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Chapter 1

 

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Each soldier sees and remembers his own war.  I am proud to have served with the men of the 503 PRCT.  Being fresh from the farm, and one of lowest in rank,  no one had any reason to inform me of where I was going or what I could expect when I got there, even though our purpose was quite clear.    It's now 58 years  later and my memories remain vivid. This is my war as I remember it, the one that still invades my dreams.  

 

 

I was just about to complete three years in the military at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, serving initially in the Quartermaster Corps. My duties involved driving trucks and performing labor in the warehouses storing supplies; this duty was not to my liking.Me and my bride to be, Margaret.

 

(Photo - Me and my bride to be, Margaret.) 

 

   In the winter of 1939 I met a young girl who was doing domestic work for a Colonel's family, and fell madly in love, we were married in August of 1940.  After our marriage she went to work for an officer in the Medical Corps. It was at this Officer's suggestion that I transfer into the Medical Corps. I served as X-ray technician at the Base Hospital; this total period of service lasted from May, 1939 until March, 1942.

 

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, I was on reenlistment leave hunting deer in the mountains of Pennsylvania. When word was broadcast of the attack I was ordered back to my outfit at Fort Meade and notified that I was being held for the convenience of the Government, and would not be discharged while serving in the Medical Corp.

While serving in the Medical Corps, I became close friends with a young ward attendant also serving at the Hospital. His name was Arvil Maxwell (Maxie). War was raging in the European Theater and it looked as though we would be getting into it. The Army posted notices on bulletin boards asking for volunteers for the parachute troops; Maxie ripped a copy of the notice from the board and came to me determined to get me to join the Troopers with him; needless to say he succeeded. Going to the Commander I requested a transfer to the Parachute troops; my request was denied; the Parachute troops would not take married men.

Determined not to let this stop me, I went to see a friend who was a notary Public. His name was Jimmy Salyers. Together we concocted a lie and made up papers to claim non-dependency for my new wife. Needing her signature to validate this claim, I lied again and told her she had to sign a paper to get an allowance from my monthly pay. Allowing her no time to read the paper, trusting me completely, she signed it. This was all I needed for the transfer.

I was transferred to Ft. Benning, Georgia and started Basic training with the 501st. Parachute Battalion. Within a week, my new wife was in the Commanders office demanding that I be taken out of this "suicide outfit." The Commander called me in to his office and told me to straighten this problem out or he would have to let me go. Determined not to leave the parachute troops, I met my wife at a Motel in Columbus, Georgia and during a heated argument gave her a choice the parachute troops or a divorce.  She decided to let me stay.

We made our qualifying jumps at Ft. Benning, Georgia. It was during this qualification period that I witnessed my first chute malfunction. A jumper named McGrath in a moment of panic pulled his emergency chute as he left the door of the plane, this chute wrapped around his main chute that had deployed automatically giving him a "streamer." He fell a thousand feet, hitting the ground about just a short distance from where I had just landed. The fall broke almost every bone in his body and the sound he made on impact I shall never forget -- sort of a booming thud. His chute settled over him as though to hide the horror from the other jumpers.

Our training started with body building, push ups, trampoline, rope climbing, tumbling, arm and leg exercises and running. In fact, none of us were allowed to move outside our barracks and NOT run. Run to the mess hall, run to the exercise field, run to the hangar or anywhere on base. There were times while running that I lost complete feeling in my ankles, but with time I got to a point that I could stay with the best of them.

 

 

As time passed, we started Parachute training - learning to rig the chute, pack it and finally to jump it. Learning to land after a jump was done from 200 ft. towers and a mock up door of an airplane that would allow you to slide down an angled cable, and hit the ground with forward momentum forcing the jumper to tumble. The final events in our training were the qualifying jumps. Five jumps were needed to qualify.

 

Armies worldwide are "Hurry Up and Wait!"  Ours was no different.  I wait at Pope Field, Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. The trooper in front of me is  McLemore. The resting trooper is McCallum. We are waiting for transportation to carry our duffel bags to the railroad station at Fayetteville. We'll meet up with our bags again in California.  

 

Having completed training we were allowed to leave the Post and go into town. Columbus had so many troops wandering around its streets that we decided not to frequent the town, rather we went to Phoenix, Alabama here we found a Bar named "The Lonesome Pine". It was here I watched as Maxie picked a fight with a guy much bigger than he, the two of them went outside. After a few minutes Maxie came running in, grabbed me by the arm and stated he had just killed a man.

Not knowing what had happened I ran outside to see what he had done, his opponent was lying prone on his back and truly appeared to be dead, as I knelt beside him to check his pulse I noticed he was trying to gasp. Maxie had inadvertently hit him on the Adams Apple totally cutting off his breath, I went back inside and told Maxie what had happened.

Relieved that the man was all right, we bought a beer to drink on our trek back to camp.

After training was completed at Fort Benning we moved to Ft. Bragg North Carolina. (We were the first full Regiment of Paratroopers formed in the  U.S. Army) After approximately 3 months training at Fort Bragg, making jumps both day and night, on one night jump I had a chute malfunction, and had to use my emergency chute to break the fall.  My landing was rough, but I did walk away from it.

I was luckier than one of the other jumpers, who landed in a large pond tangled up in his chute and drowned.

We were picked up at the jump field by trucks for the return to our barracks, during the ride the Troopers were singing one of their favorite ego building songs - "Gory! Gory! What a hell of a way to die" sang to the tune of “Battle Hymn Of The Republic.”

On another night jump, after my chute opened and I was drifting toward the ground I was straining to see where or what I was going to land on, and suddenly saw what appeared to be tree tops. I immediately crossed my legs, stiffened my body, and placed my arms across my face to protect it as I slid down through the branches. What a surprise! What I thought was trees turned out to be a field of fully grown corn. I hit the ground in a vertical position, stowing my legs from my hips to my feet. I had trouble walking for several days.

The clock was running for us that sooner or later we would be sent overseas. After making our last jump at Ft. Bragg, we were told that as soon as we repacked our chutes we could go home for a three day leave. Well, I never saw chutes packed faster or in so many different places. They were spread on the barracks floor in the day room outside on the ground and in the packing shed. I think that within 30 minutes every one had his chute packed and back in the storage rack. Well, we dressed and headed for the train station at Fayetteville.

The train arrived but we were not allowed to board, it being completely loaded. As  it pulled out, Maxie shouted to me to grab on to one of the hand rails used in boarding. Running to catch up I grabbed the rail and hung on, a short way down the tracks the train stopped and the Conductor allowed us to board.

After boarding we walked through the cars looking for a seat. We came upon two young women occupying a double seat. They were seated facing one another, so I approached them and asked if we could sit with them, whereupon the one girl moved over and sat beside her friend. Maxie and I sat down and we started talked of home towns, sports, and hobbies.  After a while the conversation dwindled into silence.  After several minutes sitting there and trying to think of something to say, Maxie suddenly sat erect, pointed his forefinger upward, and spouted "Poem." Pausing while we sat there wondering what was coming, he related this verse:

 

 

 Two totally embarrassed young Ladies leaped from their seats and in a huff went rapidly down the aisle away from us leaving Maxie and I, now with enough room to sleep as the train made it's way on into Baltimore.

After returning to Camp, word came that we were being sent overseas. Making sure parachutes, weapons and personal gear were Packed, we boarded a train at Fayetteville, North Carolina for the trip to California. No time was lost boarding the Ship. After sleeping quarters were assigned, our ship backed away from the dock and headed into San Francisco Bay. The ship was Dutch and carried the name "Poelau Laut." Her Skipper was Dutch and her crew was Javanese. Only the Captain spoke broken English. Moving out into San Francisco Bay the ship took a heading toward the open waters of the Pacific. Passing the island of San Quentin Prison I over heard one of the Troopers comment "I think I would rather be in there than on this ship." Pondering this in my mind, I concluded that I had to agree, free room and board, no one shooting at you, and the inmates knew how long they had to stay.

 

(Photo: For Airborne, we sure spent a long time being ship-borne.  The Poelau Laut was a Dutch tub, and we set about to cross the Pacific alone, without escort. We zigzagged the entire way.)

 

As the ship left the Bay area, the Golden Gate Bridge grew larger, I thought to myself, ‘here is a sight all Americans should see, the city of San Francisco off our left stern, the land rising sharply from the Bay on the right, and dead ahead was the Golden Gate Bridge, glowing with a bright golden glow in the morning sun. I stood on the bow of the ship and enjoyed the most beautiful panoramic view I had ever seen.  As we passed San Quentin Prison, my thoughts turned to the prisoners occupying cells there. Somehow it did not seem fair that so many upright young men would have to die winning the war and in doing so secure the safety of those radicals who spend their lives trying to destroy the society that we were committed to protect. Passing under the bridge I was awed at its size and height, giving me a deep feeling of pride in the technology that went in to its construction and of the people who made it all possible. 

Moving out into the Pacific, the ship turned south heading for Panama where we would pick up a Battalion of troops who had been sent there for jungle training. They would  form our First Battalion, making us three Battalions in strength and changing our identify to the 503rd Parachute Regiment. 

Arriving in the Canal Zone, we anchored off the City of Balboa. Having never been in tropical waters before I could not help wondering what kinds of fish were swimming under the ship. Seeing the Troop Commander I approached him and asked if there was any fishing tackle on board. He responded that he had tackle in his cabin, and we headed for his cabin, where he supplied me with fishing (tackle, rod, reel and pickled bait. This bait appeared to be either horsemeat or beef cut into one inch cubes.)  Walking to the rail, I baited and released the lock on the reel and let the bait drop to the bottom. I waited for about four hours without a strike. Eventually word came that the troops were loaded and we were ready to leave, so I started to retrieve my line. No sooner than the bait cleared the bottom, I had a strike. Pulling it in I had the most streamlined fish I had ever seen. The Javanese chef on the ship (through the Captain) told me it was a Queen Fish and ask if he could have it.  I had no way to cook it myself, so I gladly gave it to him.

The ship moved back into the Pacific and we were on our way. Our days were spent practicing the abandon ship procedure and learning to speak a few words of Japanese, just in case we were taken prisoner. This made no sense to me at all, as paratroopers were usually dropped behind enemy lines and were shot as Spies if captured. Nevertheless we were taught Japanese, learning to say ‘I am an American,’ ‘I need water’,‘I surrender’ and ‘Hello’ (ko-ni-chi-wa). Hello in Japanese was the only word I mastered, and I considered it to be useless, for if I met a Jap and had time to say anything, ‘Good-bye’ would be more appropriate.

(Photo:  There are 16 men 'traveling by rail' here, mostly 503d men. Two can be seen wearing life preservers. We also shared our journey with the 5th Army Airways Communication System. Photo by George Reed.)

 

Several days out of Panama the gunners on the ship decided to have Target practice. A small weather balloon was deployed about 150 yds. behind the ship.  It's altitude was, I estimate, to be about 300 ft. and the forward speed of the ship caused it to oscillate back and forth, an easy target for the 20mm gunners. Meanwhile the troops on board had crowded the stern to watch the show. The forward gun opened fire, firing three rounds, then the aft gun fired three rounds, neither gun hitting the target. This sequence of firing went on until about 90 rounds were expended, without a hit. The inaccuracy of the Gunners irritated the troops watching to the point that they began shouting insults at the them.  One totally frustrated trooper with his M-1 in hand stepped to the rail, took careful aim and put a bullet through the balloon. This ended the target practice but not the insults. Now the gunners were ticked off since they claimed they had not been shooting at the Balloon but were actually trying to cut the tow line just beneath it.

Not much else happened until we crossed the Equator. I suppose all ships crossing the equator for the first time had a ceremony, for each of us were initiated into the "Realm of Neptune." For the initiation each man stripped naked, had a sticky substance poured over him and feathers applied, simulating a tar and feather application, then was forced to climb a ladder and walk the plank. Going off the end of the plank was about a ten foot drop into a makeshift pool of water. The route to the ladder was lined with Ship's crewmen armed with paddles. Although we did not realize it initially, it was the ideal time for them to get revenge for the insults they suffered during target practice. It was quite humorous to watch the color of a man's backside change from a normal skin tone to a bright red as he scampered up the ladder. Until it became my turn,  at which point the humor completely disappeared. I feel sure I broke every sprint record that had ever been set moving through the line and getting up the ladder, out of reach of those stinging paddles. 

Little happened for the next 42 days and 12,948 miles as we traveled our zig zagging way to Australia, except for the fist fights and arguing that normally occur when you jam 3000 men together on a 300ft ship. Those, and an event that took place as the cooks were preparing Thanksgiving dinner (Nov. 1942).

The turkeys were cooked and laid out for carving when someone yelled "Whales!" and all the mess personnel ran to look out the port holes, with their backs to the carving table. Five turkeys were stolen. The culprits rushed the turkeys into the lower hold where they were quartered, opened the bulkhead into the ships bilge, wrapped the turkeys in GI blankets and hid them until the search was over.

And what a search it was! Anything that looked large enough to hold a turkey was thoroughly investigated. Luckily no one thought to look in the bilge. Even though dinner was 5 turkeys short it did not appear anyone suffered from lack of turkey for their Thanksgiving dinner. Later that day, after the turmoil of the search had subsided those of us who were in the know enjoyed a full belly of turkey. Looking back I now feel this was a dirty trick to pull on the men I would soon learn to depend on so heavily in the near future.

 

 

   
 

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ABOUT THE "G" COMPANY PHOTOGRAPHIC COLLECTIONS In June 2000 Chet Nycum provided us with a series of photographs which we're using to illustrate  his (and other) articles.  Some of the images are unique, and a good number of them have also been duplicated in other people's collections as well.   Wherever I can, I have used the best available image. (Some of the photos used are courtesy of Doyle Wester, whose father Emmett L. Wester was in "G" Co.) There's another series which was widely distributed,  it even came with a mimeographed title sheet, also originating within "G" Company.  This collection is available as the Foster Collection.  Why do so many men have similar photographs?  There's two explanations - firstly, when they could, the men acquired multiple prints, and traded images amongst themselves. Secondly (and more importantly) there was an informal arrangement to establish a photograph collection which could be made available to  the men within "G" Co.  How did this come about? Chet Nycum explains that he'd acquired a number of  captured cameras and would use them to take photos, until the film ran out.  He'd then toss the camera and acquire  another.  One of "G" Company's other men, Mike Levack, had experience as a photographer and was returning to the US.  Chet takes up the story.  "Mike Levack was a keen photographer, and when we jumped on Corregidor, for example, Mike initially did not jump - he had been given permission to take photographs of the jump from the aircraft. He took some of the most spectacular photographs of the jump.  I arranged with Mike that we should pool our negatives  to make prints, so that anyone from "G" Company could get whatever copies they wanted.  So we pooled our negatives.  Ultimately, I got my prints back, and other prints besides. But I was annoyed that Mike didn’t return  my negatives now we were home. I was seeking him out, when I discovered that he had been killed in a plane crash flying to Mexico on a photographic assignment. I never saw my negatives again. I thought he hadn’t kept up his end of the deal, but over the years I have discovered many of my photographs in other collections, so I am happy to see that he did. Consequently, there's a number of collections of photographs out there which include photos taken by me, photos taken by Mike Levack, and photos taken by some other men who might have had similar arrangements with Mike. "