My heritage: Where the “greatest generation” came from
First, I fully believe that the “greatest generation” was the one that raised me and others through the Depression days. They installed values in, and supported
whole-heartedly, the war-time soldier generation—the so called
“greatest generation” per Tom Brokaw.
whole-heartedly, the war-time soldier generation—the so called
“greatest generation” per Tom Brokaw.
Dad, Burt Stewart Jackson, was born in 1877, Mom, Mamie Elizabeth Seeger, in 1884, and I to their union in June 1921. My sister, Lillian Margaret, and brother, Ervin Wilford, were 11 and 10 years older than myself. You can see I was set up to be a significantly spoiled mother’s boy.
Mom was an Iowa girl and Dad a Wisconsin boy. They ended up in South Dakota shortly before I was born via Minnesota, leaving a large string of relatives—aunts, uncles and cousins in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin along the way.
Mom, as the oldest of nine kids, was her dad’s prime help on the farm. Later, as a school teacher, she taught all of her siblings in grade school.
Dad was a carpenter. On one job, a problem with the scaffolding forced him to jump to the ground, resulting in two broken ankles. This slowed him down only a bit. He and his brother started a butcher shop in Carlos, Minnesota where Dad worked at until the move to South Dakota. Dad had carpentered in the Highmore and Gettysburg, South Dakota areas before moving the family. In Madison, South Dakota, he became a J.R. Watkins dealer (purveyor of vanilla extract and other household products), covering all of South Dakota’s Lake County.
Then came the Depression, drought, and dust storms. Dad had eked out a fair living selling Watkins products and fixing homes. He saved paying a lot of rent to U. S. Senator Carl Mundt’s dad by fixing up one rental after another, usually while we lived in them. When one got all fixed up Mundt would say, “I’ll have to start collecting more rent now.” Dad would say, “find me another house to fix.”
Later it was Carl who owned the houses. When Carl outbid Dad in buying a house, I visited him in his Madison office and told him if he ever ran for president, I would not vote for him. He answered, “If I ever run for president, that’s the time not to vote for me.” His wife was my high school speech teacher so I could be a little familiar.
One problem with J.R. Watkins was the alcohol content of vanilla extract. The housewife would complain it had no vanilla punch. Dad’s theory was that a member of the family replaced many swigs of extract with water, and it really wasn’t much good. I assure you, it wasn’t my dad’s doing, he was a total teetotaler.
About the drought and dust storms: One hot summer Sunday I remember walking out of the First Presbyterian Church into a strange yellowish-brown world. By 2 o’clock that afteroon the street lights on Egan Avenue, about a half block up 7th Street from our current rental, were just yellow glows. Life had been tough, but it got a lot worse for most everyone.
Dad’s credit (he had advanced quite a bit of Watkins stuff without payment) and his good rapport with farmers meant that he could collect a bushel of whatever the farmer couldn’t get a decent price for, or maybe a pig or even a beef to butcher on shares. Dad’s butchering days came in handy.
Mom’s pressure cooker made soft puffed wheat of the grain and her cooking and canning talents made the most of everything. When the storm windows came off in the spring, they became the top of hot boxes (with manure), or maybe cold frames to get an early start tomato plants and such.
They gardened their plot, plus as many as three others on shares, for folks who didn’t plant their own. Oh, how good those fresh garden tomatoes, peas, etc., tasted. My job, besides weeding (under protest), was to load my wagon and cover the town door-to-door selling vegetables. In season we knew a number of apple orchards where “wind falls” were available free for canning.
My brother Ervin was an excellent pheasant hunter, and with our dog Rex he provided table meat and birds to eat and can. (When canning birds, you must get all of the shot-embedded feathers out or else the meat will spoil.)
Dad rigged up a small mill powered by an old model T engine and ground “Burt Jackson’s Whole Wheat Flour.” (I can remember hand grinding horseradish when there had better be a breeze to give you a upwind advantage). At first freeze, if there were still tomatoes on the vine, the vines were pulled and hung from the ceiling joists in the basement for a bit more ripening.
We had two large looms to make rag rugs to sell. And Dad had a set of shoe lasts so he could repair shoes. Later it was “cement on” rubber soles, but Dad could also nail on leather. Mom was a major part of everything, and a very capable practical nurse who often worked taking care of the sick, old, or others in need.
Have I made my point as to whom the “greatest generation” was and how they turned out a fairly exceptional generation of soldiers to defend the country we all loved? I could go into more detail as to how I and my brother and sister were provided everything that hard work, ingenuity and love could provide. There was not a flaw in my folks’ character or efforts except they kind of spoiled me. The Lord truly provided me with the best in parents. I was blessed and am forever grateful.
Now about me
Born in the month of June, I was one of the youngest in my class in school. During my second grade year there was a significant smallpox epidemic. A long family quarantine followed by tonsillitis caused me to miss half of the school year. It was recommended I repeat the second grade. However, Mom was convinced I was the “brightest of the bright” and fought the system. She won on the condition I go to summer school. This I continued to do all through grade school. It took that long until a tough seventh grade teacher, Ella Lorentzen, and an optimistic eighth grade teacher, George Hollister, gave me enough self confidence to sort of come alive.
In fact high school was wonderful! Again with the inspiration of probably one of the best faculties ever assembled (the school board told the superintendent and principal “It’s a buyer’s market, go get the best” and I believe they did just that). Richard Thue, my science teacher, along with D. C. ( Doc) Beckard, history, and math teacher Dora Knudtson motivated me. I actually made the honor role the major part of the high school years. Scholastically, I had pretty much arrived, but in maturity I was a follower and not a leader.
Off to World War II
In April 1939 a National Guard officer visited our senior class. His objective was to fill the ranks of the local Company A of the 109th Combat Engineers, as they were leaving in June for a week-long summer training camp in Rapid City, South Dakota. He wasn’t particular about our ages, telling us, “If you aren’t 18 years old, just say you are and there will be no problem.” Some buddies who wanted to see me grow up a bit talked me into it. I lied away a year of my life and joined up.
I’ll never forget the drunken train ride across South Dakota. The card games and drinking ended about 3 o’clock in the morning and soused fellows were sprawled all about. The train conductor would walk through the train to announce the next stop. And “next stop Kadoka” came through to the messed up soldiers and became a common call that has followed me, and I think others, all through life. Later on, during a plane ride across the country I shared some of my stories with a young lady. As we got off the plane and went our separate ways she called out, “Next stop Kadoka.”
Camp for me was a major experience. Capt. Newcomb needed an orderly and I got the job. It got me out of a lot of KPs (kitchen police—dish washing, garbage detail, etc.) That was in the days of swords and I kept it and his shoes polished.
First Sgt. Fay Crabs, I think, felt the job of Captain’s orderly interfered with his job of making a soldier out of me. I remember saluting the Captain when he was only half out of bed. Then one time when I was hitchhiking back to camp (not returning from the “castle on the hill” brothel) I was picked up by an officer.
He asked my name and I asked his. He answered, “I’m Colonel __?___ and it’s my privilege to command the 109th Engineer Battalion.” I think I managed some sort of salute when he let me off. (I visited Camp Rapid after the 2009 Battalion reunion. At an earlier visit the parade ground and kitchen/mess hall were almost like 1939, but in ’09 not a thing in Camp Rapid was recognizable. I couldn’t even guess where the “castle on the hill” had been. But after all I had never visited the place.)
I don’t actually remember much more about that first summer camp. But remembering the drunken ride out, I, again at 1st Sgt. Crab’s displeasure, took my discharge at Rapid City. I visited Alan Disbrow, a grade school friend who with his mom, brother, sister and cat had moved from Madison to Rapid City after grade school. He was now a motorcycle owner and gave me a great tour of his world. He worked for Bell Photographics of Rapid and seemed to know everything about everything, including the in-process carving of Mount Rushmore.
I had tried unsuccessfully to hitchhike to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming on an earlier adventure in the mid ’30’s when the road was greasy with dead grasshoppers and the roadside a swarm of the same. The cars, many were model T Ford touring cars, were all going west and loaded with possessions for the new life in California. I was soon thumbing a ride in both directions and was very glad to get back to Rapid City before dark. This time I made the trip successfully, pitying the poor guys back in Madison and maybe missing a National Guard drill or two.
The fall of ’39 found many of us attending “Eastern” (it has gone through many name changes but I think there is still only one college in Madison). We were durn glad for the few bucks sent every so often by the National Guard. We were even more grateful for the wool pants, shirts and heavy wool overcoats when we experienced -30° temperatures.
The next summer’s National Guard Training Camp was at Camp Ripley, close to Little Falls, Minnesota and Charles Lindberg’s home. We were the engineer component of the 34th Red Bull National Guard Infantry Division with the infantry coming from Minnesota and Iowa.
I don’t remember much about Ripley beyond the outdoor field kitchen, Sgt. Lee the cook, the KP duty and the “big” C 18 airplane sitting on the edge of the airstrip. (In a return visit a few years ago the general layout of the place was more familiar than I had found Camp Rapid. There is now a fairly impressive monument to the 34th Division.) Again I took my discharge at camp and did a major hitchhiking tour, visiting relatives from Minneapolis, to Bemidji, to Detroit Lakes, Alexandria and home. (No wonder that when Sgt. Crabs decided not to go to Louisiana with us, he expressed displeasure that he would again miss an opportunity to make a soldier out of Jackson.)
In the fall of 1940 rumors of “one year of federal service” for the 34th Division were getting real, as was the war in Europe, thus college was becoming secondary in our lives. I was working for Dr. Lousma in the chemistry and biology lab under NYA (National Youth Administration) for 20 cents an hour. School was going well, but even though I had an opportunity to get out of the Guard due to imperfect eyesight, I elected to take the year with my friends. I didn’t want to take a chance with the draft. I made the right decision. Sometimes about here I was promoted to Corporal.
Promotions were “celebrated” with the hot-ass line. Companies fell into formation in two lines. Each man drew his belt to swat the promotees as they ran the gauntlet.
As the “year of federal training” became a certainty, we college fellows who were leaving made a recording of our sentiments (if that recording still exists at the college, a copy should be added to the museum collection). I remember expressing my enthusiasm for the idea of leaving Old Man Winter behind. The January send-off at the railroad station in Madison was impressive. A big crowd followed the local marching school band to the station. A lot of folks sensed the gravity of the times better than we did.
I remember nothing of the long ride to Louisiana and Camp Claiborne. The Camp was still in the building phase but the mess hall and tent frames were in place along a muddy Company street. The guard shack was at the far northwest corner of the area. The motor pool was off the northeast corner of the regimental area, and the training area northeast of that.
The kitchen/mess hall was at the south with a row of tents running north from there. (Many years later, around 1980, I visited the area and was completely lost until I found the oil change pits of the motor pool. Then I found the toppled pillars of the kitchen/dining room and could reconstruct in my mind most everything. Somewhere in the overgrowth across from where the guard tent/shack stood, there was a healthy hickory nut tree with an unharvested crop waiting to be hauled off to California. But, rats, the California inspection station took them all away from me.)
I do remember bayonet drill, grenade throwing practice, lectures under the trees and a couple of bridge building efforts. I was more interested in the creek and swamp area with the wildlife—water moccasins and copper head snakes, etc.—that I could shoot at with my newly acquired High Standard 22 caliber pistol.
I had charge of my five-man tent. One night the card and dice games ran a bit too late for my liking. After my chemical warfare training I had some tear gas crystals in my possession. A casual pass by the gas heater and a few sprinkled crystals on the stove, and the game was over and the tent cleared out except for me. I had the tent edge pulled up a bit and was still breathing. They got even with me with very short trimmings from an old-fashioned shaving lather brush sprinkled in my bed that almost convinced me that I had the “crabs.” Actually this was very unlikely, but they convinced me that I should get checked at sick call.
Another time Don Olson, who I guess thought he should be the corporal, tried to coerce me in to taking a drink of whiskey. I snookered him by tipping the bottle up and blowing a few bubbles into it, then let him brag about how he got the tee-totaling corporal to drink whiskey. Then there was one “ short arm” inspection for possible V.D. infection when “L” was not satisfactorily milking “it.” The medic said wring it out so “L” tried to twist his “thing.” And there was always the payday panic to collect at “100% interest to payday” loans made to Ev Hocket and his cousin Bob, and perhaps a dozen others. Even with all my rank I usually came out short.
After fall maneuvers the war news was getting increasingly serious. I had been at an off base facility for a week with an eye infection, and on the way back I bought a “portable” radio that must have weighed 15 pounds. I have a picture of a dozen or so guys around my pup tent listening intently to the war news. I believe it was there we saw our first P-38 aircraft as they “ bombed” us, or someone close by, with tiny sacks of flour.
Then there was that Sunday morning in December when news of the Pearl Harbor bombing spread through camp. I was in the Company Street outside the supply tent moving out my photo printing stuff (I printed black and white pictures for the fellows). All of us realized, “Oh boy, here we go.” We weren’t afraid, but knew that this changed everything and there would be a mad dash to war. I don’t remember details other than the frantic pace of mind, body and equipment to “move out.”
In the days before we did move, my brother and his wife (who were teachers on Christmas vacation) drove down from Illinois to wish me well. Then another very memorable event: I got a two-day pass and we drove down along the Louisiana coast towards Texas. Along the way I took pictures where there were a couple of ships and drew the attention of a Texas Ranger. He was the genuine article on horseback, big hat, and the rifle across the saddle, and I may have taken a picture of him. I can’t prove it because a few miles down the road we were flagged down and told to wait for someone. It was more “law types” and resulted in an hour or two in a cell for Ervin and Martha, a lot of questions and the confiscation of our film. Because I was in uniform I escaped the cell.
We never made it to Texas
We had our unit brought up to full strength with a number of fellows from all over the country, draftees fresh out of training. They and a few married fellows managed short furloughs to say goodbye to home folks. The rest of us focused on getting ourselves and our equipment ready to move.
I got the detail of five fellows to ride in the caboose of the heavy equipment train, trucks, bulldozer, etc. to “somewhere.” At each stop we were out of the caboose to guard the train. We didn’t know our destination other than “to war,” and that it was north and east into snow country. I do have a clear and beautiful picture of passing through Pennsylvania. The train track paralleled a road and a long drive led from the road to a large farmhouse. A foot or two of snow along the tree-lined drive made a beautiful scene.
Next was a railroad siding in a ravine well below the city level outside of, I believe, the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I had a contact telephone number so I crawled up to street level and made the call. We were told to jump on the next switch engine and ride it in; they would take over the flat cars with our equipment.
We happily abandoned the now-cold caboose for bunks in the Navy yard. I believe we slept for most of 24 hours before our trucks came to take us to the Army’s Camp Dix. I believe Dix was meant to be a summer National Guard training camp like Camp Rapid. It was definitely not prepared for winter’s 0° weather. We burned down several tents—yes, tents—trying to keep warm. The cone-shaped coal burning stoves were over tasked. I was coming down with a bad cold so the fellows gave me a shot of whiskey (my first ever) and piled blankets on me as I slept some more.
Our passport pictures were of a pretty bedraggled bunch. Mine sure was (see passport picture). We did make it to our boat. It was scarcely a ship. The Chateau-Thierry was a very small WW I transport, rumored to have been for nonhuman passengers, like mules. Soon we were sailing proudly, though probably apprehensively, past the Statue of Liberty and heading east.
We were part of a considerable armada with fighting ships up to cruiser size, dirigibles overhead, several other transports and maybe a submarine or two. The ocean near New York probably also had a number of German subs waiting and watching as I believe a few depth charges were dropped.
The second or third day out the armada had shrunk to durn few fighting escorts. By then we had experienced the world’s roughest ocean at the worst time of the year—fortunately probably, considering any German subs were compromised. The waves were like mountains and we were told that our “boat” did 45 degree rolls and should have capsized.
I avoided much seasickness, but my, oh my, most were miserable. We were in the absolute bow in bunks, it seems four or five high. I remember “Deacon” Moore praying to die. He had lived on an island off the east coast and in training in boot camp acted as sort of Chaplain to his buddies. I always wondered how he got to shore to get drafted. (He was one of our last Louisiana replacements and was killed with a whole 12 man squad in a truck/mine explosion in Tunisia.)
The eating area was the width of the ship/boat with just a 5-foot corridor along one side. I remember trays, utensils, food, and maybe a soldier or two clanging and sloshing from one side to the other of the very messy galley area as the ship rolled. Yes, I was there, but I’m sure that during the worst rolls I was in my bunk hanging on. Since I was one of the few still able to function, I think I did my full share of guard duty. On this or a later crossing I remember Clair Brich, who became my friend of six decades, living entirely on deck, propped against a bulkhead or at the rail.
After about two weeks out of New York, we woke up one morning to find our “armada” was reduced to just two transports, the only ships visible on the ocean. It was a lonely feeling, especially as we were getting closer to danger. About noon we got some comfort—out on the four corners, visible only occasionally among the waves, were four tiny escorts: British mine sweepers I believe, and they were too far apart to be sweeping for mines.
We eventually came to know that the rest of the fleet had diverted to Iceland and we were headed for Ireland. And what a sight Ireland was. Beautiful green and rising up out of the ocean like a giant emerald. Which part of Ireland we were seeing I’m not sure, but I do still see it in my mind’s eye—high and green like an emerald. The fellows among us with even the smallest bit of Irish blood were ecstatic.
Finally, in early February, we landed. I remember walking down the gangplank and marching to a building where the townspeople greeted us with lunch. It included pastries with little sausages inside, probably mutton. While we appreciated the generous welcome, it was hard to choke down the dry meat. For most of us it was a challenge to pretend pleasure.
We soon ended up in a camp in huts with bunks only one deep, constructed out of wood frames and wire fencing-like support for straw mattresses. Even though they were crudely built, they were a heck of a lot better than what we had onboard ship. I don’t remember much complaining.
We were very far north so the winter nights were long and dark. While doing guard duty we could hear the rats running around, occasionally across our feet. We did a bunch of star gazing at the very, very bright stars in the deep darkness. I was able to share my “superior knowledge” of at least two or three constellations, as I was corporaling the guard.
During the day, we could look across a bay to free Ireland. We were told that the free Irish wanted our guns so we should consider them about like enemy. One day we watched the Eagle Squadron (Canadians with Americans who went to Canada to join the war effort, as I recall) practicing over the bay. In one diving dog fight an aircraft failed to pull out and crashed.
Our first camp had been close to Belfast, and I believe that at this point we were in the northwest part of Ireland near Coleraine. Here a couple of elderly ladies tried to shame me for buying a large portion of the store’s supply of licorice or other unfamiliar type candy. Hoggish Americans!
My crime was minor. Our chief reputation with the Irish was to leave behind a large number of prospective mothers when we moved on to combat. Oh yes, the early ecstasy of our Irish buddies had been down graded considerably by the term Shanty Irish—thatched roofs, livestock in one end of the same building folks lived in and dried peat for heating. I think I recall a rather unpleasant odor to the smoke. There were peat bogs everywhere with folks mining peat fuel with saws. I suppose I do an injustice to the Irish but I know our impression was rather negative.
We soon moved into a base on Lough (lake) Erne. It was like a naval base complete with ship-like kitchen equipment, including ice cream makers and a warehouse full of rations. I remember a couple times having my canteen full of Concord grape juice instead of water, so I must have participated in some thievery. Irish workers were just completing the base which was for American PBY “Flying Boat” aircraft. I was always a bit suspicious, as timing would suggest that this was all being build when President Roosevelt was telling American parents, “I say again and again your sons will never fight on foreign soil.”
It was in this period that I lost my chance of becoming a Sergeant and chemical warfare specialist Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO). My excuse: Andy Geiger knew Charles law of physics dealt with temperature and Boyles law dealt with pressure, relative to gasses. I got them reversed. Andy got sergeant rank and into the relative safety of Headquarters and Service Company (H&S) while I stayed in A Company and combat type duty until late 1944. That’s when flame throwers were counted on at Cassino, Italy to reinforce infantry companies that were down to 50 percent strength by putting a G.I. with a flame thrower in each infantry platoon. They failed to work properly and Andy got the blame—long story there.
Back to Ireland: We moved from the lake to the Port Rush area on the northeast coast, facing Scotland. We were housed in a vacated processing building of the Old Bushmill whiskey distillery. However, we were right next to the warehouse building which was still “occupied” by many casks of Old Bushmill’s whiskey. Being engineers, uninhibited, ingenious and thirsty, some of the boys got the U.S. Army into a lot of trouble. My taste was still for unfermented Concord grape juice.
I well remember one night there when Denny Sullivan, a normally mild, well behaved nice guy, came home somewhat inebriated and tried to pick a fight with Ken Sessions, our well-reputed tough, dangerous gorilla of an American Indian who also had quite a bit to drink. While we expected something close to murder Kenny had a nice side and just sort of played with Denny.
One of my amusements was a jaunt to the Giants Causeway, a coastal area with vertical six-sided columns of stone that formed a broad path into the sea and supposedly coming up again in Scotland. The causeway was for giants to exchange Irish and Scotch whiskey is my theory. This adventure was shared with our North Carolinan, true southern gentleman Johnny Boyd. As we returned from the long hike along the coast we met two Irish ladies going out. We said “Hi” and continued a ways before we came to our senses, turned around, caught up with the colleens and became acquainted. They were teachers and we accepted their invitation to one of their homes for tea and crumpets. Have no naughty thoughts now, we were true gentlemen and they were true ladies, though I suspect they plotted the meeting.
About Johnny, he was a bit older than Clair Brich or me, with a “Miss Mary” back home to whom he wrote almost daily throughout the war. His Christian values and dedication to Miss Mary were obvious. John carried an 8x10 photo of Mary in his barracks bag, which always appeared in his pup tent when we were in rest area. He also inspired Clair and me, and to some degree many others, to think wholesomely to the future. I called us the Three Musketeers and have pictures to suggest the same. (I was fortunate to visit them in Pine Level, North Carolina twice after the war. It distressed me that towards the end of the war events and experiences Johnny had while he was platoon leader damaged his mental health. I’ve only known a few individuals whose memory I love and respect as much as I do Johnny and his Mary. I was privileged to host them around the Black Hills at one of our reunions. When they visited Los Angeles a mini reunion was quickly organized at Lt. Matt King’s home to honor them.)
Toward the end of 1942 we returned to sea and moved to the Liverpool area of England. My chief memory here is an overnight pass to Liverpool on a full moon night. I saw the devastation of the German bombing by brilliant moonlight. I’ve seen much but this is most unforgettable.
Christmas was approaching. Some of the GIs who had made local friends were invited to Christmas dinner and drew down a portion of rations to share. But Christmas dinner was not to be. I admit even today I get emotional and even almost cry as I think now of all that was ahead.
On Christmas day we were aboard the British ship HMS Orontes. Destination: North Africa. The trip was notable because of its total British character and particularly because of the steak and kidney pudding Christmas meal (a delicacy to some, but not us). Fortunately the ship had just been at a port, I believe in South Africa, and had stocked the canteen (goodies store) with chocolate and other edible stuff. I think we credited our survival to this and the shortness of the trip.
I slept as we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. All I remember of the Oran, North Africa landing was the crushing of wooden bumper barges that kept our ship from grinding against the concrete walls of the dock. The Orontes was not a Chateau Thierry-size ship. Even in slow motion it crushed the barges to half size.
The next impression was of the big beautiful oranges that the Arabs sold us—quite a few for a quarter, less for a nickel and not much for a small dime. We hadn’t eaten many oranges for months. I believe we had shared such things with the Irish who were even more deprived. The trucks taking us a bit inland to Tlemsen stopped at a grove with oranges the size of large grapefruit and fabulous. I think we stole a few. We bivouacked inland about 200 miles on a racetrack at Tlemsen. I believe some infantry guys had a fatal encounter with Arab “women”—resentful local men disguised as women with the intent and success in doing bodily harm. For my part I remember having group singing around my pup tent (honest, even though I can’t carry a tune).
Soon we were moving by truck in blackout east towards Tunisia. We hid trucks and ourselves in cacti patches or olive groves during the day and moved entirely at night. The Germans had control of the air, though I do remember here or later seeing an occasional C-47 cargo type plane going to and from the Egypt side of the desert where Rommel was the problem and coming our way. At one stop in the darkness I remember someone riding in the cab stepped out and found no shoulder. How much space there was out and down I don’t believe we ever found out. He hung on and escaped falling.
In Tunisia our infantry was moving east toward Bizerti. We were making crude roads through cactus patches and across wadies (creeks). The creeks were often small but in the middle of a cut perhaps 200-feet wide with up to 8-feet high vertical sides. We supposedly had a week or more to cut a road through the cactus and build passable crossings through the wadies. That soon changed to “complete the road by dark” because the Germans had made a “break through” and we would be retreating that night. Also Rommel’s troops from the Egypt area were getting close and would soon be coming up into Tunisia from the South—the Kasserine Pass battle.
Clair and I had been on guard duty the previous night so we were planning on getting some sleep while the troops worked. That morning an Arab man volunteered to help us build a fire and heat some water to do laundry and for us to bathe. I have pictures of him doing laundry. I always wondered if perhaps he was a spy. Another fellow with a camel came through and I have pictures of that also. The camel was milkable and I believe that’s the time Lyle Haug writes in his memoirs about having a taste of camel milk. That night the infantry retreated over the “road” we had just sort of built. It seems like we were almost the last ones out.
The next morning, while sitting in our trucks, we watched an officer shoot and kill an Arab who was brought in as a spy suspect. The Arab got his hands on the officer’s shoulder in his pleading. The officer shoved him away a couple of times and then let go with a 45 slug which spun him around and to his knees. Another shot flattened him. My first such experience at about 75 feet.
The Germans were coming south to north through a broad valley from the Kasserine Pass. We were quickly given extra ammunition and hand grenades then placed on a hill just above the valley. Evidently our location was just above a hastily laid mine field area. We were waiting to be plugged into any gap in our line that might occur. We listened as the battle advanced up the valley to just below us and stopped. A German aircraft coming out of a pass over the valley was so close and low that I swear I could see him turn his head and look at us. We did not have time to shoot at him. It may have taken a couple of days but it seems the Germans gave up the advance—you could say we were a little relieved. They must have retreated back a long way because we were soon back cutting the road through the cactus and wadies.
I was in the group lifting our mine field in the valley and sending the mines to a new location to the east from where we retreated. Wayne Satres’ squad had just received a truck load of these mines (British Spider Mines) and was unloading them when something caused the load to explode, killing the entire twelve-man squad.. I have always had the bad feeling that my group who were lifting the mines had missed a detonator—I won’t speculate further now because I have that bad feeling again. Other explanations were given at the time.
In the same period fellow engineer Bob Sullivan and I with mine detectors were assigned to a reconnaissance unit with two half-track vehicles and 37 mm antitank guns. Our mission was to go forward (south) to feel out the retreating enemy. We were pretty well forward in the unit when the advance half-track made contact with the Germans. Our half-track vehicle with a mounted with 50-caliber machine gun and our one 37 mm anti-tank gun set up cover for the contact half-track and troops to come back. We each took positions while the ones in front backed off over us, then our part backed off over them. At some point we all just formed a defense line. I’m not sure how much was gained that day but it certainly was an experience for a couple of engineers.
I remember seeing German Stuka A/C dive bombing the town of Beja. As they came out of their bombing run rather low over us we gave them rifle fire and enjoyed watching the tracers seemingly curve up into them. That little folly gave the Germans the excuse to drop a bunch of 88 mm rounds on us. At least one fellow was killed. I had a standing foxhole and got clobbered with chucks of dirt as shells exploded. One GI close to me had a dud round hit about a foot from his elbow as he lay on the ground.
I have a photo of a half dozen officers in the edge of a cactus patch which I called the 50-yard line, watching as several of our tanks about 1,000 yards away advanced across an open area. The tanks were soon met by fire from German tanks in the edge of another cactus patch. That’s the end of my recollection but I think we soon left the area.
Another time with Hill 609 ahead several of us were headed toward it with, what else, mine detectors. There was no cover and no way to hide our approach. From somewhere ahead came a hail of machine gun fire. I and the others did some beautiful dives into a very shallow ditch.
After the Hill 609 battle the Germans started disappearing. Some of their vehicles were driven into the Mediterranean to a depth of about 3 or 4 feet. I think this occurred somewhere north of Tunis. I still have small tools that I salvaged from one of their shop trucks.
I did have the pleasure of visiting the ruins of ancient Carthage. I have a fragment of clay pottery that I found there. Near Tunis we stopped by a vineyard with big hanging bunches of dark purple grapes. I was all excited—certainly they were Concord, which I like very much. Not so. They were of wine variety and quite bitter.
One more cactus patch incident is not to be forgotten. My squad was involved in some road work. We were about 10 yards from our truck equipped with a gun turret over the cab with a ready-to-go 30 or 50-caliber machine gun. We still had seen only German fighter aircraft, so when we saw three planes coming straight at us low over the cactus, we assumed German. I am ashamed to say that my 1st gunner departed into the cactus. I am proud to say that the 2nd gunner Cletus Sanders, a transfer in from the regular Army, and I were scrambling to get on the truck to man the gun when the American P-40’s tipped their wings a couple of times and we recognized them—had they been German we would probably have been dead. The 1st gunner was a likeable fellow but a later desertion got him in the stockade and eventually a dishonorable discharge.
We had a short stay on the beach at the north tip of Tunisia. The swimming, nude of course, was great. There was a floating platform a long way out that we could wade or swim to. Our field kitchen was near the beach to the north. Our pup tents were strung out for 50 or so yards to the south where there were some low hills running east to west.
It was here the Germans had their last go at us in Africa. It was pretty dark and they must have used the hills to gauge their attack pass. However they stayed too close to the hills and missed our last tent by a short distance, but left a real large crater. I say “they” but it may have been just one plane and one bomb.
There was a crashed aircraft a little ways from us. I have some windshield plastic and some propeller aluminum from it. I made Clair a wristwatch crystal from some of the plastic and later a ring for “someone.” Actually it is unbelievably fine and delicate with our emblem and a bull’s head cut into it, and with red tooth brush handle material pressed in. I’m kind of proud of it and it’s about the only thing that my artistically inclined grandson wants of all of my stuff. (He will get it when my wife gives it up.) (See picture.)
Soon we moved back west almost 1,000 miles to near Oran, this time in daylight, to prepare for Italy. One morning we drove past a field shower filled with mostly short, black-haired fellows, of course nude: the soon-to-become famous 100th Bn Hawaiian American Japanese Infantry unit. That same day we found that Lyle Haug’s 3rd platoon of Company A was assigned to them as their engineers for an amphibious attack landing at Naples, Italy.
A number of us were peeing yellow (jaundice). Because we hadn’t got sick enough to lose much strength and we might all or most all get killed anyway, we stayed in the platoon, and with the 100th Bn, and boarded a “Landing Ship Tank” (LST), also known as a flat bottomed seasick special. Our trucks were tethered on deck and most of us stayed on them. However, the assault landing wasn’t meant to be. Naples fell while we were on the Mediterranean. We were diverted to already-fallen Salerno to wade ashore combat style. That means over the side on a rope net into a landing craft, each with a squad of men and a peep (jeep to the uninformed; see Bill Maulden’s write-up and my write-up relative to peeps).
The trouble was that as we headed towards shore the landing craft hit a sandbar. Thinking we had reached the shallow water, down went the ramp and out we went headed for shore—but getting into deeper and deeper water. I had my Kodak Bantam camera in my shirt pocket with condoms rolled over it from each end and the water got just that deep, so all was well except the peep, okay jeep, had a problem. Of course it was snorkeled so the engine ran okay, but the loose stuff on board was soon floating away, then the short driver was on tiptoes and just holding the steering wheel and then I guess he floated away. I really don’t know what happened to him. He was a 100th Bn soldier, short and carrying the usual ammunition belt, weapon, helmet, etc., so I hope he could swim.
There was a field hospital near the landing spot and I guess Sgt. Haug and Lt. King decided they had seen enough yellow pee. They let the nurses claim about twelve of us and we were soon on a hospital ship headed back to Africa for four or five weeks to get our color and strength up to par for Italy again.
The stay back in Africa had only one highlight, Nurse MacPherson, a small, neat Canadian. I think I had a crush on her. I don’t remember much else or even how or where I rejoined the outfit. It might have been via Salerno again. Company A had at least one Volturno River crossing and undergone a strafing/bombing that killed most of a half-track crew.
It was approaching Christmas and at least one of my packages had arrived but gotten damp in the Volturno River and the consumables had been consumed. I did get another package with a stock of 828 Kodak film and a “sort of” pair of field glasses. You wore them like glasses and they were 2x or 3x power. I promptly got an eye infection again and was sent back to a field hospital not far from Naples. Mt. Vesuvius erupted about that time which was exciting and a rare privilege to see. From there I rejoined Company A which had gone to the Cassino area for many more combat experiences.
I was to pick two men from my squad to join an infantry patrol with a mission to go into the area in front of Cassino. Being a nice guy I drew straws with the others and won with Walter Burket the “pleasure” of joining the patrol. An infantry peep/jeep took us to the infantry forward position only once going to about a 45 degree position in a ditch, in blackout of course. When we met the sergeant who would lead the patrol he took one look at us and said, “They can come along if they want to, but not the mine detectors.” His lack of enthusiasm for taking us along was catching and when the captain said, “It’s up to you guys,” we said “No thanks” and were jeeped back to become mere combat engineers again.
Our company bivouac was in an olive grove two or three miles from Mt. Cassino with a full view of the Abbey. Typically we were in the same area as the heavy artillery. Going from our company area to work somewhere in the flat land between, we passed directly under the muzzles of 155 mm artillery just as the battery fired toward Cassino. I was in the back of the truck (I was usually displaced from the cab by some Lt.). The concussion was extreme with my left ear toward the guns. (This experience was the most severe of many concussions I experienced and is probably the main reason I now wear hearing aids.) This was fairly typical of the many extreme concussions that we all experienced. Cliff Hullinger describes similar experiences in the same area and I suggest you read his memoirs.
As we were moving into the bivouac close to the heavy artillery we noticed the flight of American B-17s coming directly toward us. As we watched we saw the bomb bay doors open and bombs falling out and coming our way. The newly dug 6′x 6′x 6′ garbage pit instantly filled up with humanity. My pit was a four-feet across and six to twelve-inches deep mortar burst crater. Fortunately the bombs didn’t reach us but it was a memorable event!
By this time the Cassino battles had reduced the infantry to about 50 percent strength so an engineer with a flame thrower was to be added to each platoon. Fortunately the flame throwers were tested just before we joined the infantry platoons and found to be almost useless—a bad mix of jellied gasoline. They still figured one man with a dubious flame thrower might be worth something and assigned one of us with a flame thrower with each platoon. I lucked out and was in reserve with the company headquarters.
The infantry headquarters was actually a cave with room for about ten GIs lying down. It had two openings on one side, one door shape and the other like a low wide window. Both opened into a 20-foot square roofless space with about 12-foot high stone walls, solid to the left and across from the door opening. At the right was an opening where, with a few steps to the right or left, you could look on the east outskirts of Cassino, pretty much an open area that someone called “the town square.”
In that area and within 100 yards or so, we saw an American tank get knocked out. Several guys scrambled out but another was wounded and was not making it. An officer with his pistol drawn forced two fellows to go back and get him. He died anyway.
Someone brought two German prisoners into our 20-feet square stone walled area. We stood them against the back wall on top of a pile of trash and excrement. I’m fairly sure they expected to be shot—they were terrified. When an officer came to interrogate them and take them away, I was standing in the cave “doorway” and the interrogator was about four feet ahead of me when a German mortar round came into the area. It glanced off the stone wall, breaking off the tail fin and the detonator end. No bang but the heavy part hit one GI on the chest and broke another GI’s leg. A close call and a miracle!
Earlier I had been waiting with full confidence that, if called upon, I could use my flame thrower with dispatch. Now I was getting a bit shaky. I’m not sure how many bodies were lying around but one was of a small, aged, gray-haired Italian woman that I shall not forget.
(The fellow who got the blame for the flame thrower ineffectiveness was the one who got the chemical warfare NCO job and sergeant rank back in Ireland. I was told he got transferred to the infantry. At some point I transferred to HQ Company and got his chemical warfare job and sergeant rank.)
The Mount Cassino Abbey was at the west end of a fair range of mountains with Cassino just below the Abbey. Our cave was at the east edge of the town and we could look across the valley south a few miles to the hills where we and the battery of artillery were positioned into the olive grove. It was from that bivouac that we watched as our aircraft flew over us and bombed the famous Abbey to rubble—see picture in the Africa-Italy album.
Much engineering activity occurred in that valley near Cassino. My memory is failing to give a good sequence of events from hereon. Again I recommend Cliff Hullinger’s memoirs for excellent accounts of company and battalion combat activities.
Being in H&S Company wasn’t exactly a cinch. I wasn’t too happy, just after getting assured I was soon off for thirty days in the U.S.A., when I was assigned to help Fred Buckmeyer, Lt. Mulvenon and Joe Pauley run a mine school for the infantry. This involved live explosives. I didn’t want to go home with no hands and blind.
(Fred, Joe and I had come from Company A as demolition expert, camouflage expert and chemical warfare expert respectively.)
Another bummer, but not for me: somewhere between Rome and Cassino, Fred Buckmeyer was to run another week-long mine school for the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the west coast Japanese American unit. Joe Pauley and I were to be on his team. However, because we had passes to Rome for Thursday, Friday and Saturday, we were excused from the duty for the whole week.
At the end of Monday’s school, Fred and his crew were packing up the truck with probably TNT, prima cord, fuse cord, detonators and more. The infantry had mostly dispersed. Fred was bending over beside his truck and thus partially shielded from the blast by the rear body of the dump truck when the stuff in the truck exploded. A couple fellows on his team were killed and some wounded. An infantry fellow about 50 yards away sitting on an open-air toilet was hit by some flying junk and killed.
Then there is my own private terror, again not in combat. A lieutenant took Joe Pauley and me to a beach somewhere north of Rome. It was a lovely sand beach a hundred or so yards long, with trees at the north end and buildings and a long pier at the south end. I guess someone wanted to go swimming there.
The trouble with the beach was a continuous series of tank mine patterns for its full length. Each pattern was about 30 yards long by 10 yards deep. They were Italian mines—wooden, canvas and with mostly plastic detonators and probably sixty mines in each pattern, four rows with mines six feet apart.
They were not hard to find because some were exposed by blown away sand. By noon Joe and I had exploded probably three hundred mines, ten at a time with a block of TNT on each with detonators wired in series. Then the pattern changed and between each anti tank mine was an anti personnel mine—the dreaded “Bouncing Betty” S mines.
We had gotten well into one such pattern when the Lt. came back, I guess to see if we’d blown ourselves up. His reaction was, “This job is too big for two men. I’ll get a line platoon out to help.” Forty men to replace two men!
The Lt. left and when the platoon (about forty men) arrived we introduced two key GIs, Ben Kaiser and John Machnic, to the mine pattern where we had been working. Both were fully capable and experienced with mines, so Joe and I left and went to the far end of the beach and started working back, leaving them and their NCOs to plan their work.
In about thirty minutes we heard a big bang and saw body parts flying. Something had triggered an S mine. I suspect it was booby trapped or a “hang fire” (partially activated detonator). In the four to seven seconds that Ben Kaiser had to think—between the detonator activation “pop” and the S mine coming out of the ground—he must have decided to try to keep the mine in the ground with his own body.
It cost Ben and John Machnic their lives. Two men were wounded by S mine pellets. We had a 4 x 4 weapons carrier (pickup truck) and hauled the two wounded, Ken Helseth and Ray Franz, to a field hospital. We returned to find we still had the job of reassembling Ben and taking his and John’s bodies to grave registration.
Somehow even death can seem routine in some circumstances. At the time, his heroism wasn’t obvious. Decades later, when I was reviewing explosions that contributed to my hearing loss, I finally recognized the heroic act by Ben. He spared his platoon buddies from many casualties. If his platoon hadn’t taken over, Joe and I perhaps would have been the casualties . (There is more story here. Please see special write-up and picture in the accompanying album.)
Since recognizing his very heroic action I’ve contacted Benny’s relatives in South Dakota and a brother and nephew in California who were most thankful to have knowledge beyond the simple military notice and especially of the almost certain act of heroism.
There is one more time when the Krauts tried to worry us a bit. We must have been near the Poe Valley and had written the Germans off as no longer a significant threat. One of my jobs in H&S Co. was to tow with my weapons carrier (pickup truck) a fairly large generator unit and make sure the Col. and others had electric power (not your typical chemical warfare work). One evening this included setting up a long, pyramidal type tent to show a Hollywood movie. The audience was just assembling when a lone German aircraft made a pass and dropped some type of anti personnel bomb. It didn’t hit very close but did discourage the movie idea.
The war was pretty much a “wild goose chase from this point on” to quote Cliff Hullinger (see his memoirs). We were soon across the Poe Valley near Lake Como and in what may have been a start of the foothills of the Alps, when we were told the war had officially ended in Europe. I captured that day on film. My photo shows our truck and photo dark room trailer beside a barn, low flowers and green all around and the snow capped Alps in the distance. The picture is in black and white but I still see it in color.
The war in our area being over, those of us with very high discharge points were scheduled to return to the U.S. for discharge. The rest of the old Red Bull 34th Division remained intact and were to regroup and be available for the Pacific war.
Disgrace came when “for the convenience of the government” they transferred us high pointers into the “Headquarters Service Company 310 Engineer Construction Battalion.” That is how our discharge papers read. They were to be sent home for demobilization. We were a proud unit and would have preferred our papers read something like, “The Famous 109th Combat Engineers of the first unit overseas of WW II, the longest serving WW II Unit, the heroic 34th ‘Red Bull’ Division from South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.” I am joking of course.
Actually we were in it so long by then that there might be truth to the idea that we got too battle-wise in keeping our heads down to be the best of fighting units.
The stay-behinds threw a party for us just as we were leaving. I admit that I drank enough of something pretty and purple that I sort of floated over to our departure truck. I put my barracks bag on the ground to shake hands and say goodbye to Lambert Witt. At that moment all trace of intoxication left and when I tried to pick the bag up to put it in the truck it seemed to have become three times as heavy.
We were aboard ship and half way across the Atlantic when the Pacific war ended. Our discharge occurred at Camp McCoy, Wisconsin. (See the pictures of new civilians.) Again I hitchhiked home, stopping in the Milwaukee area to visit an uncle and his family.
It was September 1945. When I got to South Dakota my ride turned north to Brookings and I still had twenty more miles west to go. Immediately there appeared another ride, and with the same folks that had driven me from that point to Madison when I came home on furlough eleven months earlier. Some folks are just natural good Samaritans. Their house was rather close to the intersection and they probably rescued many GIs. Both times they dropped me off right at my folks doorstep. I’ll let you imagine the joyful reunion.
. It was wonderful being home with my folks, who were still in good health and glad to have me home all in one piece. I had the pleasure of pheasant hunting again, though I instinctively watched for trip wires, S mines, and enemy aircraft as I walked the corn fields.
Interestingly, the town of Madison seemed to have shrunk to half its previous size. Within a few weeks, I was off to the University of Illinois, to restart my pursuit of a degree in engineering, thanks to the GI bill.
I married Libby Frances Postlewait in 1948 and graduated in 1949 from the U.of I. with a degree in mechanical engineering. I was employed by Westclox General Time Corp., LaSalle, Illinois. They were designing a timed artillery bomb-arming device and an inertia activated and timed artillery shell arming device. My military experiences with explosives and my life-long habit of tinkering with clocks landed me that job in a year when jobs were scarce.
After seven years with Westclox we moved with our children, Alan and Elizabeth to Sacramento area in California to accept employment with Aerojet, who were in the early phases of developing the Titan rocket engines. After the very successful 12th and final use of the Titan engines in the Gemini program, I took employment at McClellan Air Force Base as a structural engineer on a series of aircraft and retired in 1984.
I’ve had a wonderful life and I know it has been with God’s protection and blessing!