Marching Through Georgia with Father Bannon
by Irving A. Greenfield
Not really. General Sherman did that eighty-five years before the troop train rolled to a stop in the small town of Galton, Georgia. The train had left the Mott Haven Rail Yard in the Bronx early on a Sunday morning, moved north into Canada and as far west as Saskatchewan before it turned south into the states and headed back to the States. All that movement and the movement yet to come ignored a basic postulate of geometry: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The train’s wandering was part of an elaborate plan to confuse the enemy. It was the middle of September of nineteen-fifty and the country was at war again, a scant five years after World War Two ended. This time the enemy was North Korea.
Seven days after the reserve unit left the Bronx it was less military looking than when it began its odyssey. Not that they ever possessed the spit and polish appearance of a regular army unit. The men of the 427 th Battalion were, for the most part, made up of men who joined the army reserve to escape the draft and continue their education. Almost all of the unit’s officers and non-coms were former GIs in World War Two. Few of the men wanted to be where they were now, or where they knew they’d be going after they’d complete the training cycle.
With a series of forward jerks and a burst of steam from the locomotive the train finally stopped. In the world in which the men now lived even the recording of time changed from A.M. and P.M. to a twenty-four hour day. It was o-five-thirty.
The train was forty cars long. Eight of them flat cars that carried the unit’s primary weapon — half tracks with quad mounts with fifty caliber machines guns or twenty millimeter cannons. The vehicles were hidden under huge canvass tarpaulins that were securely tied down to the front, rear and the sides of the flat cars. There were box cars loaded with gear and ancient Pullman cars that carried almost a thousand men. All of the windows were kept closed. Whatever ventilation there was came from the opened doors on opposite ends of the car. Each car had a toilet at each end and water dispenser.
By the third day water was limited to one cup a day and shaving was abandoned. Somewhere in Illinois the toilets stopped working. The men stank and the cars stank, and the flies were flying monsters. So, when the order came to fall out, the men were eager to leave the cars if only for a few minutes.
Everyone in the unit knew that we were at least a thousand miles from their destination, which was Fort Bliss, Texas. This was supposed to be a military secret known to only a selected few: Lieutenant Colonel Peter Miller, the unit’s Commanding Officer, Major William Davidson, Executive Officer, Major John Connelly, the Operation officer, Captain Pierce Bannon, the unit’s Chaplain, and First Lieutenant Steven Shanahan, the unit’s Intelligence Officer. Exactly how this closely guarded secret became a non-secret was something that happened, and no one cared to investigate how it happened. Some of the old timers, the veterans from World War Two, declared that Fort Bliss was located in the ass end of the country, just outside of El Paso, Texas and across the Rio Grande from Juarez, the wildest city on the border.
The stop at this particular town, Galton, Georgia, was not prompted by any military necessity, but rather by the need for fresh water, a plumber to unclog the toilets, and the hope that fresh food could be bought, which would provide a welcome relief from C-rations and Spam.
Holding Mass outside was Father Bannon’s idea when he found out that sometime during the afternoon that the train had been switched to a secondary track that would take it through the town of Galton, where it would stop to take on water and hopefully have the toilet situation fixed. He proposed it that evening at mess with the other officers and commented in a nonchalant way that somehow the town’s name rang a bell, but he hadn’t any idea which bell it was or why it rang. To the convocation of practically silent and dispirited men, Father Bannon said that while the train stopped to take on water and to get the toilets unclogged, a Mass would be spiritually uplifting for the men and it would give the Colonel an opportunity to give the men a much needed pep talk. The Colonel, though a Catholic, liked the second part of Father Bannon’s suggestion better than the first because he only went to church when he had to — for weddings, confirmations and funerals. But he wasn’t blind to the advantage of having a Mass and his pep talk on the same program and he willingly gave his permission to hold a Mass.
The men formed up for reveille, happy to inhale fresh air. But the flies followed them outside and were joined by their southern relatives and hordes of voracious mosquitoes rose up from a nearby swamp to join in the feast. It was impossible to stand at attention without slapping at the flying predators, so the Colonel gave the order for parade rest.
Though it was only o-five-thirty in the morning it was hot and humid. Now, the men weren’t sure whether being in the hot, smelly cars wasn’t better that being eaten alive in the ever-increasing heat of the rising sun.
The Colonel stepped forward. A bulky man with a red face and porcine eyes, he looked as grungy as rest of the men. From their previous experiences with him, the men knew he was an ineffectual bag of wind and behind his back he was always referred to as Colonel Jingle Bells. A few of the wits in the unit developed a Joady Chorus that incorporated a reference to his civilian occupation as gas meter reader. The chorus, like his sobriquet, was never sung in his presence.
Before he spoke, he cleared his throat. As always whenever he or any of the Staff Officers spoke, the men hoped it would be brief. But knowing the Colonel, they also knew that there was an enormous gap between their hope and reality.
The Colonel spoke for twenty excruciating long minutes telling the men that they were good soldiers, fine men and a credit to the country. Finally, he said that a Sunday Mass would be held, fresh water would be obtained, the clogged toilets unclogged, and fresh food would replace the C-rations and Spam the men had been eating. He hoped there would be roast chicken for everyone for lunch.
Despite their dislike and distrust of the man, a spontaneous cheer erupted from the ranks.
At this point Father Bannon stepped forward. In every way he was the antithesis of the Colonel. Tall, broad shouldered and muscular, he had twinkling blue eyes and light brown hair touched here there with gray. The men knew that of all the men with combat experience, he not only had the most but he was also the most decorated man in the unit. He asked if any one in the unit had been an altar boy. Two men raised their hands and he immediately anointed them as his assistants. He said that mass would be held at o-seven-thirty. With a straight face he praised the breakfast of C-rations, calling them a concoction of the good Lord knows what, which brought a burst of laughter from the men.
Lieutenant Steven Shanahan stepped up. An easy two hundred and fifty pounds, he had the sobriquets of Fat Ass or Lard Ass. He said for reasons of security two squads of men would be armed with M-1s, fixed bayonets, and two clips of eight rounds: one in the man’s rifle and the other in the in his ammunition pouch on the web belt. All of the men in the squads would wear their steel helmets. At the sound of two blasts from a whistle the squads were to come around from either end of the train at double quick time, with weapons held at port and position themselves between where the Mass was being held and the roadway. Once there, they were to remain at attention with their weapons at port arms. From a sheet of paper that he removed from his right shirt pocket, he read off eighteen names. They were the total number of Jews in the unit. The squads were to remain on the other side of the train. Having said that, he asked for permission to dismiss the troops. Permission was immediately granted.
The voiced opinion of the men, whether they were assigned to the squads or they weren’t, was that Lard Ass was “nutso”. That his mother must have dropped him on his head when he was a baby, though it was impossible for any of the men to imagine him ever having been a baby. That the North Koreans probably didn’t know where Georgia was, and they most certainly didn’t know where the train was because none of the men knew, other than it was in a place called Galton and that to them meant it was nowhere.
By the time breakfast was over, the two squads were in combat gear and deployed as ordered, on the other side of the train and it was almost time for Mass to begin. Sergeant Philip Gibbs was in command of one squad, and Sergeant Joseph Grossman commanded the other squad. Gibbs was a World War Two veteran, who had been in combat, near the end of the war, in Germany. He was short, thin and had a reputation as “a fast man with cards” and with women, according to his stories of his encounters with them. In contrast to Gibbs, Grossman was a large, slow, lumbering man who earned his stripes by being in the unit for the last five years. He worked in his father’s butcher shop. The odd man there, who wasn’t part of either squad, was Sergeant John Thompson. He too was a World War Two Veteran, and former paratrooper with the One Hundred and First Airborne Division. Thompson was the best rifleman in the unit. A tall, lanky man with a pock marked face, he seldom spoke to anyone. It was rumored that he’d killed a man a few days before we’d left our home base.
Armed and ready the two squads and Sergeant Thompson waited on the far side of the train. The sun was higher now and the heat and humidity more intense. There were big, dark blotches of sweat on the front and back of each man’s shirt.
Shanahan came around the front of the train to inspect the two squads. He ordered them formed up in two ranks and made a show of inspecting our rifles. When he came to Thompson, who stood several feet away from the two ranks of men, he was about to reach for Thomson’s rifle, when he suddenly changed his mind, turned to the squads and, red faced, ordered the men to lock and load their weapons, and then told the sergeants to put the men at rest.
By this time, Father Bannon’s two helpers set up the portable altar, with the appropriate alter cloth, chalice of wine, and plate of communion wafers. Most the unit’s men were Catholic and they stood in front of the altar. The few men who were Protestant were off to one side, and there was also a small gathering of townspeople on the roadway, about fifty feet from where the altar was placed.
Dressed in his vestments, Father Bannon left one of the Pullman cars and walked to the altar.
Suddenly, a man on the roadway shouted that they had no business being there.
Major Davidson went over to the group and explained that the men needed fresh water, food, and that a plumber was also need to unclog the toilets.
A thin man, wearing a straw hat and bib overalls, pointed to Father Bannon and the other men in the field and wanted to know what was going on.
More people joined the original group and more were coming up the road. Most of the men were dressed just like the one speaking to Major Davidson, who said that Sunday Mass was in progress.
The word Mass was repeated over and over again by the men and women in the group.
The man told Davidson that he and all of his men were in Southern Baptist country, and those who celebrated the Mass weren’t welcome.
Suddenly, two cars came up the road. One white, with flashing blue and red lights and the other a black, four door Ford.
A heavy set man in uniform, wearing a broad brim campaign hat and packing a .357 magnum, left the white car, went directly up to Davidson and announced that he was the town’s Sheriff.
Major Davidson answered with his name and rank and serial number.
The Sheriff ordered Davidson to immediately stop the Mass, order the men back on the train and leave.
The man driving the other car came up to where the sheriff was. Wearing a black suite, white shirt and a black tie, he was obviously the local minister. He wasn’t as bulky as the sheriff, and in a thundering voice he announced that he wasn’t going to tolerate a Mass or a priest in a woman’s dress anywhere near his flock.
Through all of these exchanges were conducted in loud vices, Father Bannon continued with the Mass.
More people arrived, and some of the men carried rifles and shotguns.
The sheriff said that the major would be a “good” Yankee if he ordered his men to pack up and leave town.
At this point, the minister began to sing a hymn and was joined by his flock. Above the sound of the voices there were two short blasts on the whistle.
Instantly the squads were in motion. With weapons held at port arms and bayonets gleaming in the hot Georgia sun, they took up their previously assigned position positions between the roadway and the altar. Thompson stood alongside of the Major.
The singing froze in the throats of the singers.
Davidson told the sheriff to look at a knot in a particular tree about three hundred yards from where they were and nodded to Thompson, who snapped his rifle up to his shoulder and squeezed off a round before anyone realized it. A sharp bang startled most of the townspeople. Thompson dead centered the knot.
Before the sheriff could speak, Davidson told him that all of the armed men were a crack shots even those with glasses.
The sheriff nodded, and said that he wasn’t going to run a shooting match because as good as the troops were, his boys were better. Then, a third car stopped behind the other cars. The man that got out of it wore a black business suit, black cowboy boots, and a tan Stetson that made him look taller than he was.
He quickly went through the crowed and announced to Davidson that he was the Mayor.
The sheriff told him that they were in the midst of a Mexican standoff and he said that in his town there was no such thing. He would get the Yankees to move. Hearing that, the minister and his flock began to sing again, louder than before.
Father Bannon suddenly stopped the mass. His Irish up and red in the face, he removed his vestments, handed them to one of his assistants, strode up to Thompson and took the rifle out of his hands, glared at the sheriff., the minister and the mayor before he put three rounds into the knot exactly where Thomson’s round splintered the knot.
He told the townspeople that they were in America, and that if he had to fight to hold a Mass for his men, he would fight.
A cheer burst out from the men behind him.
The preacher shouted that the Devil has come to Galton.
A rebel yell — the kind that sent goose bumps down every enemy’s back from the Civil War to World War Two — came from somewhere in the crowd of townspeople and a man, holding a shotgun, pushed his way through them to where the sheriff, the mayor and the preacher stood and said, “I didn’t see him good before because I was lookin’ at his back. But he ain’t no devil. He’s the man I told you all about when I came home from the hospital.” Then to Father Bannon, he said, “I’m Dwight Folsom, One-O-Six Infantry, Company C. We were in the forest when the Krauts broke through our lines an’ I got hit an lay in the snow ‘till you come an’ got me. You told me the pain’ ill hurt, but it’s better than dyin’ in the snow. Then you pulled me by my collar, while you crawled back to our guys.”
In an instant the two men came together in a manly hug. And Dwight told the other people, “I promised the Padre if he ever came to Galton my table and my house would be his table and his house while he was here. He not only saved my life but he saved seventeen other men.”
Now, every one was confused.
Colonel Jingle Bells and Lard Ass moved to where Father Bannon and Dwight were standing and Dwight’s four brothers came forward too. Luke, the oldest said, “Ifin my brother made a promise, the promise would be kept even if the promise was made to a priest.”
The two squads were finally ordered to Parade Rest and Thompson was ordered a dozen paces to the rear.
It soon became clear that the Sheriff was Dwight‘s first cousin on his father’s side and the Mayor was his second cousin on his mother’s side.
The Mayor and the Sheriff huddled and when they came out of it, the Mayor said, “Though we down here don’t approve anythin’ Catholic or Jewish, Father Bannon can hold his Mass and the town would take care of providing fresh water and food and the town plumber would unclog the toilets” That said to the cheers of the men and the townspeople, he added, “In order not to give the impression to anyone passing by that the good people of Galton were anything but what they were, good Southern Baptists, I want your guards kept in place, while a few of townspeople will stay on in silent protest.”
Father Bannon accepted the deal and there was a lot of hand shaking before he returned to the Altar, donned his vestment and continued the mass.
True to the Mayor’s words, as soon as the Mass was finished a large water truck came up the road, followed by another truck with fresh vegetables and freshly killed chickens packed in ice and several cases of cold soda.
The unit’s cooks went to work and for the first time in seven days the men ate a hot lunch. By fifteen hundred, the train was ready to roll on its journey to Fort Bliss. When it left, the entire town was there to see it leave and wish the men well.
The last man to board the train was Father Bannon. Dwight and his whole family clan were there to see him off.
After all, a promise made was a promise kept and that was the way it should always be.
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