Who Checks the UK Newspaper Obituaries?

Charles Durning memorial day 20088 (Wilkipedia)

 The Obituaries columns sometimes disclose fascinating facts about someone’s past life. In particular when you discover that a celebrity had a heroic military history. But over Christmas the UK Obituary writers seem to have been watching too many old movies judging by what was written about Charles Durning the prolific American character actor who died on Christmas eve 2012 and was a WW2 veteran.

For much of his career he said little about his military service, but in recent years he appeared with and supported US WW2 Veterans. Although Durning himself didn’t say much about his experiences, contradictory stories about his service abound. For example, Durning himself spoke publicly about landing on Omaha Beach from a landing craft on D Day, Burt Reynolds, in episode “S03E09” of the television chat show Dinner for Five, revealed that on D Day Durning was in a group of gliders who overshot their landing zone and that he had to fight alone all the way back to the beach.

The US press, with a strong ethos of fact checking seem to have been quite circumspect about the details of his war service, beyond a reference to D Day. Not so the obituary pages in the UK broadsheets.

  • On 26th December 2012 the printed edition of The Times published an obituary which reported that Charles Durning was a decorated war hero who landed with the 1st Infantry Division on Omaha Beach, in the first wave and survived the Malmedy Massacre in the Ardennes. The following day it published a longer version which expanded the story of his survival of a massacre in the Ardennes which seemed to include details from the fictional film, The Battle of the Bulge rather than those of the massacres investigated at Malmedy, Ligneuville, Honsfeld, Bullingen, Stavelot La Gleize, or Wereth etc
  • On the 30th December, the Daily Telegraph posted an obituary on-line which was vaguer about the Ardennes massacre, but said that he was in the 386th AAA (AW) Battalion and landed on D Day with the 1st Infantry Division. By the 8th January 2013 The Daily Telegraph’s website had been amended to read “Drafted into the US Army in 1944, he served with the 386th Anti-aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion on D-Day and was the only member of his Army unit to survive when he went ashore at Omaha Beach in the Normandy landings. He killed several Germans and was wounded in the leg by an enemy mine. After recuperating in Britain, Durning returned to active service in December 1944, only to be bayoneted by a young German soldier whom he killed with a rock. Captured in the Battle of the Bulge, the German counter-offensive through the Ardennes forest in Belgium, he survived a massacre of prisoners-of-war. He was awarded the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.” The Telegraph is usually reliable, but this doesn’t fit with the history. Charles Durning can’t both be in the 386th on D Day and losing most of his comrades landing on Omaha Beach, because that unit didn’t land on D Day, a fact easily established.  By 12 January it merely refers to Durning’s “harrowing WW2 service”
  • The Guardian’s Online obituary says that “Charles joined the army aged 17 and took part in the D-day landing aged 21. In a Memorial Day speech in 2007, he recalled: “I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third man got killed.” Shot in the hip shortly afterwards, he spent months in hospital, then fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He received the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.”
  • The Independent went even further. “as an Army infantryman he was one of the first to land on the Normandy beaches on D-Day in 1944. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and, in hand-to-hand combat, killed a German soldier with a rock. He was bayoneted eight times. At Omaha Beach on D-Day, he said in one of his Memorial Day appearances in Washington, “I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third men got killed.”…He was among more than 100 US soldiers captured near Malmedy in Belgium. German troops opened fire, killing more than 80. Durning managed to escape but returned to help identify the victims. He was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal and three Purple Hearts. He also helped liberate Buchenwald. It took years for him to recover. “It’s your mind that’s hard to heal,” he said. “There are many horrifying secrets in the depths of our souls that we don’t want anyone to know about.”

What were the sources that these newspapers used? How did they manage to write such conflicting stories? Anyone who has tried to check the veracity of these war stories quickly discovers that there isn’t anything much that corroborates them.  The stories of Charles Durning’s war service don’t add up, because most of these were some of the tall tales that have surrounded old soldiers since Centurion was a rank not a tank and Pontius Pilot was only a navigator. Because Charles Durning was a Hollywood character, his old soldier’s stories had wider currency than most, but that doesn’t make them a proper part of his obituary.

The Durning family merely states that he was a war hero and a beloved family member. I am sorry for their loss, even at the end of what seems to have been a long and full life. Well written obituaries can dignify a life. However, I am not sure how the UK Press have added anything dignified to the memory of this man’s military service.   Or have they all outsourced their obituary columns to lazy freelancers?

Be Proud to be a Pongo!

Pongos in camp – (image from 95 Rifles reenactment website)

For as long as anyone can remember, British soldiers have been traditionally nicknamed “pongos”. If you ask a sailor, marine or airman where the nickname comes from, they might tell a lame tale: “soldiers are in the dirt and so they are where the pong goes”.

But that is not a very convincing explanation. It sounds a little contrived, as a secondary explanation for a term after the original understanding has been lost.

The answer could lie in the Napoleonic wars and a foreign land. One legacy from the British Army’s overseas campaigns has been the fragments of foreign language which have been adopted as slang. For example, a key French phrases to be mastered by a British soldier of the Great War  was to ask for an alcoholic drink.  “Vin blanc” as mangled by a Tommy led to “plonk” entering the English language as a slang for for cheap white wine.

During the Napoleonic wars the British Army was based in Portugal from 1807-1814. The Portuguese word for bread is written “pão”, and pronounced “pong”. We know that the Peninsular War soldiers used the term “pong” as there is a letter from a soldier complaining about the lack of “pong”. One of the distinctive differences in service between the sailors and soldiers of the time is that sailors lived on biscuit while, in the peninsular at least, the army lived on bread. So a sailor meeting Wellington’s Peninsular soldiers, and hearing them complain about the quality or quantity of “pong” might reasonably refer to soldiers as pong-goes – bread eaters.

So maybe, when the jolly jacks and the crabs call soldiers  “Pongos” its not an insult. Its a reminder of the British Army’s traditions and the men who beat old Boney’s men over the hills and far away, in Flanders Portugal and Spain..

..and the next puzzle is which Indian term for a snack gave rise to the term “Egg banjo” for a fried egg sandwich.