Easy Memories: The Way It Was

EDITOR’S NOTE: Several years ago, Harry Arnold gave former editor Bill Meyer permission to reprint this memoir in the Checkerboard. We saved the manuscript “for a rainy day,” when content slowed to a trickle. The rainy day has arrived and “Easy Memories” will be reprinted in the pages of the Checkerboard as time, space and finances permit.

All the men have already gone to war.

capt. schwartz, co, b company, I&r training, camp blanding fl

Camp Maxey, Texas: Full House

My first contact with E Company took place a few weeks before the outfit shipped out from Maxey. I had recently completed I&R training at Blanding, and had orders to report to 99th Division after a few days delay in route. Several of my I&R buddies were issued the same orders. I utilized my time off to the fullest, reporting in at Maxey at the last minute. To my dismay, I learned that all I&R units were full as of yesterday – late arrivals were unwanted. Ah, but there were still a few openings in the rifle companies. I was sent to E. Batson, another late arrival, was sent to F. Second Battalion of 393rd Regiment was looking to fill its ranks.

I presented myself and my records forthwith to Sgt. Harbeck. He scanned my records quickly, stopped suddenly, and did an eyebrow lift and mustache twitch.

“You are I&R – why did you come here?”

“I&R is filled to T.O., so they sent me here.”

“Well, you’ll just have to go back.” He handed me the envelope of records, but seemed undecided.

“You had weapons training – M-1 Garand, M-1 carbine?”

“Yes.”

“Obstacle course?”

“Yes.”

“Infiltration course?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe we can use you.” He was looking through my records again.

“Town Fighting course?”

“No.”

He looked up at me standing before him.

“Sure you have!”

“No.”

Back to the records he went.

“You have had the course!”

“No!”

His face was a scowl, moisture beaded at his hairline. It was warm day.

“Arnold, if you haven’t had it you’ll have to take it – and this company has had it. You’ve had it!” He gave a little grin – just the two of us, you know.

“I have not had Town Fighting,” I insisted. It might be the difference between life and death later on.

“We will see,” he said firmly. He assigned me to 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, and showed me the barracks. He sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling as I went out. I thought I had heard the last of my training omission.

I settled into the training routine in the squad and platoon without incident, met the men, and began to form relationships and impressions. Platoon Sgt. Keyser, with his crewcut blond hair sticking straight up and his little eyes, was a huge possum. Whiting was a short, stocky bulldog. Sgt. Digiallo, clown, insisted he remembered me as a sergeant from other days. I thereafter had the honorary title of “sergeant” whenever he addressed me.

The following week we marched out and fought our way through the mock village, culminating our attack with an assault on town hall at the end of the street. Thus, the outfit paid for my training omission. Harbeck had seen to his duty.

In the squad combat formation I was assigned #8 rifle, just behind #7 rifleman, Alfred Gernsbacher, on the right flank. As we moved through the town I somehow got head of him, with the result that his M-1 was firing live ammunition a little close by my right ear. Gernsbacher was a small, frail boy who, when viewed from the rear on marches, looked like a full field pack with a helmet set atop, with a pair of GI shoes complete with leggings beneath. On the long, tiring raining marches he became my personal aiming stake – I determined I would not fall out unless he did I used to pray that he would, but he never did. I should have tripped him up from behind.

We knew it wouldn’t be long now – already our TAT equipment was being boxed in preparation for a long move.

P.O.E.

Some of you men will be dead in five months.

Unknown major at Fort Bragg induction center, confident that he would not be

We were moved by train to Camp Miles Standish MA. There we were prepped for our movement overseas. For security, our new address was APO 449, and would be for the duration. We were given a final round of shots. Elliot Glass, as usual, fell unconscious at the prick of the needle. Some of us felt superior because we didn’t. We were to learn later that fainting under the needle bore no relationship to courage in battle. A lot of new clothing and equipment was issued (I can still remember the heavy odor of new GI equipment.).

Miles Standish provided a little more relaxation than the usual routine of training camp. Passes were adequate, food plentiful (even for chow hounds), and the air was crisp and invigorating. It was our last time to savor life in the good old USA, for we knew our next move would be toward what our training was all about.

Twenty-four hour KP duty in the large mess was an experience to remember. There was a mechanical potato peeler, a huge rotating affair that would handle bushels – but you still had to cut the eyes out. The amount of food the KP could consume in a tour of duty was stupendous – pounds of steak, ham, roast – dozens of eggs, quarts of fresh milk, coffee, and tea. And included were such incidentals as puddings, cake, fruits, and other dessert types. Our stomachs must have been lined with cast iron. And there were the usual shenanigans – Albert Aguzzi, taking a nap at the mess hall, received a monumental and painful hotfoot, and never learned who administered it.

Just about everybody went on pass to Boston. “Swede” Swanson met a girl there and fell immediately in love. Gernsbacher and I went to Taunton instead. At a USO with a private music room I spent hours at the phonograph listening to music of my favorite composers. In a music shop we purchased a couple of ocarinas. Glass had one, and we wanted to join him in serenading the Germans into submission.

At the Herring Run Grill, we drank six rum cokes each, ate swordfish steaks, and watched the water wheel through the large underground plate glass window. At night, drunk as lords, we marched unsteadily down the center of the main drag and tooted our ocarinas with verve, forcing traffic to weave around us. Unfortunately, the cast iron lining of my stomach yielded to the rum cokes after I returned to camp in the wee hours of the morning.

In the meantime, to keep idle hands busy, we were put to work moving rocks about from one place to another. The place was practically composed of rocks. I must add here, as a sort of postscript, that I was returned to Miles Standish exactly one year later. To keep idle hands busy, I was put to work moving rocks about from one place to another.

Before embarking we were read the Articles of War, and endured yet another short arm inspection.

North Atlantic in September

Take a deep breath, let half of it out, and squeeze it off.

Rifle instruction

September traditionally is the worst month to traverse the North Atlantic, due to storms and rough water, but for most of us, it was an opportunity we could not have afforded otherwise, and we enjoyed it. There was some concern about subs attacking – the U-boats were still active and on the prowl. SS Argentina, the flagship of the convoy, observed wartime night running regulations, as did the rest of the convoy. Despite the pitch black there were usually a few staunch souls on deck enjoying the air and phosphorescence through most of the nights. The convoy was the largest to cross the Atlantic to that time, though larger convoys were to cross later.

On our port flank a large oil tanker plowed through and under the rough seas, disappearing completely under the high crests. Closer on our starboard flank was a ship loaded with nurses. To their right and a little ahead ran a Jeep carrier. Ships of all descriptions stood off low on the horizon as far as we could see. Weaving a tapestry through all were the escort DEs, narrow, sleek, fast.

We probably made the mental transition from America to England when the on-deck loudspeakers first crackled, “This is London calling in the North American service of the BBC,” and dispensed with the news. This became a regular feature of life aboard ship for the rest of the voyage.

Porpoises romped alongside day after day, seeming gleeful at accompanying us. One fellow much larger than the rest usually ran on the port side. Though huge, he applied himself diligently. Often he would roll directly at the hull of the ship as if to bash his head, but always executed an outside loop just short of contact – a daring fellow.

A shipboard PX dispensed a few minor supplies infrequently, if you had money and were prepared to fight the long lines. I could think of nothing I desired that much. Supplies were so short that drawings were often held for the few items available. The resulting frustration caused some of the prospective customers to react like children. Lt. Mann’s reaction to these childish complaints was, “I know many of you want Zippo lighters. I want a Zippo lighter. There just aren’t enough Zippo lighters to go around, so some of us will have to do without Zippo lighters.”

We were rationed to one quart of fresh water per man per day. You could use it as you chose, drink, wash, shave, or brush teeth. Sea water was available, but washing or shaving with it was an ordeal. My opportunity to go to the showers was a memorable experience – I only had a bar of Lava soap, and the gritty pumice defied all efforts to dissolve it in the salt water. The resulting shower was vigorous, to say the least.

We were quartered in the ship’s lounge. Our hammocks were stacked from deck to deck with only enough room between to lie on your back with your head turned sideways to prevent your nose being crushed by the guy in the bunk above. With your rifle, helmet, two barracks bags, duffle bag, etc., etc., stored in the same space the situation was near impossible. The alternative was to spend as much time on deck as possible.

Sgt. Harbeck was the first man we saw to become seasick. It was unfortunate for him in many ways – seasickness is pure misery, almost demeaning. Obviously he would have preferred to succumb to the malady after lesser personnel, if at all. Being regarded by some of the men as a bit effeminate in speech and manner didn’t help. The result for him was combined misery and ridicule. He hung loosely over the rail like a wet, limp rag, unable to move in his own defense, a strong hand clutching the seat of his pants to prevent him flowing across the rail and into the sea. Fortunately, few of us became sick during the trip. I thought I was immune, only to learn different a year later.

As young men with insatiable appetites, perhaps our greatest concern was food. There was enough to sustain body, but not soul. We were forced to finagle, bribe, steal, deal – anything to get a little more to eat. Each man had a small supply of K and C rations, but was forbidden to open them without authorization. Mine soon vanished during the long black nights on deck. I was later assigned to the garbage detail, which proved a bit of good fortune. We threw garbage over the fantail at night to prevent U-boats from tracing us, during the course of which we were within reasonable proximity to the officers’ mess. We found that the officers ate well and good, and we availed ourselves of same. It had the effect momentarily of offsetting the green, blue, and purple boiled eggs served in our mess.

One afternoon we were warned that U-boats had been detected in or around the convoy. DEs sliced through the formation, one passing between us and the tanker to our left, soon lost to sight head. Rumor had it that a freighter carrying some of our TAT equipment had been torpedoed. We immediately began to worry about the possible loss of Mess Sgt. Sam Visintine’s kitchen range.

Long before sighting land we began seeing small open fishing boats bobbing about, one to two men in each boat. You had to admire these fishermen. I remembered the winter and spring of 1942, when I lived on Roanoke Island. A certain fisherman worked out of Wanchese, on the southern end of the island. One fine day when he and his sons were fishing well offshore, a U-boat surfaced within hailing distance. The U-boat commander, in good English, demanded to know what they were doing out here. The answer in good Wanchese was, “Fishing for me living.”

“You go back to land, old man, and don’t come back out again!” And he didn’t. Few people seriously believed the incident happened, and scoffed. I believed. In those months, burning ships a few miles offshore, oil swamped beaches, and the thump and vibration of exploding torpedoes were all too frequent. The U-boat captain meant what he said. The fisherman didn’t return to the open sea.

Finally, green land rose on our port horizon, new and alien. Ireland? England? Isle of Wight? Later, in the shipping channel leading in to Southampton, we saw great ships of war at anchor.

We were beginning to feel a part of momentous events.

England

There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way.

GI gripe

At the Southampton docks we remained aboard and waited. Where the hell were the welcoming bands, the crowds? Down on the docks it was business as usual. Boredom set in as we waited to unload. Some fellow humorously filled a condom with air and let it drift down the side of the ship and onto the dock. An Englishman retrieved it, let the air out, and pocketed it. More condoms began to drift about, and more people arrived to claim them. Soon the air was filled with the white rubber globes, and everybody in the vicinity seemed to have a considered use for them, even the women on the docks. A shortage was apparent.

Once disembarked we were loaded aboard one of those dinky, miniature, but very civilized English trains. The trip ended at a dreary army camp with the unromantic title of D-6, some six miles from Dorchester. We were assigned barracks shortly before nightfall. Rude wire double decker bunks and a pot-bellied stove were the only furnishings At the instant someone inquired about the lack of mattresses we were introduced to the small pile of straw that had been unceremoniously dumped on the ground a hundred yards away. The ubiquitous combined bread sack-body bag-mattress cover was to be stuffed with the straw – only there was far too little straw. A chill filled the air, and rain began as we hurriedly ran with our meager loads of wet straw. Darkness and our first night in camp had arrived.

The few chunks of coal provided for heating the building soon burned out, with no perceptible rise in temperature. We shivered through the night. Much effort was expended over the next days appropriating, by whatever means possible, a few lumps of coal in an unsuccessful attempt to temper the damp autumn chill of English nights.

Our first meal in England was C rations.

The following day we ate what most of us were convinced was horse – a sticky, gluey hash. Sam’s pancakes began to be a mainstay, as they were to prove to be later on the front.

We were not allowed to be idle for long. We were soon put to marching about the countryside regularly, rain or shine. The weather was exactly as we had understood it would be. A march of a few miles seldom failed to produce alternating rain and shine – raincoats on, raincoats off, raincoats on … The marches were exhilarating, and often pleasurable, however. The country we marched through was even more beautiful than we had expected, with quaint, picturesque little towns and villages with such unlikely names as Piddletown, Puddletown, Piddlehinton, Piddletrenthyde, etc., - as Jim Bowers observed, Thomas Hardy country.

On the longest and last march before we left England I was appointed pacesetter – supposedly an honor. I started out that morning at a brisk pace, taking mile-eating and leg-stretching strides. As the hours and miles fell behind I realized I had set a pace that was going to be pure hell to maintain, but the deed was done and I had to live with it. I considered that those behind weren’t fairing any better. I churned on, tiring by the minute, giving all I had to give. At one point I cast a glance behind – and horrors, distance between me and the column seemed to be narrowing. And there was no way to resign. Many blisters later we arrived at the bivouac area and began to dig in for the night. We were in low mountains or high hills, whichever is preferred – the southern reaches of the Cotswolds, I imagine.

The brass dreamed up a competition which was intended to determine and honor the best squad. The competition was in close order drill, manual of arms, etc. The brass viewed competition in the various companies, selecting the best of each. First Squad, 2nd Platoon won the E Company competition. We figured we were pretty good, but never dreamed that we could make it to the finale. When that happened it was no longer a lark – it was serious business competing against the other remaining squad. Now we were entertaining the possibility of coming in number one. Halfway through our final performance the chances seemed remote. To that point we had executed with flawless precision. As we approached a sharp embankment, the command that should turn us inches from disaster failed to come. Sgt. Digiallio drew a momentary blank, and we plowed on up the embankment, spinning our feet and laughing in combined humor and embarrassment. Digiallio finally found his voice and extracted us from the situation, and we continued without committing further error – but a mistake had already been made. OK, second place then. But it didn’t turn out that way. The brass huddled for a minute, then announced the winner. We had won despite our transgression. I remember thinking that being singled out here may well prove our undoing later. Better to remain anonymous …

As in all units we had our share of rumors. We were to be the main force in an invasion of Norway. Or, we were not to be committed to combat, since the end was near, but would form a constabulary force to take over and run the occupied areas, attired in white helmets and leggings. The former was distinctly undesirable. Norway is rugged, cold country, and winter was just around the corner.

Passes to nearby towns were ample. Dorchester, the usual choice, was within walking distance, and offered a variety of interests in the form of cinemas, USO canteen, pubs, Allied Services canteen, etc. Puddletown (or was it Piddletown?), virtually next door to D-6, boasted a quiet country pub where a pint or two of stout could be enjoyed while the locals ignored you. Some men drew passes to London, but that was rare.

Thurston, 1st Squad BAR man, with an IQ of 148, had come to Easy from electronics training. We went to Dorchester on 24-hour pass. An English major of artillery, wounded in the dessert, was recuperating at the house where we rented our room. He spent most of his time staring morosely into the fireplace, which seldom showed more than a wisp of smoke. He said little and seemed barely aware of our presence, except when American soldiers infrequently passed the window on the street. Then he would exclaim, “Look at those Americans – how tall they are. Everyone so tall …” He would suck thoughtfully on his cold pipe and return to the fireplace and his personal thoughts.

On the street I asked an old duffer where I may get my hair cut. He peered at me for a moment in apparent contempt, as if deciding whether or not to address me. He looked a ludicrous figure – tweed cap, jacket, vest, and nicker pants, paunch, scruffy eyebrows and mustache.

“We aren’t like you American chappies, working all the time for the dollar – we work for ‘alf day ‘ere.” He leaned back, thrusting his paunch forward, and tapped his cane on the pavement for emphasis.

“Maybe that’s why we are over here bailing you people out,” I suggested.

He gripped his cane tightly, snorted, turned red in the face and stalked off.

We enjoyed the English cinema houses – smoking was allowed, and each seat was provided with an ashtray. I fired up my new lighter to light a fat Royal cigarette. The lighter was one of those cord pull affairs popular in England at the time. The thing burst into flame, lighting several rows of seats and searing my eyebrows. Behind me someone exclaimed, “Ah, a veritable flamethrower!”

Food being in short supply in England, decorum demanded we curb our appetites when visiting people or establishments. The USO and Allied Services canteens usually offered half sandwiches and, rarely, a drink approximately Pepsi or Coke. Again, decorum required that you accept only one of the half sandwiches. Thurston and I, ravenously hungry, thought we had a foolproof plan to overcome the problem. We would appear at the USO, wolf down our half sandwich, then march over to the Allied Services place and mingle with Czech, Polish, Indian, Norwegian, British, and Canadian soldiers, and partake of the fare being offered there. After the third or fourth circuit we were recognize by the girl dispensing sandwiches at the Allied Services canteen. “You guys hungry, or something?” she asked sweetly. Embarrassment curtailed that operation.

One morning I was dismissed from training and ordered to report to Co. HQ. Captain Miller acknowledged my report and said he wanted to introduce me to someone. In walked my oldest brother, Wilbur, a major in the Medical Corps. He had been in England for some time and had found out my location. Capt. Miller agreed to exempt me from duty for the day. Wilbur had a command car (the original jeep – the vehicle we knew as the jeep was first called the “peep”) and driver at his disposal.

In minutes we were tearing down those curving one-lane roads at perilous speed, and I clung desperately to the Spartan innards of the thing. We invaded 395th HQ mess for lunch – he knew one of the staff there. Afterward we rode around and engaged in small talk before he hit me with what he was thinking.

“Doc,” he said (everybody back home called me that), “I am aware that your outfit is soon gong over I see boys like you coming back every day – those that can come back. There is no need for me to describe their condition, physically or mentally. Now, I have good reason to believe I can wrangle a transfer to the Med Corps for you, and you may spend the rest of the war in England or, at least, be out of danger. If you go over in this outfit I don’t expect to see you alive again, or in one piece. Think about it and let me know.” There it was – a spade is a spade is a spade.

I tried to consider the inconsiderable. As my brother, and in his position, he had to make the attempt. In a real sense he was “over a barrel” and he knew he was putting me in a bad position, too. Whatever the decision it would be crucial and a part of me for as long as I lived, or until … I had no choice, really – it was painfully obvious.

“I appreciate the offer and effort,” I told him, “but I want to go on with the boys.”

I would have been better off had the offer not been made. In the coming days I was faced often with the knowledge that by saying the word I might have had an out.

After returning to D-6 I didn’t see him again for more than a year. From that day in England to his death in 1963, we never once, either of us, mentioned the conversation of that day. I don’t think modesty or immodesty or bravado had any bearing – the key was legitimacy. A valid reason would have had my instant approval and agreement. If, for instance, Eisenhower had sent me an order to take a post in the rear because he recognized my great capabilities of strategy, organization, leadership, etc., I would have accepted forthwith. If a doctor had notified me that a recent check of my medical records showed I had a skull full of cow dung, and that I was unfit for my assigned duties. I would have acquiesced.

When I got back to camp I learned that Thurston had hurt his back in training and had been sent to the hospital. It was the last we saw of him. Hugh Underwood and Carr joined us at about this time – Underwood from Paratroops, Carr from Rangers.

Near the end of our short stay in England we were ordered to wash and scrub our clothes, pack, web equipment, etc. My web belt, cut precisely to my 29-inch waist, shrank beyond use when it dried. Every bird-eyed officer seemed to notice the deficiency.

“You are out of uniform, soldier – get a web belt!”

Supply Sgt. Bullard said, “What the hell happened to your belt? You guys will have to learn to take care of your equipment. I haven’t got a goddamn web belt!”

Meanwhile I was out of uniform, as every officer kept reminding me.

France

Remember, there are no new holes in France.

Capt. Miller, CO, E Company

We crossed the English Channel by LST, leaving Weymouth Oct. 28 and arriving at LeHavre Oct. 29. The trip was without incident. We envied the life of the crew, good bunks, good food, and an atmosphere of leisure. In early morning light we could see the French coast in the distance. While drinking in the view of the alien shore with our eyes, our minds were conjuring up notions of what may be beyond. I was in no particular hurry to get onto the Continent and mix it up with the Krauts – indeed would have been pleased if the war ended with me uninitiated – never mind why I was here.

Our recent arrivals, Underwood and Carr, in reverse of my timidity were impatient to get to the front and kill Krauts. Capt. Miller took a stern, no nonsense approach: “Be careful. Don’t take unnecessary chances. Keep your eyes open for booby-traps.” Tall, thin, and brittle, he seemed old for this young man’s game.

The ruin of LeHavre was awesome to eyes unfamiliar with such contrived violence, the place crushed and gutted. Some buildings were cleaved apart with sections still standing, interiors exposed, with furniture, plumbing, and the usual trappings of civilized existence suspended over an abyss as though defying gravity – a toy city fallen into disfavor with the angry child. In the harbor, on her side, was a once majestic ocean liner, the Paris, scuttled there by the Germans as part of the debris calculated to render the harbor unusable. From the shoreline moles of stone and concrete extended fingerlike into the harbor, bunkers with silent and dark embrasures adorning the outermost reaches. The city had suffered bombardment by the RN and RAF. I tried to envision the toil and effort and cost and time in human increments it would take to restore this one example of what a good part of the European continent must be like when the ravenous appetite of war was finally appeased.

We loaded aboard trucks, packed in until no more bodies could be accommodated. The drive seemed endless. Packed together tightly, it was impossible to change position of aching limbs, and the chill air added to the discomfort. The overwhelming desire to relieve distended bladders was ignored by the drivers until retention of body fluids became agony. In darkness we were finally dismounted and told to pitch tents for the night. We were near Reims, in an orchard, and it was raining. We unrolled our blanket rolls on wet, slippery, and spongy earth where the wet chill penetrated to our bones.

A semblance of order was contrived, though with considerable difficulty in the slippery dark, and the parings produced the abominations known as pup tents. Into these we crawled, to lie looking sightlessly into the black, contemplating our plight.

The words, first muffled, then louder, penetrated our ears and brought our sought after oblivion to sickening awareness. “Cow shit. Goddamn cow shit. We’re in the middle of a bunch of cow shit!” And so it was – an apple orchard inhabited by cattle. We were forced to reflect on the lot of infantry. To die in an airplane, whirling, aflame, breaking apart thousands of feet above the earth is terrible – to be incinerated or ripped apart in a tank is conclusively violent – but to die amidst the slime of animal droppings seemed ignominiously improper.

More long hours tightly packed in the cold misery of trucks as the convoy resumed. An occasional French female would be greeted with obscene shouts and gestures as we passed. Villages with houses, walls, and fences pockmarked with rifle and MG bullets swept past. Here and there we passed destroyed and burned vehicles – evidence that an angry, sharp exchange had taken place in the recent past. The land was flat, dismal, and inhospitable, the weather chill, damp and gray. How long before we tangled with the supermen? What chance of remaining alive until the madness ceased? Many of us were glum.

Last modified Oct. 11, 2012

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