Friday, June 5, 2009

For My Dad On D-Day

65th Infantry Division Shoulder Patch

On December 7, 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Next day, America declared war on that country. Germany declared war on America the following week (December 11). World War II had started.

My father was drafted into the Army on November 4, 1943, in Northern New York and sent to the processing center at Camp Upton, New York (midway out on Long Island) on November 27.

At this time the 2nd Marine Division had landed on the bloody Gilbert Island atoll of Tarawa the week before and within the space of a week would lose 1500 men, dead.

Camp Upton was a replacement depot where the men were tested and given physicals, etc. and categorized for further training. Dad had been working at a company that made brakes for railroad cars as an apprentice machinist and apparently was able to convince the powers that be that he would be best used in that capacity in the Army.

Thus convinced, the Army sent him to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Aberdeen, Maryland, to be trained as a small arms repairman and where he also went through basic training. It was a lonesome time for a young man from a podunk town in Northern New York. People of normal means didn’t travel very widely in those days or meet very many people outside of their own circle and cultural background. To be 500 miles from home, amongst strangers, some of whom (ie. Sergeants and other non-coms in the regular army) treated you abruptly and poorly, would have been quite a shock (as it was for me 23 years later in Parris Island). He had been married to my mother 30 months prior to this and had an 18 month old baby (my brother) at home and the forced estrangement added immeasurably to his misery.

He left Camp Upton between December 6 and December 13 as his next letter of that date was from Aberdeen where he was to be stationed until May of 1944. He still didn't like the Army; still homesick, but he has realized that, being in an Ordnance Company, he will be at least somewhat behind the front lines (as it turned out it was only 3 to 10 miles behind much of the time). By mid-March, he was well along in his training and contemplating his next move. Rumors abounded about the outfit going to the Pacific (China and the Far East) and he seemed to look forward to that. He was aware of the imminent invasion of Europe and felt that if they didn’t lose too many men there, his outfit would follow the previous company to California and the Pacific.

About this time American forces had begun daylight bombing raids into Germany straight to Berlin. 69 heavy bombers and 11 escort fighters failed to return from that first raid.

He left basic and his military occupational training by the end of April and, after a 30 day furlough, went to another reppo-depot (replacement depot) in Greenville (Camp Reynolds), Pa. to await further orders. He estimated that he wouldn’t be back from overseas until spring of 1946 and told my Grandmother to remember that and see how good a guess it is. Once more he slipped back into a routine Army existence which gave him time to remember how homesick he was and a number of his letters were full of that.

By July he was in Camp Shelby, Mississippi where the Army was putting together and training the 65th Infantry Division.

The Allies had started the European Offensive in June, going ashore in Normandy in one of the most heroic battles of any war, before or since.

Dad would become an ordnanceman in the 765th Light Ordnance Company attached to the 65th. Camp Shelby would be his home for the next 6 months. This place impressed him for size (69 blocks long and 40 wide and they describe the non-built up area by square miles! …There are 67 PX’s and 20 or 22 service clubs. And about 180,000 men, “With no place to go.” He didn’t care for the oppressive wet heat of the south. It is a big job to reconstitute an infantry division and get all its disparate parts working smoothly together and that was nature of the job at Camp Shelby. He was finally in his permanent outfit and going through all of the drills and training required to be able to work efficiently under combat conditions. He had acquired a new son by now--------me.

By early October, they knew they were shipping out to France or England in mid-January.

The ill-fated Market-Garden offensive had by then failed in crossing the Rhine through Holland and the future for the Allied advance looked grim as they entered the brutal winter of 1944-45.

After the usual two-steps-forward-one-step-back routine of the military, the Division was ready to leave Camp Shelby by the end of the year. Dad had gradually been promoted from Private to Corporal during this time.

In January, 1945, the 765th Ordnance Company and the whole 65th Infantry Division took ship for Le Havre, France, reaching there on January 21 and debarking at the cold desolate rubble of the city that remained there on January 22. Ocean travel didn’t impress him much (of course being crowded into a packed troop ship and crossing the North Atlantic in January probably wouldn't impress many even now). They moved up the coast to Camp Lucky Strike to get organized. The camp was unfinished and stark as the Engineers that were building it had been rushed to Bastogne to shore up defenses there and were trapped in the Battle of the Bulge. That battle was just finishing up as the 65th got settled in France.

The Bastogne fight was about the last determined offensive for the Germans and they began to collapse into Germany under pressure from the Allies. The 65th entered its first action in early March taking Saarlautern, breached the vaunted Seigfreid Line in the middle of March and, on March 31, they crossed the Rhine at Kloppenheim. In the first part of April the Division was moving so fast, the Post Office couldn’t keep up and Dad’s first letter since leaving Camp Lucky Strike was written on the 9th of April from Grossensee, Germany. He had been promoted to Sergeant the first of the month. The company was awarded a service plaque for their work in maintaining vehicles, weapons, etc. which allowed all members to wear a gold wreath patch on their right sleeve. They crossed the Danube at the end of April and, on the 7th of May, at the city of Linz, Austria, they learned of the unconditional surrender of all German forces. The war was over.

Dad wrote a letter to my Grandmother on VE day and said they were all wondering if they would now be headed for Japan. He allowed as how he didn’t dread the war over there as much as the boat ride over. After a two-month chase of 750 miles across France and Germany, his war was over and he used to talk of the sad spectacle of the thousands of German prisoners coming through their lines in the days after VE day.

The Army now settled into the routine of an occupying force. Dad was in charge of a section that took in, cleaned, repaired and prepared for storage all manner of military and civilian weapons from .22 rifles to cannons. It was a vast job and he finally got a number of German POW’s to assist in the task. One of them, a metal engraver as a civilian, decorated a German canteen for him (that we now have) using a broken jack-knife blade as a graver. The war with Japan ended in August, the result of two atom bombs being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dad stayed in Linz until mid-September when he was shipped north, bounced around through various camps in France, Germany and Holland, to eventually land in Brussels, Belgium.

All the talk was of points. The war was over, but in order to go home a man had to have accumulated 85 points. There were millions of men in Europe by then and limited transportation (a boat to America would take a month to make the round trip). A large number had to stay on the war-torn continent to help administer and repair it. Like a forest fire, the mopping up phase is the worst. You got points for your number of active duty months, for campaigns (ie. Central Europe Campaign, Rhineland Campaign----both of which Dad had), for medals, for being married.

By early November, 2 years after leaving home and family, he was in dreary, rainy, Camp Lucky Strike again, and living in tents. They weren’t allowed even to go into Le Havre, as the French didn’t like Americans (typical French). No one was left that he had come to Europe with. The 65th had been disbanded in August and the 765th in October. All of the high-point and married men had gone home and the rest were scattered all over Europe in various repair depots. Another lonesome and trying time.

Dad was finally discharged in Early January 1946 and home in his beloved Northern New York, only missing his 1944 estimate by a couple of months. A remarkable 26 month odyssey for a young man from that podunk town in Northern New York.

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