Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Phony Commander

Fifty-eight years after its release, Bridge on the River Kwai remains one of the great war films of all time.  The late Roger Ebert placed it among his Great Movies, and rightfully so; it's David Lean at his best, with elements of sweep and spectacle that were evident in such later works as Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, but with an eye for detail as well. 

Kwai is also noteworthy for superb acting performances, most notably by Alec Guinness as Lt Col Nicholson, commander of a battalion of British soldiers interned in a Japanese POW camp.  As Nicholson descends into madness, he is convinced the only way for his men to survive is to design and build a bridge for the enemy across the River Kwai, supporting their advance into Burma.  When asked if his actions might be construed as aiding the enemy, Nicholson dismisses the idea, claiming that war prisoners must work when ordered, and erecting the bridge will serve as a testament to British efficiency for generations to come.

The counterpoint to Nicholson's cooperation is provided by an American "officer," Commander Shears, played by William Holden.  Shears is a survivor of the USS Houston, and when an escape opportunity arises, he takes it.  Despite being wounded, he makes it to Ceylon, with the help of local villagers.  His plans for a long recuperation at a British military hospital are interrupted by a British commando officer (Jack Hawkins), who knows Shears is an ordinary sailor who "borrowed" the uniform of a dead officer, hoping for better treatment in captivity.  Shears is given a choice: return with a commando team to blow up the bridge, or rejoin the U.S. Navy and face a long stint in the brig for impersonating an officer.  Choosing the former, Shears eventually helps the commandos destroy the bridge, but is killed in the scene's climactic sequence.

Six decades later, another phony commander has been exposed, but this one isn't a character in a Hollywood classic.  He's just another sailor who decided his military resume needed a little enhancement, and became a minor celebrity through stolen valor.  Meet William Goehner, an 89-year-old World War II veteran, who (among other things) claimed to be a Navy frogman and the youngest lieutenant commander on active duty.  From KGO-TV in San Francisco:

For its "Living Ship Day", the USS Hornet Museum honored 89-year-old Morgan Hill resident William Goehner as a member of the Underwater Demolition Team, or UDT, in WWII. It's the unit that predated the Navy SEALs.

"My UDT team, we destroyed 80 percent of the German submarine fleet in the Baltic Sea, lost 19 out of 30 men," said Goehner. "I cried."

Goehner told the audience that his suicide missions earned him the Navy Cross, three Silver Stars, and four Purple Hearts.

"The worst one was in the North China Sea," he said. "Got stuck down below in the ship and it burned up and I woke up four hours later on a hospital ship."

He added that he was the youngest lieutenant commander ever to serve in the Navy, "I went through the Navy there and ended up to be a lieutenant commander at 19," he said. "Hollywood heard about it and made a movie about me, Richard Widmark played me."

Goehner claimed he was a consultant on the movie The Frogmen, and that he became so famous that even a renowned general sought him out.

"I met George Patton in Sicily," Goehner said. "He heard about me and wanted to meet me, so I actually talked to George Patton. He impressed the crowd so much, he signed autographs after."

"It's certainly an honor and a privilege to be in the presence of someone who had such a distinguished career," Navy veteran Glenn Powell said at the event. 

Of course, none of it was true.  Goehner served, but he was never a member of a UDT, never earned those decorations and (based on records obtained by the TV station), never advanced beyond Seaman Second Class.  Confronted with the truth, Mr. Goehner produced a certificate from the Library of Congress that supposedly authenticated his exploits--then admitted it had been fabricated by a friend.

Aside from a little public humiliation, Goehner won't be punished for his lies.  The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional, so Americans are free to create their own tall tales of military heroism, no matter how unlikely they might be.  Along with his whoppers about destroying most of the U-Boats in the Baltic Sea (and that meeting with Patton), Goehner passed himself off as the second-most-decorated military member in U.S. history.  

And, based on this exchange with KGO reporter Dan Noyes, Goehner plans to keep peddling his lies to anyone who will listen:

Noyes: "Are you still going to tell the story, sir?"
Goehner: "That's what I did, that's what's on here."
Noyes: "I appreciate your time. Good luck."

Some people have no sense of shame.  Or honor.  William Goehner is near the top of both lists.    




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