The 99th trains for war years ago
By Robert E. Humphrey
The newly formed 99th Infantry Division, with a blue and white Checkerboard insignia, was activated Nov. 15, 1942, at Camp Van Dorn, near the hamlet of Centreville in the southwest corner of Mississippi.
It consisted of more than 15,000 men organized into three infantry regiments — the 393rd, the 394th, and the 395th — with attached units of artillery, anti-tank, reconnaissance, military police, and medical care. Each regiment contained three battalions; each battalion had one weapons company and three rifle companies with 117 riflemen in each company.
Roughly 3,160 soldiers in the division constituted the riflemen who manned the front lines and suffered the majority of casualties — wounded, injured, sick, captured, and killed. The most basic rifle unit was the 12-man squad led by a staff sergeant, the squad leader. Except for the BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle) man, each soldier carried an M-1 rifle, which fired eight-bullet clips semi-automatically.
The most dangerous occupation in the division received the smallest salary and the lowest status.
General Walter E. Lauer, the division commander, was appointed in August 1943. Lauer spent the inter-war years with occupation forces in Germany as a commissioned officer and then taught military science at two small colleges. From December 1938 until January 1943 he served on the staff of the 3rd Division, which captured French Morocco. However, before the final Allied victory in North Africa, he was gone.
Tall, humorless, "abrasive," and arrogant, senior officers found Lauer "disagreeable." He told them he wanted the division to "have a reputation of being outstanding," but Lt. Colonel Matthew Legler 1/393 reckoned Lauer was "more interested in his own reputation."
Others agreed with this assessment. Maltie Anderson E/394 regarded him as a "tooter of his own horn," and Furman Grimm L/394 remarked that with Lauer you got "windy speeches on hot days."
His oft-repeated slogan, "Do it now, do it right, and do it with a smile," hardly roused men to action, though they wondered jokingly if "it" might refer to sex.
Once while Lauer was inspecting the supply room at Camp Van Dorn, Willis Botz S/394 asked the general if he could have a stove, as it was cold when typing requisitions. Lauer replied, "When I was a lieutenant at Fort Benning we lived in tents without heat. I was a better officer for it." Though Botz was denied the stove, Lauer did not impose the same tough standard on himself. On maneuvers he slumbered in a cabin while his men slept on the ground.
The cadre (the training officers) had transferred to Camp Van Dorn from the 7th Infantry Division, while the draftees hailed mainly from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio.
The men trained from December 1942 until November 1943, including some four weeks on maneuvers living in tents amongst the snakes, mosquitoes, and ticks of Louisiana lowlands.
The division then moved to Camp Maxey, a new base with white, two-storied barracks, paved streets, movie theaters, chapels, and a bowling alley. After the primitive shacks at Camp Van Dorn and pup tents in rainy Louisiana, Camp Maxey seemed almost plush by comparison.
Yet, the brutally hot, humid Texas summer would rival Mississippi and Louisiana in its capacity to inflict suffering. It was, according to Lou Pedrotti L/395, as if "a hot, wet sponge was being squeezed dry all over us by a malevolent god."
Camp Maxey came into existence in February 1942, when the U.S. government bought 70,000 acres of land, much of it cotton fields gone to seed. Construction on more than 1,700 buildings began that same month, and the base was activated in July 1942, in northeastern Texas near the Oklahoma border, nine miles from a small town (population 19,000) with the unlikely name of Paris.
The base stimulated an economic boom for the town, which swelled overnight with construction workers, carpenters, roofers, plumbers, and prostitutes. Retail businesses, drug stores, movie theaters, dime stores, cafes, the Gibraltar Hotel, and residences with rented rooms benefited from the influx of civilian and military newcomers.
Three thousand of the original 99ers (mainly infantrymen) were sent overseas to depleted divisions, hence a need for the ASTPers, who filled the undermanned rifle squads in March 1944. According to Earle Slyder F/395, the college boys arriving at the train station in Paris encountered a "cold awakening," for the town was nondescript, a "bus stop," completely "unremarkable," surrounded by "desolate" countryside.
Those who had endured basic training in the Jap Trap knew they were bound for an infantry division. Others were unaware of what lay ahead.
When Bill McMurdie A/394, who had taken basic with an armored outfit in Arkansas, entered Maxey's main gate, his "heart fell" because he learned the 99th was an infantry division, and "none of us really wanted to be infantrymen."
A first lieutenant addressed McMurdie and the new boys, "telling us a lot of baloney about the glories of being in the infantry. He treated us like a bunch of high school boys and failed miserably to improve our morale."
It was an unpleasant jolt; they had been studying hard while enjoying the freedom of college when suddenly their hopes for an engineering degree and officer status had been dashed for no apparent reason, and with no explanation.
Disappointed, angry, and upset, the ASTPers felt the Army had misled them. They had done what the Army asked, and yet they were apparently being punished. Worst of all, they were destined to serve in the main as front-line troops, a rough, dangerous, and inferior assignment.
They discovered, moreover, all the noncommissioned officer slots were filled, so there would be little chance for immediate advancement in rank and privilege.
Most of the noncoms had a limited education. A few could not read and write. Consequently, the ASTPers would be under the direct, daily control of "rough and mean" men they considered their intellectual and social inferiors.
"Some of us ASTPers were pretty arrogant," confessed William Meacham L/394, which did not endear them to the noncoms.
"They resented us," Mel Richmond A/393 believed, but they had the power of the Army behind them. Richmond confessed, "I was afraid of them, and we didn't rebel."
Richard Weaver B/394 recounted, "The cadre let us know that they were tougher and had more training, and a lot of them were big country boys."
The cadre were determined to show these "whiz kids" that real men, who knew how to drink, smoke, and cuss, were expected to stand up to rigorous training in the steamy Texas sun.
(A sergeant told Leon Rogers I/395, "If you don't drink, you're a sissy.")
The cadre also believed these "smart asses" would need the skills and training to survive in combat. Some ASTPers talked in code about the cadre saying, "he's a 60" or "that one is probably an 80," referring to an assessment of their Army General Classification Test scores.
Mel Richmond admitted they used to "joke that the cadre got their first pair of shoes when they went into the Army."
Cryptic discrediting of those with power was a way of expressing frustration and scoring psychic victories over those from whom they resented taking orders. Calling the cadre and non-ASTPers "hillbillies" and "coal miners" labeled them as social and cultural lowlifes.
The ASTPers had demonstrated their superiority by being selected for the college program; they had been studying and working toward positions of authority and privilege, which they felt they deserved. Brains and talent were rewarded in civilian society, but the military ignored such qualifications and apparently bestowed rank on length of service.
To the ASTPers it seemed a rather stupid and inefficient way to run an army. Daily SNAFUS and the "hurry-up-and-wait" syndrome would confirm the Army excelled at inefficiency and waste.
The ASTPers came in as an identifiable group, so the Camp Van Dorn 99'ers could pigeonhole them as those elitist college guys. Had the ASTPers been treated with some measure of understanding and tolerance, the blow would have been softened, and they might have more easily integrated into the Division.
Many of the older (in their mid 20s) privates from Van Dorn were, according to Ronald Kraemer D/394, "not friendly; they wouldn't take you into the group and would challenge you to fights."
General Lauer greeted them, "Young men you are the cream of the crop, but the cream is sour. We are going to train you and make you into soldiers." Lauer's comment angered Jim Bussen E/394, because it suggested he and the others did not measure up to Army standards.
From the beginning, the ASTPers encountered noncoms predisposed to dislike them. According to one sergeant, the college boys were "jerks who thought they were special and looked down on us."
On the first morning in camp, the platoon sergeant handed Howard Bowers D/394 a Checkerboard shoulder patch and sharply told him and his fellow ASTPers to "get those flaming piss pots off your shoulders" — a crude reference to the "lamp of learning" badge that identified a soldier as a member of the ASTP program.
Similarly First Sergeant Jack Shaffer G/395 told Forbes Williams, "No smart-ass college bastard was going to tell him how to run the company."
Some noncoms harbored a prejudice against these "pampered college boys" or "G[eneral] F[ — k] U[ps] with high IQs" even before they arrived. They believed these "quiz kids" (a reference to bright youngsters who answered challenging questions on a popular radio show) had enjoyed a "pampered" college life, while the cadre and trainees had withstood brutal training in Mississippi and Louisiana.
George Dudley, staff sergeant A/394, thought these kids had "gotten a break, and they weren't tough." The cadre wanted hardened soldiers not prissy pencil pushers. That was what combat required.
The intelligence of the ASTPers threatened some members of the cadre, who feared these young men aimed to replace them. Company Commander Joseph Shank warned Sergeant Hank Ankrom I/394 and other noncommissioned officers they might lose their stripes to "the new guys because they are smart." Insecurity and fear in some cases fueled hostility towards the "whiz kids."
Rex Whitehead H/394 thought "for the first time in my life I was superior," but being "lorded over by a nit-wit was not good for the ego." Moreover, it soon became apparent that the ASTPers learned quickly. They could read maps and use a compass better than some instructors.
The conflict between sergeants and ASTP recruits occurred on the parade grounds, obstacle courses, and dusty roads of the camp. Since division brass believed the ASTPers had either become soft, had forgotten all they had learned, or were never properly instructed, the "new guys" were hustled into a separate "provisional regiment" for retraining in combat fighting, in effect, repeating basic again.
For eight weeks they marched with field packs weighing 70 pounds, learned patrolling and tactics, hiked across country, practiced shooting at the rifle range, attacked a mock German village with live ammunition, worked with tanks and artillery, crawled along an infiltration course with machine gun bullets whistling two feet over their heads, and ran the dreaded obstacle course in timed competition.
The training was, according to Byron Whitmarsh C/395, "as hard as they could make it. They thought it was good for you. Every day they shit on you." The harsh treatment, exacting rules, lack of freedom, low pay, and bad food, "made you hate the whole world," said Whitmarsh.
Nevertheless, determined to disprove the cadre's assumption they were a bunch of "sissies," the "smart ass college kids" held up well. Often they outperformed the older cadre on endurance marches where at Maxey, according to Woodrow Hickey F/395, you could "walk in the mud and have sand blowing in your face all the time."
This generation was accustomed to authority at home and in school, so obedience, not rebellion was viewed as the norm. The Army wanted soldiers who would act without hesitation. As Leon Rogers put it, "Training destroyed your ability to ask questions. If you did or talked back, you would be given extra duties."
Enlisted men obeyed orders and accepted punishment for misbehavior or failure, but petty, demeaning harassment undermined morale. It seemed senseless and provoked suppressed anger, making military training much more disagreeable than it needed to be.
It also created a rift between officers and enlisted men that was often not closed, even on the battlefield. A few insecure officers imposed the tightest controls on the new arrivals, justifying their demands and insults with the military's premise that recruits needed to be shown the Army was in total control.
The process of mortification and belittling was designed to break down the enlisted man's ego and individuality, and then rebuild his sense of self with Army values and pride in the group. But in some cases the gratification of giving orders and punishing people satisfied personal needs, including the pleasure of raw power over other men.
Commissioned officers supervised training in the field, while noncoms managed activities in the barracks on a daily basis. First sergeants (master sergeants) who administered the company and platoon sergeants (technical sergeants) in charge of the squads possessed higher rank and power than squad leaders (staff sergeants).
In having their own sleeping rooms and eating tables the first and platoon sergeants also were somewhat physically removed from the recruits. This distance enhanced their authority and made it difficult to form close relationships with enlisted men, which the Army discouraged anyway.
Noncoms and newly commissioned, newly empowered second lieutenants (the so-called 90-day wonders from Officers Candidate School) could make life miserable for recruits. They chewed them out for the tiniest infractions, enforcing punishments such as KP, toothbrush-scrubbing the barracks, additional calisthenics and marches, and denying passes to leave the base, which left them subject to additional disagreeable assignments. Enlisted men could not even relax in the barracks, but had to hide at the PX (post exchange), day room, or the service club.
According to David Reagler I/394, the men feared First Sergeant James Cumstay, a short, florid-faced man, who ruled his company like a tyrant. "If you screwed up on some minor details, no passes for the weekend. If he found a single cigarette butt, he would make the platoon scrub out the barracks with lye water and stiff brushes. If someone did something that displeased him, he would restrict the whole company."
Joseph Hineman C/395 and others were rudely awakened at 2 a.m. and forced to clean the dimly lit, unpainted barracks for no apparent reason.
John Vasa G/395 said that First Sergeant John Shaffer would repeatedly swear and cuss the company when they stood at Retreat, saying you "college f — ks don't know sheep shit from Arbuckle coffee." (Vasa's platoon sergeant "borrowed" money and never repaid him.)
Byron Whitmarsh watched a drunken Shaffer beat up a private and throw him into the barracks where his face was sliced badly on a footlocker. Whitmarsh was so disgusted by this behavior that he requested a transfer to C Company, which had a "top-notch" first sergeant.
But Whitmarsh's troubles did not end. His platoon leader was a "nit-picker" who caught him smoking at night during an exercise and made him dig "straddle" trenches. On another occasion the lieutenant told him at noon to shave again. Whitmarsh complied but in a small act of rebellion deliberately omitted redoing the mustache area. He was caught and sent back to shave again.
Deliberate disobedience of a direct order could result in severe punishment, so passive-aggressive behavior (a sin of omission) provided an option to enlisted men.
Forbes Williams, a member of the fourth or weapons platoon of G/395, reported that Shaffer brawled at the PX and was reduced to a private and transferred to another company.
Williams and the other men in his section took pleasure in Shaffer's demotion by whistling and hooting at the former sergeant whenever they saw him. But the harassment did not end for Williams. The platoon leader, a first lieutenant, who worried more about "spit and polish" than substance, reprimanded him and other enlisted men for "minor offenses."
Upon seeing Arthur Pellegrene D/394 discard a cigarette butt without "field stripping" it, First Lieutenant John Vaughn ordered him to dig a huge foxhole, throw the butt in, and then fill the hole.
Once Howard Bowers D/394 entered his barracks without seeing and saluting Lieutenant Vaughn, who was some distance away. Vaughn followed him into the barracks and confronted him with, "Soldier, aren't you proud to be in the U.S. Army?" Vaughn equated not saluting with being unpatriotic, thereby inflating a simple misunderstanding into a sign of disrespect for the Army.
Of course, what Vaughn really meant was that Bowers hadn't shown deference toward him. Humiliated, Bowers replied, "No, Sir." Bowers also made the mistake of sleeping in on a Sunday morning and was ordered to go clean up after a Saturday night party of commissioned officers, a humiliating assignment that he deeply resented. He felt he had been reduced to a servant.
Bowers soon discovered that officers enjoyed other special privileges — they had access to liquor whereas enlisted men could only buy 3.2% beer.
Privates were not allowed to simply approach and address a commissioned officer of any rank. Officers were considered a lofty elite who lived, ate, and partied in special quarters far from the purview of common soldiers. "We considered," said Mel Richmond, high-ranking officers like Battalion Commander Matthew Legler, who moved about with an entourage, to "be like gods."
In terms of rank and proximity the cadre were less exalted figures. Nonetheless, they held considerable power over enlisted men. While exceptional, some officers did abuse their power.
When First Sergeant Vernon Selders sucker-punched Jack Prickett in the mouth, Sergeant Charles Lugton wanted to retaliate in kind, but Prickett convinced him to let it pass, for he didn't want Lugton "to lose his stripes."
Some officers elicited genuine hatred. Company Commander Keith Fabianich, a West Pointer, was so disliked that some men talked about shooting him on the battlefield.
Similarly a non-ASTP replacement found himself unfairly punished by a platoon sergeant who assigned him "every shit job there was." The noncom "inflicted such indignities on me that I planned to kill him once we got overseas."
A soldier could complain to superior officers but no one filed official charges of mistreatment. If he did, the enlisted man would suffer reprisals and would likely be transferred away from his buddies. Soldiers endured, often with bitterness and resentment, because there seemed to be no alternatives, except "to tell it to the chaplain" or bitch among themselves, their favorite release mechanism. So they set about learning how to become capable soldiers to survive if they went into combat.
Many officers, commissioned and noncommissioned, did not abuse their power, so the morale of soldiers often depended on the personality of those in charge. Well-trained, natural leaders commanded respect in part because they did not "pull rank."
Sergeant Harold Lange I/395 found the ASTPers to be "cocky" and even rebellious. He told them if they wanted to challenge him, he would meet them outside the barracks. That seemed to settle the question of who was in command. After that initial episode, their playfulness did not appear defiant to him.
Instead of counting off 1, 2, 3, they would say, "70, 71, 72, and when they reached 76, they would yell out, 'that's the spirit'!" Lange, who was liked by his men, found this behavior more amusing than threatening to his authority or Army discipline.
Admired officers cared about their men and kept telling them they were the best. Such officers, Byron Whitmarsh averred, "made you want to do what they asked."
Sergeant Ken Juhl L/393 said he tried "to foster pride in his platoon, encourage the men on marches, and make them fight for and with me."
Wayne Cleveland I/394 found Platoon Sergeant Isador Rosen to be a leader who "treated us with respect," which made it easier to "buddy up with the regulars."
ASTPer Joseph Thimm K/395 thought his second platoon "had a couple of outstanding training officers from the old 99th."
George Lehr, John McCoy, Walter Malinowski, and Ernest McDaniel, F/393, regarded Stanley Lowry a "savvy," full-blooded Native American, as "the best platoon sergeant in the company." In August they received a freshly minted second lieutenant, Joseph Kagan, who confessed to Lowry he needed help because of his inexperience. Kagan's honesty and humility, almost refreshingly exceptional, won over the platoon and helped produce "a close-knit team."
The Army however preferred an authoritarian managerial style. Rough treatment was encouraged to "toughen up" the men. Compliments and positive reinforcement were never employed. The best any soldier could hope for was the absence of criticism.
Division, regiment, and even battalion officers were too far removed, both at Maxey and even more so overseas, to concern themselves with the plight of ordinary soldiers. Even company commanders did not generally intervene or stop harassment. They did not want to undermine the authority of junior officers or the cadre.
Lieutenant Harold Hill's company commander criticized him for "being close to the men." Hill was told, "you must keep separation between officers and privates." This philosophy, which assumes that familiarity produces contempt and weakens authority, actually proved counterproductive, for the most effective leaders turned out to be those who bridged the distance with their men.
During the retraining period, the ASTPers of the 1st Battalion 395th became involved in a dispute with one of the sergeants. It began as they were "dismissed" after a long day of marching. The recruits playfully yelled out, "hubba hubba," (a slang expression signifying approval), a ritual they had adopted during basic training without repercussions.
This was not, however, acceptable to the sergeant. He may not have understood what it meant or interpreted their behavior as taunting him, but to his way of thinking, as a hardcore Army regular, these college boys were using frivolous words from civilian life that had no place in the military. The ASTPers felt he had no right to reprimand them, since after being "dismissed," they were on their own time.
The next day the same scenario occurred, but this time the sergeant told them to report back to the parade ground after dinner, whereupon he ordered them to "stand at attention!" After some time, he yelled: "Rest!" Again a voice from the back row muttered, "hubba hubba." This struggle of having the last word (literally) continued for several hours until both sides tired of the drill.
In a similar encounter with this group, Staff Sergeant David Jones A/395 reported that after drilling them for an hour, he ordered, "rest" and immediately heard, "hubba hubba," which he construed as mocking him. So, Jones ordered the men back to the marching area for more close-order drilling, but this time they got the message: he was in charge.
One day Ernest McDaniel and his group were taken to a field where each soldier was given a wooden "sighting and aiming bar" designed to teach the most elementary steps in shooting a rifle. Since McDaniel already had qualified as a sharpshooter in basic training, he considered this a waste of time. Deciding to have some fun, he "entangled [himself] in the contraption in the most awkward way," which produced laughter from his companions. Viewing levity as incompatible with serious military training, the officer assigned the misbehaving private to "kitchen duty" that Easter Sunday.
McDaniel was not allowed to explain why he seemed less than serious about this exercise because a recruit learned in basic training what his responses must be: "Yes, sir," "No, sir." and "No, excuse, sir." Enlisted men were not permitted explanations.
What many might perceive as normal youthful exuberance, the Army viewed as an infraction.
When Harold Schaefer G/394 and his company were returning in ranks after a day of exercises, they happened to pass the Service Club whereupon a soldier in another platoon whistled at the women standing outside. At 2 a.m. the next morning the whole company was rousted out of their bunks and told to clean the barracks. Schaefer and his platoon mates learned only later why they were being punished. If one man misbehaved, they all suffered the consequences.
This rule placed enormous pressure on each enlisted man not to step out of line or express his individuality. Being punished for someone else's mischieviousness certainly did not seem right, but the recruit soon learned fairness need not prevail in the Army. Discipline dominated everything, and officers had the prerogative to decide the punishment, which served to enhance their power.
One of the more disagreeable training exercises involved the bayonet, a stabbing weapon that required face-to-face killing. Bryon Whitmarsh vividly remembered the training film, "The Battle is the Payoff," which focused "on one guy who was in a bayonet fight. It was scary and guys around him were getting shot. You wished you weren't there."
Harold Schaefer maintained, "bayonet drills were the worst." Repeatedly charging and stabbing a burlap sack of straw seemed anachronistic and ludicrous. Schaefer also could not understand the logic of saving a round in your chamber and firing it into the victim in order to extract an embedded bayonet.
"Hell," he reasoned, "if I've got a round, I won't be sticking anybody. I will shoot him."
The thought of going "toe-to-toe with some big German soldier or sticking someone else with a bayonet" repulsed Richard King F/394. "I wanted to be patriotic but sometimes, even more, I wanted to go home."
Lou Pedrotti found the idea of meeting a Kraut in hand-to-hand combat unnerving. According to his training sergeant, he failed to show enough bloodthirsty rage while plunging his blade into the ersatz enemy. So he was forced to repeat the exercise several times, becoming more frustrated and angry all the while.
Pedrotti and others took out their "anger on the drill sergeant by yelling at the top of our lungs: 'and this is for you, you damned son-of-a-bitch! Motherf — er!' The sergeant never realized that we aimed all these juicy expletives at him," and not at the punctured dummy. Sometimes small victories improved morale.
As Francis Chesnick A/395 marched with the First Battalion on a day so hot they might have been baking in an oven, a lieutenant went up and down the line yelling exhortations to the men, spurring them on while demonstrating his own fitness. "Keep going!" "Be tough!" "Learn to take the heat," he shouted. After moving down the road some distance, Chesnick spied the lieutenant sprawled out in a jeep headed back to camp.
B.O. Wilkins K/393 and other members of the platoon delighted in First Sergeant Donald Riddle's inability to pronounce his name correctly during roll call. When Riddle came to the "Ws," he called out, "Wilcoxson." Glenn Wilcoxson replied, "Here." Next on the list was Wilkins, but Riddle shouted, "Werkerson!" No answer. Again, Riddle yelled out, "Werkerson!" No reply. Finally B.O. responded, "Wilkins here!" Riddle angrily roared, "Hot damn it, Werkerson, when I call your name, I want you to answer!"
Sergeant Riddle exhibited another characteristic of some noncoms, namely hostility toward education and reading. One day while addressing the company before tackling a field problem, Riddle stopped speaking when he noticed a flap on Wilkins' fatigue unbuttoned. Riddle shouted, "Werkerson, button that pocket flap!" Wilkins replied, "I can't Sergeant. It's going over my Reader's Digest." Riddle retorted, "Damn it, Werkerson, you tryin' to git intelligent on us?"
Radford Carroll E/393, a loner, used reading as an escape from his unhappy situation. On one occasion a sergeant unfairly criticized him saying, "If you would stop reading and exercise instead, you wouldn't be dropping out on marches."
Actually Carroll had always completed the marches. So he decided to carry the Bible, a passive-aggressive act. "They couldn't very well tell me not to read the Bible. I did it in part just to irritate the sergeant."
Reading smacked of thinking and individuality, which might have been threatening to those who demanded unthinking obedience.
Soldiers who accepted the Army's indoctrination without reservations suffered fewer misgivings. Those who harbored doubts remained wary, lacking a blind faith in what authority figures preached and ordered.
Lou Pedrotti envied those "salt of the earth" types who perceived "everything in simple black-and-white terms," for they believed what they were told. By contrast, Pedrotti and his ASTP friends "tended to think everything to death, intellectualizing everything in an endless analysis game with the Army."
Raising questions amongst themselves about military training made life more difficult; besides, the Army did not want skeptical doubters but compliant automatons.
Pedrotti and others went through the motions, pretending to accept all that was directed at them because there seemed no way out. They persevered in spite of so much physical and psychological discomfort, which testified to their commitment to duty.
Little compensation existed for the men except that they endured together. Lou Pedrotti and his fellow ASTPers recited poetry while on long marches.
Howard Harris's company (K/393) composed and sang ribald songs that poked fun at one another. When under the iron control of an imperious officer, the men sometimes bonded in silent, disgruntled opposition.
John Thornburg L/394 and other members of his platoon were tormented and belittled by Platoon Sergeant Warren Morgan, who told them, "So far as I am concerned I am king and you guys are shit." They found some comfort in their squad leader Chester Gregor, who looked out for them.
If the ASTPers constituted a majority in a squad or in a platoon, it was easier to create a bond. Moreover, the group could if necessary create its own social rules and enforce them.
When a disgruntled draftee put a half bar of the Army's reddish-brown soap in the food, members of Fielding Pope's platoon tracked him down and beat him up.
William Blasdel K/395 lived with a platoon member who refused to bathe and began to stink up the barracks. So Blasdel and his buddies solved the problem themselves. "We took him to the shower, removed his fatigues, and brushed him clean with a bar of heavy duty GI soap. After that he took a bath every day."
The group would punish expressions of individuality, including socially unacceptable behavior, for the platoon and the company would suffer the unfavorable consequences.
As Mel Richmond put it, "We would take care of the f — k-ups." Goldbrickers, those who escaped onerous assignments (scrubbing the barracks, latrine cleaning, etc.) and avoided marches by claiming injuries, sickness, or death in the family were disliked and shunned.
Goldbricking might be viewed as a form of resistance to the Army, but this selfish behavior only benefited the slacker, leaving distasteful tasks to others. Concocting a phony excuse in order to miss a long hike meant the goldbricker was not suffering with the group. Shared pain, and later shared danger, brought squad members together. The individual who refused to bear the same burdens actually opted out, and group members could not trust the goldbricker.
William Blasdell recounted they had a goldbricker in their platoon. His trick was to place empty buckets in his field pack, thereby carrying much less weight than other guys. One day before a march a member of the group lured the goldbricker to the PX. In his absence, the others filled his buckets with sand. He discovered his misfortune only as they were lining up, and it was too late to empty the buckets. He whined, "oh poor me," on that trek.
Even those who fell out on marches were held in low regard, especially ASTPers because it confirmed what the cadre said about them.
Robert Mitsch L/394 broke a bone in his foot while marching, but refused to go on "sick call" because he didn't want to be labeled a "goldbricker."
Lou Pedrotti L/395 was dismayed to discover one of the worst offenders was a fellow ASTPer. He "expected better" of the college guys, but came to know and appreciate non-ASTPers, who were decent and generous, unlike some of "us smug, educated, and spoiled college brats."
One squad member shared pecan pastries from home with him, and another volunteered to tackle KP duties when Pedrotti had made plans to go to Dallas for the weekend. Pedrotti realized it "takes more than ivy-covered walls to make a gentleman." This acknowledgment, that education didn't necessarily ensure a worthy compatriot, would help forge common bonds — that and the fact they would need each other to survive.
For those who had eaten at Camp Van Dorn, the food at Maxey represented a marked improvement, though a wide variety of opinions existed about the quality of the meals.
Each company had its own "mess" (the Army's perhaps appropriate term for its cuisine), so quality often depended on the skill and ingenuity of the company cook. For Depression kids who had not enjoyed an abundance of anything, the food was at least plentiful if not tasty.
Leon Rogers, who grew up in an Oklahoma oil patch without much to eat, "was happy to have lots of food."
Mel Richmond, who had only eaten kosher ("I thought non-kosher was poison"), tasted and liked pork sausages and pork chops.
The meals loaded up on carbohydrates (pancakes, potatoes, bread), which the troops needed after expending so much energy marching all day. Fresh vegetables, salads, and ripe fruit remained in short supply. There was fresh and powdered milk and the same for eggs, though Lou Pedrotti thought powdered eggs had the taste and consistency of "yellow glue."
Having enjoyed his mother's excellent Italian cooking, he found Army chow dreadful — steaming black-eyed peas "tasted like boiled hay," cooked okra "wallowed in its own goo," and grits was "a tasteless pile of corn discards that even a sow would reject."
Civilized dining gave way to chow-hounds fighting for every item of food plumped down in big bowls on long picnic tables. Regardless of their opinion about the meals, once on the front lines where they ate canned and packaged meals or in POW camps where they starved, the men would have gladly returned to those Maxey mess halls.
While the food may not have seemed foreign to the recruits, Camp Maxey constituted a new experience. They lived in a society almost entirely composed of men who wore uniforms and acted in concert with others. They were no longer self-sufficient. All decisions (when to get up in the morning, when to go to bed at night, when and what to eat, what activities to perform, what goals to achieve, and when they could come and go) originated with Army authorities who issued orders to be obeyed without question or resistance.
The squad and the platoon replaced family members, wives and sweethearts, friends, relatives, and neighbors. Enlisted men were not hermetically sealed off (they could write family members and visit civilian society), however, they were undergoing a process of gradually being pulled away from a previous life and forced into a new one.
Their outlook, values and behavior also was being altered as they were being shaped into combat soldiers. After completing the eight-week retraining program, ASTPers became eligible for passes to leave the base Saturday afternoons and Sundays (provided there had been no infractions).
Married men had the privilege of leaving camp after Retreat (6 p.m.), as long as they returned by Reveille at 6 a.m. the following day.
Men looked forward to getting away from the routine and constant supervision on the base. They would take a bus to Paris, pay a civilian ($5 per soldier) to drive them to Dallas, or hitchhike to Hugo, Okla., 15 miles to the north. They sought out food not available on base: fresh fruit, salads, steaks, pecan pies, and the watermelons Paris residents grew and sold in their yards.
The men also wanted female companionship, perhaps for romance and sex, but more importantly because they longed for a connection to the world they had left behind.
Paul Jillson E/395 was riding in a bus crammed with GIs headed to town, when suddenly a lovely young woman got on. Everyone stopped talking and just stared at her. She looked "angelic," remembered Paul, for "I hadn't seen a girl for months. I just wanted to meet and talk to her."
Likewise Ernest McDaniel enjoyed going to town to a local dime store for the opportunity to speak with a salesgirl.
Others went to USO dances on the base, in Paris, and in Dallas because they wanted to be with women, who in turn considered it their patriotic duty to befriend soldiers.
Radford Carroll frequently escaped from Maxey on the pretense he was attending a religious service in Paris. His real objective was to meet women at the church and have dates.
On one trip to Dallas, Robert Davis B/394 rented a hotel room with two buddies and invited some women they had met to a party. Unfortunately the promising occasion ended abruptly when two MPs knocked on the door of their hotel room ("they seemed to know where every service man was"). They were ordered back to Maxey; it was D-Day and all servicemen were restricted to quarters.
In August 1944, orders came down that the division was going to break camp and head overseas. A final parade caused men to wait for hours in the boiling sun, with many passing out from the heat.
When the whole division finally assembled, General Lauer announced three men had failed to achieve "marksman" status, and they were no longer with the division.
A collective groan emerged from the assemblage as they realized a few misdirected shots could have been their chance to escape too. Lauer then boldly pronounced the 99th "ready for combat" and, as Joseph Herdina I/395 recalled, they were the "greatest fighting outfit in the world."
Many of the older guys didn't think so, while Joe and some ASTPers snickered amongst themselves over Lauer's self-serving hyperbole. Nonetheless, all were proud they had survived the difficult training.
They could not fail to sense the power and solidarity of "hundreds of guys marching together." But never would all of them assemble again. Not knowing where they were headed, they set about constructing boxes in which to ship all their equipment.
Having trained in the searing Texas heat, the men feared they might be sent to the steamy, insect-infested Pacific, where no one wanted to go. Marches and drills were discontinued, the cadre eased up, and the men worked at night when it was cooler. The atmosphere became more relaxed, even as everyone became excited about the prospect of ending arduous training and maybe becoming more directly involved in the war.
After weeks of marching, drilling, cleaning, and performing various training procedures, the units came together.
The ASTPers proved to the "old guys" they could measure up physically and psychologically to infantry training, and the college boys recognized the enlisted men from Van Dorn were able soldiers.
Joe Thimm admired two guys in his platoon, both illiterate, who could nonetheless "strip the BAR and put it back together again, which I could never do." The ASTP guys "were smart enough to know these old soldiers had something to teach, and we paid attention."
When it came to field problems and day-to-day training they melded as a unit. Socially the groups remained apart but the ties were strengthening.
Because of his father's death in July, Jim Crafton was offered an opportunity to stay in the States, but he opted not to leave his buddies.
When Walter Kellogg E/394 went home on leave late that summer, he became lonely: "All my friends were in the service as were the men I was training with. I was in a hurry to get back to camp to be with them."
Jack Prickett L/393 had a chance to leave the division but decided to stay. He and his good friend, Leslie Miller, "felt like we had too many friends to go to some other Army unit."
Al Boeger C/393 begged Company Commander Aaron Nathan to quash orders that would have transferred him to regimental headquarters as a clerk-typist. Nathan told him he was a "damned fool" not to accept the transfer. Even though "I would have landed in a safe place with a typewriter in my hand instead of a rifle, I wanted to stay with my friends."
The movement of the 99th Division from Camp Maxey to Camp Miles Standish in Massachusetts began September 10, 1944, when the division was put on trains — eight per regiment — that followed three different routes.
A few days before departure, Rex Whitehead said "the hardest" goodbye to his parents who visited him at the camp. "I kept trying to keep the thought out of my mind that I may be talking to them for the last time."
As Bill McMurdie waved goodbye to his parents at the railway station in Pasadena, Calif., a soldier sitting across from him said, "Take a good look. It might the last time you see them."
John Baxter K/393 said, the "saddest part" was when "Mother and Dad [came] with me to take the train back to camp. I watched as they tried to smile and hold back their tears as they waved at the departing train."
Sergeant David Jones remembered seeing his wife, Virginia as he marched out of Maxey. While he wondered what the future might bring, he, along with most other men, were optimistic they would return. It was particularly hard for married soldiers to part from wives who had followed them to Texas and lived in town. These women returned alone to their parents' homes and waited out the war worrying.
The trip took three days. Those on trains following the warm southern route lowered the windows and consequently were covered with steam-engine soot by the time they reached Massachusetts. Since no one told them anything, they were unsure of their destination. If they moved eastward, it would be Europe, which they preferred.
Since Haskell Wolff's H/394 train left at night, it was difficult to tell where they were headed until the train passed through Fayetteville, where he had completed his freshman year at the University of Arkansas. When he looked out the window and saw "George's Place" where he used to drink beer, he knew they were moving east.
Bill Bray's train headed north through St. Joseph, Mo. He told his parents to drive down from King City, Mo., to meet him when the train stopped. As Bray said goodbye, he noticed his dad walked away and went behind a post. He learned after the war that his father didn't want the son to see his tears.
The troops were in "high spirits," energized by the prospect of going to Europe. Frank Hoffman E/395 was "glad to be on the move" and "hoped the war would be over by the time we got there."
Joseph Herdina was "ready for something new." Like most everyone else, Howard Bowers was "excited" about the chance to "see for myself some of the places I had read about and studied." But he also was "apprehensive about what combat would bring and whether I would be able to do what was expected of me."
T. J. Cornett B/394 "worried how he would react under fire, whether he would stay and fight or be cowardly and run."
Lieutenant Harold Hill pondered how he, "a country boy from Washington," was "going to handle" this adventure.
A few like Jack Prickett "actually looked forward to combat, young idiots that we were. At our age we did not worry. It would always be the other guy who bought the farm."
Most, however, were not eager to experience combat or as Lou Pedrotti put it, "we were not all that ready to pounce on Fritz and knock the bratwurst out of him."
They were curious about what they would encounter. Ignorance and innocence would make the long journey to the front easier.
Upon reaching Camp Miles Standish there began a fresh round of injections, physicals, and perfunctory psychological evaluations. Some men were kept behind. Those found acceptable endured more inspections and lectures, marched, enjoyed trips to Boston, played football, and relaxed.
The evening before departure, everyone was required to attend another pep talk by General Lauer in an outdoor athletic stadium.
While they awaited the General's arrival, the men began to blow up condoms and dispatch them into the air. According to Richard Byers 371/FA, "The GIs roared with laughter and jumped up to keep the 'balloons' moving along. Officers ran up and down the stairs bellowing orders that were ignored. And chaplains went down on their knees to pray; also ignored."
The condoms swirled out of the stadium and drifted amongst civilians standing at a bus stop; passing cars popped them by the dozens. General Lauer was not amused, calling their behavior "pretty childish."
But all was not simply rebellious merriment. The night before departure E/395's chaplain held a special service and communion for the departing troops.
Paul Weesner remembered, "it was the largest attendance that we had."
On September 29, 1944, the 99'ers left camp for Boston Harbor where, loaded down with rifles, steel helmets, and barrack bags stuffed with clothing and personal items, they trudged aboard troop ships bound for Europe.
First Sergeant David Spencer F/393 added in his day notes: "I am a little shaky walking up the plank because it may be the last time I will ever see the land I love."
Deposited deep into the lower decks, they would spend the next 11 days packed so tightly that anyone with claustrophobia could not have survived.
Under cover of darkness the ships slipped silently out of the harbor and joined a huge convoy headed for Great Britain.
Walter Kellogg stood on the fantail of the SS Exchequer watching the lights of Boston recede from view.
Suddenly Lafayette ("Leroy") Wadsworth E/394 approached Kellogg with tears running down his cheeks. He told Kellogg, "God just told me I wouldn't be coming back." Sadly, he was right.
Next: "The Ninety Ninth Goes to War"