Document Source: Memoirs of Raymond E. Kitchell, 89th Infantry Division. This document has been uploaded to the webserver by one of our members. Anyway, to follow the text and find some photos, I will use the copy available online on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, this copy is linked to the website of the 89th Infantry Division.
Memoirs of a Young Private
A personal history of World War II
Written at age 76
by Raymond E. Kitchell
Of the almost 40 months I spent in the US Army during World War II, only a bit more than two months were spent in actual combat in the European Theater of Operation. This fact and the divine intervention of fate prevented me from becoming the hero I dreamed to be when I volunteered for duty in 1942, and perhaps being killed or maimed in the process. While I saw enough to earn two combat stars, this is not a story of personal combat and bravery. Rather it is a tale, typical or otherwise, I do not profess to know, of the trials and tribulations, hardships and achievements, challenges and mistakes, good times and bad, that one young soldier experienced during his service during the tumultuous period of the Second World War and its end.
Years ago, I prepared a much smaller version of this story for my grandchildren in the hope that it would help them remember their heritage and their grandfather. Recently I have been involved almost full time in designing and preparing, with the assistance of my son Mark, a website for my old outfit, the 89th Infantry Division (1). This caused me to review our history in detail, which brought back many memories. It seemed appropriate and timely for me to write this story with that work now completed. While I hope my wife, children, and grandchildren will value this story, at this stage of the twilight of surviving veterans it is also prepared to be of some interest to a wider audience. I hope such readers may find it of value or interest.
It was a nice Sunday day, December 7, 1941. I was in my room in our apartment at 6 South Park Avenue in Rockville Centre, New York, listening to the Make-Believe Ballroom, a New York City station specializing in swing and jazz music. A typical activity for a 17-year-old senior in high school. My mother and grandparents were talking in the living room. Suddenly, the music was interrupted by a special announcement – Japanese forces have just bombed Pearl Harbor. The excitement and rampant rumors over the next few days were contagious, e.g., the Germans were going to bomb New York, the Japanese invasion of Hawaii was underway, sabotage by Japanese-Americans was eminent, etc. We poured into one of our buddy’s cars to go out to Mitchell Field and watch the action. Of course, we didn’t get any nearer than the entrance. Thus began one of the most important phases of my life and, indeed, determined almost everything that followed. My purpose here is to record my experience for the benefit of my children and their children, and anyone else interested in a personal description of this most exciting, dramatic, destructive, and disruptive period in 20th-century history. For the past year and a half, I have been collecting, summarizing, editing, scanning, and writing material for use in the website of the 89th Infantry Division, the inspiration of my son, which has awakened many old memories which I wish to record before my memory also fades. So here goes.
In the spring, along with my best buddy Emil Eilertsen and other friends, I signed on for an after-class course offered by Oceanside High School (nearby) and sponsored by Sperry Gyroscope (2). We learned basic shop operations and, if we passed, would be offered an apprenticeship job by Sperry at their new factory in Lake Success (3) when we graduated. Most of us, at least Emil and I, didn’t think we would end up in Sperry because we planned to enlist as soon as we graduated from Southside High School in June, both of us by then having reached the age of 18. We decided to enlist together in the Marines and in May, just prior to graduation, visited the recruiting center in New York and took a physical.
Emil passed and signed up but I was rejected because of my near-sightedness. The Recruiting Sargent, seriously, told me to go home and eat a lot of carrots and come back in three months and take another eye examination. Subsequent attempts by me to enlist in the Navy, Army Air Corps, and the Army itself met a similar fate and I was distraught. The Army told me that the only way I could get into the service was to volunteer for the draft but they were only drafting 19-year-olds at the time.
Well, we graduated with all the fun, ceremony, proms, etc., and waited. Within a month, the guys in my shop group all started to work at Sperry, mostly on the graveyard and swing shifts, of course. We learned how to operate and eventually set up lathes and other machines and soon gained the basic skills necessary to produce gyroscope and Norton Bombsight parts. As a volunteer fireman, in the daytime, I waited for the alarm to ring for some excitement. In a month or so Emil got his orders and when he and his Dad came over to our place to say goodbye, I choked with emotion and couldn’t hold back the tears. It was the first inclination I had that war wouldn’t be all fun and games. (4)
In November 1942, Congress lowered the draft age to 18 and I immediately ‘volunteered’. In what I soon learned was typical military style, my draft board, and the Army collaborated so they could get me drafted just before Christmas, which they did. First, I was called by the Army for an entry physical examination, which took place in the vast expanse of the Grand Central Railroad Station in NYC. What a sight, thousands of half-naked men going to various examination stations up and down aisles like cattle. One aisle had a series of little cubicles for privacy during a psychiatric examination. After hitting my knee with a hammer and observing that I wasn’t a complete idiot, the examining psychiatrist asked me if I like boys? I said sure.
Then he asked if I like girls and if I had sexual relations to which I answered yes and no, respectively. With a somewhat startled look, he checked my form, noted my age, and gave me a big smile while patting my knee. I was, of course, one of the first 18-year-old ‘draftees’ to go through Grand Central and, presumably, one of the few celibates he had seen. I always wished I could have had my army exit exam from the same guy. Needless to say, I passed but for ‘limited service’ and received my ‘greetings’ and orders to report about five days before Christmas, much to my mother’s dismay but I was anxious to get in and be a soldier.
On December 22, with my weeping and family to see me off, my fellow draft board selectees and I boarded a Long Island RR train for the Camp Upton Induction Center located in Yaphank near the end of the Island. There we were given uniforms, shots, assigned to barracks, and, of course, which became one of my favorite occupations, to KP (kitchen police) duty in a mess hall that fed thousands at a time. I can vividly remember on Christmas Eve singing ‘Silent Night’ and ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ into the two-way barrack speaker (I had a pretty good voice in those days) as we tried to entertain ourselves. I was homesick already but the excitement of it all overcame everything, not like future holidays away from home wondering if you would ever get there again. We got the usual processing including the issuance of uniforms (anything close to your size was a bonanza); films on ‘Why We Fight’ and the horrors of venereal diseases; some rudimentary basic instruction in military courtesy (meaning how and when to salute officers); intelligence and aptitude tests (usually given when you were exhausted); injections; and what have you. Usually, a new draftee was out of Camp Upton in a few days and off for basic training as part of the preparation for a pre-determined branch (infantry, artillery, etc.) or a unit assignment.
However, those of us freaks classified as “limited service” stayed almost two weeks while they collected a sufficient number for “branch immaterial” basic training. We were given a MOS (I think that stood for Military Occupation Status code) of basic/generalist. This implied that one could do low-level, routine, and manual work and little more (this designation as a non-entity was to haunt me for the rest of my military days because someone was too lazy to change it and I didn’t understand then the importance of career codes). Then, again in a typical Army style, we were assigned for branch immaterial basis training clear across the country in California.
We boarded the train in Camp Upton and were loaded aboard ancient passenger cars but any discomfort was allayed by the excitement and anticipation. For some of us, it was to be our first opportunity to see a wide swath of the United States and to begin the adventure that we envisioned awaiting us. For others, it meant being away from home, family, and even wives for the first time so the excitement that was running through me was not necessarily universally shared, to say the least. There were many, older and mature businessmen, husbands, workers, etc., and perhaps even some unlucky fathers, who were not in any happy mood but bearing up nevertheless. I remember, as we chugged away west of Chicago, seeing the Utah Desert, going along the Royal George, passing by Boulder and Pueblo, Colorado, and the home of the (then unknown to me) 89th Infantry Division and on into northern California – beautiful country. We were headed for Camp Roberts, an artillery-training base located near the Pacific Coast midway between Santa Barbara and San Francisco near Lompoc and Paso Robles. If my memory is correct, we arrived in the middle of the night and were immediately given a short arms inspection (this refers to the process of requiring a soldier to expose himself and strip his penis while an officer watches to see if there is any secretion due to venereal disease). This became a routine drill in the army, usually performed at the most inconvenient times and inhospitable places but then, boys will be boys, especially when pent up for weeks and months at a time. I had yet to experience this type of desperation. Basic training was normally for three months but it was only two months for us misfits, and that’s what most of us soon began to feel like. Essentially, it was a slightly truncated artillery basic course covering almost everything: i.e., learning the manual of arms; how to march and hike; salute; shoot a rifle, strip, and care for it; use a bayonet and throw a hand grenade; roll a backpack; do guard duty; learn the Articles of War; and, above all, memorize your Army Serial Number (ASN) which was more important than your name (I can still remember it—32684995). All in all, to me it was fun; including one or two visits to town. It should be noted that my Private monthly salary of $50 was reduced by one-third when I selected a matching allotment for my mother.
This, of course, severely limited my recreational activities while in the States. One interesting note: At that time, there was a very popular movie star named Van Heflin (can’t remember his first name). He had taken ROTC in college and found himself at Camp Roberts with us as our platoon leader. He was a very nice guy and you don’t say that much about 2nd Louies. During our training, his latest picture came out which was highly acclaimed. He played President Johnson who succeeded Lincoln after his assassination and was almost impeached by a hostile Congress. He had a special showing of it arranged at the base theater and took the whole Battery. It was strange watching him on screen as he sat just in front of me. After the show, we retired to the mess hall for a raucous beer party. I didn’t yet drink/like beer. While our basic training wasn’t far from the normal training given, our make-up was. Under the sweep of ‘limited service’ were guys with short arms, a mangled hand, a defective foot, poor eyesight and, I’m sure, tiny brainpower. Most were nice guys and capable of carrying out normal functions; others were frustrated, nasty and downright mean. Some of them were undoubtedly malingerers. At least, the Army thought so, and as we neared the end of basic, new, and complete physical exams were required for everybody to screen them out. At this moment I decided to try and take things into my own hands. I wanted to be a soldier and in the fight! While waiting my turn, I memorized the eye chart. At the end of my physical, the examining medical officer commented on the remarkable improvement in my eyesight. I explained my desire to fight for my country and not be in an outfit with a bunch of misfits. He admired my spirit as I was promptly reclassified 1-A.
MOHAVE DESERT – TANK DESTROYER
When basic training was completed, I got what I asked for and was assigned to the 775th Tank Destroyer Battalion, on maneuvers in the Mohave Dessert. I left the train at Needles and was trucked out to Camp Ibis, a tent camp in the desert, to join my combat outfit. The TD patch was a tiger crunching a tank in its mouth, very dramatic and gun-ho. The battalion was in training for desert warfare.
The desert, particularly at sunrise and sunset, was beautiful but during the day it was extremely hot and dusty but biter cold at night when you were on guard duty. It got so hot you couldn’t touch the tanks, which is why we had two hours off every midday except when on field exercises. The Battalion had a Reconnaissance Company composed primarily of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and jeeps. For weeks, I worked in the motor pool with the promise I could learn to ride a bike, a boyhood dream. On my first maneuver, they gave me one and I quickly learned differently. The desert is full of potholes, stones, etc., making steering and balance very difficult, not to mention exhausting. When I returned, that career was abruptly scuttled. For the remainder of the two or three months, we were in the Mohave desert, I was assigned as a gunner on a destroyer and, glasses, and all was pretty good at it. It was fun, even when the dust from the tanks ahead of you made breathing almost impossible. I’ll never forget how good even an ice-cold shower felt after being out in the desert for long periods.
(2) After my Grandfather McIntosh died one year before I was born in 1924, my Grandmother soon found herself without funds and needing to work. Her first job was as a practical nurse, or ‘Nanny’ as she was called, to the children of the Sperry family living in New Jersey. It also explains that for all her life, I referred to her lovingly as ‘Nanny’. (3) Another coincidence: The very factory I worked in between graduation and induction became the first location of the United Nations Secretariat pending construction of their headquarters in NYC. (4) Emil was a tail gunner in the VMF, Marines Air, and had a rough time in the Pacific. I think his experience dogged him throughout his adult life.