November 07, 2007
Remembering Those Who Served: Former Mayor's Wartime Reflections
Former Westhampton Beach Village Mayor Arma E. "Ham" Andon, 89, has war stories.
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Although U.S. Army Captain Andon's company, the 328th Infantry regiment, as part of the 26th infantry division, saw some of the most fierce warfare in 1945, including the legendary Battle of the Bulge, and although he has received Purple Heart awards and presidential citations for his valor, there was another battle waged by Andon against an insidious enemy — racism — that he worked to conquer during his wartime days.
Originally, Andon had hoped to serve in the United States Navy but was told he was too heavy. After enlisting in the Army, he headed to Baltimore for basic training and from there, went to officer's school, where he became an acting platoon leader.
Right before graduation, Andon received word that his father was dying. He made up his mind to graduate and still made it home in time for his father to learn that he had graduated. "He was quite proud."
Later, Andon was assigned to Aston, Alabama, where he was assigned to black troops. "I learned an awful lot while I was with a D company," he said. "I realized I had always been for the minority." Growing up under his mother's tutelage, Andon learned compassion. While in Alabama, Andon rose through the ranks to company commander of the D company, despite the fact that there were two first lieutenants above him in rank. Andon was a white man working with black troops. "I learned a lot from them, and them from me."
With Andon at the helm, his unit won a plethora of trophies and prizes. Soon, he was sent on special assignment to teach infantry training. But, despite the accolades, Andon took the heat from those who questioned his support of his black troops and hurled anti-Semitic slurs at him, despite the fact that he wasn't Jewish.
During one hike, he refused to let his men "fall out" despite a battalion of white troops who were lying on the side of the road and instead, marched his men double time back to headquarters. "No sooner had we gotten there when a jeep comes up and I was told that the general wanted to see me right away." When he got to the general's office, the colonel of the battalion he'd encounter was waiting. "Here he is," said the captain. "That [racial expletive] son of a bitch."
The experience resonated with Andon. Years later he became one of the first members of the Anti-Bias Task Force in Southampton Town.
During qualifications for rifle shooting, one of Andon's men was honored in the newspaper for stellar shooting skills. "In the newspaper, my picture was next to his. He looked white, and I looked black that summer. I was so proud of that. He shot 298 out of 300. So we won it again!"
Andon's military experiences were fraught with danger. He was seriously wounded on Hocker's Hill in Germany. "When I did get hit, the commanding general said, 'Andon, I never thought they'd get you.' I was the longest officer in continual combat at that time.'"
When he was hovering close to death, he was told that his transfer to military government has been approved.
There are some memories still painful to recall. His acting battalion commander died right next to him in a foxhole. "I had his guts in my hand, that's how bad it was."
Despite enduring one of the coldest winters in his life and injury, Andon never thought of personal pain or discomfort. "When you're in command, you're responsible. The last thing you think about is yourself. My role was to see that the job got done, and I would never ask my men to do something that I wouldn't do. I was always in the front lines, even though I didn't have to be."
Andon, who is in the midst of taping his stories for posterity, said his Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5350 in Quogue is looking forward to an October reunion.
His experiences in dealing with wartime racism have left him with a message for today's society: "The best thing that could happen to this country is that every high school graduate should give at least one year to their country. Not just in service — but not in their own communities." Traveling to other places helps break down cultural, social and economic barriers, he believes. "We had a black tank outfit assigned to us. We had Muslims, Jews — you name the religion, we had them. We all got along. Maybe we didn't love each other but we worked together. People weren't born to hate."