The Days of the Bitter End
Recaptures the 1960s as no other historical novel
by Jack Engelhard
Jack Engelhard’s groundbreaking masterpiece “The Days of the Bitter End,”
the historical novel that has drawn universal high praise,
such as this from writer John W. Cassell —
“It’s all here, masterfully written by one of the greatest novelists of our age.”
Preview of Chapter 26 and Chapter 32
from The Days of the Bitter End
Cliff had them roaring with his spoof of a touch football game on Martha’s Vineyard, Jack explaining to a childishly intractable Bobby why he, Jack, should be the quarterback. “I am the-ah quarterback because I am the-ah president. That’s why.” Pause. “Now stop crying Bobby, or I won’t let you play attorney general any-moe-ah.”
He was leading up to sick shtick but meanwhile that one had them in stitches.
But at Louise’s table there was awkwardness. Richie Bell had decided to pull up a chair between Ben and Louise and he was his old carefree self. “Are we friends?” said Louise, testing.
Richie chuckled and said of course, and meant it; he’d come to accept Wheeling as just another fling of hers that he’d have to live through before he settled her down. Ben was another story, in fact a story related to him by Howie, about what had been going on between Ben and Louise over and under the table, and this was practically unforgivable as this had been the deal: no fooling around with her if the other guy was in the same room.
“Enjoying yourself?” asked Ben.
Richie did not respond.
“Ben asked you something,” said Louise.
“I heard,” Richie said flatly. “I’m trying to listen to the show.”
“Oh,” said Louise. “Like you never heard this before.”
“Only in the living room.”
“He doesn’t want to talk, Louise,” said Ben. “Leave the guy alone.”
“He doesn’t want to talk to you. Richie, please, let’s have peace.”
“I hear Ben’s already had some.”
Louise took it well and merely smiled. Louise did not mind a portion of jealousy here and there from her two great loves. She would mind it if it went too far. Their friendship toward each other was precious to her and she’d be shattered to think of herself as the cause of a split. This, this was just a spat. They’d get over it; Richie never kept a grudge. Ben, however, did not take it well.
So now it was out and Ben even knew the rat. Always Howie. Only this time Richie had not told him to shut up. Ben was sorry. Richie was his one true friend. Ben would have to find ways to make amends, most likely by just letting it drop. This much he had to consider, that in the end it would be Richie and Louise, not Ben and Louise, yes Richie and Louise, so perhaps the time was approaching to make the announcement. No, not now. Always not now.
Besides, it was Richie who had news - news that he was not prepared to reveal.
The cops had spooked him back there on Sullivan Street and he knew they’d be back. He was not afraid, he had nothing to hide, maybe, but he did not like complications. So there was one answer and it had come in one of those letters from the Selective Service Board. Before leaving the apartment he decided to open one of the envelopes and sure enough UNCLE SAM still wanted him, in December. That was next month.
Despite his poor health, he had undergone the required physical at the Selective Service office in Hartford right after high school and he was declared 1-A, which was a laugh, but a secret he kept from everyone, including Sally Caruthers, the-girl-back-home. She’d make a scene and would not recognize the hilarity of the situation. Richie Bell a soldier?
Only his parents knew. His dad had been a hero in WWII and thought it only proper that his son do his duty.
Anyhow, forgetting the Cold War, this was peacetime. There was no war except for that business in Vietnam started by Eisenhower, a minor operation that required massive arms but only a small number of American advisors to teach the South how to defend itself from the communist North.
Richie had been scheduled to report in August and never bothered to notify the Board that he’d be absent. Actually he had plumb forgot. Life was too short to worry about some silly induction notice.
Somehow, back in September, the authorities caught up to him on Sullivan Street and were prepared to detain him in some lockup. Richie got on the phone to his dad and got it all straightened out, for the time being.
But time was up. Between the fuzz and the Army, he was cornered. The Army was the obvious way to go.
“Out with it,” said Louise.
“What?” Richie laughed.
“You’re keeping a secret.”
“Never from you, Louise.”
“Is it true?”
“Is what true?”
“That the cops came to see you,” Louise persisted against Richie’s nonchalance.
“Who told you that?”
“Had to be Howie,” Ben piped in.
“So is it true?”
“They asked a few questions.”
“So tell us what happened,” said Louise, truly concerned.
“How do I look?” asked Richie, profiling as Barrymore.
“Handsome as ever,” said Louise with a glance of feminine delight added to her unique giggle.
Wait till you see me in a uniform, Richie thought. Now that’s gonna be something to laugh about.
He simply was not cut out to be a soldier. He was no pacifist, either. Either way was all right so long as they left him alone. He had heard grumblings about something that had nothing to do with him. That Vietnam thing, but that was just people being political and fuck politics.
Some people needed politics and causes to make themselves important - important, confused and idealistic. Not Richie. Keep it light, keep it cool, keep it later man.
Only recently had he begun to realize that people were actually getting serious.
Despite Kennedy’s pronouncement on Walter Cronkite’s evening news that “it is their war,” meaning the Vietnamese, and that “we can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisors, but they have to win it, the people of Vietnam” - despite such disclaimers there was a real risk of war, according to all the talk.
None of which bothered Richie, who actually thought it might be fun to go off to war even though there was no war.
Richie was in a surprisingly reflective mood.
“I think I know what’s going on,” said Ben.
“What?” said Richie, beginning to soften toward his friend.
“You opened one of the envelopes.”
Ben had seen the letters and had even been there when the two military types had come knocking. That was some scene. Ben had been stricken. A knock at the door was a terrible thing. Add two men in military dress and it can only be the Gestapo.
Richie blanched at Ben’s mention of the envelopes.
“What envelopes?” said Louise. “Oh, those envelopes you never open and keep telling me they’re just 4-F.”
“That’s right,” said Richie, giving Ben a nudge.
“That’s right,” said Ben.
“Come on you two. What’s going on?”
Richie and Ben exchanged a conspiratorial glance.
“Out with it,” said Louise.
“No big deal,” said Riche. “Just looks like I may end up in Uncle Sam’s Army.”
Louise laughed. “You’re kidding.”
“Of course I’m kidding.”
“But you keep telling me you never passed the physical.”
“That’s right. I never passed the physical. Even if I had I’d never go in. Leave you a widow?”
“What would you tell our kids?” Riche said to prolong the joke.
“Huh,” she said imperiously. “If you joined the Army you can forget about me. You can forget about kids.”
“Now that’s strong,” said Richie.
“I mean it, Richie, you better be kidding. If you join up, you’re gone. I won’t think about you for a minute.”
“Fair enough. But let’s pretend.”
“Richie, I don’t want to pretend. There’s nothing funny about this.”
“Well I’m pretending.”
“Go ahead, but without me.”
“So - would you tell them I died a hero?”
Louise turned grim. “You don’t have to die to be my hero. You’re already my hero. Same for you, Ben.”
The word hero sounded strange to Richie. He wasn’t the type. Didn’t want to be the type. Heroes were for the movies and his old man’s generation. Heroes were outdated. Nowadays heroes weren’t hip, they weren’t cool. They were square.
His dad, a First Lieutenant in the Marines, had stood his ground under severe Japanese bombardment and after wiping out a pillbox walked away with a Purple Heart and a Silver Star for valor. All of which amounted to a topic of conversation around the dinner table in Hartford. For a while. Then it got boring and nobody talked about it anymore. Then, when it came up for discussion in the presence of Richie’s teenage friends, it got downright embarrassing and there was much clearing of throats, even from Mom.
So there was your hero.
God and country. Richie had heard that song and dance from his father, and from his brother, Stephen, a medic who was stationed in Germany during the Berlin Wall crisis and came back to tell Richie about the thrill of expectant combat.
“You ought to go,” he told Richie. “Make you a man.”
That remark stopped Richie. His own brother did not consider him a man. Despite his experiences, he still did not belong to the club. He had not been tested. He used to think otherwise. But neither his toying with deadly snakes, nor his riding with a Hell’s Angels-type motorcycle gang for a month, nor his hitting the road Jack Kerouac-style for six weeks, nor his escapades scuba diving and rock climbing - none of it was sufficient triumph. Combat and only combat was the true measure of a man and so far each living generation but his had been so tested.
He had heard about God and country from Ben as well on the many nights they stayed up together at the Sullivan retreat engaging in bullshit that touched on religion, women, culture, politics, history and anything else that needed to be settled.
Richie was astonished that Ben still believed in God after all that Ben had been through. To believe in a god after the Holocaust was not only naïve, but sacrilegious - a desecration of the martyrs.
“As for me,” said Richie, “I believe we created Him, not the other way around.”
Ben said, yes, he believed in Him, but, no, that did not mean he wasn’t pissed off at Him.
But he was not pissed off on country. Ben was rarin’ to go. Ready to fight, ready to die.
This also baffled Richie. Richie accused Ben of being a “damned gullible patriot.”
“No patriot,” said Ben. “Just call me grateful.”
Gratitude was a concept completely wacko for a homegrown American like Richie Bell.
“Ben,” Richie would say, “you’re nuts if you want to join up. You already had your war.”
But now Richie was coming around given his choice between a jailhouse tunic and an Army uniform. He was not rarin’ to go like Ben. But there seemed no other option and anyway, the Army might be fun and even war might be a kick.
There had to be something to it, given all the literature about the romance and the glory. Hemingway was war. Remarque was war. Tolstoy was war. James Jones was war. Mailer was war. John Wayne, Montgomery Cliff, Burt Lancaster, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, Casablanca, Berlin, Paris - all of it was war and all of it was so romantic.
So Richie was ready.
But World War II, that was the war Richie sought, the kind of war so many young men lusted after. They wanted to liberate the Ritz and make love to Lilli Palmer and then return to America heroic and sullen like Hemingway, and then, like Hemingway, write great novels about their awful and romantic experiences.
Richie was agreeable. But he wanted to suffer stylishly, romantically.
It did not occur to him (not yet, but soon enough) that suffering was undesirable. It couldn’t, because he was so American, so utterly, ingenuously American, so unwise, so unknowing about the truth of things.
Europe’s wars were America’s books and movies. Nobody died except the Nazis and the Japs.
That was the kind of war Richie (and so many others of his generation) expected from the Army. A good, clean, bloodless, heroic war, innocent women and children watching from the sidelines. Nobody gets hurt except the bad guys.
“You’re sure you were rejected,” said Louise, skepticism beginning to wrinkle her lovely brow.
“Come on, 4-F all the way.”
Ben was proud to wear the Navy uniform. It stamped him a true American, if fraudulently so since a uniform was nothing without valor. He had portraits taken of himself in full seaman’s dress to show his wife and kids. But whoever they turned out to be, they’d surely be proud. The portraits of him in an American military uniform were for his parents as well. They were dead but he knew they were watching. They had spared him from the death camps of Europe and behold the result! Their son, an American, an American soldier. From the ovens of Dachau to the decks of the U.S.S. Saratoga in a span of but 20 years! Incredible.
He reported for boot camp the latter part of March 1964 and did his 10 weeks in Great Lakes outside of Chicago. As an enlisted man he had a choice to go to specialty school, but he already had a specialty, and that was journalism. Those three and a half years at Ohio State, fractured as they were, now came in handy.
As a journalist, third class petty officer, JO3, he was assigned to Washington to write for the Navy’s All Hands magazine. This was not what he had expected; a desk job while something was going on out there in Vietnam. Nothing big, but at least there he might see action and action was what he wanted.
So he bitched and got everybody pissed off. But he prevailed and got the transfer to the U.S.S. Valcour, one of three small seaplane tenders. These were ships that tended to seaplanes and the Valcour was setting out for the Arab nation of Bahrain. Sounded good enough to Ben.
Ben reported to Norfolk as ordered and got there just moments before the ship got underway. He bunked in and waited, then waited some more along with the rest of the sailors, all of whom wondered what the delay was all about.
Finally an announcement came over the horn: “Now here this. This man Jaffa lay down the personnel office.”
Me? Thought Ben. Me? Out of all these men, me? What did I do?
Turned out he didn’t do anything - besides being Jewish. “You’re Jewish, aren’t you,” said the personnel officer. Ben said yes he was and what did that have to do with anything? Well, the Arabs have an agreement with the United States prohibiting Jewish sailors, or Jewish soldiers of any sort, from stepping foot on Arab territory.
Sorry. But can’t go with you on board.
“So now where do I go?” said Ben.
Since the personnel officer could not issue direct orders, he gave Ben a verbal order to report to the Valcour’s sister ship, the U.S.S. Greenwich Bay that was in dry dock in Portsmouth. This ship was also set to sail for Bahrain and Ben was still Jewish and was again dismissed on the presumption that his presence would cause an international incident. He began to feel like that man without a country.
Chaplains from both Jewish and Christian faiths urged Ben to kick up a fuss, file a complaint, but Ben had no appetite to take on the U.S. Navy, or the U.S. Government. He just wanted to get on ship, any ship.
But it wasn’t any ship he lucked into. It was the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga, CVA-60, the largest ship in the Navy; perhaps the world. Ben was thrilled. He sailed the oceans with 5,000 men and more than 100 aircraft, mostly jet fighters. Not all of it was glory. Pilots landed half-cocked and came in only to drown in flames along with their aircraft. The seamen who worked the flight decks to direct the aircraft incoming and outgoing were equally in peril. In maneuvering the jets their airdales were prone to slip off deck and such men also died in quantities. All were kept frozen in reefers, the ship’s huge refrigerators.
As a journalist Ben published the ship’s newspaper, put out guidebooks for the sailors and pamphlets for the visitors. His job was closely related to PR. The ship made frequent port calls and when visitors came on board Ben was there to welcome them and explain the inner workings of this magnificent vessel. He liked to say that the ship was a floating city containing everything from barbers to pilots and everything in between.
Ben’s other job, his real job, the job he loved, was his battle station function as an enemy airplane spotter.
This was action! Not combat, but action of sorts to be standing out there on the deck with binoculars against the breeze tugging at your denims and nothing but blue ocean and blue sky between you and God Almighty. His past life, his earthbound existence was like a time that never happened. Not once did he think of Louise or Greenwich Village or Cincinnati or Ohio State or Paris or the Roundup or the checkpoints through Gestapo roadblocks or the Catholic orphanage or the nun up in the Pyrenees who wept that there is no God. No, here there was a God, only God.
Maybe once or twice he thought of Louise, the way she had glittered that day and said, Always remember me like this. Always associate happiness with me. Yes, once or twice he did think of Louise and Greenwich Village, but no more than that - he was a spotter after all, the ship depended on him, the Navy depended on him, America depended on him.
The heavens and the deep belonged to him and he rejoiced to be a part of something majestic. There was nothing like it, certainly nothing like it on land. On land only a Biblical shepherd could understand a seaman’s wonderful loneliness before the power of nature and timelessness.
At sea the waves carried off time and place and whatever a man was before he could never be again.
The sea got into your blood and even your heart began to beat with the rhythm of the tides.
Out there on the deck as a spotter Ben felt a stirring sense of achievement. He was assigned to the gun deck that contained a contingent of Marines and this only made him feel more valiant and glorious.
In late May they set for the waters off North Vietnam. The mission was mostly secret but as a journalist Ben was privy to some information. The conflict between the South and the North was escalating and the South’s guerrillas, parachutists and frogmen kept failing to penetrate communist shore installations. All that despite American advice, assistance and support.
Raids by the South’s torpedo boats also failed to damage the North’s installations.
By early June the aircraft carrier entered the Gulf of Tonkin - the combat zone. Orders came down to lend moral support for the South’s saboteurs without engaging or provoking enemy fire.
The ship was to be on routine patrol, nothing more. From his post on the gun deck, Ben was astonished to find himself in the middle of a war! TV, radio and the newspapers back in the States had it all wrong. Torpedo boat explosives lit up the skies. Artillery shelling boomed across the waters. An armada of PTs could be sighted over the horizon by light and by darkness. Planes went crashing into the deep.
This was war all right and Ben was right in the middle of it, though not quite. The monster ship with its 100 silver planes remained far off the coast and it was there only as a chilling reminder to the North of American firepower.
Show the colors. We’re here Ho Chi Minh.
Ben ached for combat. He did not know what the problem was exactly between the South and the North. They both looked the same, except that the North Vietnamese were called gooks. But they were the same people and what the hell the United States was doing here was not for Ben to question or answer. That part of it was for the politicians from Johnson through Rusk through McNamara through McGeorge Bundy.
The gooks were the enemy and that was about the extent of it for Ben and the rest of the 5,000 sailors.
The gooks were from Hanoi and Hanoi wanted Saigon and Russia and China wanted it all, the whole world.
So maybe that’s why America was here with aircraft carriers and destroyers on sea and guns and advisors on land. They were here to stem the tide of communism. Made sense. Made sense to Ben - though he did have some qualms. This was a spat between neighbors and perhaps left to their own devices they’d somehow sort it all out between themselves.
Back home, according to the letters, voices were being raised against America’s involvement, however slight.
That was a laugh among the seamen and the pilots.
From Ben’s perspective on the gun deck only hours or days separated his ship from combat. The combat zone was not for cruising. They were still out of range of artillery emplacements but getting closer.
Ben wanted it even closer. Not for the glory but as a test of his manhood.
The test came when nine enemy torpedo boats opened with flames coming squarely at him. He stood his ground. Ben stood his ground and reported the alarm until the entire ship was mobilized and at battle stations.
Ben stood his ground even as enemy artillery shells aimed directly at him and his ship zoomed across the sky. The ship wasn’t hit. On orders from the captain the Saratoga took evasive action and cruised away 60 miles from the coast.
But Ben had been hit. The fragment of an artillery shell blew into his right shoulder and left him dazed and bleeding on the gun deck. Medics rushed to his aid and brought him to sick bay, where he was barely conscious and suffering from shock. He remained in sick bay until he was lucid again but the wound, not terribly serious, would require hospitalization, and thus he was shipped to the Philadelphia Naval Hospital from where he was up and out in two and a half weeks.
Two weeks after that he got his medical discharge and soon after three ribbons for valor.
It all happened so abruptly. In the Navy, out the Navy, in the war, out the war.
But what a difference it made! The difference was staggering.
He left for Cincinnati to begin life as an American who had paid his dues.
Even more important, he left for Cincinnati as an American, period!
That was all he had asked of the Navy, and the Navy had given it to him.
Order your copy today
The Days of the Bitter End
You may purchase this book from:
This book can also be purchased from your local retail bookstore.
Mention the title, author and/or ISBN 978-1-77143-103-3.
This book may also be purchased in e-book format
from the following online retail bookstores:
Amazon's Kindle Store
For wholesale discounts or large volume orders please contact us.