By Van R. Mayhall, Sr.,
July 29, 1981
ell, it happened, something to prod the memory. One time, someone said,
"Write some of that information down." I'll try, and in a way
maybe it could be understood.
Today the Prince of Wales married; there was considerable display of England's
finest. In one of the pictures on TV there was a shot of the Queen of England
and her mother, former Queen of England. This is what prodded the memory.
I arrived in England (at Bristol) in the early part of October 1942. My
outfit (156th Inf. Reg.) was put to work immediately on all sorts of line-of-communication
details. My company, "B" Co. 1st. Bat., was sent to Tidworth,
on part of the Salisbury plains where the knights of old used to do battle.
"B" Co. was further broken down and one platoon was sent to Exeter
and one to Taunton. At Tidworth we took over a QM Depot (124) from the 1st
Division (they were going to Africa for the invasion) to run it while waiting
for depot troops to arrive from the States. In spite of the fact we were
Infantry and knew nothing of depot work, we handled the work very well.
Because we had done a good job, we were chosen over other companies in the
regiment to become security company for General Lee's Headquarters. Gen.
Lee was the Chief of all supplies for the European operation. This was a
little closer to what we had been trained for.
I immediately took note of "B" Co. and Gen. Lee's Headquarters.
This guard duty that we were to perform was not the grubby, crawl-in-the-mud
sort of thing that we had been used to. It was a spit and polish, heel clicking,
quick salute and double "sir" job. Well, we cleaned, polished,
shaved, shined and sharpened our movements in all ways to get the job done.
We still remembered our branch (Infantry); we exercised, marched, trained
in rifle firing, bayonet, map work, and individual combat.
Well, they liked us. They inspected us, they commended us, they were glad to have us around.
I was called in one day by the Headquarters Commandant and was told that I was being sent to London. My question was, "Is my company going also?" The colonel explained that I had been chosen from the Cheltenham area to attend a tea at Buckingham Palace for junior officers. No company. The colonel told me I would get orders and an invitation shortly.
Sure enough, in a few days here were my orders and my invitation to the tea party. My thoughts, of course, were Why me? Then How me? Little ole boy grew up six blocks from Third Street, went to school in Catfish Town and not that good of a student, and here I am fixing to go to a party with England's finest.
It turned out to be on a weekend, so I went to London on Saturday and reported to the billeting office for a place to spend the night. When I told them my name they told me they knew who I was and why I was in London. The billeting officer approached me and said, "Capt. Mayhall, we have a room for you in the Cumberland Hotel, and would you like to go to the show tonight?" Well, it turned out that Irving Berlin (the one and only) was in London for the premiere of the great wartime show that he wrote and directed, This is the Army. I still hear the music in my head.
The only seats they could put me in were in the row that they saved for the press, and that turned out to be the first and second rows down front. I was nearly on stage. It was wonderful; it meant so much. Needless to say, I enjoyed it.
Sunday morning, November 24, 1943, came around soon enough and passed fast enough. It was a period of polishing boots and buttons, getting ties and shirts looking the best possible. If you are going to the palace you have to look your best, even when you know nobody is going to give you a second look. I don't remember how I got from the hotel to Buckingham, but at 3:15 p.m. I was suddenly there and someone was saying, "Move to the Green Room."
There stood Mrs. Mayhall's youngest son in the Green Room of Buckingham Palace. All around stood many young officers like myself, trying to maintain an even countenance, trying not to become a little giddy, trying to drink in the splendor. This was storybook land and there we were. If there was anyone there that I knew I didn't find them in the Green Room. We were all standing around looking up and down and wondering what's next.
Double doors entering the Rose Room were opened by a uniformed servant. We were sort of informally lined up and the presentations started. Just inside of the Rose Room stood two more uniformed servants; the first was one of the assistants to the Master of the House. The second uniformed person was the most important servant in the palace, the mighty, high-ranking Master of the House. As we entered the Rose Room in single file, we handed our invitations to the first servant and he handed them to the Master of the House, who called out our names for all to hear.
After the Master of the House stood the King, who shook hands with each of us. Next the Queen stood and greeted us. Then Queen Elizabeth II stood and greeted each of us. She was only a little girl, maybe 10-11 years old. Finally we met the youngest of the princesses, who later married the British photographer, then later separated.
We then moved into a great hall where there were tables laden with snacks. Anything that you could think of (except shrimp and crawfish!) was there to be tasted. The King's scotch was excellent; considering that I was no great judge, it went down very well.
The King and Queen and the two little princesses came into the great hall and mingled with us freely. They had come into the hall to be seen and to be talked to by all of these young Americans. So, I acted like a young American and talked to them all. I think I asked them if they liked the Americans running all over hill and dale. The King told me that they had been needing some help and were glad we were here.
My talking to all of the royalty consisted of one-line questions and one-line answers. I knew that I would never have this opportunity again, so I made myself ask each one of them something. I went doodling and sampling around the tables snacking and doing a little bit of glass tipping and meeting some of the other guests.
This was before the invasion, so not too many people were wearing ribbons that are usually earned in ground force action.
I glanced up from a cracker and cheese dish and there was a young officer that was wearing a Silver Star. I said to him that I had always wanted to shake the hand of a guy that was wearing the Silver Star. We shook hands and I presented my name and he mumbled a name that I did not catch. My eyes drifted down to his name tag, and it jumped out at me: Roosevelt.
In summation, I felt that I had a weekend that would be hard to top. After seeing This is the Army from the front row, I felt I had met Irving Berlin. The play left me with music that still goes round and round in my head. I met the King of England and Queen, now Queen Mother; I met the two little princesses, one of whom is now Queen Elizabeth II of England and mother to Prince Charles, and the other of whom is Princess Margaret, still the little sister.
To cap this off, the guy with the Silver Star was one of President Roosevelt's sons. To answer your question, "How did you know that Capt. Roosevelt was the president's son," well, it wasn't news that Capt. Mayhall attended the party, but it was news to the Stars and Stripes that Capt. Roosevelt, the president's son, attended. I read in Stars and Stripes that he was there.
I still have the invitation.
Did you like this story? You can purchase the book, Cranking Up a Fine War, at Amazon.com.
July 25, 1996
few years ago I came across a book that was written by Everette Alvarez Jr. and Anthony S. Pitch and called Chained Eagle. This book was written about the first American airman who was captured by the Viet Cong during our ten years of struggle to keep from being run out of Vietnam, which we finally were.
This story was about a prisoner who was held in what was called Hanoi Hilton for eight years, and the torture that he was exposed to along with his comrades that were captured and brought in. They were kept separated and learned to talk to each other by tapping on the walls. For a long time, this was the only way the prisoners could keep up their morale. Some tried to escape but were usually captured and brought back.
This book was my only introduction and knowledge of what was happening to some of the American men who had been captured during the Vietnam War. I had not thought about it in a long time until yesterday.
Marie [Mayhall, his wife] and I had to go see Dr. Oliver [an ophthalmologist in Baton Rouge, La.], and as we got out of the car a man got out of his nearby. Because he saw my license plate with the "retired Army" logo on it, he spoke and called my attention to the fact he was retired also. He said he had 26 years, and I told him I had about 37 years all told. He was walking with a cane and told me that he was having a problem with arthritis. Because I was retired military he didn't seem to want to end the conversation at that point. He told me he had retired as a master sergeant flight engineer from the Air Force.
We went to the desk, and he went into the optical department. When he came out, we were waiting to see the doctor. He approached us, and we started talking again. His name was Williams. He asked if I had been to Vietnam, and of course I told him I was very happy not to have had anything to do with that one.
He wanted to tell a story, and as it unfolded I hoped we wouldn't be called to see the doctor.
He began by saying that he had been a flight engineer during Vietnam on a C-141, which is a big carrier plane that the Air Force uses. He said that the crew had been practicing short landing at one of the bases in the West. He said after three or four days of this they full fueled and took off going toward the war zone. They landed in Hawaii and all kind of rushing around was going on as if they were real important. They landed again in the Philippines, and again there was excitement and there were a lot of real pretty nurses about. He said he had been in the California Hospital a number of times, but I believe he never saw any real pretty nurses like the ones on this plane.
There was much excitement, with these pretty nurses getting on board and some pretty high-ranking officers, too. Still, they received no information as to where they were going or what they were about to do.
They took off again and headed for North Vietnam. When they crossed the border, the pilot told his crew that they were headed for Hanoi. They flew in and were directed to the field where they were to land. The sergeant said, "Sure enough, it was a short runway and a narrow runway." He added that it was good they had practiced for that landing. They rolled down to the end of the runway and were directed to stop at a certain place. They eased up to the spot at a certain time. "A time had been specified," the sergeant said.
He got out of the C-141 and watched as a tractor pulled what looked like small boxcars to the back of a tent. Then he knew for sure they were there to get the prisoners from the Hanoi Hilton. He said one of the prisoners was a colonel when he was shot down and had been promoted to a one-star general. Each officer prisoner was escorted from the tent to the plane by an officer of equal rank. Their faces were grim and worn, their bodies were thin, and they were dressed in grey clothes that resembled pajamas -- the prison clothes. They were quiet, but they tried to stand and walk erect. The nurses helped them as much as possible. The sergeant said he saluted each one as they approached to board the plane. He saw their sad, hurt, weak eyes.
They took off with a very somber, quiet load of humanity. About forty miles from takeoff, the pilot announced over the intercom, "We are out of North Vietnam." The sergeant said all hell broke loose. The shouting, laughing, crying, smiling and talking took over. The prisoners knew then they had not been forgotten and were on the way home.
They flew back into the Philippines. On the way, stories were swapped, but mostly the former prisoners wanted to know what was happening to the war, who won, what was happening back in the States. What news from their families? Each one of the officer escorts had been supplied with some information for the P.O.W. he was escorting.
The sergeant said they stopped in the Philippines to be examined in the hospital and checked for the years and months of privation in the Hanoi Hilton. To say nothing of the fact they needed to be reintroduced to good food. Much care had to be taken with food because the usual rich American food could make them all sick.
After medical inspection in the Philippines, the planeload of P.O.W.s, escorts and nurses took off for Hawaii. It seemed one former prisoner's wife was there and had to be picked up.
Somewhere over the Pacific, between Hawaii and California, it was announced that they had received orders to fly to Washington. As the C-141 approached San Francisco at 41,000 feet, the P.O.W.s asked the pilot to get permission to go to 10,000 feet so they could see the Golden Gate Bridge. Permission was granted, but they were told that all of San Francisco and the bridge were clouded over, and they couldn't see the bridge. Master Sergeant Williams was nearly breaking up with emotion when he told me this, because he said it was like an act of God. They came down to 10,000 feet, and as they approached the Golden Gate, a gigantic hole opened, the clouds cleared, and all of the P.O.W.s were able to see this beautiful sight they had been afraid they would never see again during their stay at the Hanoi Hilton.
It wasn't hard to understand the emotions that all of these people and the P.O.W.s were going through, because of the tears and crying of the troops on the Ile de France as we saw the Statue of Liberty coming home from Europe in 1945.
This flight engineer said it wasn't long before they had orders to continue the homeward flight to Washington, D.C. He said it was necessary to land and refuel because the D.C. airport was so busy that sometimes the planes were stacked up and not allowed to land until their turn came up. It was different this time. All planes in the time zone coming into Washington were cleared and sent to other airports, and the big beautiful C-141, the P.O.W. plane, landed straight in. It rolled in and was directed to a specific spot. As they came to a stop, Sgt. Williams opened a door and came out in time to see long black cars, ambulances, escort troops and a crew that started unrolling a long red carpet.
An honor guard was marching into place, and a band was playing American music that was common to the Army, Navy and Air Force. Sgt. Williams said he thought he knew who was going to get out of one of those black cars. But at this time Marie and I were hearing "Mr. and Mrs. Mayhall, the doctor will see you now." I have tried to find Sgt. Williams, but have had no luck.
Did you like this story? You can purchase the book, Cranking Up a Fine War, at Amazon.com.
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