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Even though America was heavily engaged in World War II in the fall of 1942, I felt safe in enrolling in college because the Marines and the Navy had turned me down. I wore glasses. They were still being very selective, and anyone who wore glasses was an automatic reject. However, the Army was not the least bit disturbed by my slight visual impairment and on September 19, 1942, drafted me as a raw recruit—just a week before classes opened at Michigan State, where I had been awarded a football scholarship.
A group of us were inducted at Fort Custer, Michigan, where we were issued uniforms and long-needled shots, sat through films on venereal disease, and took a lengthy IQ test. Two days later we boarded a train with blinds drawn and were on our way to parts unknown. Rumors as to our destination quickly began, but no one guessed correctly. After two days, the train finally stopped, and some of us sneaked a peek through the blinds to discover we were in Macon, Georgia.
Camp Wheeler was to be my home for the next five months. The camp was a few miles outside Macon and, by a long coincidence, happened to be only about 135 miles from my birthplace in the hills of northern Georgia. We were immediately screened for assignment by sergeants who seemed to know all about us. I requested the Army Air Force but was denied. The sergeant informed me my basic training would be with a special battalion of men who were considered to have officer potential. At this point the Army really had very little knowledge of our abilities, except for whatever the IQ test was worth.
For the next seven weeks we struggled through a basic infantry course, with the usual KP and guard duties, with lectures on fundamentals such as military courtesy, some weapons training and actual firing on the rifle range, bayonet drill, and hand-to-hand combat. Everything was very strange and new to me. I had never been away from home for more than a week and was totally ignorant of the Army. At first I didn’t know a corporal from a sergeant, and officers seemed like gods to me because everybody, including the sergeants, jumped to rigid attention when they appeared.
For reasons quite unknown to me, I was picked immediately as an acting squad leader over twelve men. Possibly this was because of my athletic background or maybe because, to them, I appeared eager to learn how to be a soldier.
The second half of basic was in communications. We were trained in the use of field phones, laying wire, using codes and code devices, and message center operation. The training was interesting and our lieutenant was an excellent instructor.
Near the end of basic we were told we could apply for Officer Candidate School (OCS), and seventy-eight of the men in my company signed up. Then we found it was not quite as simple to get accepted as it at first appeared. We were required to go before a board of six officers chaired by a colonel. They really gave us the third degree. We were asked all sorts of questions, some very personal. Our military bearing and quickness of response seemed as important as the correctness of our answers. It seemed as though they deliberately tried to get us confused, and apparently in many cases they succeeded in doing so, for they eliminated sixty-one and passed only seventeen for admittance to OCS.
At the end of basic training the seventeen of us from my company along with some others from the rest of the battalion were moved about a mile across camp to Noncommissioned Officers School. This was the final step before OCS. It was a very tough, intensive four-week course, and only five of us passed and were promoted to corporal and made eligible for OCS.
At last we were sent across the state to the Infantry School at Fort Benning. For the next three months the training was most concentrated and intense. We worked day and night in both classroom and field. It was a damn good, rough, tough, cram course on weapons, tactics, map reading, close order drill, field maneuvers, and basic infantry training.
“Some of the men could not take the rugged physical program or the mental strain of the classes, and so they flunked out and were quietly transferred. Only two of my original group survived to get commissions. Somehow I made it, and on May 8, 1943, I was duly commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army of the United States. By Act of Congress we were now officers and gentlemen. Some called us “Ninety-Day Wonders.”
My first assignment as an officer was to Camp Croft, South Carolina, as a basic training instructor. Then, only a month later, a group of us were picked out and dispatched to Camp Hood, Texas, to help start up a newly conceived seven-week crash course for the basic infantry training of college students. After this basic, they would be returned to college—and thus Uncle Sam would not call on the country’s future brains as cannon fodder, short of dire emergency.
This experimental program never really got off the ground; only eight hundred men or so were trained in six whole months, by enough instructors to cadre an entire division of many thousands. Most of the time we instructors were bored silly and exhausted by the effort of trying to find something to occupy our time. Having no students, the instructors practiced instructing each other. After a while, even the brass gave up on the futile effort. So we played horseshoes, volleyball, and found similar pastimes for six months. My own training regiment did not receive a single college man to train. Finally, three days before Christmas in 1943, thirty of the officers from my regiment were sent to the Eighty-sixth Division, then on maneuvers in the swamps of Louisiana.
We struggled through the mud and rain and ice of the swamps until February 1944, and learned very little—other than how to exist in such terrible conditions. The weather was worse than any I had ever been through in Michigan.
Next we moved into nearby Camp Livingston, Louisiana, and resumed regular garrison training. The Army brass decided, however, that the Eighty-sixth Division was not fit for combat as a unit and began to break it up. Almost every day we received orders to ship out a few more men and officers as overseas replacements. It became quite a tough job choosing the men for the list, and each unit commander naturally tried to hang on to his best men. Finally, in April, 1944, my own turn came, and I was ordered to Camp Shanks, New York, with seven days leave at home en route.
At Camp Shanks we received all of our overseas shots, and a few days later we were on our way to England in a huge convoy of about one hundred ships, an awesome sight for this young man. After twelve days in the North Atlantic bucking through a tremendous storm that left most of us seasick—and a little jumpy from two submarine alerts during which our destroyer escorts dropped quite a few depth charges—we arrived safely at Liverpool, England, about April 20, 1944.
The first stop was Camp Warminster, a British Army base camp near Bristol. The base was overflowing with American infantry replacements, officers and men bound for combat divisions to replace battle casualties. We at once began some very limited training, mostly to keep us busy. Weapons were carefully cleaned and inspected daily. We also played a lot of ping-pong, and I had the fun of pitching a little baseball.
When D day—June 6, 1944—finally arrived, we watched its progress on a big operations map in the officers’ quarters. From this very distant, very safe position, it was hard to imagine the real fighting. Then, late that evening, we began to get a few of the wounded paratroopers and some who had landed in the Channel. They were from the Eighty-second Airborne, and we crowded around to hear their excited on-the-scene stories of the fighting. Many of them were on the way back to their units the very next day.
Soon replacements were needed, and we were on our way to an assembly area near Plymouth. Security was very tight, and we could only learn that we would be leaving shortly for France. The next day as I looked into the anxious faces of the officers around me on board the Canadian Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) leaving the crowded harbor at Plymouth it struck me suddenly: This is it. We were headed directly into the war. Now, near the end of June 1944, our allies had slowly gained a foothold in Normandy, France.
Underway, each of the officers aboard seemed to be quietly facing his own personal battle with reality. It still seems a foolish mistake to have had the entire load on our LCI be all officers. The loss of a boatload of junior-grade combat officers would make very big problems for the people tasked with the manning of combat units.
Now the words of the port commander leapt back vividly. “You are going to Normandy as replacements.” This could only mean that the position each of us was being sent to fill had become vacant because the other officer was killed in action (KIA), wounded in action (WIA), missing in action (MIA), or a nonbattle casualty (NBC). All sorts of dismal thoughts chased one another across my mind.