Columbus Fountain and statue in front of Union Station, Washington, DC 1943There were several bottles of liquor abroad and we all shared it, literally to keep from freezing. When we were about 40 miles outside DC and still in the countryside, the truck broke down and I thought that would finish it as nobody could or would stop where so many stranded and desperate soldiers were assembled. However, I soon noticed a cab going in the other direction heading towards Richmond. It slowed, turned about, and came back to us offering to take all that could fit in his cab to Washington for $40 total. I was one of the first, most of us were numb, to recognize that this was a pretty good deal and was the first to run for the cab, closely followed by most of the rest—must have been at least 20 to 30 of us. Crowded as the six or seven of us who got in were, it helped warm and thaw us out and we were happy as we approached DC and headed for the Union Station. When it came into sight, a majestic building, it was about 2300 and dark. I pushed hurriedly through the doors, through the rotunda, purchased a ticket to New York, and went into the station where the various track entrances were.

There another shock awaited me. From one end of the station to the other, it was packed with people, mostly servicemen. The train to New York, which was to leave soon, was at Track 17 and I stood in front of it but way, way back, and to get on seemed impossible. But then, in one of those unexplained mysteries of life, the gates opened, and there was a rush forward of those near the gate. This created an unintentional vacuum or pathway that I immediately saw, rushed ahead, and not only got on the train but even got a seat. The Lord was with me.

There were MPs on the train and if they started looking at our passes I would have been sunk since I was now exceeding the 250-mile limit, but it was crowded and I guess it was impossible, or the MPs were just in a good mood. I think the train left about midnight but my memory of the exact time is not clear. When I got to NY, I got on the good old Long Island RR and headed for Baldwin where my mother and aunt were spending Christmas with my grandmother and waiting for me for Christmas Eve. My dearest Aunt Ada, the world’s best Christmas tree decorator, was already hard at work and I was happy to pitch in. It was a joyous and at the same time sad time for all of us. Worst still, while I risked exceeding the maximum mileage limit, I could not risk getting back to Camp Butner after the deadline for we were on ‘overseas shipping alert’.

Therefore, on Christmas day I was back on the Long Island RR headed for New York City. The train to North Carolina and points south, as you might imagine, was almost empty. There were a pair of MPs on duty and I was terrified that having nothing to do they would surely ask for my pass. I guess they thought that no one but a fool would be traveling on Christmas Day if they didn’t have to and I was never bothered.

Main Gate at Camp Miles Standish 1943-1944MOVING OVERSEAS

When I got back to camp, preparing, packing, crating and everything else involved in moving overseas was a frenzy of action, and excitement was mounting fast. On December 15, the Division advance units had already left Camp Butner and, after a brief stay at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, left for England. On December 28, the rest of us left by train for our staging area, Camp Miles Standish near Boston. It was a huge, sprawling collection of long, low, one-story tar-papered and snow-covered barracks, organized like an immense assembly line. We marched from lectures to movies, to the infirmary, to mess hall, etc. Inspection teams went through the barracks, checking equipment and issuing missing items. Rifles were checked. Each man received a sweater, wool socks, towels, and new lightweight gas masks.

Next was a round of lectures on poison gas, abandon ship drills, and War Bond allotments, followed by immunization shots against typhus, tetanus, and typhoid. After the day’s processing, there was more training. We ate in giant mess halls, which fed more than 1500 men three times a day. The movies, phone booths, and service clubs were packed. Some went into Boston on a 12-hour pass but most of us stayed put with our memories, and feelings near a warm stove. I had a buddy, Bill Richardson, who was in my Battalion and we had both dated girls in Raleigh who lived in the same boarding house. On the bus rides in and back we had become good friends and we met again.

On the clear, zero cold mornings of January 10, we packed up, struggled into forty-pound packs, and marched down icy roads to the trains. Thousands of men quickly loaded into day coaches, to the strains of a blaring loudspeaker system. In a little over an hour, we pulled into Boston Harbor. As we piled out, Red Cross volunteers passed out hot coffee and doughnuts, and chocolate bars. One lady asked me why we weren’t singing like others did and I replied something like ‘Lady, what in the world is there to sing about?’

USS America (ID-3006) was a troop transport for the United States Navy during WWI. At the outset of the war, she was docked at Boston; rather than risk seizure by the British Royal Navy. In October 1940, America was reactivated for the US Army and renamed USAT Edmund B. AlexanderThe entire division, onboard five ships, moved out late that day and proceeded south to join its convoy. Bill Richardson and I stayed on the stern until the last glimmer of Boston and the States faded away.

I can still vividly picture that moment in my mind. Good and bad thoughts must have been racing through our minds. My group, all 5400 of us, was packed aboard the USS Edmund B. Alexander a German ship confiscated during World War I. Life aboard, to say the least, was severely cramped. There was room for every man but none to spare. Canvas iron bunks were stacked five and six high, with just enough room for each man between his pack, blanket roll, duffel bag, helmet, gas mask, and rifle. Routine was strict: troops were allowed on deck only at certain times, and smoking was permitted only in latrines after dark. Because of the huge number of men using limited facilities, only two meals were served daily. Amusements were generally limited to reading, card planning, and craps.


This voyage was not an auspicious one for me. First, there was the horrible seasickness, which, as a boy who had grown up near the ocean, came as a shocking surprise to me. Our crossing in early January was far from smooth and, twice a day, you waited in long lines before you reached where they were ladling out the chow. Placed just before where you arrived at the serving area were a large garbage-like can full of hot water and a very strong disinfectant. If you were at all squeezy, to begin with, the smell and sight of that can were sure to set you off.

I was often starved while in line but could never get past that can, and when I did, I could not hold it for long. Among the things the Army relies on to keep idle soldiers busy is senseless guard duty, no matter where you are, and we had it onboard. The worst post by far was on the top, a completely exposed deck where the smokestacks were placed. Of course, with my luck, one bitterly cold night I was assigned this bitter and useless post. I soon discovered, however, that one of the two huge smokestacks was a dummy with a door on it. Inside was a grate floor covering a large air vent, which went all the way down to the engine room and provided welcomed warmth. With the door closed, it was also a perfect place to smoke a quick cigarette, a high school habit that the Army did nothing but encourage.

Just below my open deck was an enclosed deck with a door and stairway leading up to my post. At this doorway, the soldier on guard, a corporal in my battery, would occasionally come out to talk and complain about his need for a cigarette. I told him about the hideaway I had and he left his post to have a smoke. While he was smoking in our safe enclosure, he thought he heard someone moving outside (he was not at his post) and this jerk opened the door, looked out, saw someone, and then crushed his cigarette on the door. Of course, his burning ashes were sucked out and were visible – at least on deck. That was when the proverbial shit the fan as a guard officer who was checking posts was outside looking for his missing guard.

What followed was humiliating and perhaps typical. We were far from the European coast and any likelihood that a U-Boat would spot such a small and momentary light was stretching it. Nevertheless, ‘deserting one’s post’ and ‘smoking on guard’ were serious charges under any circumstances so it was decided to conduct a special court-martial for both of us. In retrospect, the trial was a miscarriage of justice with a pre-determined result aimed to serve as an example to the troops. Since I was neither smoking at the time nor off my post, a good defense counsel should have been able to get me off and that should have been his goal. But my companion (who, incidentally, was not a buddy), with two charges, i.e., smoking on duty and desertion of the post, could face a heavy penalty, maybe even a general court-martial.

The trial, of course, was seen not only as a good example to others aboard and about to go into combat, but as something, to dare I suggest, to keep the officers busy. My counsel was a Captain who knew as much about law as I did – but he knew how to follow the scent. It was his suggestion or observation that if I pleaded guilty only to smoking on guard and my so-called friend pleaded guilty only to being off post, the ramifications would be limited for both. If I pleaded innocent on all counts concerning the specific incident, which I was, and the Corporal was found guilty of both counts, which he was, the penalty for him was likely to be severe. In my fear and confusion, I pulled one of the biggest bonehead goofs of my life. Result: I agreed and we were both found guilty and sentenced to six months confinement and a two-third reduction in pay, including a reduction in rank to Private, which affected only the corporal since I had none, to begin with. After review by the Battalion or Regiment Commander, our sentence was mitigated to three months of extra duty at reduced pay. Of course, for those who had passed me over for promotion, this only proved how correct they were.

This meant three months of the dirtiest jobs available but none exceeded what we had on the ship. It is a part of the good naval tradition to paint everything in sight and we joined all other goof-offs in painting latrines way below deck. It was like the Chinese torture for me because I have some mild claustrophobia and being cramped seven decks down, painfully brushing to fully coat the rough and hard-to-reach pipe, absorbing the smell of paint, etc., had me running topside and back constantly. Added to my seasickness and lack of nourishment, I was getting weaker and weaker. As we approached the English and French coasts, a new thrill was added. Nazi subs were in the area and the Allied navies were looking for them. Sitting in our bunks we could hear and even feel the distant depth charge explosions and a few were so close that they boomeranged off our hull with a terrifying blast as if they were right next to us. They didn’t mention this in the guidebooks.


In the very early morning, in pitch-black darkness, when our ship anchored outside Le Harve, we were assembled on deck with all our equipment, rifles, and duffel bags. It was freezing cold and the sea, at least by our standards, was anything but calm. Of course, there was a long wait (there is an old Army phrase ‘Hurry up and Wait’ which was demonstrated repeatedly throughout my army career) before the LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks or Troops) arrived and we began to disembark via rope web ladders thrown over the side. This was a precarious task under any conditions but given the rolling sea, our heavy loads and the weakened condition of many of us due to severe and long seasickness, even more so. But in retrospect, as most of us recalled it in later life, it was nothing compared to the original storming of the Normandy beaches six months before. Comparatively speaking, we were damn lucky but that thought never occurred to us at the time.

The port of Le Harve, of course, had been devastated by prior bombings, which was why our ships couldn’t dock and had to use the LSTs to tie up at the small wharves remaining. We were off-loaded, it must have been about two or three in the morning and told to wait for the trucks to come and transport us to where the division was being assembled.

Le Port - Le Havre

Le Havre - The City - 1944It was a miserable, freezing long wait. Most of us who had been seasick had not eaten for days and were suddenly hit by an all-consuming hunger, at least I was. As we had left the ship, each soldier was issued one day’s K-rations (three crackerjack size cartons containing a small can of ‘something’, candy, a drink powder, and crackers) and told not to eat them under any circumstances until given permission. Of course, I couldn’t wait thereby earning my First Sergeant’s additional commendations. Some more enterprising souls built small fires on the wharf for a little warmth. Soon, in the pitch dark, we attracted our first meeting with French citizens. They were ill-clothed, bedraggled, skinny kids with red faces and knees, begging for food and cigarettes (to sell or barter). We had our first experience with the soon-to-be ubiquitous pimp selling the sexual services of his sister but there were no takers. It was a sad welcome.
Finally, many hours later, our transportation arrived. They were open, 10-ton semi-trailer trucks providing no protection from the wind and cold but off we went heading, we knew not where, to a slop hole called Camp Lucky Strike. As we drove through the city in the morning, huddled together for warmth, many French people welcomed us with smiles and waved at us although by this time Yanks were not a unique sight. We enjoyed throwing gum and candies at the kids but the inescapable and visible hardship that these people obviously had to endure was disheartening to all of us. Lucky Strike, a former Nazi airfield and the farming area now strewn with German mines, was the assembly point for the Division.

Rue Victor Hugo, Le Havre. (Note the US Unexploded 500Kg GP Bomb in the foreground All units would wait at this ‘camp’ until all the heavy equipment, supplies, and artillery was unloaded from the ships of our convoy, uncrated, and/or assembled, and sent on to the various Normandy towns nearby where we would regroup into company and battery units. At first sight of Lucky Strike, we knew we were in for it.

The huge field was covered by deep snow and under it were the unassembled tents for our use but no stoves or anything to deal with the cold. The first job was to find the tents, pass them out by squads, and assemble and raise them – not an easy job under the conditions. The first few days, there was no straw on the bare ground ‘floors’, very few stoves, and no food except the K-rations. Gradually, and I emphasize the word ‘gradually’, things improved. Of course, still being under the penalty of ‘extra duty’, all the dirty jobs first fell to me.

As we tried to settle into tent life, the biggest problem was food. It was in such limited supply that unit messes were never set up. Rather, only two meals a day were served in regiment-size mess tents. This, of course, resulted in very long lines to wait in the cold for insufficient food and the seemingly interminable wait for supper. Grumbling increased.

About some coffee for Doc Snafu, or, why not? help EUCMH to acquire the items in the wish list below.
Thank You

Previous articleArgentina, the German Fourth Reich (Holger M. Meding)
Next articleHitler’s Winter by Anthony Tucker-Jones (Osprey)