Lili Marlene

Someone once said words to the effect that it is a shame youth is wasted on the young.. .and war, I might add. An old version of "Lili Marlene" which sounded more like a martial air than a tender love song reminded me of a time when I was 18. It was the voice of Hildegarde, "The Dear That Made Milwaukee Famous," which opened a floodgate of bittersweet memories. They were memories of a time when the thirst for life as a teenager coupled with the threat of death in war created an awareness that has etched my mind forever.

In the early spring of 1943, I was part of an LCT crew running ammunition and supplies to the French around Tabarka, Tunisia from Bone, Algeria. On our return trips, we'd bring back German POWs. I'll never forget those veterans of Rommel's Afrika Korps, whose suntanned faces seemed to emphasize their blonde hair and blue eyes. These fellows mostly in their twenties, bore no traits of a beaten army. They were well fed, well clothed, and haughty. This was an army that had simply been outmaneuvered. As one told me, they had lost a baffle. They would win the war. I watched them goose -step off the lowered ramp of our LCT to the trucks waiting to take them to a POW compound. Since this was after nearly a daylong, open sea journey, packed shoulder to shoulder, they earned my grudging respect.

These trips were interrupted for me by a severe case of dysentery. Our staff doctor sent me to an Army field hospital outside of Bone.

I recall that evening at dusk when the only movement was that of a nurse with a flashlight silently making her rounds through the tent. She had just given me a handful of sulfa pills almost too big to swallow. It was a time before penicillin was widely in use and sulfa drugs were given for just about everything. The pills did cure it, but as soon as we got back among the millions of flies, it came back and we learned to live with it.

In this silent moment, came the almost imperceptible sound of the voices of German POWs in a distant field, accompanied by an accordion, singing songs of the fatherland. Many of these songs I recognized from the translated versions, but there was one I heard for the first time and though I couldn't understand a word of German, it brought a lump to my throat.

Probably the later generations have never heard "Lili Marlene" I have been told it was first played by some obscure Austrian DJ somewhere around 1942, and it became the song of the German Army in WWII. As the North African campaign came to a close, the British and Americans picked it up too. The Allied command tried to combat it with "Dirty Gerty From Bizerte," but who remembers?

The song echoed through the Casbah of Tunis that summer and followed us into Sicily and Salerno.

During the bitter winter at Anzio, through the blustery seas and enemy shelling, a radio salvaged from a fall from the bridge of one of our LCTs was about the only source of entertainment. Daytimes , the Allies' Radio Caserta came through with soothing music. At night when we came back to the LST mother ship after a day on the beachhead repairing landing craft, and the small vessels had laid their oily smoke screen in an attempt to hide us from the Luftwaffe, there was a period before or after the air attacks when we gathered around that radio waiting for "Liii Marlene" which had now become the theme song for Axis Sally. Each night, for a brief time, we were entertained by the often risque banter of Sally and George and their effort to win us over.

In the spring, another crew replaced us, and we went down to a new base on Mob San Vincenzo, that long stone breakwater jutting out into the Bay of Naples.

Lili Marlene faded among the citrus blossoms in the hills above Naples, and that summer disappeared on Via Roma amongst the churning mass of Allied troops preparing for the invasion of Southern France. It was a new war. The razor's edge had become a long weary road.

That spring night in 1943 was the last time I was overnight in a hospital, and I realize I am one of the luckiest people alive, but health and youth are not the same. Though I've heard "Lili Marlene" thousands of times since and in many tongues, never again will it sound so beautiful, so sincere and hauntingly sad as it did that balmy spring night when its gentle strains came drifting across that North African wheat field.

"Fare-thee-well Lili Marlene."

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