To quote The Big Lebowsky, “This aggression will not stand.”
The aggression in question is another feeble attempt at humor by E. Gordon Gee.
This time, the president of Ohio State University attempted to explain the difficulty in coordinating OSU’s 18 colleges. He said, “When we had these 18 colleges all kind of floating around, they were like PT Boats, they were shooting each other. It was kind of like the Polish army or something.”
Gee quickly apologized.
As an American of Polish descent, I accept.
Gee is a smart man who also has served as president of Vanderbilt and Brown, not shabby schools, either one. But, he’s like that loveable uncle you enjoy spending time with in the privacy of your home, but who you don’t want to be seen with in public because he says stupid things.
Many of us are like Gee. Under the pressure of having to think quickly, we reach for a metaphor to simplify a point and before we can stop ourselves we blurt out a stereotype. Gee has a habit of doing this. In his infamous 2010 gaffe, he said TCU and Boise State shouldn’t be able to play for the national championship in college football because they play teams like the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Gee claimed he didn’t know the Little Sisters was a religious order with a mission to care for the poor and aged. When told, he came to the Sacred Heart Home in Oregon, apologized, and made a donation.
“Out of inadvertent humor can come great deeds,” Gee said at the time.
In his newest gaffe, he’s managed to insult two groups—Poles and the American sailors who served on PT Boats.
Gee’s knowledge of both groups must have come from childhood memories of the well-known myth of the Polish Calvary attacking German tanks in World War II and of McHale’s Navy, a 1960’s sitcom starring Ernest Borgnine as Captain of the misfit crew that manned PT Boat 73.
Out of inadvertent humor can also emerge a teachable moment. Here it is: It’s true the Poles were no match for Hitler’s troops when they invaded on September 1, 1939. The Poles were vastly outnumbered in men, tanks and artillery. Two weeks later, the Russians, which had signed a secret pact with Germany to divide Poland, invaded. While the ground war was over, the Poles never capitulated. More than 300,000 Poles escaped to fight in France, Italy and over Great Britain, according to Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud in their book about the daring Polish pilots who flew with the British entitled A Question of Honor: The Kosciuszko Squadron, Forgotten Heroes of World War II.
It was in the air and in intelligence that the Poles made their greatest contributions to the Allied cause. Between WWI and WWII the Poles built a cipher machine to decode German messages. They turned this machine over to British intelligence, which used it as a model to build the famous Enigma Cipher machine. That decoder proved invaluable in learning about German troop movements and it helped the Allies choose the beaches for the D-Day landing.
That landing may never have happened, and Europe could still be under Nazi control, had England lost the Battle of Britain, the most important air battle of the war. If Germany had destroyed British air power, it would have invaded the island nation and the United States would not have had a staging area for its liberation of Europe.
The Polish contribution to the Battle of Great Britain came about through necessity. Olson and Cloud write that the Polish airmen served only as ground support for the Royal Air Force until casualties pressed them into action. During the first day of battle, the Kosciuszko squadron shot down 14 German aircraft, a RAF record for one day. During the entire battle, the squadron shot down 126 planes, more than twice as many as any British squadron.
These Polish airmen appeared on the front pages of England’s newspapers and were called “The Glamour Boys of England.” Their creative, fearless flying style was adopted by the Brits and used in defense of their bombers in raids into Germany.
Most Americans haven’t heard about this because Polish contributions were minimized and Poles were not allowed to march in the victory parade in Great Britain. Churchill and Roosevelt were behind this betrayal in their effort to appease their strongest ally, Joseph Stalin, who wanted Eastern Poland as a Soviet satellite and a buffer against future aggression.
The incident of the Polish calvary attacking Panzer tanks is a myth. According to military history online.com, as well as numerous other sources, the calvary, which had attacked a German infantry brigade, was forced to retreat when a column of German tanks suddenly appeared. The ensuing propaganda by Axis journalists succeeded in denigrating the Poles as a backward people.
The American servicemen who served on the fast, highly armed wooden PT Boats were skilled, courageous men, like Lt. John F. Kennedy. They rescued pilots, delivered spies and harassed larger German and Japanese ships.
Neither these men, nor the Poles, should be the butt of any joke, but I suspect the few who are left are man enough to take whatever a college president can dish out.