In the summer of 1951, I reported to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, as an Army private. On my first day there, "We're going to have a GI party tonight," the sergeant told us. "We need volunteers." A party the first night! I raised my hand, and a couple of other dummies did too. The "party" was cleaning the latrines "Man, you've got to be stupid," a black soldier said to me. He knew what a GI party was. I did a good job on the latrines, but I never volunteered again for a "party."
We didn't earn much money, $70 a month, but a few times we went into town with our company commander. One night several of us were in a bar in civilian clothes. The waitress said some thing rude to one of our officers, so I reached over with a bottle and hit her in the back of the head so hard that she collapsed. The lieutenant got us out of there fast and the next day called us into his office, where he had us rehearse a story. Luckily, nothing came of it.
Another time we were in town, with only enough money for a sandwich and cup of coffee. I bought a package of Confederate money, then pulled a $20 bill from the stack. "I'm going to cash this," I told my buddies and walked to a theater. "Can you break a $20 bill?" I asked the ticket seller. "No, that's Confederate money," she said. "Didn't you hear," I answered, "yesterday the government acknowledged that all Confederate money is redeemable for U.S. currency. What do I have to do, get permission from your manager?" "Well, yes, he's over there." "OK," I said, "if he gives the nod, you'll have to give me the money." I walked up to the guy, "Sir, we don't want any tickets, but could she break a $20 bill?" He nodded to her. "Thank you, sir," I said, and she gave me a ten, a five, and five ones for the Confederate $20 bill.
We ran to the corner and took a taxicab back to Camp Breckinridge. The next day's newspaper had headlines "Con Man Takes Theater for $20" and described the whole story. An orderly came up to me, "Lebamoff, Lt. Colson wants you right away." I walked in, "Private Lebamoff reporting, sir." "Lebamoff, tell me something." He held the paper and asked, "Is this you?" "Yes, sir," and he started laughing. "I knew only you could have done that." We became good friends, and he was a good company commander.
One day we were told that the colonel was coming for a white-glove inspection. "We've got to get this kitchen spic and span," Lt. Colson said, giving hell to the sergeant and everyone else. "Lieutenant, I'll volunteer for that," I said, "because growing in the grocery business, I know how to clean. I guarantee the colonel won't find fault with your kitchen." "OK, stay up all night if you have to. And none of you other guys bother him."
I was there most of the night getting the kitchen ready. High on a shelf I found a slab of bacon with maggots, and hidden in a corner was half of a ham. It seemed that someone really wanted to cause trouble for the lieutenant. I washed everything down and made the place as spotless as it could be.
The colonel inspected the kitchen and pronounced it very, very clean. Lt. Colson called me in and told me how much he appreciated my work. Then he gave me a three-day pass to visit my family in Fort Wayne, and asked me to bring back a case of paint, four gallons, for the mess hall. I didn't want to carry the paint back on the bus, so I bought an airplane ticket. Then I had a time convincing the clerk at Fort Wayne airport to let me board with the paint. "Sometimes in that high atmosphere," I was told, "the paint will blow up." "This won't," I said, not having any idea whether it would explode. I brought the paint to Lt. Colson without incident.
Once on maneuvers we walked about twelve miles, then dug our foxholes for the night. About 4 in the morning, Lt. Colson picked up my rifle and took it to his office. When I awoke I noticed it was missing. "Somebody stole my rifle," I told the sergeant. "You violated the rules. Lt. Colson wants to talk to you." I went to his office. "How the hell are you going to fight a war without a rifle? You're supposed to have it down so that you can reach it with your hand. You do the stupidest things." Then he started laughing. "Just follow directions." "OK, sir; I'm sorry."
He told me volunteers were needed for overseas assignments. "You're going to Austria," he said. "Don't ask any questions; you'll like it." I got time off and then went with about two hundred other soldiers from New Jersey on a liberty ship to Europe. We spent a couple of days in Casablanca, returning at night to the troop ship. I went into the city with Sam, a French-American soldier who had been in the French underground during World War II. "Be very careful," he warned. "The people here are like gypsies. They'll touch your hand and steal your watch or ring. When you talk to them, hold your hands together so they can't take any thing." Sure enough, young girls came up with flowers and grabbed my hand. I didn't own a watch at that time, but they managed to steal from some of the other guys.
I stopped at a food tent, where flies were everywhere. "I like a ham sandwich," I said in English. The guy cut some slices from a piece of hanging ham, put it on bread with mustard. I gave him a dollar or two, ate the sandwich, and asked for another one. As he started making it, the captain tapped on my shoulder. "Soldier, do you know where you are?" "Yes, sir, Casablanca, North Africa, sir." "Then let me ask you another question: do you know where in hell you are in this desert?" "Yes, sir, right outside of Casablanca." Then he started cussing. "You just don't get it. See those flies around the food? Do you want to get dysentery? Pay for that sandwich and get the hell out of here." I told him I wasn't thinking; I was just hungry. "You don't eat anything here. You eat on the ship." The food seller must have put up his tent a day or two earlier, knowing that soldiers were arriving in Casablanca.
Just before we returned to the ship, I went downtown with Sam, who wanted to visit the French police station. In my uniform, I saluted, "Heil Hitler." The policemen jumped up, their hands in the air. Sam laughed and hollered, "Why did you scare them? They think the Germans are still here."
At 5th Army Headquarters in Salzburg, I was assigned as an Information and Education correspondent for the USFA Sentinel newspaper. I enjoyed the work and I liked Austria. Sometimes in the mess halls I'd say to the workers, "Deutchland uber alles." They'd stare at me, scared, as I started singing, "Deutchland uber alles." Then I'd have to explain, "Only kidding."
The Austrians were good to me. I felt sorry that they lost the war, but it was better that we won. On Friday and Saturday nights we would see them in the bars, singing, drinking, dancing. But on their way home, they would cry in the streets. "Why are they crying," I asked a German friend. "George, it breaks their hearts that they lost the war. Now they're under American occupation, Russian occupation. They blame Hitler. Had he left Austria alone, they might have beaten Russia."
In Salzburg I visited some of the displaced person camps, where many asked me to bring them to America. "I don't have that power," I told them, "but I'll try to find your relatives, if you give me names and addresses." I asked if anyone there knew of Ivan Mihailov, a revolutionary IMRO leader, and someone suggested visiting the Bulgarian beer halls in Munich.
In one tavern where a group of men were playing cards, I asked in broken Bulgarian to speak to the manager. "I want to ask him if anyone here knows the whereabouts of Ivan Mihailov." The place became like a morgue; everyone stopped talking. Then a tall, bearded man started questioning me. I told him that I was from America, that my father was a member of the Macedonian Patriotic Organization, and that our family was from Aegean Macedonia. The man put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Ivan Mihailov goes by the code name Radko," meaning "loved one". He was in the mountains of Salzburg three or four years ago, but the last I heard he was in Rome, protected by the Catholic Church."
Then I sent a postcard to my father and asked for his help in finding Mihailov through the MPO. A few days later my father called from Fort Wayne, "Don't ask any questions about Mihailov and don't look for him. Many people would like to see him dead, and you shouldn't be the one to betray him."
As an American soldier, I decided to try to learn whether the MPO was pro-Communist or pro-American. The G. S. Central Intelligence Agency had offices in Salzburg, so I went there and asked to see the commanding officer. "Is there any way you can find out about the Macedonian Patriotic Organization," I asked him. "My father is a member. I'm an American soldier, America first. I've been led to believe that the organization is pro-American, but I want to know for sure."
The officer told a sergeant to cable the CIA headquarters ill Washington. "We should be able to find out in a day or two," the officer said, "and we'll let you know." The next day I received I message to meet with the commanding officer. One CIA officia was there, Colonel Donovan.
"What do you know about IMRO?" he asked. "What do you know about Mihailov?" I told him that Mihalov was my hero, "but only if he's pro-American." Colonel Donovan said, "Secretary of State John Foster Dulles is supposed to meet with him in Rome We should know more soon, but I can tell you that the MPO is pro-American." Dulles' brother Allen later called to ask what I knew about Mihailov. Allen was head of the Central Intelligence Agency and they were both aware that my father, as one of the MPC founders, had contacts with political leaders in Macedonia. I gave Dulles the information I had, but his brother's meeting with Mihailov never took place.
One of the CIA agents asked, "Have you ever been to Vienna?" When I told them no, he said they might have an assignment for me. "Are you willing to go to Vienna?" He explained that I would be excused from my Army duties in order to help American intelligence in Vienna. "You fit the criteria; your name is Lebamoff, you're of Slavic descent. We'd like for you to deliver a package in Vienna."
The next day I walked to a German tailor shop, and as I left, a Serbian man came up to me. "Mr. Lebamoff?" He told me his name and said, "I understand you're looking for Ivan Mihailov." How does he know that, I wondered. "I, too, am looking for him," he continued. "I work for a newspaper and would like to interview him." I told him that if I found Mihailov's address I'd be glad to contact him. He gave me his card and told me the name of the hotel where he was staying.
This was about three or four o'clock in the afternoon. As fast as I could walk, I returned to CIA headquarters and asked to speak with the colonel. "What's the problem," he asked. "I just came out of a shop when some man confronted me and said he too was looking for Ivan Mihailov. He must be a Serbian agent. You told me not to speak to anyone about our conversations, and I have not, so this leak came from your office." After a quick investigation, a couple of Serbian Yugoslav office workers lost their jobs.
A couple of days later one of the CIA officers asked me to travel to the CI. S. Embassy in Vienna, where I would be given instructions for delivering their package. He gave me a couple of packages of cigarettes and some candy bars. "Bring your passport, because the Russians will stop you at the border. The Embassy will keep us posted, and we'll keep you posted. Just follow the instructions, and you shouldn't have any problems, especially with your name of Lebamoff."
The next day I went to the train station, carrying the cigarettes and candy. At the border, Russian soldiers boarded the train and looked at my papers. "Lebamoff; what kind of name is that?" I said, "Bulgarish, sort of German. I don't speak that well. My father is from Aegean Macedonia. Cigarette? Take the whole package."
Arriving in Vienna, I reported to the CI. S. Embassy. A couple of Marines offered to take me to a cafe, and then we went to a few more places. By then it was ten or eleven at night. "Mr. Lebamoff," someone called, the same man who spoke to me in Salzburg. "Have you found any more information on our friend?" I said, "No, but I have your card. If I do, I'll call you."
I told the Marines that this man had been bothering me for information about a person whose name I couldn't divulge. "I think this guy knows more than he's saying. He might be planning an assassination if he gets the information he wants." At the Embassy I told the officer about the incident and said, "I came here to do this job, and then I'll return to Salzburg. But this guy might get in my way."
The officer summoned the Marines and said to me, "You're in for the night." The next day I learned that my contact for the package hadn't arrived yet. The Marines suggested going out again that evening "to see if we can find your buddy." We walked along a different street and stopped at a couple of coffee shops and taverns. Then we crossed the Danube River and headed back to the Embassy. Sure enough, we saw the man again. "Good evening," we said. In broken English he asked, "Have you found our man yet?" "No," I answered, "but I told you that if I do, I'll let you know. When are you going back to Salzburg?" He said he planned to stay in Vienna for several more days.
After he left, one of the Marines said to me, "Keep walking. We're going to take care of your buddy." I didn't look back but heard a soft "help!" They threw him into the Danube, walked away quickly, and slapped me on the back. "No more problems witll your buddy. We told him we hoped he could swim."
The next morning's newspaper had no mention of the man, I was told by the officer to go that afternoon to the Sacker Hotel, Room 221. When I knocked on the door, someone asked, "Yah?" "This is George," I answered. "I have a package for Otto." The man cranked the transom window above the door. "Please throw the package through the window." I did, and he said, "Danke. Guten nacht." Back at the Embassy, I read in the evening newspaper that a man tried to commit suicide by jumping into the Danube. He was identified as a Serbian reporter and was recuperating in a local hospital. I told the officer that I had delivered the package. "Your job is done; tomorrow morning we'll drive you to the train station." Packing my things, I returned to Salzburg.
Back at 5th Army Headquarters I was told, "George we have a problem in Vienna. That guy the Marines almost drowned was a high-ranking Serbian police officer. They'll find you in Salzburg or Vienna, so we're advising the State Department to have the Army pull you home within the next forty-eight hours. Thank you for what you did for us in Vienna."
I flew home in time for Christmas and I called the assistant 0. S. Attorney, Alex Campbell, a friend and a Democratic national committeeman. He was also a friend of Frank Pace, Secretary of the Army. "I'm home for only thirty days," I told Alex. "Do you think I could get an extra ten days or two weeks?" After talking with Secretary Pace, Alex said he would send me a letter to bring along when I returned to base, because I would be AWOL by then.
I went back in mid-January, 1953, "Private Lebamoff reporting for duty, sir." The officer began giving me hell, saying I was AWOL by two weeks. "Wait a minute, sir. I have a letter from the Secretary of the Army." I think that made him even angrier, that someone arranged to get me an extra ten days' leave.
Because I didn't have much time left on my military obligation, I couldn't be sent back to Europe. Hearing that I planned to work at my father's grocery and liquor business after my discharge, the officer sent me to the Officers Club at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on Lake Michigan just north of Chicago. After a few days' leave in Fort Wayne, I reported to Colonel Lindsay at the Officers Club. "I want you to check for problems here," he told me, "especially pilferage. I want control of the alcoholic beverages." "You picked the right guy," I told him, "because I don't drink." Colonel Wade was the camp commander, and I would take care of his table for breakfast and lunch.
At that time I owned a late 1940s yellow Buick convertible, for which I paid $895. One night three men came to the Officers Club. "We need three rooms," one told me. "Sirs," I said to them, "you'll have to check your weapons. I'll lock them in the safe and you can get them tomorrow morning." I asked why they were carrying weapons, and they said they were with the Secret Service. "Are you guys hungry," I asked. When they said yes, I made them supper in the second-floor Officers Club.
They told me that Colonel Thompson's daughter was married to Major John Eisenhower, son of President Dwight Eisenhower. "They're coming for the summer with their children, David and Barbara, and we'll be here with them."
The Eisenhowers stayed at a two-story officers' house on the base, a very nice family. "You can work the beach house," one of the agents suggested to me, "and when the Eisenhower kids come, give them hot dogs, ice cream, whatever." I asked David what he wanted to be when he grew up. I thought he'd say a general or president. "I want to be an admiral," he answered. "I want to be in the Navy." I took pictures of David and Barbara, of the family, and the Secret Service agents, but in later years I lost the army suitcase with my pictures and letters, along with my uniform. One night one of the Secret Service agents asked, "George, can we borrow your car to go into town?" I gave them the keys to my Buick. The next day Colonel Lindsay came in to the barroom. "Were you in town last night, George?" I told him no, but that I had loaned my car to the Secret Service agents. "Well," he said, "they beat the shit out of some soldiers in town. The police even got involved." The agents explained, "Some punks started smarting off to us. They thought we were civilians, that we couldn't handle ourselves, so we had to whip a few of them and karate-chop some others. We don't think the police got the license number, so you're clean."
I enjoyed my time at Fort Sheridan, nice people, nice officers. And the whiskey was cheap, no federal tax, no state tax, because it was bought directly from the distilleries.
Then in September, 1953 I returned to Fort Wayne, to resume helping
my father in his grocery and liquor store business.
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