Memories of a draftee
By MILTON HOOD
Sergeant First Class
I was happy with my job in the defense plant and living a pretty good life when I got the greetings from Uncle Sam. It was a cold, damp morning when we congregated at the train station, preparing to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. This is the only time (except for the two weeks in camp when I was 12) that I had some doubts about how things would go in the future.
The families came to see us off. The Andrew Lewis High School Band was present for all the traditional music. One of the high school English teachers was wearing his American Legion cap and telling us how he wished he was going with us. Each of us was given a ditty bag containing many useful items such as toothpaste, shoeshine kits, snacks, puzzles, etc.
After a tearful farewell (mother, sisters, girlfriend), we finally were on our way to be inducted into the Army. We arrived at Fort Lee VA, and were immediately into the Army system of double time and wait. Everywhere we went there were long lines and it seemed like hours before we moved any distance. We were divided into groups an assigned to different barracks. The sergeant in charge of each barracks took us to the supply room where we drew our bedding. We were assigned a bed in the barracks and the sergeant demonstrated how beds were to be made and how the area was arranged.
Next we were marched to the quartermaster warehouse to draw our uniforms and equipment. Here, we went to the end of another long line. Finally, the line moved and we arrived at the warehouse. Now, Fort Lee was the quartermaster unit for the Army, and you would think there would be no trouble getting uniforms to fit. Well, it didn't work that way. Some of us were lucky and were issued uniforms with sleeves that didn't cover the hands and pant legs that didn't drag the ground. We took all the equipment back to the barracks and were shown by the sergeant exactly how it was to be displayed.
We were marched to the mess hall where we encountered another long line. The food was good, but we immediately realized that it would be the same as eating at home. Finally the day was over and we were so tired we had no trouble falling asleep.
At six o'clock we were rudely awakened by the blast of the sergeant's whistle. At first, it was hard to realize where we were, but that did not last long because the sergeant was yelling, "Get up!" We rolled out and struggled into unfamiliar uniforms. After Reveille formation and roll call, we were marched to the mess hall for breakfast and our first full Army day began. This day was devoted to processing. We saw movies on Army life, had a physical exam, and took a test to determine where we should be assigned to be of best use to the Army. During the physical exam, the doctor asked me how I ever got into the Army with flat feet. He said not to worry about it because I would be assigned to a unit where I wouldn't have to do a lot of walking.
The next few days were spent waiting for results of the tests and shipping orders. Different groups were shipped out each day and we had to watch the bulletin boars for our names. After what seemed like a month, but was actually only two days, my name was on a list to leave the next day. I was in a group that was going to a camp in Mississippi that I had never heard of. We packed all our equipment and clothing and we were on our way.
Nothing exciting happened on this trip, but we learned what it feels like to be cooped up in a railroad car for four days without a break. We were beginning to get on each other's nerves and I think all of us were glad when the trip was over.
We arrived at our destination late at night, and all we could see through the train windows were the lights of flashlights. We did not know what to expect when we gathered up our equipment to leave the train. As we stepped from the train all we could see were those flashlights. We stayed close together and were led through the trees to a group of barracks. We were assigned to beds and immediately collapsed.
After a short time, the whistle blasted and another day started. After breakfast, we were marched to a large staging area to stand in groups behind the letter of our last initial. This was used as a way of assigning us to different units. Representatives from camp cadre were there as men were called to their assigned units and marched off. I was assigned to the medical unit, and was marched off to the proper barracks to begin my basic training. Everywhere we went around camp we walked on duck board. I didn't think about it much until the second day. I was walking along when I tripped. One foot went off the boards and sank about six inches. After that, I was more careful. Our training classes consisted of classes in the morning and physical application in the afternoon.
My time with the Scouts helped with the marching, first aid, bandages, etc. One day I was at the end of a training cycle and I wasn't feeling too well. I went by the dispensary to get some aspirin and cough medicine. While I was waiting, the doctor happened to come in. He asked me what was wrong. I told him I had a cold and wanted to get something for it. He took my temperature and told me he was admitting me to the hospital for observation. I really didn't feel that bad, but it was bed rest. After two days in the hospital, I was ready to get back to the unit. The doctor made his morning rounds and asked me how I felt, so I told him. However, he said he was going to keep me for awhile longer.
One day after a 25-mile hike, I made the mistake of taking my shoes off. Immediately my feet began to swell so much I couldn't get my shoes back on again. I was taken back to the aid station and the doctor said what I should do was walk at least five miles a day and my feet would not bother me any longer.
The training was routine stuff. At the end of the training cycle we were called into the orderly room and told that I had been selected from the medical detachment to go to surgical technician school at Fort Sam Houston TX. Also there was a corporal rating opening if I did well in school. This was an incentive to work hard at school. When school was over, I returned to camp and was met by one of the sergeants. He told me the camp had been shut down because all of the units were on field maneuvers. We got into the jeep and drove into the country where the units were camped. The first news I heard in the field was that one of the guys in the unit had made corporal that week and that there were no more openings.
As soon as I reported in, I was assigned into the heavy weapons company as a combat aid man. I moved into D Company and trained with them from that point forward. In addition to training with the infantry company, I also had to keep up with the medical training. I was responsible for giving first aid to all the men in the company, and sending them back to the battalion aid station if they were sick or needed further treatment.
After maneuvers, we were sent to Camp Maxey TX, to prepare for overseas shipment. We all wondered where we were being sent, but a couple of days later we were told to turn in all cold weather equipment and draw summer uniforms. We knew then we were headed to the Pacific. Everyday we practiced packing up and loading the train for shipment. We never knew when we were going to leave. One night we were alerted for shipment, and most of us thought it was a dry run, but we did move out on this day.
Everything was top secret. We tried to find out specifically where we were going, but no one would say. We knew it would be somewhere in the Pacific theatre, but we did not know which port we would leave from. The train zig-zagged, sometimes east, sometimes west. We tried to keep track of the signs, but it was very confusing. We were not allowed to talk to anyone outside the train, so were effectively kept in suspense.
Finally, we headed north and we thought we were going to Seattle, so everyone was surprised when our final destination ended up being Taunton MA. We were taken to Camp Miles Standish and we thought this was strange because we couldn't ship to the Pacific from here. We didn't have long to speculate, because the next day we were told to turn in our summer uniforms and draw winter gear. We were then told we were headed for Europe.
Most of the time at Camp Miles Standish was spent checking our equipment and practicing boarding ship. I was one of the lucky ones who got a chance to see a Red Sox game. The USO of Taunton had a dance one night and a bunch of us got to go. Finally, the big day came when we were shipped to the Boston port.
We were loaded on a merchant marine ship and immediately issued life jackets. So, the ones of us who didn't get sick got the trays of the ones who did while they were headed for the rail.
After what seemed like a month, we arrived at a port in England. We were split up in England and our unit was sent to a camp outside a small village. There we continued our training, digging holes, filling them up, patrols, setting up gun encampments, etc. Since I was the medic, I was given a small building in the village to set up a finished station. I spent most of my time there, which meant that I got out of the field exercises. After about three weeks, we boarded an LCI and crossed the channel into France. We moved through France and moved into Belgium by truck convoy. Here the atmosphere was truly different. Everyone was fully aware that we would be on the front lines and anything could happen. It was late at night when we arrived on the front lines to relieve a unit that had been there for some time. We held whispered conversations, because we were told we were in a quiet sector. We were told to hold the positions. We felt pretty good about it until a couple of hours later. Axis Sally came on the radio and said, "Welcome to the 99th Division," and went on with her propaganda.
Everything was so secret that it gave us a weird feeling. We were busy for the next few days. Orders had come down from headquarters for just how the gun placements were to be built and the exact line of fire. So, with all the patrols all the time, all of our time was pretty much taken up. There was a wrapped-up field and yet we were told that there was a mine field and to stay clear of it. We could tell that German patrols were coming through our areas by the footprints in the snow every morning.
At first, we were getting hot chow on the line. The truck would come up to about 200 yards behind the line and we would go through the trees three times a day for hot meals. This lasted for about two weeks, until one morning we found that the Germans had infiltrated our positions and planted land mines all along the path that we had been walking. After this we had to eat field rations because the truck did not come anymore. The Germans tried every trick they knew to find the positions of our heavy weapons. They would come out in the open, out of range.
We were under orders not to fire the heavy weapons at all. We were kept busy with equipment maintenance, patrol, guard duty, and mine skirmishes until Dec. 15. We knew we'd eventually be attacking the Siegfried Line eventually but we didn't know when. Only the officers above the rank of lieutenant knew.
We called the division headquarters in the rear for a meeting. Rumors were flying around. We were told to check all guns and equipment. Some lieutenants were complaining because they had to take over more and more responsibility than they had ever had to before. Later that evening, things began to quiet down. It started with a poker game, and then lunch. I ended up with 1,300 francs and it looked like a million dollars to me. I stuck a roll of money in my pocket and put the rest in my barracks bag. I was wondering how I was going to get it home. It turned out I didn't have to worry about that at all.
It seemed like we had just gone to sleep when all hell broke loose. Artillery shells were breaking all around us, and it was more noise than I had ever heard before in my life. We rolled out fast and took our positions, setting up machine guns for support. When the German infantry and tanks came, we had our hands full.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This was written by Milton Hood in 1988, just prior to his death. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and was a prisoner of war. After the war, he reenlisted and spent 21 years in the Army, retiring in 1965.