MEDAL AWARDS IN LOW COMEDY
An English drama critic described a failed stage play as steeped in low comedy. One could use his words to describe a 1945 awards ceremony for personnel of the 40th Bomb Group in its open air theater at Chakulia Air Base, India.
Shortly after Brigadier General Roger Ramey succeeded Major General Curtis E. LeMay as Commander, XX Bomber Command, General Ramey visited Chakulia to award medals to men of the group. All personnel assembled in Class A uniforms under a searing sun. The dapper General, dressed in British style tropical garb and wearing a waxed moustache, came on stage with our Commander, Colonel William "Butch" Blanchard and airmen carrying stacks of medals. Colonel Blanchard first announced that the Group Adjutant would read the names of the personnel receiving an award, then he introduced General Ramey as the presenter.
The Adjutant, a Major from New York City where people from different ethnic origins had different sounding names, gave instructions over the speaker system for the recipients of an award to form a line as he called out their names. The comedy began when the Adjutant, who did not know any of the men personally, attempted to pronounce the difficult names listed on his roster. Each time he mispronounced a name, quiet laughter rippled across the audience. Names such as Dobrowski, Hapala, and Kwiakowski brought the loudest response. As the Adjutant continued to mispronounce names, the laughter became embarrassingly louder. Finally, Colonel Blanchard stopped the ceremony and called for the Squadron First Sergeants to come to the microphone and read the names of the men in their units.
General Ramey provided the next bit of comedy because he did not have the correct routine in mind. The General started by taking the medal from his assistant in his right hand, then when the recipient saluted, he had to shift the medal to his left hand. He handed the medal straight across to the recipient's right hand who had to shift it to his left hand so he could shake hands with the General and give a second salute. During the first few presentations, an Abbot and Costello atmosphere developed when medals were dropped and laughter came loud and clear from the audience. Colonel Blanchard rebuked the audience, and described the correct procedure to be followed.
The correct procedure for an award to be presented was for a name to be announced, the recipient to approach General Ramey, salute, receive the award in his left hand, shake hands with General Ramey, salute, and walk off the stage. General Ramey was supposed to take the medal from his assistant in his left hand, return the first salute, reach across to hand the medal in his left hand to the left hand of the recipient, shake hands, and return the second salute.
The ceremony proceeded satisfactorily until General Ramey could take no more of the tedious repetition in the scorching sun. He turned the presenting chore over to Colonel Blanchard and took a seat in a shady spot on the stage. Explaining the correct procedure had been easy for Colonel Blanchard, but soon after he took over, the saluting, handling of the medals, and handshakes became as difficult for him as it had been for General Ramey. The laughter increased as Colonel Blanchard turned his presentations into another embarrassing Abbott and Costello routine. Finally, the Deputy Bomb Group Commander, Lt. Col. Riggs Sullivan, took over, and after he restored order, the line moved swiftly until all medals had been presented. Then we were called to attention, General Ramey and Colonel Blanchard departed, and we were dismissed.
It was not normal for two senior officers to mess up a serious military ceremony the way our superiors messed up this one. The recipients of the awards and the rest of us soon learned of a plausible cause for the fiasco. According to the scuttlebutt, General Ramey and Colonel Blanchard arrived at the ceremony in an alcoholic haze after spending much of the previous night consuming high balls in the Colonel's quarters.
This rumor provided an explanation that made the Low Comedy Award Event a bit easier to understand. While the honored airmen were receiving their just rewards on the stage, the rest of us received some much-needed humor that helped relieve the stress of combat. We paid a stiff price for the humor by standing in ranks in the same scorching sun that forced General Ramey to seek relief in the shade.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *