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My Mother was an American Soldier, Too
Last uploaded : Monday 10th May 2004 at 01:51
Contributed by : Carol Gould



As the sixtieth anniversary of D-Day approaches, and our minds travel back to that day in which thousands of courageous Allied troops died on the beaches of Normandy, I am thinking about my late mother, Corporal Katherine Karash, WAC.

This week the images of Lynndie England, the 21-year-old American servicewoman posing near naked Iraqis in Abu Ghraib jail have been plastered across the front pages and television screens of every nation in the world. Female columnists and television pundits have been quick to self-flagellate about the perverse behaviour of women once in uniform. This is a short-sighted, knee-jerk response to an aberrant event that has invoked shame and disbelief in the hearts of millions of male and female American veterans. At the same time it diminishes the courage, blood, sweat and tears of the Coalition Forces now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

My late mother, the abovementioned Cpl Karash, served with pride in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. Like thousands of other young women of her generation, she gave up sodas and movies and dates in a mainland USA unaffected by a Blitz or concentration camps to enlist. She had read of the horrors Great Britain and Europe were suffering and could no longer sit by whilst Coventry and London smouldered. These girl GIs endured boot camp and gruelling conditions unlike anything one might have experienced back home.

Her sister, my Aunt Betty (Elisabeth Karash) also served and was sent to Japan, where she remained with the Army of Occupation until 1950. Both women later told me their wartime years were the most moving and exciting of their lives.

I am writing about this because the image of the American abroad has never been so appalling as it has become this week after the publication in 'The New Yorker' and the broadcast on CBS'Sixty Minutes II' of the photographs of humiliation and torment in the Iraqi jail. The image of the woman soldier has been tarnished by this blot on American history, and the shame of it all inspired me to write this remembrance of my mother and her generation.

My mother started something called 'the Music Room' at Camp Pickett, Virginia, where GIs could have a quiet moment listening to the 33s and 78s she had brought from home. Her late father, my grandpa Charles, who like my paternal garndfather died long before I was born, had accumulated a vast collection of classical music and opera recordings. (Family legend has it that her father had died suddenly in 1936 after reading a series of desperate reports about the beginnings of Nazi roundups of Jews in Europe. He literally read a note and clipping from a relative in Poland, told my grandma he needed to lie down, and his heart stopped there and then.)

The Music Room at Camp Pickett became a meeting place for soldiers about to leave for Britain. In the lead-up to June 6th, 1944 my mother began receiving parcels from those same GIs in Britain who knew they would not survive. In the parcels were poignant items like tins of tuna and soap to be sent back to their needy parents in the hills of Arkansas or Pennsylvania, with notes attached, 'Karash, I won't be needing this now..'

My mother wrote a winning entry to a national competition amongst the armed forces entitled 'What Music Means to Me,' the concept of which had been suggested by President Roosevelt. It is difficult to describe to politically cynical youth of today what 'FDR' meant to the Greatest Generation, but he was an idol to all. When my mother's essay received commendation from the White House it was for her a momentous moment.

Camp Pickett was a holding facility for thousands of POWs. One German POW went out of his way to be detailed to touch up the paint on the Music Room in order to listen to the opera and classical music Cpl Karash had on offer. My mother said she had never seen a decorator work so slowly. She had an associate in the facility who was African American; his favourite line when asking the German POW to clean the room was ,'So who's the Master race now??'

In the late 1930s my mother had been a Case Worker with the Department of Public Assistance in Philadephia and visited the homes of African American families living in utter deprivation and despair. She said the conditions under which white landlords allowed these families to live were beneath the sub-human level. She and her African-American social worker colleague Harry Jackson were very close and I truly believe to this day that he was the love of her life. Both were appalled at the scenes they witnessed in an otherwise magnificent northern city, the City of Brotherly Love and home of Ben Franklin.

Mom detested the segregation of the races during the War. She was 'insubordinate' when vociferously protesting to her superior officers across bases in America the use by one or two low-ranked personnel of the word 'waccoons' to describe African American GIs. She was generally in a permanent state of agitation about the segregation of the regiments. (Later as an adolescent I can recall her agitation about Bull Connor and the fire hoses of the Southern civil rights crisis.)

She had vivid memories of one aspect of POW camp life that resonates in the context of the present crisis at the Pentagon: the American servicemen and women were gracious to each other and respectful of the prisoners. Army lawyers, or Judge Advocates, are a requirement on POW facilities and at Camp Pickett correct procedure was meticulously undertaken.

When I worked for Anglia Television the locals recounted the legend of a horrifying incident in Norfolk during the War involving a black GI lynched by white soldiers. This kind of atrocity was the exception, not the rule in the American services. Many have said that Iraq is one of the worst theatres of war our forces have ever had to endure; without doubt the alien world of Babylon, the absence of a relaxing place for the forbidden beer in a Muslim country and the tinderbox of the surrounding Middle East could drive any young serviceperson to the edge.

When my mother was given leave she would go home to Philadelphia to see my widowed grandmother, to be greeted with chicken soup, gefilte fish and cholent. Grandma was amazed that she had allowed a German POW to go anywhere near her. Kay remarked with some irony that he was the only one in the camp who appreciated the difference between a Klemperer and a Koussevitzky recording of the same symphony; most American GIs wanted to listen to boogie woogie. Needless to say her deep affections were with the GIs, whatever their taste in music.

German and Italian POWs were well-treated, according to my mother. This week she would be dumbstruck and is likely revolving in her grave. In my book, ?SPITFIRE GIRLS? I wrote about the 180 women pilots of Air Transport Auxiliary in World War II. There were many more like them in Britain, and scores in America like my mother and my aunt. The ugly scenes depicted in the Abu Ghraib compilation represent a gaping trough in American military history.

Camp Pickett is now Fort Pickett. The ghosts of my mother and of those D-Day veterans who never saw age 20 hover over those grounds. On June 6th 2004 we in Britain and Europe share with the Americans and other allied nations the memory of that perilous day sixty years ago when the future of civilisation hung in the balance. We must not let the sordid, squalid world of Abu Ghraib cloud the legacy of the men of the Normandy landings. Nor should this nightmare besmirch the sacrifice of the 700-plus Americans and Coalition forces and civilians who have died in Iraq this past year.

As my late grandfather would have said, 'May their memory endure for a blessing.'

Carol Gould was Script Editor of 'Tales of the Unexpected' and of the Eric Ambler and PD James thrillers at ITV for many years. Her book, 'SPITFIRE GIRLS,' about the British and American women transport pilots of WWII, was published in the UK in 1998. She is a Life Member/Supporter of the Disabled American Veterans' Auxiliary.

A bit of background on Camp Pickett from the Fort Pickett 2004 website:

'By the end of 1942, more than 1,400 buildings were completed and in use across the post, including approximately 1,000 enlisted barracks and 70 officers' quarters. Twelve chapels, the post hospital complex (later greatly expanded) and six firehouses were built, along with warehouses, headquarters and administrative buildings. To assure an adequate water supply for the post and its potential 60,000-soldier population, the Army built and maintained its own water pumping, filtration and sewage treatment plants. In the 1980s the Army transferred control and operation of these facilities to the town of Blackstone.

'For recreation, there were four movie theaters (two more were added later), a field house with a gym, several enlisted clubs, a main post exchange and several PXs. By war's end, more than 300 additional buildings were constructed, including female barracks and facilities for two prisoner-of-war camps. When the German and Italian armies were defeated in North Africa in mid-1943, more than 250,000 enemy soldiers were captured. Many of these POWs were brought to the United States to perform farm work and other non-war-related jobs as allowed by the Geneva Convention. A total of approximately 6,000 German prisoners were sent to Camp Pickett beginning in January 1944. The Army built two main camps and nine smaller satellite camps in the nearby counties to house the Germans. The main compounds had a perimeter of barbed wire surrounding the barracks and other buildings. The perimeter of Camp Number I still stands on Pickett...'

To read more about Fort Pickett go to:




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