On my first inspection of my first platoon, two interesting things happened. But first, let me try to set the scene. All through West Point, cadets are exposed to a version of life in the Army which is a little unrealistic. They recognize that West Point isn’t terribly close to the rest of the Army. That’s easy. But the training films (we’re talking the 50s here) showed an Army that was supposed to be as real as possible. Thousands of times, every cadet imagined himself there doing the jobs portrayed. Then he graduated and, voila, found himself actually entering the platoon bay to inspect, just as he has imagined all those times. That first time is a magical experience.
During that first inspection I met Corporal Gumpal for the first time. Corporal Gumpal was a filippino and he spoke little English. Perhaps more accurately, he spoke little, and when he did speak, his English wasn’t very good. He was the best turned out soldier in the platoon, uniform perfect, boots shined to a mirror. But, as a corporal, he was supposed to be a leader, and he hardly spoke. I was unsure of how much he understood. I could see that he was going to be a challenge.
As soon as the inspection was over I asked the platoon sergeant, Sgt Haas, to tell me about Gumpal. He told me that Gumpal was a jewel, the best soldier int he platoon, but not much use as a fire team leader. Still, he was going to retire soon with 20 years service and we wanted him to retire at the rank of at least corporal. Otherwise he wouldn’t get very much money in retirement.
I talked to Gumpal the next day and suggested that we try to qualify him for promotion to sergeant so that he could have a semi-decent retirement. He told me not to be concerned. He was going home to the Philippines upon retirement and, with his corporal’s pension, would be the richest man in his village, anyway. I shouldn’t worry.
A few weeks later I was assigned to teach a class on World War II history. I was informed that the tradition in the company was to concentrate on the liberation of the Philippines and to use a particular film. I did as suggested and found, upon showing the film, that it was one I had seen many times. When I was a dependent "brat", we would often take films out from the film library and watch in fascination as World War II was played out before our eyes. This particular film was one which we had viewed on several occasions.
At the beginning of the film, General MacArthur pledges to return to the Philippines as he evacuates to safer territory. The island-hopping campaign is then reviewed and the relentless advance of our Armed Forces is shown. Finally, General Mac Arthur is shown wading ashore upon his promised return. He is welcomed ashore by the leader of the Philippine resistance forces in Manila, Lieutenant Gumpal. There is no doubt about it, it is our Corporal Gumpal, much younger, but our Gumpal. Much of the rest of the film is devoted to the continuing fight to retake the surrounding territory. You never see Gumpal in the film again and it exclusively portrays a battle between the Japanese and the US Army, rather than the Philippine resistance.
The soldiers in the company were fiercely proud of the hero who lived and toiled in their midst. To me it was somewhat sad. Here was this man who had been a genuine hero in his country fourteen years before. Now he was about to end his career in the United States Army as a low-ranking enlisted man. No matter that he would have a pension far greater than the salaries of any of the men of his village, I was embarrassed for him.
Unfortunately, my association with Corporal Gumpal was less than wonderful. He had trouble understanding and making himself understood. Nearly everytime I had a squad which failed to do what I wanted I could trace the difficulty to Corporal Gumpal. Often he simply didn’t tell his fire team what to do and it wandered about out of control. Still, I will always remember that courageous man who welcomed General MacArthur back to his homeland and delivered Manila to him as a welcome back present.