THE WORLD WAR II MEMORIES OF JOHN FRANK MATZKO (1912-1991)
I had been deferred once, but on September 1, 1942, my lA card came, and I was in the Army. I was to be an unwilling actor in the game of war. I had to separate myself from my possessions in getting ready for induction. [On] September 14, I sold my 1937 Ford with only 12,000 miles on it. Then Dad talked [William] Costello, 4608 Horrocks [Street], into purchasing the store and building on a long term mortgage. So in October 1942, we parted from the store that had been our life for eighteen happy years. We were thankful to be able to sell it at a time when buyers were scarce. After Dad retired from the store, he started to ail and lost much weight. I invested the money received from the store and car in war bonds. They were as safe as the country and were no source of worry to me while I was away in the service.
I had been active in the auxiliary police before my induction, but we didn't take this very seriously. Every home had to have blackout shades at night and outside lights were put out. We didn't know when they might try to invade or bomb us. Weather news was forbidden. Ships were painted gray and so were all refinery tanks. A U-boat did drop off some German spies off Cape May, NJ. These were caught and executed in a short time. The Japs tried to frighten us by sending bombs over tied to balloons. They didn't do any damage but did shake our complacency.
On October 14, 1942 I took my final physical at the armory. With mixed feelings I awaited the results. I wanted to be in good health and yet be turned down. With most young men gone, it was unpatriotic to be a civilian. My customers kept asking me when I was leaving. My personal affairs were now settled, and I was all set to go. My star was already placed on the church flag at Immanuel Lutheran Church. There was no turning back. So now I had two weeks to count the hours before that big day.
On October 28, the dreaded day came, and I was told to report to [Frankford] Avenue and Margareta Street to the draft board. I tried to be brave, but at the last minute my pent up emotions gave way, and I cried bitterly. Dad wished that he might have taken my place. He went with me this time, but it was awhile before I could control myself. I felt better as soon as I saw the rest of the group. Misery isn't bad if you have company. Here I was 29 and had never been away from home more than three days at a time. I didn't feel as if I would be any good in the Army anyway.
There were more roll calls and instructions before we took the elevated to the RR station. Before we boarded the train, someone took us to a nearby restaurant and were given a feast of beans and dogs. These we ate standing up at tall tables.
Two neighborhood friends who were also in this group helped make leaving easier. Davies, Castello, and I tried to cheer each other. We joked and laughed as if we were going on a picnic. Down deep was a great concern as to where we were going, hoping that we might be stationed close enough to get home on pass often. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the scenery. The train made many stops to pick up small groups of happy draftees.
We arrived at this first camp in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania about noon [on October 28]. We were greeted very harshly. Noncoms of low rank yelled and screamed at us and threatened us and had us move on the double from one spot to another. Had we been criminals, we might have expected it. Our only crime was being draftees, and so it was hard to understand. They knew we were at their mercy and that there was nothing that we could do about it. They made life so miserable that all we desired was to get out of that camp as soon as possible. During the three days there, we were lectured, tested, clothed, inoculated, etc. Then we got our new G. I. issue clothes and dog tags. We packed our clothes and sent them home. During my second day, I was introduced to K.P. at night. My job there was digging out the eyes out of potatoes, grinding meat, scrubbing floors, etc. We all worked hard because we hadn't learned to goldbrick yet.
They gave me a number to remember. I never did expect to remember it: 33340201. I was afraid of falling out of the double deck beds. In the quiet of the evening we heard the bugle sounding lights out. I slept well in my new surroundings until 0515 at which time we had to get moving. What an unearthly hour to get up I thought. There were long lines to the mess halls but I thought the food was good eaten out of the metal trays. The food was slopped on these trays and we had to gulp it down as others were waiting for their turn to eat. At this camp we learned how to police, to pick up everything that didn't grow. This was done every time they wanted to keep us busy.
Then came the day for shipping out. They had a quota for so many men for different camps as needed. Jack Castello and I were sent out together. Our destination was a secret, [but] we hoped it would be somewhere in the east. (Davies finally wound up in an Ordinance unit that went to the Pacific and came home safely after three years of service.) Castello and I were on the same shipping order. We had a lot of G. I. clothes issued to us. Trucks came, we loaded on, and [we] were soon on our way to the railroad station at Harrisburg. We were assigned to the most miserable coaches that I had ever seen. We were forbidden to open the windows or to talk to anyone. We rode all night. It rained and got cold. It wasn't possible to sleep and we were miserable. Our hopes of being stationed close left us as we rode on and on into the night. Our morale was very low as we tried to cheer each other a little.
We arrived at Indianapolis, Indiana, on Sunday morning [on November 2]. We still didn't know our destination, but we had a better idea of direction. The sergeant in charge took us out to eat at a restaurant. Then we were put into groups and told that we could be on our own for a couple of hours until our train came. I visited the Soldier's Memorial and thought it to be the most beautiful building of its kind that I had ever seen. I liked Indianapolis at once and hoped to come back some day for a better visit. Then our train came and we were off again. My spirits kept getting lower as the train went deeper into the woods. At the time it seemed so far that I despaired of being able to get into town. I found out later that it was only 30 miles [away].
All of a sudden, we came to [Camp Atterbury]. It had just been built and looked terrible, a sea of mud with poor roads and no sidewalks. It was barren and muddy. I nicknamed it "Mudburry." We were given a meal and then sent out to be assigned. There Castello and I separated. He went to another battalion and regiment. His path led him to Germany where he was captured [but] returned home safely after 3 years. He was a changed boy from his harrowing experiences.
My new home was Co B 331 Inf. Camp Atterbury, IN. About a week before I had left home, I had received a card from Mrs. Austin and Evelyn wishing me luck in my new venture. They were friends and relatives in the family through my new mother that Dad had married when I was 12. As soon as I was able to write, I wrote them thanking them for their kinds wishes. So began a romance via letters even though we didn't think too highly of each other at the time. I had known Evelyn for years as just another distant relative whose mother we visited when we wanted a place to stay in Wildwood, [NJ]. Mrs. Austin was a widow who needed all the help we could give her by renting rooms. It was a home away from home for us. In those days Wildwood was as far as a three to four hour trip todaycomparable to a trip to Washington.
My days at Atterbury started at 5:30 when the C. Q. (charge-of-quarters) rudely awakened us. From that hour until about 8 in the evening we were busy doing all kinds of things. It was the beginning of a thirteen week period of basic training. I had a hard time remembering my left foot from my right and so I found myself in the awkward class for an evening. We marched and drilled, learned how to shoot a rifle, [and] put up a tent. There were a number of things we had day after day until we were sick and tired of the subjects. We learned to hate our noncoms and officers until we wondered whether they were trying to get us to hate those over us or the enemy. First Sergeant Hazel was very tough. Despite all this, we felt fine, and many gained weight.
I was surprised to see the chapels crowded on Sundays. I didn't expect [that] men would go to church in such numbers. It seems that recruits went to church willingly, but after they became better trained they sought other pleasures on Sunday. At first the men stayed in camp on Sunday but then they found new pleasures in the city. A mean thing was that any one found in the barracks on Sunday was subject to details. We soon practiced making ourselves scarce when anyone of rank approached. Various clubs and church organizations came around Sunday afternoons to entertain us. We enjoyed the entertainment and appreciated their efforts and sacrifices to come and give us their time.
Then the weather got mean. We suffered in the cold. They exercised and doubletimed us until we were worn out. They tried to keep us out no matter how cold it was. We must get hardened to the cold they told us. Going out at 0445 to the Rifle Range was no fun. We stumbled through the darkness marching cross country for a few miles. Then we had to wait in the bitter cold until it was our turn to lay on the frozen ground to fire. Between firing they exercised us, ran us, cursed us, anything to keep us moving. Lunch time was our only break, but eating out of mess kit on the frozen field and in a hurry was no fun. At first,the ground was as hard as a rock and then when the sun shone on it, it became a field of sticky mud. It took us hours to get this mud off of our equipment after we got back to camp. Those over us had no mercy. They drove us and made training a miserable affair. We couldn't figure why they had to be so mean and strict with us. Some sergeants delighted in doing their worst with the poor G. I.'s. We knew it was their job to give us military discipline, but in the long run, I don't think that some of the things they hammered at us mattered much later on. Anyway, I was too busy to get homesick.
Also during the first 30 days we had a daily physical. Everyone would line up and the medic would examine us for any sign of disease. Each day they would pull someone out of ranks for further study. At first it was embarrassing until we got used to the nakedness of our fellows.
They expected our beds to be tight enough for a half dollar to be bounced off of it. Our clothes had to all hang facing the same way with every button in place. Shoes [had to be] laced, shined, and facing the same way. The footlockers had to be arranged a certain way with the socks rolled up neatly. As soon as the C.Q. got us up, we dressed and fell out for roll call regardless of the weather. Then we rushed back into the barracks to shave, wash, make the beds, mop the floorseven if the mop froze to the floor. The rule at night was that all the windows had to be down all the way on one side and all the way up on the other side with the result that it was a little drafty to say the least. I would go to bed with my knit hat on. Then we would line up for breakfast until the signal was given to enter the mess hall.
After a quick breakfast, we would rush back to the barracks to finish cleaning the lavatories, showers, and anything else to make the place look polished. Once a week, we had a special housecleaning to give it a more thorough cleaning. This was done Friday evening to get ready for a critical inspection Saturday morning. Also in the morning we were told what the uniform of the day would be. We all had to dress alike. They had to guess what the weather would be like, and they often missed.
About 0630 we were ready to fall out for the day's activities, the only exception being those on detail or for sick call. The details were listed on a bulletin board the night before. K.P. was a pleasant change from the routine; also there was more to eat. The bad part of this detail was that they were extra-critical of the cleanliness of the dishes and pots, and they had to be spotless or there would be need to pay. Despite all the precautions, the cupboards were overrun with small red roaches. I don't think exterminators were ever used by the army to clear up this wild life. The cooks were good and provided good simple meals, lightly seasoned. I found the food to my liking; only the small amounts didn't please. I tried to take advantage of every meal and seconds when possible.
Those who were used to highly seasoned food didn't care for this fare and would write home for packages or ate at the P.X. when possible. The first time I visited the P.X., I got into a long line not knowing what it was for and wound up very much surprised with a cup of beer. I had thought it was a soda line. I drank it anyway. This was [the] first and last beer that I drank in the Army.
First thing, we knew it was Thanksgiving. We felt badly because there would be no chance of us getting home. The Army gave us a real feast. We had everything imaginable to eat. They did their best to keep us happy as far as food was concerned.
Christmas came [in December, 1942], and we did feel blue. I was stuck with K.P. It was interesting work helping the cooks, and it kept me too busy to think of home. Our officers gave each of us a bag of candy and fruit as a gift. There was a package from home and one from church. I had been able to have pictures made in camp, and these I sent home. Mother, with romance in mind, packed some gifts with a picture and sent it to Evelyn in my name. Evelyn was very pleased. I was pleased that mother did that but was ashamed that I didn't have the nerve to do it myself. Evelyn and her mother helped entertain the boys at Fort Dix that year.
In January 1943, I received my first pass and went into Indianapolis. General Lear visited camp, and so we had a special parade in his honor. It meant a lot of extra work for us getting things ready. It was something new and impressed me very much. I had never seen a parade like it anywhere. Then came long hikes with 50 lb packs. My poor feet sure took a beating. As it was, I had sprained my ankle jumping over a ditch on the obstacle course. I had to go on as there was no mercy to be had. I thought that if my feet ever felt normal, I would never complain about the training.
Trying to put a rifle together was a problem for me for awhile. I never was able to remember the names of all the parts of it or of anything else. A very embarrassing thing happened to me one Saturday after I came back from a detail. I saw the men cleaning their weapons and presumed that there was plenty of time before inspection. I had it all apart on my footlocker and then the whistle blew to fall out for inspection and it was impossible for me to put it together. I put all of the insides of the rifle into my large overcoat pockets and fell out. I almost got away with it except for the fact that the loose bolt in the rifle went clank every time I had to do the manual of arms. Lt. McMahon heard this noise and came near me. That's when I got very red. I tried to explain but got punished anyway by having to do one evening's extra duty. I had to do some scrubbing around the barracks. I can picture the lieutenant having a big chuckle over this later.
Most sergeants were very mean and strict with the men during basic training. Sgt. Charles was cruel to those he didn't like. He constantly harangued us as we marched and cursed us individually. He used judo on some of the poor souls and handed out punishment right and left. There was one fellow who just couldn't get into the Army way of doing things. He ridiculed, punished, tripped, pushed [him] into the water on problems, and everything else that he could do to make the boy's life miserable. One day with the C.O.'s permission, he hit him. That was the last straw as the boys's father appealed to Washington, and in short order [he] received a discharge.
None of us dared say anything because the C. O. stood behind the cruelty of his noncoms. Corporal Bass made the mistake of treating us like men and was quickly transferred. Sgt. Nuskey was hard but fair. Captain Bauknight said that he didn't want a noncom who was afraid to push the men around. Sgt. Charles was encouraged to mistreat this poor recruit even if he had to drown him on one of the water problems. Sgt. Stanek from Cleveland, Ohio and I had a lot in common because he had also been a grocer and was bald. He tried to give me a break whenever he could.
[During] one memorable week, eleven men went AWOL, including a sergeant. This was investigated and Captain Bauknight was transferred to another unit. From then on, we had more humane treatment. Up to this time, we had been too green to know our rights.
Gambling was not allowed during basic, but after that the men did [gamble]. There was a rule against noncoms gambling with the men. Whenever they were caught, they had to scrub out all of the three barracks. Still they did it more and more. Sgt. Stanek was a sucker for gambling and lost every cent that he made. During basic the men had been honest, but now anything of value was not safe. I started carrying a money belt day and night.
One day after an extremely muddy exercise on the field, we had to scrape off the excess before we could enter the barracks. In the process of which I picked up another rifle by mistake. The other fellow left mine leaning outside and I was called into the office for questioning as to why I had left my rifle outside. According to regulations this was a crime, and so I had to be punished. Lt. Winters handed out my punishment. I had to carry my rifle everywhere I went and whatever I did for one week. Did I get razzed as I carried it to the washroom, to the mess hall, and even when I had K.P. I had to set the tables and wait on the men with the rifle slung over my shoulder. It turned out to be a lot of fun and made me one of the fellows.
Also in January 1943, Mother and Dad came to visit me at Indianapolis. We had arranged to meet there at a certain place. A 25-mile hike two days before had left my ankles in bad shape. That and the fact that I hadn't slept the night before did not help my condition either. They felt so sorry for me and did their best to cheer me up. We had a nice evening together. It had been the first time we had been together in months. The Army was now weeding out the 45 year old men as unfit for duty. I almost wished that I had been that old too. We had one man who had been at Camp Drum during the first war but found the training at his age too much for him. They used him in the kitchen for months until his discharge came through.
I received my first furlough on February 15. It was wonderful to get back home again and to be free from the routine of camp life. I made a point to visit most of my relatives but found that they all had their own problems, and they thought that I had the best deal being in the Army. I was disillusioned over the attitude of some. I didn't realize that the civilians had a rough time trying to get food and other things due to rationing. Mother was embarrassed because all she was able to serve me was beef heart. I thought it was pretty good anyway as I wasn't too fussy.
It took nerve to go to see Evelyn as we were still strangers, and I knew nothing as to how to treat girls. Our meeting wasn't the best at this time. I had no idea where to go or what to do, her likes or dislikes. Outside of the family relationship, we had nothing else in common.
Soon I was getting restless and looked forward to returning to camp. The coaches on the train were jammed with service men and civilians. I was embarrassed by the talk and actions of some of these fellows. Bad language and drinking seemed to be very common. I arrived back at camp a day early because the First Sergeant had lied to me about when I had to be back in camp.
Then they sent me to communications school, but I didn't do too well. I learned to climb poles, learned about codes, telephones, messages and other things which I couldn't learn. The younger men took to this much better. Anyway it was a pleasant change in the routine.
In March I had my first bivouac. It was one I thought I would never forget. We fell out with a 60 lb pack and took off at high speed up and down hills to an area fifteen miles away. We found out by experience that to be in the end of a long column was the worst place to be. While the front of the column moved along steadily, those in the back had to run to close up the gaps caused by the men failing to keep the right interval. We paired up and put up tents. It had started out as a mild day but by night, the temperature dropped to below zero. Fires were built to keep warm.
Then we tried to go to sleep. Even with four blankets and all of our clothes on, we still almost froze. That was bad enough but we were camped on slope and we kept slipping out of the tent during the night. There was snow on the ground in the morning, and we had a hot breakfast which had been brought out from camp to us. They took us out on a problem despite the fact that it was impossible to move around in the cold and snow. Someone felt sorry for us and so in the afternoon we were ordered to return to camp.
This wasn't as easy as it sounded because our tents and blankets were frozen stiff and we found it impossible to roll them up into a decent pack. Then we were on the way back to camp. The march back was harder and the upper part of my leg hurt so badly that I had to drop out of the column. An ambulance picked me up. The medic treated my blister and ankle and put me off to continue walking. Then I fell out again and this time I just couldn't go any further. They took me and many others back to camp. The First Sergeant wanted to know why I fell out. The next day at the dispensary they treated over 50 men for swollen and blistered feet. This is the Army.
[Then at the end of March] they sent me to intelligence school for two weeks. They tried to teach me more about radio, telephone, booby traps, etc. I found that the Army was always making requests for men to learn new things and that the Company would send men that they didn't think would make good soldiers. It wasn't my fault that I didn't make an outstanding soldier. This school was held inside so I did manage to miss some training in the bad weather.
We went out on our first problem with live ammunition. Each one of us [was] afraid of shooting one of our fellows. We had a good idea as to how powerful our weapons were. A couple of the men [got] wounded. I had to put cotton in my ears to keep them from hurting from the explosion of the shells as they were fired from the rifles. Our officers did their best to keep us safe. One day they marched us to an artillery area where we witnessed a demonstration of tanks and artillery firing at a vacant house a mile away. This demonstration made me think that nothing could live under such concentrated shelling. I found out later how wrong I was.
By April 1943, bivouacs, camping out, and night problems were very common. I hated them, but it didn't alter the fact that I had to go. Eating in the dark, sleeping on the cold ground, and marching cross country in the dark wasn't very funny. It was advanced training and we had to take it. There was often some fun mixed with our misery. I was always afraid of drowning when we crossed a deep stream with all of the equipment to help us sink faster.
Our group had to go over the ranger course one day and it was terrifying. It was especially hard for me because there were so many obstacles to climb and jump over. This wasn't for me. On top of this they threw sticks of dynamite around us to simulate combat conditions. I did the best that I could and balked at some of the things that I knew I couldn't do despite threatenings from those in charge. I had heard of too many getting hurt over that same course. At this point in our training we knew how much they could force us to do and how much to refuse.
Then one day our company received a new Jeep and so they needed a name for it. They promised the man who turned in the best name a three-day pass. Just for fun I turned in the name "Beecompeep," and I was very much surprised to receive a 3 day pass and the congratulations of the men. I toyed with the idea of trying to get home in that short of a time. It just wasn't possible, so I went to Indianapolis and tried to see more of the town. I ate in cafeterias and slept in a hotel for two nights. I also enjoyed my first church service in six months with civilians.
Evelyn sent me a picture of herself and three other girls taken from a Harvey Cedars program. She looked beautiful, and I felt good to know that I was privileged to have her write to me. Since my furlough, I had been writing oftener to her and our letters were much more friendly. I was still writing to two other girls but less often. Love was beginning to shape up.
© John A. Matzko