“The Captain of the Month of May”: A Kiplingesque

Edward Joseph Nilges 1915-1945. KIA April 6 1945. Captain, United States Army, 442nd Regimental Combat Team (“Go For Broke”, “Nisei”). Silver Star, Purple Heart.

Li quens Rollant se jut desuz un pin (The Count Roland lies beneath a Pine) – Chanson de Roland

In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid… – Gilbert Chesterton, Lepanto

The captain of the month of May
Was light of heart and this he did say:
I shall die in April that you shall live in May.

The waters were bitter the waters were cold
The Germans entrenched in the hills,
But their Captain was busy and their Captain was bold
He made great their souls and made firm their wills.

A straight up the mountain assault,
The hardest trick in the book
Under German fire through the tangled wire
The blood flowed down to the brook.

He was the tallest man in the unit by far
A tall German-American
The men were Nisei, born in America
Their Moms and their Dads in the can.

Hyphenated and mistrusted were they not men
Wanting to prove they were loyal
So they answered the call at the time, when
They were called to the trial.

It was a sideshow in terms of the war
Vienna had fallen to the Russians so grim:
Back home it was all a bit of a bore
But that meant nothing to them.

The Captain of the Month of May
Was seen with a letter, what did it say?
It said Dear John, that’s all I know
But he smiled at him, and said, hi Joe.

He trained them hard and he trained them well
By the book like a German:
He said, “we’re going in to hell”
“Keep it wired together, you men.”

“There’s something called the angle of fire
And it means your life
Know where it is in the sickening gyre
If you want to go home to your kids and your wife.”

They took the mountain Folgorito
And Lombardy was free:
The living saw the river, the living saw the Po
Flowing free down to the sunlit sea.

And in May the Russians took the Tiergarten,
The Russians took the zoo,
And free men all were heartened
When Hitler his brains out, blew.

And in Lombardy, Mussolini
Knew the jig was up
And was hanged with La Petacci
On death they both did sup.

But he was Don Juan of Austria,
He was the County de Roland,
He was a son of America
And for freedom, he did stand.

But we teach no more Lepanto
Nor the Chanson of Roland
But guys still to Hell must go
And there they must make a stand.

For the right or for the wrong
To the widow it makes no difference
She weeps so sore in the night that’s long
And is pensioned on your sufferance.

Nothing’s changed except the poet’s song
In rhyme and metre that’s old hat
Because when your life is hard and long
You must keep time and that…is that

Some mens’ lives are shortened
By the Maxim and the gun
Others are unduly lengthened
In the setting of the sun.

But those who die young do not hate us
And they have no envy, no, not any
They know that sorrow is a magic bus
The pain is fixed as an Epiphany.

Instead they haunt us at the rising sun
Or when the sun goes down:
They are smiling and forever young
In blue, or grey, or olive, or in brown.

The captain of the month of May
Was light of heart and this he did say:
I shall die in April that you shall live in May!

Edward G. Nilges 22 Dec 2011.


2 Responses to ““The Captain of the Month of May”: A Kiplingesque”

  1. spinoza1111 Says:

    Wow, a single phrase can generate a poem. I was running on a beautiful day two days before Christmas and thinking of last May when I ran out of money…but had to get to work on the other end of the territory in Tuen Mun anyway. It was my “merrie month of May”.

    I have a theory that there’s a fixed amount of pain in everyone’s life that is sometimes dealt out all at once at places like the Citadel in Hue or Folgorito to guys in the military, but for others is like one of those “drips” they plug you into in the hospital. George MacDonald Fraser served in a brutal 19th century style war under Slim in Burma and said quite simply that the thought of his kids undergoing what he had to was not on…and that civilian life was just as full of horse manure and pain as military.

    I have no way of knowing whether this theory is correct. But I would counterpose it to Fascism which originated in the Male Fantasy (cf. Theweleit) that service with your Band of Brothers is incommunicable and makes you special and an authority over those who did not serve.

    The “Captain of the Month of May” is my attempt to reconcile two principles, of life and death, in a single Christ-like figure, my uncle.

    It is also based on the Portuguese film about the 1974 coup in Lisbon which ended the absurd panto of the Portuguese empire.

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