Men and Boys: Coming of Age in the Army
by Ed Quick
Battery B, 340th FA Bn.
89th Infantry Division WWII
Looking back on them today, the three years I spent in the United States Army were probably the greatest adventure of my life. Just out of high school in 1942, I planned to spend my next four years in college. I certainly never expected to celebrate my twenty first birthday in a foxhole in eastern Germany.
The story leading up to the time I joined an infantry division and took part in the final crushing of the Nazi war machine begins in that fall of 1942. When I raised my right hand and became a member of the Coast Artillery Enlisted Reserve Corps, I didn’t realize the gravity of my action. In an attempt to stay out of the army, I had enlisted in the army. Well, it sounded logical at the time.
A few months earlier, as a freshman-engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh, I took ROTC (Reserve Officers Training Corps) courses, and thus belonged to Pitt’s Coast Artillery unit. Colonel Kelly, our commanding officer, regularly advised us that we might be drafted before we finished school and received our commissions. About the middle of November he called us together and gave us a final warning. The draft was imminent, and the only way to be sure of finishing school was to sign up with the Coast Artillery ERC. Most of us took him at his word and trooped downtown on November 24 to sign the enlistment papers and promise to defend the Constitution and to obey our superior officers. Just three months later, on March 6, 1943, the ERC was called to active duty, and we were ordered to report in grade of Private to the Induction Center at Ft. Meade, Maryland.
This was the first time, but not the last time that I failed to follow the old army adage: “Never, ever volunteer.”
I remember the night that my mother and father saw me off at the P&LE Railroad station in Pittsburgh. I tried to act like Humphrey Bogart heading off into military service, but I was really only a boy of eighteen, and there were knots in my stomach. As the train pulled out of the station Bob Cornell, a good friend and fraternity brother, began to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” One by one, we joined him and there in the darkness of the railroad coach we sang that old familiar song, trying, I think, to dispel a little our fears of the unknown.
At Ft. Meade, we were issued our army clothing and a lot of other equipment. When I reached the shoe department, I told the supply clerk that I wore size 10 A. He measured my feet. “Ten and a half C, “ he said, “You’ll grow into them.” We were given two canvas bags, an “A” bag and a “B” bag, into which everything went. Our first indication of army mindset came with instructions as to exactly which items went into which bag. No reason. No questions. Just do it. Later we found that the army had instructions for just about everything. Hanger hooks had to always point toward the wall, for instance, and the clothes that hung on them had to always face left. We learned that the army wanted us to lose our individuality and become the same, everyone alike, a single unit working as a team. They required us to dress alike at all times, with the uniform of the day spelled out each morning. From here on, we were just government issued “GIs,” and we would do everything the army way. We soon understood the enlisted man’s complaint: “There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the army way.”
Just before “lights out” that first night at Meade, I heard my first bugle call, the haunting notes of “Tattoo” carrying on the breeze across the drill field, and I felt suddenly very alone and very uncertain about my future in this new and completely different life. A few days later, we were shipped out to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and into the rigors of basic training.
Our section of Bragg was called the “Field Artillery Replacement Training Center,” an unpleasant place - and the training was an unpleasant experience. Our first sergeant introduced himself by saying, “Lemme tell you something raht off. You’re not gonna like me, but that’s ok because I don’t like you neither!”
On the morning of my first day there, I made my bed and we headed to the mess hall for breakfast, a meal hereinafter to be known only as “chow”. Breakfast, lunch or dinner - all were called just “chow”. I returned to find that someone had sat on my bed and rumpled the blankets, and I was charged with the offense, which meant a day’s K.P. It did no good to explain to the sergeant, as he gave me the reply that was to be a standard answer for complaints in the army. “T S,” he said and walked away. My new life had begun.
We ran - every day we ran - on obstacle courses we ran - with field packs and rifles we ran. If one of us faltered, a non-com might carry the laggard’s rifle for a while, but if a man consistently failed to keep up, he disappeared from our basic training group. As a major part of our training, we learned how to be cannoneers on the new and just delivered 105 mm howitzers, but even in that drill, we ran.
The rifles we were issued were World War I Enfield and after the interminable dry runs the army always insisted upon, we went to the firing range. I knew I was a pretty good shot, but I didn’t anticipate two things. One - that the ancient rifle I had would under no circumstances shoot anywhere near straight, and two - that the army’s way of holding a rifle almost guaranteed bad results. After several shots that resulted in the red flag signal called “Maggie’s drawers”, meaning that I had missed the target completely, I discovered that my weapon was firing low - and I mean drastically low. We were shooting at 500 yards, so I raised my sight to 700, 800, finally 1000 yards. At that setting I finally hit the bottom of the target just as one of the firing range officers looked over my shoulder. He saw the position of my sight and in an exasperated tone of voice told me what was wrong. I tried to explain the problem, but with that superiority attitude common to most officers, he wouldn’t listen.
“Gimme that rahfle and ah’ll show you how to shoot!,” he said, grabbing the weapon from me.
He lay on the ground and assumed the correct army prone position, wrapping the sling tightly around his arm and winding the sight down to 500 yards. Tipping his campaign hat forward to shade his eyes, he chambered a round, aimed carefully and squeezed it off. About 200 yards in front of him a plume of dust marked the bullet’s point of impact. The target lowered and raised, and the “Maggie’s drawers” flag waved back and forth.
The officer flushed red, stood up and threw the rifle back to me. “Go git anothuh gun,” he muttered, and strode off to harass some other poor private.
I wasn’t able to get another rifle that day and thus failed to qualify for any marksmanship award, even the lowest “Marksman” medal. Further along in my training, however, I qualified as “Sharpshooter” with one of the new M-1 Garand rifles and “Expert” with the M-1 carbine. In getting the “Expert” medal, one of only two in the battery, I was helped by the fact that as acting artillery mechanic at the time, I had my pick of the carbines issued to us. The one I selected shot dead true in a tight pattern and I took it with me overseas and carried it in combat. It was a beautiful weapon and I cared for it lovingly until I had to turn it in after the war was over. I’m getting ahead of my story, however. More about that carbine later.
Halfway through our 13-week training, the Army discovered that we Pitt ERC people were in the wrong service and should be given the chance to transfer into Coast Artillery. We were assembled in the battery recreation hall and advised that the choice was ours. However, the sergeant warned us that if we transferred, we would have to start basic training all over again. Those who wanted to stay were to raise their hands. At the time, I was sitting beside Bob Cornell and another good friend and fraternity brother, Eddie Garrett. I sure hated basic training, and I didn’t know but what a new basic in Coast Artillery would be worse than what we were experiencing at Bragg. So I started to raise my hand. Fortunately for me, my good friends would have none of it. They grabbed my arm and said, “Nothing could be worse that this!” We heard later that those who stayed at Bragg went into the “Big Red One” 1st Division, one of the outfits that hit Omaha Beach a year later.
We couldn’t have been luckier. We ended up on Monterrey Bay in California, near the town of Watsonville, in a place called Camp McQuaide, where we trained in the use of 155mm rifles on Panama mounts -- defending the West Coast against an enemy attack. Ft. Bragg it was not.
Life was less rigorous at Camp McQuaide. The urgency that accompanied our days at Ft. Bragg was gone. In North Carolina, we were being prepared to ship overseas as replacements, while in California, we were learning how to protect our shores against an unlikely Japanese invasion.
And it was springtime on the shores of the blue Pacific. The wild strawberries grew in profusion on the hills overlooking the ocean, and the sandy beaches were wide and white. We did our share of running at McQuaide also, but when we ran, we ran on those beaches, down near the water’s edge where the sand was wet and packed down hard, and we ran without packs or rifles. To the south lay Monterrey and the sleepy little village of Carmel and to our north the town of Santa Cruz, with mostly farmland in between, a lovely stretch of waterfront occupied today by multi-million dollar homes.
I remember the first time we fired real shells at a moving target out on the ocean. To understand this story you have to know a little about a gun crew. The #1 man on the crew sets the elevation on the gun, while the gunner does the traversing and is responsible for setting the deflection. When #1 finishes his task, he shouts, “Set!” the gunner, when he is finished, shouts “Ready!” and then the section chief yells “Fire!”. All through dry run training, day after day, in practice after practice, those same commands are repeated, over and over again: “Set! Ready! Fire!”….. “Set! Ready! Fire!”
On the day of live fire, the gunner on one of our 155’s, a little guy and very nervous, was worried about losing the target in his sight, especially since there would be a lot of smoke coming from the gun’s muzzle. The target was a small pyramidal barge towed on a long cable behind a tug. The officer in charge advised him that if he lost that little target in his sight, he should look for the tug, much larger and easier to spot, and then just traverse back until he found the target.
Well, sure enough, on the second or third round, the gunner lost the target, and following the officer’s instructions, traversed over to the tug. At the precise moment that he had the tug squarely in his crosshairs, #1 hollered “Set!” Out of sheer habit, the gunner yelled “Ready!”, the section chief shouted “Fire!” and the shell was on its way.
Practice shells were filled with sand, but they were large enough and heavy enough to do major damage, and we were told that the tug captain heard that round coming and he and everyone on the boat hit the deck. Some even jumped overboard. The shell passed close overhead and splashed just beyond his tug. The captain had had enough of our gun crew. He cut the cable, picked up his swimmers and took off for port. Firing practice was through for the day.
Near the end of our 13-week basic, we were allowed to take eligibility tests for the Army Specialized Training Program; most of us took them, and a lot of us were accepted. As always in changes of station, we had no idea of where we were headed.
Talk about more luck. This time, after being processed through Stanford University, we ended up at Los Angeles City College, fifteen minutes from Hollywood. LACC was a quiet little campus in those days, with ivy covered buildings and a faculty that looked like a cast right out of “Mr. Chips.”
The return to college life was great and we enjoyed it for several semesters, living in dormitories and marching to classes. On an easy-to-get weekend pass, I used to stand curbside on Vermont Avenue and hitchhike my way to downtown Los Angeles or into Hollywood. Dressed in Class A gabardines with that “Flaming Piss-pot” patch mounted on my left shoulder, I seldom had to raise my thumb. No more than half dozen cars would pass before some kind soul would stop and give me a lift. “Where you goin’, soldier?” was the usual greeting.
The USO in Hollywood was my favorite destination. Good sandwiches and soft drinks - a jukebox and pretty girls to dance with - a wonderful diversion from study, books and marching to classes. And although dating the girls there was supposedly strictly forbidden, it happened anyway.
One night, I met a really nice girl there by the name of Dottie Lipscomb. She was a pert little thing, not much over five feet tall with a pretty face and an even better figure. We hit it off immediately and danced away the evening until closing time.
“Take me home?,” she asked.
Surprised, I nodded, but wanted to know how we would do that.
“Oh, we’ll hitchhike,” she replied, “I do it all the time.”
The hormones began to increase as I envisioned an even more pleasant evening ahead. We walked arm in arm to the street corner, and in a very short time, a car stopped and a man said, “Hop in kids!” But he didn’t ask where we were going.
We climbed into the back seat and off we went and it wasn’t too long before I realized that the man and Dottie were acquainted. Turning his head, our driver said, “Got a SOLDIER this time, huh, Dottie?” My dreams took a downturn.
At her rooming house, she gave me a warm and lingering good night kiss but that was all. For all her petiteness, she was a strong little girl and firmly resisted my efforts to squeeze us through the door into her bedroom.
I was slow to understand, but it finally dawned on me. My dreams evaporated. A serviceman was her ticket to a ride home. It wasn’t me, but my uniform she needed. Oh, well.
The army finally caught up with me in March of 1944. It had been just over a year since I was called to active duty, and the demand for replacement troops overseas was increasing, I guess partly because of losses and maybe partly in anticipation of an Allied invasion of Europe. All across the country, AST programs were closed down, including the one at L.A.C.C., and I ended up being reassigned to an infantry division on maneuvers in the mountains south of San Francisco. Once more, I was in a field artillery unit, this time for the duration. My new address was Battery B, 340th Field Artillery Battalion, 89th Infantry Division and my residence was a godforsaken corner of California known as the Hunter Liggett Military Reservation.
I soon found out that the 89th had been restructured into a “light” division and that the maneuvers were to test this concept. The Army brass thought that a smaller, lighter division might be effective against the Japanese on their mountainous Pacific Ocean islands. Our field pieces were little 75 mm. pack howitzers instead of the 105-mm. guns I had trained on at Ft. Bragg. Instead of using 2 ½ ton trucks to pull the howitzers and serve as gun crew transportation, we had jeeps for prime movers and the gun crews had to walk. Another division, competing against us in the maneuvers, actually used mules for transportation. Right from the start, I knew I wasn’t going to like this arrangement very much. We understood later that the idea of “light” divisions was dropped because they couldn’t provide enough firepower against the enemy.
As the 89th filled up with thousands of us ASTP men, an equal number of the existing divisional Privates and Pfc.’s were shipped out “POR” (to a Port of Replacement). A cadre of original non commissioned officers was left to supervise the training of the new men. The situation thus created was not a happy one. Old friendships that had grown strong during the rigors of basic training and maneuvers were suddenly broken and the non-coms often did not look kindly on the replacement “college boys.” From our viewpoint, it was no better. There was little chance for promotion in the outfit, since all of the slots from corporal up were already filled. And as the often lesser educated higher ranked men looked warily at us, wondering if we could do the job required of us, we looked back at them, wondering why we, with our years of college education, didn’t have their stripes on our sleeves. But we settled in and the work of building a military unit together began. We schoolboys were not in the best of condition at first, but had the advantage of being very young and in a short time we could outdo many of the older men physically.
One afternoon, I gunned a pack howitzer in a live fire training exercise. Although the 75’s were far smaller than the 155’s we had trained on at Camp McQuaide, the job of the gunner was basically the same. We were “direct laying” that day, shooting at moving targets simulating tanks. 37 mm guns were strapped to the tops of our howitzers to save the 75 mm ammunition and our battery had only one round of the bigger stuff. An officer was standing behind my gun as I tracked the moving targets and fired away at them with the 37 mm ammo. Sitting on my heels and cranking the wheels and yelling at the guys when to shift the single trail and trying to see the target through the smoke, I had no idea of how well I was doing.
A cease-fire was called and the brass said, “The best gunner in the lot is that guy there,” jabbing a finger at me, “He gets to fire the 75 round.” They got the round into the gun, the target came rolling across my sight, and I tracked it carefully, yelled “Fire” and missed the damn thing by a country mile. The brass threw up his hands in disgust and walked away.
On one of the last nights on maneuvers, the battalion simulated a retreat to the sea. A 20-mile forced march down out of the mountains started just after midnight and I can reaffirm the old story that you can be asleep and still be walking. Several times men walked straight when the road did not and they awoke only when they walked into a tree. When we arrived on the beach and set up the guns, it was still dark and I threw my sleeping bag into some nearby shrubbery, climbed in and fell sound asleep. Only later the next day did I discover that the “shrubbery” was poison oak. I ended up in a field hospital sitting in a pan of boric acid to heal the infection that resulted from that experience.
Jack Dorigan, or “Dugan”, was “B” Battery’s First Sergeant. He was generally well respected and had a genuine interest in our well-being. An event that helps to bear that out occurred just after maneuvers at Hunter Liggett ended. We were quartered in another tent city, the men’s tents lining both sides of the battery street, with the officer’s quarters (nicer tents) at one end of the street and a slit trench latrine at the other. A canvas screen shielded the latrine from view. The nights in California were cold, and the officers began to dislike their long walks to the latrine, especially after they had been in town and consumed a fair amount of beer. One of them conceived the idea of a “honey bucket”.
Now a honey bucket was a distasteful contraption and was hated by all of the enlisted men. It consisted of a cut down 55-gallon drum with two holes punched opposite each other near its open top, through which a length of pipe could be inserted for carrying purposes. It was placed among the officers’ tents, and they used is as a latrine at night. Each morning, two privates had the unpleasant detail of sliding the pipe through the holes in the can and carrying it, heads averted from the odor, all the way to the latrine. There they had to dump it, wash it out and then return it to its original location.
One morning, Dugan called to me, “Quick! You’re on honey bucket detail today!” Privates are accustomed to dirty work. It goes with the rank. But this particular job was just too damn menial, and I told Dorigan what I thought of it. To my utter surprise, instead of telling me off, he said, “I’m going to help you carry it. Can you keep your mouth shut?” I was too dumbfounded to reply. I just nodded my head. First Sergeants don’t usually help Pfc.’s with their work.
While I waited outside, he went into the supply tent and emerged with a large nail and a hammer. The two of us then carried the redolent honey bucket to the latrine, where we dumped it and turned it upside down on the grass. Hidden by the screen, Dorigan punched several holes along the seam around the bottom of the can. We washed out the bucket and took it back, but this time we placed it just outside the captain’s tent. The tents were not ditched and the ground sloped gently toward the old man’s tent where just inside his sleeping bag lay on the ground.
The next morning the captain ordered the honey bucket removed. Officers in the future were to use the latrine just as everyone else did. The old man took no further action and to my knowledge never asked any questions.
While we were in that tent city, three-day passes were issued. The problem with a pass, though, was distance. Far from any decent civilization, the nearest town to us was the thriving metropolis of Jolon Junction. Did we head north toward San Francisco, about 200 miles away - or travel toward Los Angeles, maybe 300 miles to the south? A buddy and I flipped a coin and Los Angeles won. We lifted our thumbs beside the road and headed south down the shore of the Pacific.
Traffic on US 1 was light and hours went by without our having much luck, except for short lifts from local farmers. Then, as evening approached, a man stopped his car and offered us a ride to San Luis Obispo, about fifty miles farther south. We gladly accepted, figuring that there was probably a USO there that could put us up overnight.
The guy was a friendly sort and when he found out that we had no place to stay, he insisted that we stay at his house and have our meals with him. He was sure that his wife would be happy to have us. And when we arrived, she did indeed welcome us warmly. After a brief visit, during which she asked us all about ourselves, our home towns, our families, and our army experiences to date, the woman took us upstairs to a bedroom and bustled about preparing it for us. Although she smiled a lot and chattered away about how glad she was to have us visit with them, I was sure I detected a tear in her eye more than once, but at the time I attributed it to sentiment she felt toward doing her part in the war effort.
After a delicious evening meal and more conversation, we excused ourselves and headed upstairs. Our room was large, with twin beds and a window that looked out over the Pacific. We could hardly believe our good fortune to find such a wonderful place to stay with such friendly people.
There was a knock on the door.
The man stood in the doorway with a bottle of whiskey and three glasses and asked if he could come in. I didn’t drink much alcohol in those days, 3.2 beer being about the strongest stuff I could handle, but we invited him in anyway. The three of us sat around a table and he opened the bottle and began to talk. And I found out why his wife had that tear in her eye.
Their son was a Marine in the Pacific Theater and they had recently been advised that he was missing in action. The room we were in was his son’s. It was a somber moment for us, and we didn’t know exactly how to respond to this tragic news.
In the end, we just drank to his son with the hope that he would turn up alive - and then another drink to soldiers everywhere with the hope that the war would soon be over.
In the morning we headed south again. We never did make it to Los Angeles, though. It was just too far.
Moving from California to North Carolina in May, we were changed back into a regular “heavy” division, with 105 mm howitzers and 2 ½ ton trucks. Our new home was Camp Butner, located near the city of Durham.
That summer, I was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma for several months to learn the trade of artillery mechanic a job which I coveted because it carried a T4 rank and paid $96 per month instead of the Pfc. rate of $54. Our regular mechanic was hospitalized, and there was some doubt as to whether he would be back. My recollection of Ft. Sill is that it was hot, very hot. So hot, in fact, that we often put our beds out on the barracks lawns at night, which turned out to be not such a good idea when a midnight downpour soaked us.
The mechanics courses at Sill were excellent. There were some hours of bookwork, but most of our time was spent in “hands on” training. We learned how to disassemble and repair our basic weapon, the 105 mm howitzer, as well as the next larger (155 mm) howitzer and the next smaller (75 mm) howitzer. Everything from the complicated systems of recoil to the simple repacking of wheel bearings was covered. Also, since the artillery mechanic was responsible for the battery’s small arms, we studied all the weapons that we might encounter, from the .50 caliber heavy machine gun to the .45 automatic.
In addition to weapons, we learned about explosives, including mines and booby traps. Our training in booby traps included sessions in which selected items were booby trapped by our instructors, using caps to simulate the real thing. As one of us followed the procedures we had learned in trying to find the simulated explosives, the rest of us watched. If the cap went off with a loud BANG, the instructor would say dryly, “You’re dead.” We learned that booby traps were sometimes attached to mines, and just when you thought you had figured the mine out, the booby trap would get you. I guess that’s why they called them “booby” traps. I probably left a lot of good souvenirs in Germany later on because of the respect for booby traps I gained at Fort Sill.
One weekend, a couple of us decided to explore the attractions of Oklahoma City. A main highway ran from Lawton through Chickasha to the big city and after Saturday morning inspection, we donned our Class A’s and were on our way.
Hitchhiking along the highway, we were picked up almost immediately by a traveling salesman by the name of Jackson. B. B. Jackson.
“Just call me B. B.,” he said.
“And you boys are staying with me and the missus, tonight!” he ordered, “Won’t have it no other way. We got ourselves plenty of room. There’s just the two of us and the war widow that rooms with us. And her boyfriend, maybe. But there’s lots of room. And the missus will be happy to feed you, too.”
Well, we considered that we had run into a stroke of exceptionally good luck. A place to stay that would surely be better than the local USO, and better food to boot. During the ride, we learned more about B. B. He was on the road a lot and only made it home about once or twice a month. The “war widow” was not a widow at all. Her husband was a sailor stationed in Hawaii and she worked in an Oklahoma City defense factory. B. B. told us that she had a boyfriend who bunked in with her on occasion.
“Awful lonesome for a young gal with her husband so fur away, you know,” he opined, “Can’t blame her much for lookin’ for companionship!
He gave us a broad wink.
“And if the boyfriend ain’t visiting,” he advised, “maybe one of you boys might get lucky! I know when the old lady ain’t around I sure like a little of that war widow myself!
We began to see that this was no ordinary family group.
When we arrived that evening, we were welcomed by B. B.’s wife and introduced to the very attractive young “war widow” and her boyfriend who had just arrived. The widow would not be free for us for this weekend.
Mrs. Jackson showed us to our room, a twin bedded spare room that shared a bath with the younger woman’s bedroom. The bathroom had a cast iron instantaneous hot water heater - one of those huge, side armed monsters made by the Ruud Company. It heated the water as it passed through a large copper coil with a roaring gas flame that you could hear all over the house.
Well, anyway, after a good home cooked meal and a not so exciting night out on the town, we rolled into bed probably not much after midnight. The widow and her boyfriend arrived later, pretty well juiced up from the sound of them, and woke us up. We heard their muted voices, then her giggles and shrieks, followed by much mutual moaning and groaning. Finally, things quieted down and the door to the bathroom opened and closed. More whispering…..and then a blood curdling scream! And another! Doors banged opened. B.B. and his wife came hurrying down the hall. We opened our door to the bathroom.
The young man stood buck-naked and cursing in the center of the room, his head twisted downward, examining his bare buttocks. He had backed naked into that red hot water heater and a mirror image of the letter “R” flamed bright pink on his backside. He had been branded!
The next morning, over a good breakfast, we all laughed about the night’s excitement. After breakfast, the war widow and her boyfriend took off. B.B. went into his room to do some paperwork, and we had a second cup of coffee with Mrs. J. and learned a little more about the boyfriend. Seems as if when the war widow had to work overtime at the factory, and B.B. was on the road, the boyfriend often came to visit the Jackson home and spend the night with her.
“And, boys,” she added, “you know the welcome mat’s always out for YOU, also, any time B.B.’s away!”
It was not an ordinary family group, for sure.
Returning to Butner in September, I found the camp buzzing with rumors of an impending overseas move. We had heard many such rumors before, but this time they had a ring of authenticity. It wasn’t too long before the rumors were confirmed.
A team of inspectors descended upon us , checking our combat readiness. I was kept busy making sure that all of the weapons in the battery, from the small arms to the howitzers, were in top condition. As our equipment passed inspection, it was boxed for overseas shipment and stamped “CS” (Combat Serviceable).
We also underwent physical inspection. A story went around that we would be lined up naked at inspection time while the doctor looked us over, after which he would stamp “CS” on our rear ends.
Unhappily for me, our regular artillery mechanic returned to active duty, and my days as acting T4 were over. I had been responsible for the condition of our weapons all during the inspection and had dealt with the team of inspectors, some of whom were far from knowledgeable. (One major had screwed up one of our panoramic sights while “inspecting” it.) But now I was going overseas as a Pfc. cannoneer. T.S.
No Christmas furloughs were granted, APO changes of address were filled out, and in early January the 89th Division shipped out of Butner into the cold blustery New England winter and Camp Miles Standish, where we were quartered for a few days awaiting our embarkation orders.
In the train terminal at Camp Miles Standish, warnings blared at us from loudspeakers: “THIS IS A SECRET STATION!….DO NOT TELL ANYONE WHERE YOU ARE!….THIS IS A CLASSIFIED LOCATION!….DO NOT TELL ANYONE THE NAME OF YOUR ORGANIZATION!….THIS IS A SECRET STATION!…”
I remember the Quonset huts we had for barracks. Two coal-fired stoves, one at each end of the building, did little to keep out the freezing Massachusetts winter nights. And they required fireguards, one to each stove as I recall. More army nonsense, I thought. Would it be too much to expect one guard to watch both stoves?
While at Miles, we were entertained daily with movies showing unwary GI’s telling girl friends in bars all about themselves and the names of their outfits. Later scenes showed ships being torpedoed and the warning “LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS” would flicker across the scene. We rated these movies about on a par with the “Why We Fight” movies and the “Mickey Mouse” ones about the dangers of venereal disease to which we were regularly subjected.
I got a pass to Boston and a few of us went with a guy named Clarence Roepke, who was a native Bostonian and promised to show us the town. As I recall, we visited mostly Scollay Square, not one of the best areas of the city, and I was introduced to a mint flavored whiskey called “Southern Comfort”. I sure could have used a little real southern comfort in Boston that night. There was no place for us to stay overnight and our truck wasn’t due back until morning. We tried to sleep in a hotel lobby, but were evicted by the management and finally slept on the floor in the heated space between the double doors of the hotel’s entryway. Boston was filled to overflowing with troops on their way overseas, and I guess the civilians didn’t appreciate us GI’s all that much.
The night before we shipped out, I had a 3.2 beer in the PX. The jukebox was playing “Don’t Fence Me In” and I had those knots in my stomach again. What would combat actually be like? How would I react under fire?
At four a.m. we were rousted out of bed and as usual, it was “hurry up and wait”. I remember standing in several inches of snow wearing my steel helmet and heavy wool overcoat and carrying my rifle and everything else that I owned and waiting forever for our transportation to arrive. On the dock finally at shipside, we lined up in single file and went up the gangplank. “Quick!” the man said. “Edward C.,” I replied, and I was on my way.
It was still dark outside and we were told that we had to stay below decks until we were out of sight of land. The S. S. Bienville accommodations were miserable. The canvas bunks were four high and there was barely enough room to squeeze into your allotted space. And the whole ship stank of diesel fuel. It was not going to be a pleasant trip.
At dawn every day at sea, submarine watch time, I was assigned to the navy gun crew manning the deck gun in the tub at the bow. From that high vantage point, I remember looking aft and watching the stern of our little freighter-troopship pitching and rolling in the huge gray mountains and valleys of that rough winter North Atlantic. We rolled so far one stormy morning that I asked one of the navy men how far we could roll before we capsized. He said, “We’re just about there now.” And he never cracked a smile.
We arrived at LeHarve after a thirteen-day voyage, and I’ll never forget the truck ride from the port to Camp Lucky Strike. It was in some of the bitterest weather I have ever experienced. I remember shouldering my duffel bag with the snow stinging my face and struggling toward the trucks, and then Dugan yelling, “Quick! Carry one end of this radio!” In addition to being half frozen, I was then being overworked. At the truck, I helped lift the radio aboard and then climbed on myself. The wood slat seats running along the sides of the truck were so narrow that my backpack forced me to sit on the front edge and brace my feet on the steel floor to keep from falling forward. We were packed solidly into the vehicle, men, packs, duffel bags, rifles, equipment and all. Despite the freezing cold, at some time during the long ride to Lucky Strike, I was weary enough to doze off, and my helmet fell to the steel floor and skidded toward the front of the truck. No one budged to pick it up or even bothered to speak, and there the helmet stayed until we arrived at the camp.
A recent heavy snowfall had partially collapsed many of the large tents in which we were to be quartered. But in the dim light of that gray winter dawn, some of us standing in line to enter one of them had our heads bent against the wind and didn’t comprehend why the line had stopped moving. We didn’t lift our eyes to see that there was just no more room inside. The eerie thing about it was that we were too cold even to complain or to ask why the line wasn’t moving. We just stood there, frozen and mute.
There was a shortage of food at Lucky Strike for a while, and we scrounged for every edible we could get our hands on. I pilfered a large #8 can of peanut butter from the kitchen and buried it in the ground in our tent so it wouldn’t be seen in any inspection. Mistake! The peanut butter spoiled and I had the worst case of the G.I.s (diarrhea) of my entire life. The latrine at the end of the battery street was a slit trench over which you had to squat while the wind blew icy blasts between your legs and I was one miserable cannoneer.
In due time, our howitzers arrived and had to be cleaned of the cosmoline that had protected them during their sea voyage. Afterward, the gun crews brushed up on their “cannoneer’s hop,” the practice routine of loading and firing the gun. A crew consisted of the section chief (a sergeant), the gunner corporal and seven other men #1 through #7. (A part of their earliest basic training had been to line up behind their gun and call out their numbers, from which came the line in the Field Artillery song, “Shout out your numbers loud and strong!”)
As I mentioned before, the gunner handled deflection settings and traversed the howitzer. The #1 man was responsible for setting the elevation, opening and closing the breech and firing the gun by pulling the lanyard. The #2 man, working smoothly with #1, loaded the projectile into the breech. The other numbered men were ammo preparers and handlers.
A 105 mm shell consisted of two parts - the projectile, weighing about 25 pounds and tipped with a fuse, and the brass cartridge containing seven nylon bags of propellant powder tied together with a nylon string. Firing commands defined the type of shell, the kind of fuse, the number of bags of propellant, the deflection and the elevation. Each man in the crew had a specific responsibility, and practice made the whole routine flow swiftly and efficiently. Its purpose was to get the proper shell into the gun as quickly as possible, to get the deflection and elevation set correctly and to have as little time as possible elapse between rounds.
We fired HE (high explosive) shells most of the time, with an occasional WP (white phosphorus) or SM (smoke) shell. The fuses were “Quick” or “Delay”. The “Quick” fuse would explode on contact, while the “Delay” or “Time” fuse had a black powder train in it that could be set so as to explode the shell above its target in an “air burst”. Late in the war, we were issued “Pozit” (proximity) fuses, which were supposed to explode as they neared their target. The problem with “Pozit” fuses was that even low clouds would sometimes set them off, and after a few trials, we didn’t use them.
While at Lucky Strike, I developed a bad toothache in a back molar. What a time and what a place to have that happen! Our medic was helpful. It seems that a real dentist was due through camp shortly and I would be put on his list. Wasn’t I lucky?
The dentist’s office was the kitchen of a French farmhouse and the dentist’s chair was the kitchen table. While he worked, the dentist talked to his assistant, who I think was being trained to go into business for himself. In my innocence, I asked if the tooth couldn’t be fixed.
“Whaddaya think this is, a goddam dental clinic?” was my answer.
Novocain was injected.
“Does that hurt?” the dentist asked, hammering on my tooth with some sort of instrument.
“Yow!” I replied.
“I don’t mean do you feel it!” he exclaimed,
“He’s had enough Novocain, I’m gonna pull it,” he said to his assistant.
The tooth broke into pieces under his forceps and he described the operation piece by broken piece as the assistant watched in fascination. Finished at last, he gave me some aspirin and sent me on my way. As I opened the door, he called me back, counting something to himself. The tooth should have had four roots and he only had three in the bloody pan. Sure enough, upon further exploration, he found and removed the last root… I wondered what dental school, if any, he had attended.
In early March, we moved by truck convoy into Luxembourg and then, outfitted for battle, into Germany and combat, crossing first the Moselle and then the Rhine Rivers. Most of my recollections of our time in combat have already been related in Darrel Carnell’s “After Action Report.” In one experience, he tells about our coming under intense counter battery fire near the village of Espenscheid. I remember those 88 shells shrieking into our position and exploding just outside my foxhole. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced any worse fear. Face down in the mud at the bottom of my hole, I prayed to God for my life and Jesus to save me. Already a Christian myself, I didn’t need any conversion, but I read somewhere that there were more soldiers converted to Christianity by the 88 than by Peter and Paul combined.
Another memory I have of that day is seeing our fifth section ammunition truck come careening toward us across the sloping hillside. Richardson was standing up in the back of the truck on top of a pile of 105 ammo boxes, hanging on with one hand and waving with the other as he approached our gun. The truck slowed.
“Ammo!” he shouted, “You need any ammo?”
The last thing we wanted around our position was a truckload of HE shells.
“Get the hell out of here! NO! We don’t need any goddam ammo!” The gun crew was emphatic.
Richardson seemed disappointed and the truck moved on to the next gun.
In talking to Mike Mihaljevic, Fifth Section Chief, recently, I mentioned the incident to him and he laughed. It seems the fifth section had received a large allotment of ammo that day and he hadn’t much liked the idea of having his truck full of TNT while those 88 shells were dropping in on us. So he was trying to push as much of it as possible off onto the gun sections!
One day, pulled back from the line, the battery set up near a farmhouse. Expecting that we would be there overnight, I decided to wash all of my filthy clothes, which I’d worn for at least a month. Finding a large kettle, I filled it with soap and water and put it on a large wood stove in the farmhouse kitchen. I soon had a bubbling hot brew going into which I put my wool shirt, field jacket, wool pants and socks. Standing there shivering in my GI underwear, I stirred the pot with a long wooden stick. It was growing dark outside and getting colder.
You know what happened next. Dorigan came loping by the door, shouting, and “Mount up, “B” We’re moving out!” I had barely enough time to wring out the clothes and put them, cold and wet, on my shaking body. I never tried to wash them again until the war was over.
I remember being strafed by enemy planes several times. The first time it happened, I jumped off the truck and dove into a ditch. The problem with that was that the column started up again while I was still in the ditch and moved out so fast I had trouble catching up. After that, I learned to judge how close the planes were to our part of the column before bailing out. Most of the time I found that I could safely stay on the truck.
My regular job at the time we approached the city of Eisenach was telephone operator on #2 gun, but I was listed as a “basic”, which I guess meant that I was the substitute guy for any job on the crew. (I was also an artillery mechanic - but on paper only, dammit.)
Anyway, the Germans had surrendered Eisenach, hanging white flags from the windows, but when our infantry tried to enter, they encountered heavy enemy fire. We were told that there were Wehrmacht and SS troopers in the city buildings right alongside the civilians. Rather than lose any more lives in an assault on their positions, our infantry withdrew and division artillery, supported by corps artillery, shelled the town half of the night. I think we had less compunction about “collateral damage” in those days, although the 89th division history book says that we tried to avoid hospitals and other non-military targets in the town.
Our gunner corporal, Joe Harley, turned up sick that night, so the gunning job fell to me. We fired an awful lot of missions and I was really dog-tired by dawn. Over 5000 rounds were fired by the battalion and corps from 0200 to 0630. The town was badly damaged -- a lot of German casualties - and they surrendered without much of a fight the next day.
Fire missions at night are really difficult. The gun was aimed through a panoramic sight (like a small backward looking periscope) by lining up small red and green hooded lights on aiming stakes set into the ground 50-100 feet behind the gun. There was also a dim little light on the sight itself -- just bright enough to make out the readings on the dials. Every time the gun was fired it bounced and you could easily lose the aiming stake lights in the periscope’s field of vision. In the pitch black, you looked for them by traversing the gun back and forth while looking through the sight and sometimes it was really hard to find them. And you didn’t have much time between rounds. I figure #2 gun must have fired dozens of fire missions on Eisenach that night with lots of sight setting changes. And the section chief didn’t care much for any delay between “Set” and Ready.”
One other consideration: an error in firing -- say because you just decided to fire anyway, without finding the lights -- or if you made a mistake in the sight settings -- could conceivably put a round into friendly positions. I never took a chance on that in the few times I did the gunning.
On one of those times some days later, I incurred the wrath of the section chief on a night fire mission because, after firing several rounds, I was unable to find the lights and refused to fire -- calling #2 gun out. At dawn, I discovered the reason I couldn’t find the lights. A major shift in deflection had put one of the steel pipe supports on our camouflage net directly in the line of sight from the gun sight to the aiming stakes. When I tried to get Lodding (the section chief) to look at that, he wouldn’t even talk to me. As far as he was concerned, there was no excuse for calling his gun out of a fire mission. But then, he and I never did get along much.
The closest we ever came to firing our howitzers directly at a visible target was when we went into position on the forward slope of a hill looking down into the little village of Fishbach. There were still enemy troops there and a quad 50 machine gun, set up right beside our #2 gun, was firing tracers into the town as we unlimbered the howitzer. Those .50 cal. slugs were just tearing those wooden buildings apart.
And the Germans were firing back. I could hear the rifle bullets snapping by as I dug my foxhole. I heard that we asked for permission to put direct fire into the village but were turned down because our infantry was there also. Why the machine guns could shoot and we couldn’t, I’ll never know. I do know that we were unable to lay the battery because of the small arms fire coming back at us. Dorigan came by, checking on our crew and he was carrying an M-1. I wondered at the time where he got it. He later said that he took it from a GI who didn’t need it anymore. Then we got orders to move out and we got the hell out of there.
We didn’t much like any planes over our position at any time and we got into the habit of firing at anything that came too close. One time an American P-51 came swooping in to check our identification (we had some kind of colored canvas sheets tied on the cab roofs of our trucks to let our air force know we were friendly) and he looked to us a lot like an ME-109. So we unloaded on him with our .50 cal machine guns and he went into all kinds of evasive maneuvers while shooting out green and red flares to let us know that he wasn’t German.
One of the new German jet planes flew over us one day. I heard it coming and climbed a bank beside the gun to see what it was. My good friend, Marty Martinez, was a heavy machine gunner on our ¾ ton weapons carrier B-7. He promised to let me shoot at one of the Kraut planes one day with his .50 cal gun, but he just never got around to it.
Speaking of aircraft, I remember the flights of our silver bombers that filled the air sometimes, very high up, wave after wave of them. I remember looking up at them and saying, “Give em hell, guys, give em hell!”, figuring the bombings would end this damn war sooner.
I have a lot of miscellaneous memories of those days. I mean remembrances of the regular day-to-day hardships that all GI’s endured to the point that they became just unalterable facts of life.
I remember those ice boxes we called combat boots, for instance. Once they got chilled through, they were almost impossible to warm up. I used to build a fire and when the wood became glowing embers, I would stand in them until the heat permeated the boots. The problem was that the stitching of the soles would burn through and the soles would start to come off.
I remember the craving for anything sweet. When our PX rations would arrive and those little miniature chocolate bars would be rationed out, I would put them all (say fourteen or sixteen of them) in my field jacket pockets and start to eat them one after the other as I worked. I played a little game by not counting them, so that I never knew when I had gotten to the last one. It was always a pleasant surprise when I discovered that I had one more after I thought that they were all gone.
I remember the manual labor of moving, especially when it happened more than once in one day. The hooking up and unhooking of the howitzer from the six by six and the loading and unloading of the truck itself was a big job and was shared by all on the gun crew. During firing, each man had a specific job, but in the load/unload work, everybody knew what all had to be done and the guys just worked together to get the job done. The gun had to be positioned and readied for firing with its trails spread and the ammunition stacked behind it. Tarps had to be spread and the camouflage net erected. The tube had to be swabbed and bright parts oiled regularly and of course individual foxholes always had to be dug. It was mostly pure grunt work, and it had to be done. On a two-move day, the work doubled.
I remember how tired we were sometimes, especially when night fire missions and sentry duty interrupted our sleep. I remember night guard duty in a gun section. The Hollywood version of sentry duty it was not. No marching back and forth. You just selected the darkest spot you could find, out of any moonlight, where you could best see the area but not be seen. And there you waited and watched, moving as little as possible until your hour was up and you could find the next man on duty to shake him awake and exchange whispered obscenities with him when he didn’t want to get up. We had warnings sometimes of Kraut units bypassed in our advance who were trying to slip through our positions to get back to their own lines. We kept a round in the chamber and the safety off on those nights.
But our fatigue was nothing compared to that of the infantry dogfaces. At least we rode on trucks. I remember one afternoon as we passed through an infantry patrol slogging along both sides of the road, one weary GI looked up at me and asked, “What time is it?” I looked at my watch and told him. There was a pause and then he asked in a tired, tired voice, “What day is it?”
And I remember sleeping on that cold ground. We became so accustomed to it that we seldom gave it a thought. Most of time we slept next to our foxholes. Our sleeping bags had wool liners and hoods with a waterproof canvas covering and we slept with our carbines inside. A quick release zipper got us out of the sack in a hurry if necessary. Three wool blankets between the liner and the covering didn’t help much on the coldest nights, so on those occasions we sometimes pulled a heavy gun tarpaulin over on top of us. The only clothing I ever took off was my field jacket to use for a pillow and my boots.
Only on rare occasions did we have the luxury of bedding down in a farmhouse. I remember once lying in my sack on the bare wood floor of one of those houses and looking up at a single light bulb on the ceiling (not on of course). A cold rain was falling outside and I thought how great it was to be inside and then I thought that really, if you were warm and dry and not hungry, why everything else was luxury. A combat soldier’s wisdom.
I did find a few goodies in those farmhouses, too. Homemade jellies and jams that went great on C-ration biscuits. In one house I found tens of thousands of German marks and wondered why this poor farmer was so rich. A knowledgeable buddy pointed out the date on the notes, 1923, the year before a drastic devaluation of the mark. The notes were worthless, but I kept a few anyway as souvenirs.
And I remember the anxiety we felt hearing loud explosions as we approached a new position and asking the infantry guys just leaving the area that familiar question about noise, “Coming in or going out?”
I was made battery recorder soon after Eisenach and I remember that in our last position of the war, I was sharing a dugout with Wolbert and probably Marty and Spears. This particular day had been a long and tiring one for me and I had just come off a one-hour night guard shift. I took off my boots, slung my carbine on a wall of the dugout and climbed wearily into the sack. Just as I was drifting off to sleep, I remembered something. It was April 29 and I was 21 years old! Sitting up, I said loudly, “Hey, today’s my birthday!” There was a long silence and then a voice (I don’t remember now who it was) replied, “Well, HAP-PY BIRTH-DAY, DAM-MIT! Now go to sleep!”
While we were in that last position, near Zwickau, I have a distinct memory of two prostitutes, one blonde and one brunette, who came through the area and offered to “schlafen mit” the entire Battery for “eine schokoladen”. They were in high spirits, waving to all of the men. A suitable dugout was arranged with curtains and some of the men took advantage of their offer.
An unexpected visitor came walking down the road into our position one day. It was Tony DiOrio, one of the “B” Battery men who had gone POR from Hunter Liggett back in the spring of 1944!
Tony had been captured by the Germans and put into a prison camp, where he had spent a considerable time, losing some forty pounds. When his old outfit, the 89th, liberated the camp, Tony came looking for his buddies. There was quite a reunion before he headed for home.
We pulled out of our position near Zwickau and made our last move forward on May 6. I was digging my hole on that day when somebody came by and said, “The war’s over!” I remember I just nodded my head and kept on digging. Maybe the Germans hadn’t heard the news yet. According to my encyclopedia, Gen. Jodl signed the terms of unconditional surrender the next day, and the free world celebrated May 8 as “V-E Day”.
I remember that the battlefield was seldom quiet. Even on nights when no local action was underway, the mutter of distant artillery never ceased. Somewhere out there on the horizon night fire missions were always being called. You became sensitive to noise, able without thinking to differentiate between that which was dangerous and that which was not. Non-dangerous noise lulled you to sleep at night but dangerous noise caused an immediate reaction.
One time during a break, the captain was addressing us on some matter or other (I forget now just what it was) and he was standing on the hood of his jeep so as to be heard and seen. Behind us there was a sudden loud explosion. We were unaware that the engineers were blowing up some enemy fortifications. Only the captain, who knew what was going on, remained on his feet. The rest of us were flat on the ground and looking for ditches.
I remember how strangely still it became when the war ended. Trying to fall asleep, I missed that distant soothing rumble.
The battlefield was also dark at night. Except for the dim flickering of the artillery fire along the horizon, on moonless or cloudy nights it was pitch black. No fires, no matches, no cigarettes. Not even blackout lights on the vehicles. Lights at night might invite enemy fire. I remember how nervous I felt when we first turned the truck lights on after the war ended. Even though I knew hostilities had ceased, I felt very naked and exposed riding on that three quarter ton truck with its bright headlights illuminating the road ahead.
Shortly after war’s end, we backtracked about a hundred miles through Germany to the village of Cabarz. It was a postcard-pretty little town and we were billeted in a brown wood and white stucco house with a green grass lawn in front and tall trees along side. I remember writing home from a second story bedroom and looking out of the window at a flowering vine climbing the wall outside. The sunshine reflected off the leaves of the vine and spilled across the bedroom floor. The day was warm, it was spring, the war was over and life was wonderful.
I wonder today about the Germans who lived in that home. What must they have felt when an American soldier pounded on their door and said “Raus mit!”? I remember some Krauts who complained that their soldiers would never eject people out of their homes like that. We just laughed at them and said that the Wehrmacht did much worse things to people.
While we were in Cabarz, I was given a combat furlough to the French Riviera. We went by truck to a Luftwaffe airfield in Weimar, where we boarded a C-47 paratroop plane for my first-ever airplane flight. It was worse than the North Atlantic. We flew over a portion of the Alps and the ride was as uneven as the snowy landscape below, filled with sudden drops that lifted my stomach into my throat. I managed to stave off the airsickness, however, and after we landed for fuel in Lyon, the rest of the trip was much smoother.
I remember arriving over Nice. The jockey that piloted our ship stood it up on one wing and we slid sideways down toward the airport. Riding that falling roller coaster, I still enjoyed the view. The Mediterranean sparkled in the sunlight and the buildings of the city's harbor were white splashes along the shore. Back from the water's edge the mountains were gray against the blue sky. After the dreariness of war torn Germany, it looked like a piece of heaven.
We were billeted in one of Nice's grand hotels and issued new uniforms. The orders were wonderful. No ties. No saluting. Ten days of rest and relaxation. While there, I made the acquaintance of a really nice French girl. She had blue eyes and long blonde hair and the very French name of Janine Yvette Boutier. Janine and I went everywhere together for those ten days, taking long picnic trips in the hills above the city or walking through the old town. One sunny afternoon, we bicycled down the shore of the blue Mediterranean toward Monaco. In the evenings, we visited the local cafes, but I always had to have Mama along as a chaperone. And believe it or not, try as I might, and I tried mightily, I couldn't get even a kiss from that girl ! Terrible blow to my male ego.
Her father had been very active in the Resistance during the war and one afternoon he told me of some of his narrow escapes from the Gestapo, showing me the transom above the back door in their apartment through which he had once escaped when the Germans broke down the front door. Janine always acted as my interpreter when we talked because his English and my French were woefully inadequate.
When my furlough was over and it was time for me to leave, I stopped at Janine's apartment for a last good-bye. Surely, I thought, I'll get at least a good-bye kiss. However, Monsieur Boutier was there and he indicated that he had something very important to say to me. He had me stand facing him and drew himself up stiffly.
Janine interpreted: "My father wishes you to remember the French people as you remember us, not as you remember the people found in the streets these days. And speaking for France he wishes to thank you, as a member of the American armed forces, for liberating the country that he loves so dearly." And then that gentleman kissed me formally on both cheeks. It was very moving and I felt like a hero indeed. Janine gave me a warm embrace. Her hair was fragrant and her words were soft and sweet. But the only kiss I got that day was from the wrong Boutier.
I had received notification that the 89th was being re-deployed to northern France and I was to join them there. My trip by train took me first to Marseilles and then north through Paris to Rouen. The rail cars had large open windows and were packed with people of all nationalities, from dark-skinned Algerians to blond Britishers. When the locomotive whistle shrieked and the train shuddered to a stop, everyone piled out to relieve themselves behind the nearest bushes. The Algerians didn’t need bushes. They wore flowing ankle length robes, beneath whose ample folds they just squatted. When the whistle blew again and the train started off, those who took too long at their task had to race to catch up, grasping at any part of the cars they could hold on to and hoisting themselves aboard through the windows. We made good time, however, and I arrived several days before the battery in our new station at Camp Twenty Grand.
Our job there was the administration of the camp, processing American troops on their way to the States or to the CBI (China-Burma-India Theater). We Privates and Pfc.’s never had it so good. All of the menial work that would normally be ours was performed by a large contingent of German PWs. We had no KP, no latrine digging, and no manual work of any kind to do! About the only regular duty we pulled was guard duty.
One of our MP’s at camp, a former veterinarian, picked up two German Shepherds who had been running wild for some time. He kept the female, who was really on the vicious side and no one went near his jeep when he left her in it. She didn’t bark or give warning - she just attacked anybody who came too close. The five-year-old male he gave to me and I called him “Fritz”. He was a gentle, well trained dog and big - 96 pounds big. With his paws on my shoulders, he could look me right in the eye. As soon as he learned English, he would heel and stay and sit and lie down on command. We roamed the countryside around Twenty Grand, with Fritz running ahead of me and then racing back to walk by my side for a while and look up at me as if to say, “Aren’t we having a grand time?”
A second furlough came through for me, this one to Great Britain. Al Covillo and I went together, traveling first to the French port of Etretat, a summer resort in peacetime. The beach area there was still cluttered with evidences of Rommel’s Atlantic Wall fortifications with gun positions still in place in the cliffs overlooking the water. So that I could say I had swum in the English Channel, I stripped down to my GI shorts, wore my combat boots to the water’s edge (the beach was all rocks), took off the boots and waded in. The water was cold, but I swam out into deep water, where Al took my picture. Some Frenchmen in a fishing boat nearby just shook their heads. Those crazy Americans!
We exchanged our French francs for English pounds at a currency exchange facility in Etretat. The rate of exchange between pounds and francs was much better on the black market than in the regular exchange, so some of the men going to England made out very well by exchanging their francs several times, taking their newly acquired pounds out into the black market, selling them for francs and then going back through the exchange again. The ever-resourceful GI!
I discovered that the number of days of furlough granted depended upon your destination. The most days (10) were given to those going to Glasgow, Scotland. So that’s where I told them I was going, but I never got any farther than London. We crossed the channel by ferryboat, another rough but short ride.
While in London, I met Esther Sequerra, a Portuguese girl with raven hair and a porcelain ivory complexion. I impressed her by properly rolling the “r’s” in her name, and we hit it off immediately. Her father, however, was not in the least impressed with me and would not allow me in his house. Esther said that he was from the “old school” and insisted upon all sorts of proper introductions, etc., between a young man and a girl before they were permitted to date. In addition, he was suspicious of all Yankee soldiers, so Esther and I had to meet at an Underground station convenient to both of us.
We explored London together, visiting all the typical tourist attractions such as the Houses of Parliament and “Big Ben”, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, etc. From Esther, over lunch one day, I learned that a “napkin” in England was a baby’s diaper and that what we had on our laps was called a “serviette”. When I kidded her about her language and asked her why she called a two-penny coin a tuppenny bit and a three-penny coin a “thruppenny bit”, she replied,
“Probably for the same reason you folks call a quarter ‘two bits’ and a half dollar ‘four bits’.”
So much for my jokes about her strange English language.
After going to the theater one warm summer evening, we walked over to Hyde Park and found a convenient bench where we could watch the moonrise. It was all very romantic and as I leaned over to kiss her, I felt a rude rap on my shoulder.
Believe it or not, it was a London Bobby, and what I had felt was the end of his nightstick.
“ ’Ere, ’ere!”, he rumbled, “There’ll be none of that around ’ere! Now you take the young lady somewhere else!”
As we departed under his watchful eye, I noticed something unusual about the huge maple tree across the walk from our bench. It seemed to have been losing its leaves and they glinted palely on the ground beneath its spreading branches. But wait! Those weren’t leaves that were silver in the moonlight! They were condoms! Scores of them! And just where had this Bobby been while all of that had been going on? He just shrugged his shoulders and pointed his nightstick at the gate.
I think I made the Guinness Book of records that night. I became the only GI in history to have been ejected from Hyde Park for kissing a girl on one of its benches.
When we turned in our weapons at 20 Grand shortly after arriving there, I took particular care to clean and oil my carbine so as to preserve that fine gun for future use. I really hated to let it go, and even considered trying to ship it home in a box with some other legitimate war souvenirs. But thoughts of a court martial deterred me. One night some weeks or maybe months later, I pulled a night guard shift and looked at the miserable weapon they issued me. Carbines used for guard duty had no one really responsible for their care and usually showed it. I thought to myself that I would be ashamed to admit having such a scratched and rusty piece. And then I looked at the number. MINE! Our artillery mechanic had chosen the BEST CARBINES to use as guard weapons! That job should have been mine.
I first heard about the atom bomb on the radio. At 20 Grand, we listened to AFN (Armed Forces Network) during the day and BBC from London each evening - and the airwaves were suddenly filled with the story of this new weapon that had been dropped on Japan. I vaguely remembered reading in my Physics courses about the tremendous power locked up in an atom and correctly guessed that we had found a way to unlock it.
A few days later, Japan surrendered and the entire shooting war was finally over. Wherever we were to be shipped next, it wouldn’t be into any more combat. What a wonderful feeling that was! Rumors flew around the camp as to what would happen to us now, ranging from movement to Japan as occupation forces to shipment back to the States. In the meantime our work continued.
Troops coming through 20 Grand were usually loaded with European money. The black market made it easy to acquire wealth. Cigarettes that cost a GI fifty cents a carton could be sold for twenty dollars or more in marks or francs. Coffee, soap, shaving cream, meat, - anything that a soldier could get his hands on in his PX rations or in the mess tent could be sold at skyrocket prices in Berlin or Paris.
I was given the job one afternoon of cleaning up after a contingent of transient troops that had moved out. With a trip ticket that enabled me to get a truck out of the motor pool, I picked up several PWs to use for labor and drove over to the transient area. Dorigan had told me that there might be several dozen or so blankets there, which I was to drop off at Supply. As the PWs worked their way through the empty tents, however, it became apparent that we would have more than that - many more. When we were finished, the truck was piled high with over 600 blankets and I had a quandary. I had a trip ticket that could take me to Paris. Supply was expecting about two dozen blankets. On the black market in Paris, I could get twenty dollars a blanket. Five hundred seventy six blankets times twenty dollars each was over eleven thousand dollars. And I was making sixty-five dollars a month as a Pfc. overseas.
However, if the MP’s caught me with such a major black market transaction, it would be curtains for me - the stockade - and a long wait to get home. As I had done with the carbine scheme, I chickened out and turned the blankets in.
At 20 Grand, the transient troops exchanged their marks and francs for dollars before shipping home. To facilitate this, we had a large tent “bank” filled with American money on the days of exchange, which required overnight guarding. I pulled that detail one night and was really concerned. The bank had only one nonchalant regular guard carrying a .45 automatic and long tables piled high with stacks of greenbacks surrounded us. As I remember, he dozed most of the time I was there. Among those thousands of GI’s in 20 Grand, I reasoned, there must certainly be at least one professional bank robber, maybe more. And here I was supposed to be guarding what looked like a million dollars with only a carbine! I went to the armory and picked up a Thompson sub-machine gun. Fortunately, my four-hour stint went quietly and no bank robbers appeared.
In an attempt to curtail the rampant black market, the army later issued currency control books. We were always paid in local currency but now that amount was recorded and became the limit of what could be converted into American money. A GI could still use the black market for spending money in town but he couldn’t send home any more than he received in his monthly pay. This was a disaster for some of the troops bringing thousands of dollars in German marks from such places as Berlin, where the black market really thrived. In one sad instance, a GI built a bonfire of $30,000 worth of marks and then shot himself. The story went around that he had made wonderful plans for his widowed mother that depended upon his accumulated fortune.
More and more men began to be transferred out of the battery, the ones with long enough service going home, the others into occupation duty in Germany or Austria. The ranks of the original battery thinned until it finally ceased to exist as a unit. We who had been knit together into the single entity that the army demanded of us were now being separated. We had lived together, fought together, experienced mortal danger together. Oh, on the surface we laughed and kidded and promised to keep in touch but we all knew that we probably would never see each other again. Wolbert, Covillo, Schwager, Quick - we all went our separate ways. These were the first of my army good-byes and they had a real edge of sadness to them.
Points were awarded for length of service and I hadn’t yet acquired enough of them to go home, so I was shipped to Austria and into the 83rd Division. There I was stationed in a little town called Ebensee, at the south end of the Traunsee in the mountains of the Saltzkammergut area.
A number of my Austrian experiences have already been related in Carnell’s “After Action Report,” so I won’t repeat all of them here.
Our job was to guard a lager full of German prisoners. We heard at the time that they were all SS troopers, but after taking a lot of them out on work details, I grew to doubt that. We also heard that they were being screened and released on a regular basis. The army was looking for Nazi war criminals that might have put on German enlisted men’s uniforms to escape identification.
The lager was a former concentration camp, complete with double wire fences, one of them electrified originally, and guard towers every hundred yards or so. The guard shifts were stupefying. Four hours on and eight hours off. Six days a week. Ten to two in the morning and ten to two at night for a week. Then two to six in the afternoon and two to six in the morning for the next week. Then six to ten in the morning and six to ten at night for the third week. Then start all over again. But good German beer was a nickel a liter and at midnight in the bucket of blood we called our EM Club they broke out the cognac - fifty cents for a water glassful.
We were quartered in a school building, but it didn’t take long for a lot of the men to find private quarters, some without, but most with local fraüleins. In fact, the PW truck drivers who transported the lager guards to their work had to know just where all of them slept in order to find them. The two a.m. shift might be scattered all over Ebensee, and the truck ran a regular schedule, stopping in front of the various rooming house and honking its horn until a guard, usually half asleep and half dressed, came stumbling bleary eyed out of the house. Sometimes his fraülein would appear, also half dressed, to kiss him good-bye. It was kind of like a car pool of night shift workers back in the States.
I remember Christmas Eve of 1945, with snow on the ground and more falling and wood smoke in the air and me alone in a lonely guard tower - and hearing the strains of "Stille Nacht", soft on the night air, sung by the PWs in the lager. The memory is so strong I can close my eyes and experience the actual moment again. That night, there had been a quick freeze after a warmer day, and crystals of ice had formed on the surface of the snow, standing on edge, maybe one or two inches high, thousands of them. The floodlights around the lager reflected on the forest of crystal and turned it into a carpet of diamonds. I had never seen anything like that before in my life. And then the sound of that lovely Christmas carol - until that moment, I thought it was an American song. I had never heard of Franz Gruber.
A girl named Lili Stepanenko lived upstairs in the same building where Marty and I had rented our room. She was Russian, nineteen years old and a student at the University of Kharkov before the Germans came. She worked for the army at the school building and was valuable to them because she spoke five languages, including her own. A lot of Russians, Poles and Germans worked for the army in the Ebensee area and she could communicate readily with all of them.
Lili liked to drink beer and dance, and she and I spent many an evening in our EM club together. Her life had been a difficult one. She had lost both parents when the Germans overran Kharkov, and then by desire or necessity or both, she had taken up with a German officer. He supplied her with food and a place to live until, in the retreat of the Wehrmacht from Stalingrad, he was killed. After that, Lili found work with the Americans and followed them to Ebensee.
My big shepherd Fritz went with me to Austria. He always went along when I took details of German prisoners out on wood cutting details. He used to curl up on the snow beside the fire and sleep with his nose buried in his big bushy tail. The PWs liked Fritz and shared their bean soup rations with him. Their soup was really good, and I often traded my “C” or “K” rations for some of it.
On one detail, a very young PW developed a bad case of frostbite on his fingers from handling the steel tools and he came to me, quite frightened, for help. I think the other PWs had told him that he would have to have his hand amputated. I followed the latest GI procedure, which was to heat his hand in warm water. An old German non-com there angrily disagreed, wanting to rub the boy’s hand in snow. We had been taught that this old method might damage the frozen flesh.
When the warm water didn’t produce results, the non-com became so belligerent that I put my hand on my carbine and told him to back off. With much muttering in German, he complied and stood in the background, waiting for me to fail. With all the other PWs watching, I had to do something, so I rolled up the boy’s sleeve and began to vigorously massage his arm. In a few minutes, his hand flushed a bright pink and he was overjoyed. He put his arms around me and spoke excitedly in German. I think he thought that I was God. The old German sergeant kept on muttering under his breath. I’m sure he thought something else.
Fritz seemed to like Austria. Maybe he was German by birth. He knew how to open doors, the latch handle type they had there, by using his paw and his nose. So at night, when nature called, he just went outside by himself. I always said he wasn’t all that well trained because he never closed the doors behind him.
Sometime in late January, 1946, we former ASTP people were given an opportunity to attend school in the nearby town of Bad Schallerbach, where we could take engineering courses taught by English speaking Austrian professors. I jumped at the chance to get out of guard duty.
The school’s kitchen was staffed with German women and on one memorable day they prepared a great treat for us - roast beef! I hadn’t eaten roast beef in over a year. After stuffing myself, I thought about Fritz. In my fractured German, I asked the cooks, “Fleisch für der gross hund?” They knew immediately what I wanted and seemed delighted to prepare a heaping mess kit full of that delicious meat. I took it outside where Fritz was waiting.
Now Fritz had subsisted for some time on an army diet of canned and dehydrated food and Red Cross doughnuts. As soon as he saw and smelled that roast beef, he pounced on it as if he were starving. In less than a minute, the beef was gone, and then that big dog did something really unusual. He began to cavort around the empty mess kit, leaping into the air with his back arched like a little kitten at play! He kept that up for perhaps a half minute and then came over to me, panting , to see if I had any more for him.
On my first day of classes, I left Fritz in my upstairs room and went to a Physics session on the first floor. About five minutes into the lecture, the Austrian professor paused and looked toward the back of the room where the door had slowly opened. There in the doorway stood Fritz - with an “I know I’m not supposed to be here” look on this face. He didn’t try to enter the room - he just sat down on the threshold and waited. The professor smiled.
“Does anyone here belong to this dog?” he asked. When I raised my hand, he said, “Well, if he behaves himself, he can come in. Maybe he can learn something.”
“Fritz”, I called, and that was all that was necessary. He came bounding across the room and lay down beside my desk and from then on he attended all my classes with me.
When I knew for certain that I was going home, I had a problem. What would I do with Fritz? He and I had been together now for perhaps six months and the bond between us had grown very strong. Taking him with me didn’t seem like a good idea, however. In the first place, he was a dog who needed lots of room to roam and my hometown of Edgewood would not suit him very well at all. He was certainly not a housedog.
In addition, dogs were not permitted to accompany their owners onto a ship going home. The army would make provisions to ship them, but at a cost of a hundred dollars, which was a sum equal to two months of my pay.
An alternative was to give a dog a capsule of sodium pentathol, called a blue 88, which would knock him out. The animal could then be carried aboard ship in a duffel bag with only its nose showing out of the drawstring opening. Once past the inspectors at the gangway, the dog would awaken and could be released on board and no one there would object. But the size of Fritz precluded that option.
An Austrian student acquaintance of mine was leaving Ebensee and traveling to the University of Vienna a few days before I was scheduled to ship out. He was eligible for food stamps, a very important necessity for someone who wanted to feed himself and a dog. And he really liked my dog a lot. I finally made the sorrowful decision to allow him to become Fritz’s new master.
Fritz and I waited for the student at the Red Cross Canteen. He arrived riding in the back of a ¾ ton weapons carrier.
“Go with him, Fritz,” I said, and patted the tailgate, about four feet off the ground. With one bound that big animal cleared the gate and sat motionless on the floor of the truck, his big ears alert, his eyes fastened on me. The truck pulled away.
It was another army good-bye and another sad day.
I now had 48 points - one for every month’s service (36) and an extra point for every month overseas (12). That magic number made me eligible to go home with the 83rd Division when it shipped to the States in late February!
I looked out of the mess hall window at the bleak Austrian winter. It had begun to snow again - a swirling mist of white flakes that quickly obscured the lake and the mountainside beyond. The afternoon lager guards were already heading toward their trucks, gray shapes in the mist, pulling hoods up over helmets, shoulders hunched into the wind.
Was I really through with all of this? The thought was elusive. It just wouldn’t stay put in my head. No more four on and eight off guard duty. No more army duty of any kind, for that matter. Three years of life in the military and now I was going to be a civilian again. The thought still wouldn’t stick.
We shipped out of Ebensee in 40 & 8 boxcars. The number of men to a car was determined by the number of sleeping bags that could be laid side by side, head to toe, the length of the wooden floored car, with space in the middle for a stove. Our rations were a large sack of “C” rations and “K” rations. On the trip to France, we had our choice for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Whatta ya want today? “C’s” or “K’s”? But it really didn’t matter. Those magic words sustained us: We were going home.
We were processed through another “cigarette camp” in LeHarve called Philip Morris, a place so civilized that they even had a PX. I had an ice cream sundae there that was made with powdered milk but it surely tasted good to me. In a few days we boarded the “Haverford Victory” for the voyage to New York. It was a much easier trip than the one coming the other way. The weather was good, the food was edible, and not too many suffered from mal-de-mer.
I remember one night on board watching the full moon shining on the wake of the ship and the phosphorescent bow waves sliding along its side and again finding it almost impossible to believe that I had no orders to obey any more. I had this strange sense of disconnection, almost sadness. Could it be true, as we used to kid each other, that I had found a “home in the army” and I was going to miss army life? Nah, it had to be just a passing thought.
I remember coming into New York harbor. As we passed the Statue of Liberty and headed into the Hudson River, a boat came out to meet us. A band on board played martial music and a bevy of girls waved and blew kisses and shouted “Welcome Home!”. I felt like a conquering hero again. As we disembarked on the Jersey side, the Red Cross greeted us with their usual coffee and doughnuts. Shortly afterward, I heard a disturbance in the crowd of GI’s and discovered that a Red Cross girl had arrived with a tray of fresh milk. My coffee cup went into the river. Fresh milk! Hadn’t had fresh milk in over a year! I couldn’t get enough of it.
We spent a day at Camp Joyce Kilmer, where we were each issued a ticket good for one steak dinner at the mess hall and then sent to Ft. Meade for mustering out. Full circle. Three years, three weeks and a day. If there were any bugle calls at Meade this time, old veteran that I was, I didn’t hear them. Discharge papers finally in hand, we were asked by the officer in charge: “Gentlemen, please stand and salute for the last time in uniform the flag you have served so well.” The national anthem played and we were civilians.
I remember the attempts made to get us to re-enlist. One enterprising sergeant even chased after some of us outside of the building to promise that he could guarantee that we would retain our rank if we re-upped. He obviously hadn’t noticed the single stripe on my sleeve.
“You mean I could still be a Pfc.?” I queried.
He looked crestfallen and returned to his building.
Marty and I had promised ourselves that we would celebrate the occasion of our discharge in New York City. We took a bus to Baltimore and a night train to Penn Station in NYC. At the USO desk there at two o’clock in the morning, we made what to us was a reasonable request. Could they find us a hotel for the night? No problem. A quick phone call and we had a room at the Governor Clinton Hotel and a taxi waiting to take us there. We were really being treated like royalty.
The room was nice - real white sheets on the beds! But the celebration the following night was not all that exciting. We had a few drinks in a joint called the “Club Zanzibar”, where the upholstery on the chairs and booths was fake leopard skin. We reminisced a lot, and agreed that the celebration wasn’t the same without all the other guys there. About midnight, we headed back to the hotel.
The next morning, we shook hands and although we didn’t know it at the time, we wouldn’t see each other again for forty-seven years. We had been through a lot together and had often commented that only those who been there could ever really understand. It was another - and my last - army good-bye.
In Penn Station again, I asked the lady at the information booth for a timetable. I was a small town boy and in our little station in Edgewood, Paul Coulter, the stationmaster, had only one timetable because there was only one railroad through town. The lady smiled at me. “I’ll bet you live in Miami,” she said. “No,” I replied. “How about Los Angeles?” she tried. Still not getting it I replied again in the negative. “Well, soldier,” she smiled, “you’re going to have to tell me where you’re going if I’m going to give you a time table for there.”
The ride home was an enjoyable one. People looked at the ribbons on my Ike jacket and the overseas bars on my sleeve and were immediately friendly. Time passed quickly, and very shortly we arrived at the East Liberty station in Pittsburgh, where I took a taxi home. As I remember, the cabbie wouldn’t let me pay the fare. I got out of the taxi and looked at the big old brick house where I had been born. It seemed smaller, somehow, and older. Or was it just me that was older? I rang the bell and my mother was there. I was home! I put my arms around her and squeezed her tight and said something inane like, “I told you I’d be back.”
She looked up at me and smiled and I can still remember her words: “You went away a boy and you came back a man.”
“Those who went away may or may not be better men than those who did not. Those who went are just different. In the hearts of such as these is a secret place, where no stranger can intrude. When it ended, we went our separate ways. But each of us knew that for a time he had walked among men. And that, no matter how the world may count privilege, is no small thing.” …..Author unknown