Interview with World World II Vet (2003)
(Note: the interviewee requested anonymity and thus the interview has been revised to honor that request).
CY: What is your first memory of your war experience? When did it begin?
AD: In late summer of 1943 we boarded a bus in Tarentum [Pennsylvania] that took us to Indian Town Gap in Maryland.
We traded our civilian clothes for army clothes. While holding our arms full of GI uniforms they gave us all our shots while we were in our birthday suits. You know what those are, right Claire? Well, I can’t remember how many [shots], but I know there were several. That is all I remember about the first day.
CY: I am sure they kept you busy. What is your next memory of Maryland?
AD: Well, my only other recollection of Maryland is that the next day they gave us aptitude tests to determine what each of us was best suited for. I was chosen to serve in the Army Signal Corps, and our unit was sent by train to Camp McCain, Mississippi. It was called the hellhole of the world, and for good reason!
CY: Why is that?
AD: There was nothing but mud, sand and wooden barracks. It took me at least two weeks to get used to army food. Breakfast was okay, but for lunch and supper I would go to the PX for sandwiches and coke. After a while all the food at the mess hall started to look better.
We spent much of our time learning marching drill, guard duty and hours of code reading. The days were hot as blazes. My drill sergeant was a stickler for marching, calisthenics and hiking in full field pack. Those packs felt like we were carrying everything we owned. You cannot imagine how heavy our packs were! Our second lieutenant was caught stuffing his pack with newspapers and was restricted to the area for a week. But, so what? The towns of Grenada and Tallahoma, Mississippi were no big deal.
CY: What was a typical day of basic training like at Camp McCain?
AD: It started with reveille at 5:30A.M. Then we returned to the barracks to make our beds and get ready for inspection, which we never knew if it was on or not. Everything that was issued to us had its place and it had to be folded just right and in its…its proper place. Occasionally we were tipped off as to whether the inspection was to be white glove or regular. White glove meant that they looked everywhere for dust. If found it meant trouble, extra details of some sort. Imagine living in mud, sand and nothing paved and be expected to be dust free. Crazy! Then followed breakfast which was eggs to order, dry or cooked cereal, powdered milk…yuck!…toast and coffee. Fresh oranges or orange juice. On occasion we had grits, hot biscuits and cornbread. Next we assembled for calisthenics and short order drill. We spent the rest of the morning in the code room. Hot as blazes! No air conditioning, what was that? After our noon room it was more time in the code room. Then about twice a week it was hiking, and when our platoon leader was upset about something it meant full field pack and forced march, which meant double time, which meant a fast jog. We usually returned in time for dinner, but I recall that many were too beat to eat and headed for the bunks. By the time we were rested the mess hall was closed. That meant we ate at the PX. If we bribed the mess sergeant, he would slip us something.
CY: Did you ever receive any food from home?
AD: Yes I remember receiving care packages. They sometimes contained 6 of pepperoni, salami, Italian cheese and all the other goodies. At one time our mess sergeant was an Italian from Philadelphia. I shared some of our “soul food” with him and he saw to it that none of us went hungry. He did his baking late at night and it was nothing for us to show up late around midnight for fresh warm bread and whatever we wanted.
CY: So you would sometimes stay up late and get up quite early. You must have been tired. What were your nights in the barracks like?
AD: Well, remember that I happened to be one of the oldest in our barracks and was used to being away from home. Even so, the nights were quiet and hard to handle. We used to talk from our bunks with each other, often about what our mothers used to make at mealtime and our favorite food from home. I would occasionally wake up in the middle of the night and hear more than one guy sobbing and crying for home and mama. Most of the guys were just out of high school and never had been away from home.
CY: You never stayed in Camp McCain long enough for it to become comfortable did you?
AD: No, we soon traveled in convoy to Tennessee for maneuvers. I drove the colonel’s jeep as head vehicle. I remember it had to be strictly 25 miles per hour, no more no less. It took forever to get there. The colonel decided to check blackout conditions throughout the maneuver area by plane. I had to stay with him so up in the plane we went. The pilot was nuts! He did all kinds of dips and turns. I was so sick that I thought I was going to die.
After Tennessee maneuvers we convoyed to Camp Atterbury, Indiana for winter maneuvers. Thought I’d freeze to death! There is nothing like bad food and cold weather to make you miss home. Often times we were kept too busy that there was little time to miss anything except sleep, but I do remember the sadness and pain of homesickness. When I was in Tennessee, however, I was sent to Pittsburgh to pick up a prisoner who went AWOL. I stayed home overnight. That was tougher than I thought it would be because I knew I had to leave again in the morning.
CY: So you returned to Indiana?
AD: Yes. I recall that at one of our evening retreat formations my name was called out to step forward. As I did so I thought to myself, what is this all about? They made a big drawn out deal about it, made a big ceremony, and presented me with a Good Driver Medal. It was almost embarrassing, the company commander sure made it look serious. I heard later that it was the colonel’s idea. Well, the guys really rode me about it for a long time. I kept the medal and wore it on my uniform, and had it when I got home. (Chuckle) With tongue in cheek I would show it off like it was the greatest achievement of my army career. I had a lot of fun with it!
CY: After stealing the show in Indiana to where were you next transported?
AD: I know that from there we boarded a troop train for Camp Mount Stannish in the Boston area. We were there a short time and then we boarded a ship to be convoyed to England.
CY: Ah, England. Tell me about that. I am sure that your memories of it are quite different from mine.
AD: Well, the crossing took 11 long days by northern route near Iceland. I remember seeing the Isle of Man on my way to Liverpool. Then we set up headquarters in the Manchester area. I do not think you made it there, did you?
CY: No, since Oxford was more south I did not make it up north to Manchester.
AD: I do not remember much of the sites. On June 5th of 1944 late that night while on radio duty we heard the roar of many planes flying over the Channel for heavy bombing of the invasion coast and inland targets. That continued all night and into the next morning when the invasion began. Many of the planes dropped paratroopers behind the lines to disrupt the communications and supply lines.
On D-Day plus 28 we pulled out in convoy to Bristol and then to South Hampton where in 2 days we boarded landing ships that crossed the Channel. On D-Day plus 30 we landed in Normandy. The front lines were 10 miles inland. The beach was eerily quiet and we moved inward to set up camp. We never fired our weapons but every night “Beach Head Charlies” would raid the area. Our job was to furnish radio communications for General Patton’s 3rd Army headquarters, and we were constantly on the move following his tanks and infantry units.
CY: Wow, I did not know you were in Normandy. I suppose this experience was quite different from the bases in the United States.
AD: The first ugly site of the war was at the French village of St.Lo, which was heavily damaged. We saw enemy tanks and the men burned and laying everywhere. It was terrible!
French villages on Sunday mornings were memorable. Mass and bake shops and fresh crusty bread. Villagers were in need of shoes and we would trade for bottles of cognac so high proof that we used them in our Zippo lighters.
CY: Did you ever make it to Paris?
AD: Yes. I got word that Jack [brother] was in the hospital in Paris. I received a pass and made a visit. Then, I met my cousin Joe Calderone in Remes and Bob Grecco in one of the other villages.
CY: Then it was back to the radio platoon correct?
AD: Yes. You know what I remember about my return? Once we were positioned on a hill along a large hedgerow and near a food dump. They had an officer’s mess and we packed in music from the BBC. They treated us to all the steak dinners we wanted.
One cold rainy night we were all in our tents and everybody seemed to be hungry. We all wondered where we could get some food. I knew there was a food dump down over the hill. It was covered with canvas and of course it was blackout conditions, no lights could be used. Although it was raining I said to two fellows, “You come with me. I know exactly where the peaches are.” So we go down to the big pile at the food dump, picked up the canvas and each of us took a case of canned goods and put it on our shoulder and went back to the tent. The first guy opened a case, pulled out a can, and it was sauerkraut. The next guy did the same (chuckle) and it was sauerkraut. I opened my case, and it wasn’t peaches. It was sauerkraut (chuckle). As a matter of fact, surprises often came in cases or packages. One time we were in a field in France bogged down in the rainy season for about a month. We had no GI boots so I wrote home requesting they send me a pair. In about three weeks I received a package. I opened it and there was one boot. Then followed a letter from home explaining what happened. They could not put two boots in one package because it made it too heavy. In about two weeks I received another package. The second boot!
CY: Did you receive packages at Christmas time?
AD: I am sure that I did, but I do not recall the specifics. What I do remember is that at Christmas time in 1944 we were in Nance, France when the Battle of the Bulge broke out. The casualties of the infantry outfits were so great that they asked for men from all the other units who were behind the lines, which included ours. Several of our men had to go to the infantry. I was fortunate that I wasn’t, that I didn’t have to go. (Pause) Most of the guys that I had heard of were either wounded or killed. (Pause) From there we crossed the Rhine to Germany and we saw the city of Cologne, which was heavily damaged but the cathedral was in good shape. From there we went on to Frankfurt. One night while on duty as sergeant of the guard one of my men was wounded – a bullet in the stomach. I immediately put him in a jeep and took off down the Audobon, knowing that there was a medical outfit down the road. As we pulled in we saw that they were completely packed and ready to move, and they could not do anything for us. So they told us that further on down the road there was another medical outfit so we took off. It seemed forever before we got there. We pulled in and they took care of the man. I never saw him again., but I feel that he…he survived.
The war in Europe ended and we convoyed through Munich. Most of the city was heavily damaged except for the cathedral and the brewery. We went on to Bartoles, in the Bavarian Alps which is about 25 miles south of Munich. We set up our headquarters in a former German barracks with German prisoners to serve as caretakers. Each platoon has a building of its own. The battalion had a contest to see who could make the best ballroom in each of the barracks. We discovered one of the Germans who was a fine artist, and we used him to paint fine murals on the wall and decorate. We won first prize!
CY: So, things were easing up slightly at this time?
AD: Yes, a bit. I recall that some of us decided to visit Italy and we received weekend passes. We drove down to the Brenner Pass to the town of Brenner, only to find the border closed to prevent the Germans from escaping Italy. We decided to walk over the border just to say we were on Italian soil. Traveling through the mountains we could see the city of Innsbruck in the distance.
Still, the only place I really wanted to see was home. Thanksgiving of 1945 was approaching and we got orders to go home. We were convoyed by truck back through Germany and France through the city of Le Harve, and we boarded a liberty ship that was really a tub and I really got seasick. They placed me in a hospital high in the middle of the ship and it was the only place in the whole ship that had fresh water. If you ever try to wash with salt water you know the difference. All my friends kept visiting me and ducking into the shower and my friends were some of the cleanest on ship. I was feeling better and ready to leave the hospital, but they coaxed me into staying so they could still have their showers everyday.
We finally got to the harbor of New York and the Statue of Liberty was one of the greatest sights I have ever seen. They fed us well and it was the first fresh milk I had had since I left the states. They say that cows milk in Europe was a problem. That’s why I never drank it.
I got home on December 3 of ’45, which was 2 days before my 23rd birthday.
T4 Sergeant A* D* was a member of the United States Army Radio Patrol and therefore rarely ever approached the front lines in combat gear. His role was to secure the infantry divisions that advanced toward the enemy targets by guaranteeing their communication capabilities. Thus, his experiences differ from those highlighted in the war literature selected by Dr. Metres. Despite these contrasts, however, some war experiences of Mr. D* parallel those described by authors like Vonnegut and O’Brien. For instance, when Mr. D* stepped onto the shores of Normandy 28 days after the initial battle of D-Day he witnessed death and human carnage such as he had never viewed before. Almost 60 years later he still finds himself incapable of verbalizing his emotions of that moment. He states that it was terrible and his voice trails off. His disturbed memory prevents him from discussing it further, an occurrence which numerous war texts describe. Thus it appears that the moments which most impel people to scream out in horror often times deprive them of their voice, not just momentarily, but in some instances permanently. It may be noted that this is not the only war story that cannot be uttered, for as Mrs. D* commented after the interview was completed, her husband never mentions his time in Germany when he observed the Nazi concentration camp ovens. Rather than searching for an explanation, she understands and accepts the fact that not all war stories can be nor should be told.
A striking similarity between Mr. D*s World War II service and that of Vonnegut’s character Billy Pilgrim is the interaction between Allied and German soldiers. Although the Germans D* met were prisoners of war, and in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5 the Germans were in control of the prison camp, both stories reveal a conciliatory relationship between the two groups. In the former war story, a German prisoner paints a mural in a barracks ballroom to help D* radio platoon barracks win first prize in a contest. Kurt Vonnegut’s narrative includes the German soldiers giving supplies to the British troops and aiding them in decorating their surroundings. The important correlation between these stories is their comparable description of agreeable relations between the Germans and the Allies. Even though they were “enemies of war”, on more individual levels they related to each other quite peacefully.
Another all too common experience of war shared by Mr. D* and modern writers alike is the uncertainty associated with the outcome of numerous friendships and acquaintances. In other words, wars draw men together and encourage solid and often codependent relationships. Upon conclusion of a war, however, units and battalions are dispersed and contacts may cease between men. As in the case of Mr. D* he never discovered the fate of the gentleman whom he escorted to the hospital. In fact he failed to learn the soldier’s name, but to this day he carries the recollection of his time spent with that man. Stories such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried also depict encounters between soldiers whose names remain occult but whose lives forever impact the memories of others. For Lt. Jimmy Cross, the identities of some of his men was uncertain, yet even those whose faces were without names still left an imprint upon the mind of their leader. Therefore it may be that war elicits strong feelings of concern and compassion between men who once were and still always will be strangers.
Interviewing Mr. D* provided a wealth of information about war experiences often neglected in literary texts. For example, he offers great insight into the everyday proceedings of a soldier in training. Details of inspections, meals, living conditions, and less than adventurous responsibilities allow for a greater appreciation of the realities of war. While war literature also attempts to offer its readers a taste of true combat encounters, it is difficult to attract large audiences with stories of trips to the PX or food dump. This is not to suggest that these stories are irrelevant or even secondary to those found in war literature, but rather that they excite fewer imaginations and therefore appeal to smaller audiences.
Mr. D*’s tour of duty rarely delivered him to places haunted by the death of his military “brothers”. Therefore, unlike the narratives of O’Brien’s text, Mr. D* uttered few if any jokes about death in order to cope with his experiences. Furthermore, the humor that he did witness and partake in differs from that of Dr. Metres’ war literature selection. For instance, the moment in which D* was presented with his driver’s medal swelled with laughter and cheers from his fellow soldiers, not necessarily to tease him, but rather to relish the relaxed and carefree circumstances of the ceremony. Even today talk of his award elicits a smile from Mr. D*, and few war experiences described in the literary texts encourage a similar response.
This story shared by Mr. D*, as well as the account of his acrobatic flight occurrence, are valuable in that they offer their audience the opportunity to see a different side of war than that which is narrated in literature. War, perhaps fortunately, is not always antithetical to peaceful existence. While actual combat does disturb peace, Mr. DiGi proves that events in war itself are not always bloody or horrific. Although this realization may provide one explanation for why war has not yet been abandoned for other policies, it also offers further comprehension into the reality of war; and all individuals who seriously pursue the study of war find that essential. Furthermore, shared recollections like those from Mr. DiGi are usually innocent of political or social objectives. This objective quality is refreshing in war narratives, and thus should be embraced and preserved.