World War II Memories
Interviewed by Charlotte Wangrin, Dec. 2002
C: Bob Elliott, do you want to tell us where you were during WW. II, what outfit you were with, where you were working and so on?
E. I was with the 355th Infantry Regiment of the 89th Division till the end of the war, and I was there for part of the occupation until I came home. I was with Company F of the 18th Division.
C: How long were you in Europe?
E: I was there for fourteen months. I was in combat about six weeks, was all I was in combat. I had already been in the service two years before I went overseas and I went in as a replacement. So in actual combat I was there about six weeks, not any longer, and that was long enough! (laughs)
C: You were lucky you didn’t have to be in any longer. Mr. Downey would you follow suit please?
D: I was drafted in April of ’42 and I was assigned to 319th Bomb Group, 439th Bomb Squadron, which was a medium-uh-had B26’s and we went overseas in September of the same year, so actually I went overseas without ever having basic training but-a-we landed in England and then we went on to the invasion of Africa in November of 1942. I was there until January of 1945 when they came back with the idea of regrouping and going to Japan. Then I was transferred out of Columbia, South Carolina just before they left for Japan and that was in-uh-July of 1945.
C. That was a long session you had there, wasn’t it. Bet you were glad to get home, huh?
D. Yes! So most of my experience in the service was overseas. I felt fortunate to be–the invasion of Africa was the first offensive of WWII but it was the easiest. I found out I was fortunate that I didn’t have to be in the invasion of the really rough (. . . . Static)
E. The outfit I was in, Company F was kind of like a cleanup company. We would go in while the battle was still going on and–in house-to-house combat we’d go in and try to clean out snipers and make a sweep of the stragglers and uh–after we’d get going through a town we’d pick out a house we were gonna stay in. We’d give them about five minutes to get out and then we’d stay in the house overnight and .. We didn’t sleep on the ground too many nights. Usually we had a spot picked and maybe we’d stay in the house two or three days. We’d go out on night on patrols which I hated with a passion because you couldn’t see anything. This one town we were going through taking the town and a lady came running . . . They had to turn in all their weapons: knives with blades 6″ or longer, all guns and cameras. This lady came out and-uh it was a fold-up camera, (I still have it) and handed it to me. I just stuck it in my pocket. I didn’t even look at it; I didn’t have time. The German people were very neat and clean. You could be fighting and two blocks away they’d be out sweeping the streets and getting everything back in order. But-a-she handed me this camera and I stuck it in my pocket and-uh-about two weeks later we took one of the companies that relieved the Dachau Prison Camp in Czechoslovakia. A lot of people heard about Dachau. We were one of the first units in there. The 101st Airborne were there about three or four hours before we got there.
C. Sickening, I’ll bet.
E. It was very sickening. The odor, the smell of burning and-uh-what they tried to do, they had a lot of these dead bodies in freight cars and so when they knew we were coming they just try to burn them and they also had open pits where they tried to burn the bodies. I had this camera with me. I took it out and sure enough it had film in it, so I took some pictures which I have and various times when I give a talk I pass the pictures around. We’ve had people right there in Germany say, 50 miles from Dachau, say it never happened, these camps never happened but I have the sure proof they did.
C. Was there any film in that camera, of pictures that she had already taken?
E. No, it was a brand-new roll. There were 16 pictures on it. It was a 6-20 film which they don’t make anymore.
C: Did you ever find out why she gave you the camera?
E. Well, they had to turn them in. Had to turn them in to the Mayor’s office, they called him the Burgomaster of the town. So she saw me and she handed it to me. So I prize that very highly.
C. I’d like to see those pictures sometime.
E. It’s something you never forget. Betty, other members of my family, I never talked about it for over 20 years after I was home. I never talked to anybody about it until, probably 5 or 6 years ago I gave a talk in Mr. Snoad’s history class, and it’s still hard to talk about it.
C. I’ll bet it was in your emotions, then, very strongly, if you couldn’t talk about it?
E. Actually it seemed more like it hit me more after it was over, you know. It-uh-at the time you’re so busy you don’t have time to think about it until after it was over and you have time to stop and think. I just couldn’t talk about it, and even here, things’d come on TV and I’d have to get up and leave the room. I just couldn’t watch it. Since that opening the first time, since I talked in Mr. Snoad’s history class it has come more easily and the more I talk about it now–I guess it’s good therapy because the more I talk about it now it’s easier to talk about. Uh–there was a lot of funny things that happened. The only clothes I had was what I went into combat with and they took us up into a woods and they said, “Your outfit’s there in that woods.” There was about 100 yards across an open field to a woods and it was just turning dark and I started across there and of course they halted me for the password and-uh when I got there–
C. Did you know the password?
E. (laughs) You had to know it or you were dead in your tracks! So I gave the password and-uh-the guy they assigned me to had been a prisoner of Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas and the only reason he was there was that he had agreed to sign a paper that he would go into combat so-uh-he was in for murder. He was my partner, and what a guy to have because he watched my back. He was great! The first thing they did, when they gave us all ammunition; they were all tracer bullets, eight rounds of tracer bullets and a rifle. When he saw that he said, “Hell, you don’t want those.” And he threw ’em out and gave me a clip out of his ammunition because normally every third bullet is a tracer bullet to show you where you’re aiming but it also tells the enemy where you are. So every time you would shoot you would roll either right or left or moved so they could zero in on that spot, you could see if you had any tracer bullets they knew where you were all the time. But-uh-he was my partner all until the end of the war.
C. Was he a pretty nice guy?
E. He was a nice guy but tougher than nails. He didn’t take any crap from anybody (laughs). But I was fortunate to have him because he really looked out for me. This one house we went into–like I say we didn’t have any change of clothes, we were scruffy and dirty. My underwear could stand by itself. So we were goin’ through the drawers and I found this pair of silk panties, they were women’s but I, being small, I put ’em on, and I had to stand a lot of raspberries about that, but they were clean and they felt good.(laughs)
C. I’ll bet! I’d kinda like to know what outfit–what General was in charge of your group?
E. I was in General Patton’s Third Army.
E. Most of the time. He moved so fast that sometimes we would get into another area and be in another army territory. I never saw the man. I heard a lot of stories about him but I never saw him.
C. That was after the Battle of the Bulge probably.
E. Yes. I came in just after–just after that. I got in just about a week before they crossed the Rhine River and-uh–we crossed the Rhine River in a little town called Weitzel about 2, 2:30 in the morning, assault boats, pretty heavy fire. That was my second baptism of heavy fire. Like I say, my first one was when I met up with my outfit we had heavy fire from mortars, mostly mortars, and-uh one of the tricks the Germans would pull, they had these heavy 88mm tanks and they would shoot at one man if they thought it was necessary but mostly if you went down, if you were walking down the road in the forest path they would be zeroed in on that and they’d fire right down that road or path with their tank guns, and if you jumped into the ditch on either side they had those mined.
C. Wow! So you had to make a decision on what was the best way to go.
C. What did you do then? You must have gotten out of it. You’re here.
E. Well, I was lucky. The first night in combat we lost 22 out of my contingent of 33 guys we lost 22, either wounded or killed. I think we had 11 killed. Company F, nothin’ to be proud of, but we had the highest casualty rate in the Division. And I heard that when I was assigned to that group. They said, “Where ya goin’?” I said, “Company F.” They said, “Oh oh, they got the highest casualty rate in the Division” which I understand now because we did. Our platoon didn’t have a Lieutenant. He was killed about the first or second day in combat and the Platoon Sergeant, they made him, gave him a field commission. He didn’t want it, wouldn’t take it, so we didn’t have an officer until the war was over and uh–it was a couple or three days before the war was over and a Lieutenant came in. He was smart. He just said, “You guys have been through this. I’m just new here. I’ll just watch.” So the Sergeant kept right on callin’ the shots and the Lieutenant didn’t interfere at all. . . like I say, he just went along for the ride.
C. It would almost have to be that way, I would think.
E. Yeah. He had no idea what combat was all about. He was a 90-day wonder.
C. Ed Winzeler was one of those 90-day wonders. He went to Yale for 90 days, and came out a Lieutenant. He ended up in China in charge of a radio outfit. He said, “I didn’t know anything about radios–zilch.” But there was a fellow–I guess he was a Sergeant there, might have been a Private–that really knew radios. Ed said, “I just gave him free rein.” But he’d go AWOL every once in a while and Ed said, “When he’d come back I’d let him back in and not say anything because he was so valuable.”
E. We were the same way. I was a Noncom myself. You know our officers and our Non-coms, I was a Non-com myself; we didn’t wear any stripes, didn’t wear any bars, or insignias and we were clean. We called everybody by their first name. We didn’t-uh–because the snipers loved to pick off the officers and the Noncoms. They went for those first–they actually went for the officers first–and so there was no insignia, no stripes or bars or any of that stuff on the officers or sergeants or anything. Everybody was clean, you didn’t have any insignia on you. And so in your own little group you’re pretty intimate so you know everybody by their first name, especially in your squad where you’ve got about eight, ten–a full squad’s about 11 or 12 guys. We never had a full squad. The most we ever got was about 10 but in a squad and in that platoon you knew everybody by their first name. And a medic was with you. If you needed a medic you didn’t call for a medic, you called him by his first name because that way the enemy didn’t know you were wounded. They’d love to know that too and so-uh-these are the things that I learned real quick. I was in with some veteran fighters then and the nice part about it was they took me right in, showed me the ropes, the do’s and don’ts, and that’s why I’m here. They were really great. And after the war we went down to Lintz, Austria and I was there in a prison camp. I guarded prisoners and-uh I had my own valet, an SS trooper, called Max, can’t tell you what his last name was but he shaved me, he washed my clothes, he did all the cleaning in my bunk. He was Al; he never caused me any trouble. He knew his place.
C. Could he speak English?
E. He could speak English, and I learned German quite a bit from him, I did, and I was with him for about nine months and we got along real good. One night my buddy and I was out on post and we took–this was when the war was winding down to an end and we took about 50 prisoners. We didn’t take ’em, they came to us ’cause there was just two of us and about 50 of them so if they wanted to they coulda cleaned our clock but they were giving up and the one fella could speak fluent English. I mean you wouldn’t know he was German ’cause most of the Germans, they pronounced their w’s like a v, but he didn’t even have that accent and I said, “well where did you learn to speak English?” He said, I was goin’ to school in St. Paul, Minnesota and he says “I came back home to visit my parents and they conscripted me in the German army.” And he gave me his pistol which I have upstairs and have had ever since then and-uh- but he could speak English better than a lot of people that know English. (laughs)
It was interesting. One time I was up on a hill lookin’ at some troops movin’ down in the valley. Somebody kicked me in the heels; I whirled around and there was this little old man, probably about the age I am now, (laughs) said, “I’ve been an American citizen longer’n you have.”
I said, “Yeah?” He said “I lived in United States 33 years.”
I said, “Where?”
He said, “Pennsylvania. I worked in the steel mills in Pittsburgh.” And again, he could speak perfect English. Funny how those things happen. Y’know, you don’t think about that. A lot of funny things happen. You don’t like to remember the bad stuff. One night we were out on patrol and we got word that there was Germans in a coal mine–SS troopers were in a coal mine–so we went into this coal mine. It was black as night. So we opened this door, threw in about three hand grenades, two or three. It was a room–oh I don’t know, maybe 40 x 60 or something like that and-uh-we rushed in there and there was one little old guy hunched up, sittin’ in a corner all hunched up. But there wasn’t a scratch on him. The bomb went off but never hit him. There wasn’t anyone else in there, he was the only one in there.
C. Nobody else in there?
C. I’ll bet you were kinda glad. (laughs)
E. To be honest with you our intelligence wasn’t too good. You know they talk about intelligence on TV, right? I can’t remember a time when they were right. I don’t know why but we kinda always took things with tongue in cheek when we heard something because about nine times out of ten it wasn’t true. Such as that case right there. The one town we went into supposedly had been–see when we took a town the residents were supposed to hang bed sheets out their windows so you knew it had been taken, it wasn’t German occupied. We went into this town with the sheets hangin’ out and we was told that already it had been taken. We got right in the middle of it and all hell broke loose. Y’know they just baited us in there and then opened fire. In the same way one of the warehouses got broken into and they stole all the Army overcoats–the Germans did. And so we immediately had to throw away all our overcoats ‘cause we didn’t know who was wearing what.
C. Oh, they’d be wearing them?
E. (laughs) They’d infiltrate your lines and so we had to throw away all our overcoats, which was ridiculous but that’s the way it had to be.
C. Was it cold?
E. It was cold. It was in March.
C. Pretty cold.
E. But, like I say, we were pretty fortunate. I could probably count on a hand the number of nights that I slept on the ground or in a fox hole. Most of the time we were fortunate enough to be in a barn or, at least in a barn or most of the time maybe in a house. So we always had three or four outposts around to protect ya. It was-uh–it was an experience I won’t ever forget but-uh– I enjoyed the comradeship. I have never talked to anyone that I was with since I left. I got out in April of ’46 and I have not contacted anyone that I was with at all. Two of my best buddies–one was from White River Junction, Vermont and the other was from Columbia, South Carolina. I never talked to either one of them after I got out.
C. Now Bob’s experience was sort of like that except after the war you met several of you old buddies, didn’t you?
D. We’ve had reunions about-uh–for twenty, close to thirty years. We’ve had annual reunions. And I still meet–uh–I haven’t been to one for about three years but when they’re in the area I’ve gone to a reunion every five years or so and there’s still 8 or 10 people that show up. We reminisce and of course our experience in the Air Corps was altogether different. We were in Sardinia for a year and we were in Africa for a year and then we were in Corsica for about three months but were stable because our bombers would go out a 250 mile range and then come back so that we weren’t under fire. And-uh–these, the ones that were in combat on the plane, they would get their missions in and go home. But our basic group was together the whole time that I was there so we had a stable relationship as far as the ground troops. There was probably 10 or 12 that had been rotated out but other than that. When we went over that they wanted to have a pool and I said, “I’ll bet on most anything but I won’t bet on that.” They said “Why?” I said, “We could be over here for two Christmases.” They were about ready to throw me off the boat. We were on our way to Africa, and they thought that in three months it’d be over with, six months it’d be over.”
C. I remember back home we were singin’ “I’ll be with you in apple-blossom time.” (sings it) Because we thought by spring–everybody here thought that it’d be over. What was your job in Africa, Bob?
D. Well I went in and, like I said, I didn’t have the basic training and I got into this outfit and the commanding officer, he looked at me and I was too big to be a tail gunner and I wore glasses and-uh-he lost interest in me and he said, “Well what do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I want to transfer.” (laughs) I had an opportunity–I was in Barksdale–I had an opportunity to go into finance, in bookkeeping and this guy that had the finance department there didn’t have any experience and I was in the replacement pool at that time But in the meantime I got in this 439th Squadron at Camp Tuttle wasn’t interested in me and he assigned me first to Supply and then the Mail Orderly died within a week or two so when we went overseas I became the Mail Orderly, of course in the Orderly Room.
C. The other one wasn’t killed, was he?
D. No. He actually died of alcoholism. So–uh–I was in Administration. I did the Morning Report and the Sick book, took care of the mail for about 14 months. One day the Commanding Officer called me in and said, “Downey, how many times have you been acting as First Sergeant?” I said, “Oh about six or seven times.”
He said, “Well, would you like the job?”
I said, “Well, it hasn’t been too kind to my predecessor.” (laughs)
He said, “Will you take it?” And I said, “Yes sir.” So I became First Sergeant of this outfit and I stayed that for another 14 months.
C. That meant a nice jump in pay didn’t it?
D. (laughs) I went from Staff Sergeant to First Sergeant in one promotion, but money didn’t mean anything to you. You couldn’t spend it for anything. Money was worthless. There was nothing to buy in town. You just couldn’t think any of what the money would do for you.
C. I know, when we were married Ed Winzeler was making-uh-$37 a month and he’d just gotten a raise in pay because he went from plain Private to Private First Class, but he was getting $37 a month.
E. I was a Buck Sergeant and I got $78.
C. Which was pretty good in those days.
E. Well, I got $78 plus Betty got. . .What was your allotment, Betty? I think it was $50.
D. It was $22. You put in $22 and she got $28.
E. That’s right.
D. I got $28 and had to put in $28.
Betty (Elliott’s wife). Plus when he was in the States I got to go see him in California, Washington and Oregon and I had more money when I went out than when I got (laughs) and was paid. When it ended up we just had a thousand dollars saved.
C. Well I was under the impression that you were in the Quartermaster. Were you?
D. No, 1 wasn’t.
C. Would you tell about the time when you were in the railroad cars?
D. We were-uh-when we first landed we didn’t have pup tents. We slept basically out in the open from November until about-uh-January-uh-February of ’43. And then we were-uh-we went from the edge of Tunisia back to Casablanca area to regroup and get re-equipped and that’s when we got our first tents and-uh-actually the one squadron that went out on the invasion of Africa was in the hold of the ship and the guys were worried because none of them had any side arms. This Captain comes down and he says, “I hear you-all are worried because you don’t have any side arms,” he said, “We don’t anticipate any opposition but if we do there’ll be plenty of stiffs on the beach for you guys to pick up their guns and go on.” But then luckily we didn’t have to when we landed. We went over the side of the boat and in the landing craft and on to the beach and we got in without opposition so, where we were there was some opposition over towards Tunisia and we landed at St. Lou which is outside of Algiers and luckily we didn’t have any opposition because we weren’t trained, we weren’t equipped and we weren’t ready to fight. (laughs)
C. You didn’t even have basic training, you said.
D. No. We picked up 33 men at Fort Dix, New Jersey just before we left. One guy said, “I haven’t been out of sight of my home ever since I’ve been in the service.” We could see his home over on the hill and he’d been in the service two weeks and overseas he went. (laughs) Of course that was only about 10% of the men in our group. We had 360 men in our Squadron.
C. Did you go over on a troop ship?
D. Well I went over on the Queen Mary to England, and we went from there on what they called ‘The Lucky Moon,’ which was one of the bigger ships in the fleet. Some days we could look out and see 12 or 15 ships and other days there’d be 65 or 70 ships around us to protect us. It took us 18 days to get from England to Africa.
C. Did you have to take zig-zag courses to avoid subs?
D. No. Yes. We were just bobbin’ around the Atlantic, back and forth. Actually it was about a three-day trip if they went straight through but we were out there about 18 days while they were assembling this group of forces to-uh–of course with us being in the Air Corps we weren’t the first ones off the boat. There were the Signal Corps and they were assembling the people that were more actively trained and they were the first ones off the boat so—
C. That was when?
D. That was in November, 1942.
D. But we had one thing to consider. We had a good reputation as far as our success in bombing and-uh-like what Bob said, we were told for two weeks on what they were going to do in Anzio, a major operation in Italy and I thought, “This is the dumbest thing that I ever heard, to be out in a theater and have a guy explain what our job was going to be two weeks before it happened. All these people were standing around and they could be enemies. And of course when they went into Anzio everything was just as they said, except that they didn’t go far enough and their original surge wasn’t great enough. They were pinned on the beach for about six weeks and there was a slaughter for . . .and f course I wasn’t involved except we were bombing the people that were fighting against them but Anzio was a disaster as far as well-planned invasion. It still makes me sick to think of the useless waste of troops that was caused by just plain inefficiency.
C. Bob Elliott, how about your trip across? What was it like when you first went across?
E. I got on the ship in New York Harbor, Pier 88. There was 15000 of us on the ship. We went by the Statue of Liberty at about 3 o’clock at in the morning and it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. There was 15,000 guys on board. It was quiet cause everybody knew this might be out last time here.
C. This was in when, did you say?
E. This was in ’45, February of ’45 and we went south along the Carolinas, picked up some ships, then we went east for a little ways, then back up and we actually ended up in the North Sea before we went overseas. I don’t know how many ships were in the convoy but about three days at sea we got into a bad storm. We were down on E deck so we were lucky because we didn’t get much of this roll in the storm but we had troops in there from the French Martinique and every night they played the voodoo drums and the fife. It’d make chills run up and down your back. The only guy in that group that could speak English was their Commander. They couldn’t speak a bit of English but they sang all these songs and everything. But-a-when the storm was over right next to us had been a tanker with aircraft lashed to the deck and when the storm was over they were all gone. It washed them overboard.
C. Really! It must have been a really bad storm.
E. It was a bad storm, one of the worst they said they’d ever had and the North Sea has some bad ones, I guess. Then just a day and a half or so outside of England sometime during the night we had a submarine attack, or they thought it was gonna be and they wanted everybody up on deck. We were way down on E deck. I’d never have made it if it had actually been an attack but luckily it was a false alarm.
C. What’d you do, have steps going up or something?
E. Yeah, yeah.
C. Sort of like a ladder?
E. Exactly. It was a converted civilian. It may have been a cruise ship at one time back then, I don’t know, but for the john they had about a 60 ft. long with holes in it and water running through it. And the guys (laughs) would take two or three wads of paper and light ’em and it would run right down and you could see the guys poppin’ up all along. (laughs) We landed in Le Harvre, France, and the harbor was already plugged with ships, sunken ships, cause the war’d been going on and we had to go in in landing craft, get off the ship and go, and I went into this building or something to go to the bathroom (it was a public bathroom) and I was going to the bathroom here and a French lady came up and sat right down next to me. Y’know, they don’t think anything of that. After the war in Paris the public bathroom they had a trough that ran right out into the gutters and all they had was about a six-foot high screen around it. Anybody on the second floor could look right down and see in there.
C. And you could see people’s feet under the screen.
E. Oh yeah. And in the taverns they didn’t have a john. They had a–in the corner they had a bar across the corner with a hole in the floor and you sat on that bar to go to the bathroom. Y’know how they talk about how Paris is one of the elite places, but it was a dirty, filthy place. The French people were about the dirtiest I’ve ever seen, just the complete opposite of the Germans who were neat as a pin, y’know, but-a‑
C. I remember when I was in the Eiffel Tower, ‘course this was years and years later, and they had Men and Women doors not too far apart. So I walked in and it was all one room!
E. That’s right. Coeducational. (laughs) But we were on board about a month. C. You were? You didn’t stop in England, then?
E. No, we bypassed England, went right for Le Harve, France, and I went right from there into a combat zone.
C. Had you had training in United States?
E. I had some. I was drafted and went to Camp Perry and I was there less than 24 hours when I was sent to Camp Grant, Illinois, which was a medical center, and because of having been a meat cutter they sent me to Cook and Bakers School. So I went to Cook and Bakers School at Camp Grant. The two chefs that had been my teachers, one had been the head chef at the Waldorf-Astoria and the other one had been the head chef at Sun Valley, Idaho, a ski resort, and so I had two good teachers.
C. So you really learned how to cook, huh?
E. I did, and from there I went to the 318 Station Hospital in Camp White, Oregon, and while we were there a bunch of us went out in the PX one night for a beer. I always wanted to fly, so we talk about the Air Cadets, they were lookin’ for pilots at that time, so we went to Portland, Oregon and took the exam and every one of us passed the physical and the written test. So we came back from there and went to Camp White and we were there about-uh-six weeks or two months, and we got called and we went to, I went to Drake University at Des Moines, Iowa. I went there for some pre-flight training, mostly it was Math and such, then I went back to Santa Ma, California for pre-flight school. My first flight training was at Los Palos, California, and I passed that and went into Basic, which was a much bigger plane, and I’m 5’4” and that was the minimum height for pilots, so I got into that and these bigger planes I’d get ’em into a spin and I couldn’t get it out because my legs weren’t long enough to reach the rudder to get ‘ern out of the spin and at that point we’d already–the European Theater was pretty much under our command in air supremacy and so they washed me out. In fact, the next class they didn’t even take ‘ern in. So I immediately (That’s when the Battle of the Bulge was on), ’cause I’d had infantry training in the Medical Corps they immediately sent me to Camp Howzie, Texas for the final infantry training, 13 weeks, and I went from there to Fort Mead, Maryland and from there I went to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and from there overseas.
C. The service was, I’ll bet, was ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ thing came from.
E. Yep, a lot of it was, a lot of it was. But-uh-I had some good cook training and I cut meat at Camp White, Oregon for the hospital there. But-uh-I ended up being in the Infantry, and that was a different experience.
C. It was kind of a good thing you were, you know, sent from one place to another, because that’s when the heaviest fighting was . . . (laughs)
E. Yeah, I missed out on a lot of that luckily but like I say, I still had six weeks of it, which was enough.
D. More than enough.
E. (laughs) Yeah.
D. The fact that we were over there for so long, you know, we were there 18 months and nothin was happening, and all of a sudden, y’know, “Pretty soon we’re going to be going into Europe.” We were pretty lucky to be there where we were because of the time-uh-by that time the Germans we had practically no air combat. The planes we lost we lost by ack-ack and our losses–we lost more planes in accidents after that than we had in combat. But I had the unfortunate job, of–when somebody did get killed I had to go to their tent, pick up their personal stuff and get it shipped home. Had to sort it all out–what belonged to the army and what belonged to them personally and start it on its way back. But I knew everybody personally because of being the mailman–you were supposed to hand it to the individual so as far as acquaintances go, I had-a-well, the ground force would be about 280 out of 360 and the rest of them were combat. They would come and go as they got permission to go back home if they were fortunate enough to make it.
C. Were there many that got shot down?
D. No. We didn’t lose many in combat. We lost more in accidents actually. There would be in training flights and dumb things would happen and we had two planes collide in mid-air and another plane that crash-landed and a good friend of mine by the name of Nichols from Tennessee, he had been a ground man and he wanted to get married so he signed up for combat, and engineer, and he had his missions in. He came into the Orderly Room; he says, “Downey, I’m goin’on that–I want to get my air time in so I can get–” He was a Staff Sergeant so that meant about $65 for air time. I says, “Nick, you’re crazy! You’re goin’ home! Just wait. Your orders are on the way.” And he-uh, “No I wantta get my air time in, I wantta get my air time. I want to do it so I won’t have to do it when I get back to the States.” And he-uh went on this training flight with this new crew, and they no more than took off until they feathered a prop. They crash-landed and he was the only one killed on that landing. And it was almost simultaneous: this plane was taking off, the prop was being feathered (stopped) and they were trying to come back to land and here come the courier in the front gate. I could see the courier was in the jeep with his orders to go home. Since then I’ve always been a fatalist. If it’s going to happen it’ll happen. I was sick over that for a long time, ’cause he was a good buddy of mine. I begged him not to go but he never made it. There were a lot of funny experiences but there was also some tragic experiences. But you were together, so you were a family for about 30 months so because of that bond you’d know everybody.
C. Yeah, I’d imagine those’d be some pretty strong ties.
D. You had a lot of brothers.
C. Well, I still haven’t heard you tell–I think you should tell Bob Elliott about the time when they said–you had to travel from one town to another in Africa and they said you can go in a box car.
D. (laughs) We started to talk about that. We went from Tunisia back to Casablanca. It took us seven nights and six days that we were on so at the end of that seven nights and six days without baths or toilets, just bein’ on the railroad in the car. That’s where you survived. But we had prepared ourselves. We had storage for 45 gallons of wine in our boxcar and we replenished that along the way so that by the time we arrived at this little town outside of Casablanca we were pretty well burned out (laughs) and we were out in this marshalling yard and we had a pot of coffee and a-uh-Major came along and started to chew us out for having a fire and coffee out there. They looked up at him and they–after bein’ on this train for seven nights and six days we didn’t care whether the sun rose or not, you know. He couldn’t get anything out of us and he tried to call us to attention (laughs). Of course we didn’t have any stripes on either and he says, “Well are there any Non-Coms here?” In the Air Force there were no privates or PFC’s. The only ones that were Privates or PFC’s were the ones that had been demoted. There were Staff Sergeants, Tech Sergeants, (laughs) He just finally threw up his hands and left because he wasn’t gettin’ through to us at all. (laughs) But that was-uh-we went-uh-in a box car–when we would stop in a town where the train would take on water there would be a stack there and we would be in the middle of a town but we would be down to our shorts, in the shower with our shorts on, so it’s-uh-it was a pretty primitive life.
C. Do you remember any stories in particular, Bob?
E. Well, I’ve just about told you all of them. I do remember one when we were in Camp Howzie, Texas for our final infantry training they had us out on the rifle range and jackrabbits in Texas are big. They’re about like dogs. And we were out on the rifle range with about a hundred shooting at a time and-uh-these jackrabbits would jump up between the firing line and the targets. When one of those jackrabbits would jump up everybody’d zero in and start shooting at the jackrabbits and the range officer came on there and he was gonna court-martial us all and we thought, “Well he’s not gonna court-martial a hundred of us,” so we’d keep firing and when a rabbit’d either get hit or leave and we’d go back to shootin’ targets until another one’d show up and we’d go back to shootin’ at the rabbit again. I remember that. (laughs) Nothing ever came of it but-a-(laughs).
C. It’d be kinda hard to take it out on a hundred.
E. Yeah. When we came back we got out of Camp Atterbury and we had to turn in all of our equipment. This one fellow–I didn’t know him personally–but he had a helmet with him. It had been shot through from one side to the other. He kept it and they were trying to make him turn it in. And he was raising such a ruckus that finally one of the officers came out and wanted to know what was going on and they told him and he said, “Hey, let him have it. That’s a good souvenir.”
C. Might have belonged to a friend of his too.
E. No, it was his. It was actually his, but it went through, just creased his head. C. Just above it. Wow!
D. We had a–we had a fellow come into the orderly room one day and he had a little piece of jagged metal and he says, “Bob, d’ya wants see my purple heart?” And he had this piece of metal in his hand and he had a nick on his ear, and that shrapnel had gone through the plane and lodged in the framework of the airplane to where he was able to dig it out and he had this little nick on his ear. He was that close to bein’ eliminated but he called it his purple heart which (chuckles) he deserved.
E. After the war was over I had blood poisoning. I had this streak going down my arm. I had a big kernel under the arm pit, and I went on sick call and sure enough I had a piece of shrapnel in this little finger here and-uh, you know, no bigger than a pin head but somehow I picked it up someplace and I don’t know how long it had been there.
C. And that gave you blood poisoning?
C. Boy, that makes me think Ed’s brother was pretty lucky. He was with General Patton and they were sleeping in a barn and the shrapnel came in and hit the barn and a beam fell right across his body. He lost both his legs and one arm. Then he had for years after that he had shrapnel in his system, and every once in a while little pieces working their way out. But for some reason he never had blood poisoning.
D. Well, Patton was in the invasion of Africa. His unit landed at Casablanca. They went all the way into Tunis without much opposition until– that was the time Rommel was going into Alexandria and Cairo and then he was stopped and he was retreating when we were–so that was about as close as–Cassarine Pass was about 75 miles from us and they tried to get us to organize into squads and platoons and when you’ve got a group of 300 men without training it was a circus to think of–we were diggin’ fox holes–but nothin’ ever came of it. Rommel was stopped before he got to where we were.
C. Is that the place where you were in so much mud? Was that Tunisia?
D. Well, when we landed they said it seldom rains in north Africa but we were out-uh-we had a chain gang loading airplanes. We had five-gallon cans loaded with gasoline passing from one to another loading. There was 250 gallon of gasoline in each airplane. They couldn’t get to the plane with the lines so we passed the gas from one to the next. It was at night and it was muddy and cold.
C. How come, it seldom rained, how come you had all that mud?
D. Well, it had rained cats and dogs.
// End of Tape //