There are some things Ralph Arnold hasn’t thought about in a long time.
There are details around the crossing of the Rapido River, near Monte Cassino, Italy, on Jan. 20, 1944, regarded later as one of the top fiascos of World War II, when several of Arnold’s companions died.
There were the endless months sleeping outdoors, the landings at Salerno Beach in Italy and on the southern shores for France. There were the battles and deaths, passage through bombed-out towns and the liberation of war prisoners.
But to hear about it this week from Arnold, 93, it could almost be mistaken for a string of amusing events and adventures.
Sunday, he is slated to fly from Billings to Washington, D.C., on an Honor Flight with dozens of other World War II veterans for a whirlwind tour where he may have a chance to compare tales with his contemporaries.
At his apartment in the Touchmark retirement community, the first memento Arnold shows from his service is a faded ticket stub, some seven decades old, from the Folies Bergére, the famed racy cabaret in Paris. He was doing “recon,” he jokes.
Many of the tribulations of war lead Arnold only to similar punchlines.
Time in a military hospital, with shrapnel in his back? “Two weeks of clean sheets and hot food. Who can complain?”
Receiving a Bronze Star? “I think they felt sorry for me.”
Living conditions out in the field? “You ever try to wash your underwear in a steel helmet?”
Arnold, an ROTC cadet from Wisconsin, reported for duty in June 1942 and eventually joined the 36th Division of the Texas National Guard, leaving the Army in December 1945.
He returned to Wisconsin, became a small-town lawyer and was running for district attorney when he was called back into service in 1950. He later worked in the insurance business until his retirement in 1985.
One child, Jim, moved to Helena and is married to Dr. Erin Keefe; Arnold and his wife, Helen, moved into the Touchmark in 2009. His daughter, Barbara, and her husband, Paul Turley, have had a home n Helena for about 15 years.
In the Touchmark, with commanding views of the Helena Valley, Arnold showed other relics from the war.
Among the top prizes: a German handgun, looking to be in great condition (and safely housed with other family members).
“When the war ended there were an awful lot of German weapons,” he said. “I don’t remember exactly how I got that.”
He has a pair of bulky and powerful Germen binoculars. Arnold recalls entering an optics factory or warehouse, where soldiers “liberated” some of the items.
He uses the word “liberated” to describe a lot of items picked up during the war. One time, he liberated a Jeep, and along with a young female Red Cross worker, toured some of the Italian countryside.
“Once in a while, a GI would find one,” he said. “There was no real ownership.”
Sailors from the Navy would sometimes liberate Jeeps from the Army and paint blue over the green, and even load them onto ships for use in the next port.
He describes a chaplain assigned to his company, a Jesuit, who he now calls the “Padre.”
One time in a bunker in Germany, artillery coming in, one of the men had half a bottle of whiskey. The Padre wanted to bless the bunker, and took a shot of whiskey to do so, then insisted on blessing the other three corners.
“So by the time he got done he had four big slurps. But he was good morale builder. A Jesuit from Chicago,” Arnold said. “I often wondered what happened when he came back. You lose contact with these people, you know. And it’s kind of sad in a way.”
He still has some harsh words for the people who ordered the crossing of the Rapido River — an action bad enough to merit Congressional hearings afterward. Arnold’s commander and several comrades died in that operation. He recalls swimming in the freezing river in full gear, hauling the wounded away on pieces of broken boat.
The liberation of Rome (on June 4, 1944, two days before V-Day) was a better time to be an American soldier.
“Everybody was out in front of their houses, giving us wine and cheering us on,” he said.
One company commander even took his men into the middle of town and put them all up in a hotel, he said.
Then there’s the matter of the mysterious roll of film that Arnold says he took from a German soldier.
He says he got it developed after the war, and it revealed a chilling image of a severely emaciated prisoner crouched just above an apparent mass grave. A German soldier stands about to shoot the prisoner in the head with a handgun as a crowd of other soldiers casually looks on.
Somehow, that photo ended up in the Chicago Tribune in the early 1960s and later in the Holocaust Memorial museum in Washington. Arnold isn’t sure how all that happened.
Arnold spent a few weeks near the end of the war in Itter Castle, in Austria, where the Nazis had kept prisoners, including French.
“My most cherished recollection was I slept in the bed that (French Gen. Charles) de Gaulle’s sister had been using,” he said. “And I didn’t change the sheets.”
It was in the medieval castle where his company heard, over military radio that the Germans had surrendered. There was no great celebration.
“Everyone wanted to go home right away, but we couldn’t,” he said. There was still the processing of the various prisoners of war held by the Germans, he said.
It’s one of many chapters in his three-plus years of war that Arnold doesn’t seem to want to explore in detail. Reminded that young people might not be aware of the hardship, the danger and the trauma, endured by Arnold’s generation in the war, he says he hopes they will never have to learn.
“I never thought that much about it, really, till my retirement,” he said. “I have tried to forget a lot of stuff.”