the US Ambassador to Germany on another line. The navy had made a big mistake. They had sent a troop ship from New York to pick up a load of Hungarians with no mattresses for the wall rack beds. The question for me was: “Do you have 1200 mattresses to loan the navy?” I told him that we had about 2000 mattresses the day before. Keep the line open to Heidelberg and let me be sure they are still there. I reported them as excess. I called my warehouse supervisor, an alcoholic Master Sergeant. He responded: “Yes Sir, Lieutenant. I checked that warehouse just a few minutes ago. They are still there.” The word went to the four-star general and Ambassador. We will furnish the mattresses.
About an hour and several cups of coffee later, Sgt Phipps called. “One of these d--- Germans shipped the mattresses early this morning. Sorry about that” I called Smaltz. His response was simple. “I am not telling that general I lied about having the mattresses. Just be sure you have them on the dock when that ship arrives.”
That was an important lesson for me. You can’t ever trust someone else when dealing with important matters. When man fails you there is only one who never fails. It was time for me to pray or face an uncertain future. There was only one other American unit in the port that might have some surplus mattresses, but the air force had only about 30 people in the port. No way would they have 1200 mattresses.
I called my Air Force Supply Officer friend. He was my only source within several hundred miles. When I called him, I didn’t use a number. I said do you have any surplus mattresses? “About 1,200” was the response.
The colonel never asked If I had the mattresses or how I got them. I got 1,200 mattresses and a promise from the Navy that they would return them on the return trip on two handshakes among three lieutenants just doing their job.