Cast of Characters

It was a willful, whimsical, hung-over hundred who gathered in Grand Central Station, New York City, early in November, 1941. There were as many types as there were numbers. There could be no leadership, for not one in twenty knew who the leaders were. The organization was too hurried, too amateurish, to have prepared this group for embarkation and service in a foreign land. Odds and sods of all descriptions milled about the platform that day---escapists, pseudo adventurers, writers, photographers, students, failures, and draft dodgers. Ages ranged from eighteen to sixty-two.

"Chapter One." Andrew Geer. Mercy in Hell. An American Ambulance Driver with the Eighth Army. MaGraw Hill, New York 1943.

Then, in the fall of 1941, I had an opportunity to sail for North Africa with the first Middle East contingent of the American Field Service (AFS) sent to serve with the British in the desert. I had heard about this organization from two sisters in Greenwich. [...]

We were a hundred assorted types in that first Middle East bunch, the majority keen youths fresh out of prestigious universities such as Harvard, Brown, Yale, California, Virginia, Princeton, and Dartmouth. A number of our drivers were the sons and nephews of World War I drivers. Despite my less than illustrious Greenwich High School education, I had passed the screening by Galatti at the AFS Headquarters on Beaver Street in New York.

Were we clean-cut idealists? Maybe some were. Perhaps many were to some degree. But I guess there was wanderlust, a yearning for excitement, a need to escape the constrictions of the tedious present, a wish to test oneself against the wider world beyond the horizon. Who knows? Motives are usually mixed. Our group of youngsters was leavened with a few overage adventurers, one or two incorrigible delinquents, a painter, one actor (David Wayne), two lawyers, and a professor. In the main they were a cast of characters who were stimulating and amusing to be with.

"A Call to Africa" Scott Gilmore. A Connecticut Yankee in the 8th Gurka Rifles. A Burma Memoir. Brassey's: London, 1995.

I had imagined that a group of ambulance drivers, rushing off to a war not necessarily their own, would be a mixture of three parts idealistic humanitarians to one part "Soldier of fortune." It hadn't even occurred to me that I came under neither of these headings myself. I guess I expected to find rough diamonds---but still obvious diamonds. [...]

It seems that during two long days and one long night of traveling toward our port of embarkation, I had been very superficially observing my new companions of the American Field Service. For the most part we (although I didn't include myself at the time) looked tired and frowsy and generally down on our luck. For all the world like a lot of fifth-rate brush salesmen, with a few unfrocked ministers thrown in, sitting on a train going nowhere. The rest of our adventurous group was made up of that minority which managed somehow to maintain a continuous and unbelievable state of intoxication. These were the soldiers of fortune---or misfortune---when the flesh could not keep pace with the spirit. [...]

I was unhappy about the A.F.S. simply because I never could get detached enough to accept people for what they were instead of for what circumstances and my own lack of understanding made them seem to be. In spite of my "bad attitude" it wasn't so very long before I ran across a certain number of people in our ranks whom I immediately respected---and craved the respect of.

There were older men like John Wylie, Fred Hoeing, and Chan Ives---trained teachers and lawyers who had given up their civilian occupations because they were really interested in doing a job of work in this war. There was Andy Geer, a professional writer, who had been something of a boxer and football star at the University of Minnesota in the twenties. Andy had seen a lot of the world and planned to see some more, but that didn't keep him from wanting to do a real job while he was at it. Then there were younger men---Tom DePew, late of Colgate and Oxford, who was the most amazingly Christian person I had ever run across in my young life. I must confess I thought he was kidding some one at first, but no, as a matter of fact the guy actually had a sense of humor. Bob Sullivan was another character---a top-flight amateur heavyweight boxer, he managed to mix a genuine kindliness with an Irish toughness and sincere love of adventure. Another boy for whom I acquired a tremendous admiration from the first was Bill Nichols, a Harvard lad who was the most honest-to-God gentleman, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, that ever lived. It was impossible for Bill to do anything without giving it his best. Of course, there were other men who were immediately outstanding from many points of view, but I always thought of the really outstanding people as being something separate and apart from the Field Service as a whole.

"Troopship." Evan Thomas. Ambulance in Africa. New York: Appleton. 1943.

But who were we "volunteers" in AFS that the fates had conspired to bring together? George Rock's History records representation from every State of the Union save three, with 60 or more from ten States. Most of us were college students or graduates. There were elders too old for Selective Service having had significant midlife careers. There were youths barely meeting age requirements.

Others of all ages had medical disabilities; still others were objectors to war. All were united in their motivation and devotion to the purposes and principles of AFS.

Unit 26 was large enough to reflect this diversity. In a letter "At Sea" Jock (Cobb) gave a down-to-earth representative profile of the Unit:

We are an alert bunch, ranging from the student of 18 to the serious minded fellow of 45... This crowd is positively a selection of universities. About one-sixth of us are in the outfit for the same reason as Carlos and I (objectors to war); another sixth because they wanted to get into action and some physical defect kept them out of the army, and a few because the romance of serving in the Middle East attracted them. There were another few because things at home were tense ... or the AFS was seen as a stepping stone to a decent rank in the army. Some were either too old, or too young for the army and wanted to do something humanitarian or adventurous. We're a genial gang, and proud of the AFS even though we have yet to start work.

In this same letter, Jock wrote "a few brief character sketches" as follows:

Major Shaffer you know ... a very understanding conscientious man.

Mr. Stockton is the section leader ... photographer ... Middle aged, pleasant...

Frank Coleman in Sid's class at Harvard, a swimmer,. well built... thoughtful, school teacher.

Slim Curtis, baseball player at Milton and Harvard, genial, quiet, also a school teacher.

Bob Brown, the typical American, age 28, married, midwesterner with solid sense of humor, executive of a trucking company...

Charlie Edwards whom you know ... zealous... solid.

Howard Brooke from Virginia, young but mature for his years, silent, deep thinker with interesting background.

Ernest Boger, also a southerner, aged 29, big shot in textile business,, very friendly but ... conservative, strange combination.

Francis Bloodgood son of a minister from Wisconsin, age about 20, lots of drive...

Bob Adamson, exhibition dancer and about everything else at the tender age of 20 ... active mind ... unstable but likable.

You can see that the crowd is amazingly diverse.

" At Sea: Forty Days and Forty Nights." Charles P. Edwards. deAn AFS Driver Remembers.. [draft] New York: AFS, 2002.