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I was in the 1570 service unit while waiting to be assigned to another unit. They put us on trucks and took us to Henderson, Kentucky and then by train to Evansville, Indiana and from there to Little Rock, Arkansas through St. Louis. We were to have sleepers, but we wound up sleeping on the hard benches while waiting for another train
My next address was Co. K, 242 Inf. APO 411 42 Division, Camp Gruber, Oklahoma. We were welcomed at the station by a stern welcoming committee, and they left us cold, feeling badly, and hating the place. It was a barren and sandy looking place and so very far from home. Some fellows ran away, and others threatened to hurt themselves to avoid duty in this tough outfit. We were restricted to camp for one month.
I was transferred to another regiment in a training battalion (Co.G 222nd. Inf. 42 Rainbow Division) on March 28, 1944. There was little time for anything as the schedule was tough and strict with night problems and evening work to keep us busy. I had to start making new friends again. Meanwhile, [my brother] Mike got to be company commander in Missouri. I was on a detail to welcome some more unhappy replacements. The band played, and speeches were made, but I remembered how I had felt when I first came. I had K.P. here and never saw a more dictatorial mess sergeant; he acted as if we were slaves. We had to work hard, and [we] hated him, for he went out of his way to make life miserable for us.
Every morning at reveille we had to stand and freeze while the band marched up and down for 15 minutes. At least at this camp, we had more time to get ready for it. I found out how terrible the wind and sand can blow in Oklahoma. There was a fine film of sand over everything in the barracks. I made arrangements to send flowers to Evelyn for Easter. The war was scheduled to be over this Easter, but it wasn't.
I had a new experience in a foxhole as I crouched in it and a tank ran over the hole. It was enough to scare the daylights out of a person. I wouldn't care to have the enemy do that. I got myself behind the eight ball.
While on special duty, my rifle was examined and rust spot was found, with the result that I received one week of hard labor. Then I wanted another furlough so badly that I didn't tell them that I had one. My conscience bothered me, and I confessed. Captain Hahn gave me a lecture and week of hard labor. The bright spot was that I didn't have to take part in night problems. The bad part was working all day Saturday and Sunday. There were always at least 50 men on these details because this punishment was handed out right and left. I didn't mind being punished for a lie, but I did mind it for a fleck of rust that developed after a rain.
[I] had to go through the gas chamber and put on the mask after we were inside. My heart pounded, and I fumbled some but got the mask on with a minimum of tear gas in my eyes.
A group of us suddenly received orders to have our clothes and equipment checked. We had to tear off our insignias and turn in some stuff. Now we just stayed around the barracks waiting for further orders. They checked my teeth and found that I needed a plate; so I had to sew on my insignias and draw my equipment and expected to stay with the company until my plate was made. Two teeth saved me from going to the Pacific with the others.
The morning exercises were tougher now. Running over the bayonet course didn't please me either. I never was able to jump over the bayonet course before, and with fixed bayonets, it was even worse. Throwing practice grenades wasn't in my line either. I couldn't throw them far enough. The live grenade scared me as I was afraid that the pin might fall off. There was just nothing in the Army that I cared to do but cook, and they took that away from me.
In May 1944, I started a two week course in driving jeeps and trucks. I visited Tulsa, Oklahoma. We disliked and ridiculed the Rainbow salute. Our Saturday afternoon lectures on V.D. were important but thought lightly of by those who didn't care about the consequence of loose living. S.T.P.A. boys were thrown out of school and into the Infantry; they didn't like the change at all. I found my name on another shipping list. I was [put] on guard duty around the officers' B.O.Q. There was too much saluting in this area.
I sent Evelyn an Indian doll from Tulsa. She was much pleased with it as to her it was more than just a souvenir of Tulsa. Evelyn sent me a book on courtship and marriage, and I received many packages this birthday. In June we were having roll call preparatory to shipping out when suddenly everything was canceled for thirty days. The Normandy invasion was taking place. Memorial services were held in all churches for those who gave their lives in the Normandy invasion. Most of the men were transferred to other companies but not me, and the barracks were empty. George Biddington and I became friendly and went to town together.
I received a furlough of seven days plus three days traveling time. So by confessing a lie, I gained three days. This furlough was unexpected and [brought] Evelyn and [me] closer together. My heart beat and tears came as I neared the new home on Foulkrod Street where the folks now lived. Dad looked very poor and we both cried. He had been ill for some time now, and the added strain of having Dean and Eunice living with them didn't help any. It was hard on him having both of his boys away. There was gasoline rationing, and I was able to use Dad's Studebaker very little.
I called Evelyn at Camden Fire and made a date for that evening. She had saved a week of her vacation, a few [days] one week and few the next. That evening, June 15, we became engaged without a ring. We promised to be true to each other and not to get married until I came back from the Army. We went several places together. One day we took a train to New York City, and there we had dinner in a big hotel. Then we walked and talked until we were exhausted. Another day we took a bus to Atlantic City and had dinner, walked the boards, and sat on the beach in some chairs. One evening we went to Willow Grove and rode many of the amusements. This also was fun. Sunday evening Evelyn took me to a large church in Philadelphia. Then it happened. One Saturday before I was to leave, I visited Evelyn and kissed her as she opened the door. Her mother saw us, and we knew that our love could be a secret no longer. We were no longer friends of the family. We asked our parents to keep it quiet until we could get a ring.
Sunday we had dinner at the Michael's. I felt sure at that time they knew about us. They didn't, but they did suspect something because Evelyn was never in the habit of holding hands, as she did with me. Eunice had wanted to go to Chicago with Dean, and so now that my furlough was nearly over, Dad suggested that I drive them in their car. I was able to get enough for gas for this trip from the ration board. We had trouble with the car overheating and had to stop for water every 40 miles or so. It took us 2 days to make the trip. We [stopped] at Eunice's grandmother's and spent the night. I had the misfortune to drop my wristwatch there. I learned to love that rascal Dean on the trip.
The next morning I left for Oklahoma by train. On my way to camp, I wrote a letter to Tom asking permission to marry Evelyn. I got to camp in plenty of time. When I got back to camp, I found that I had been transferred to another company, "I" Company, and I had to take off my rainbow patches again. I started in the kitchen; but this time it was a pleasure as the rest of the company was out on bivouac. I suffered from a very bad ingrown toenail, and I had to get it cut out painfully at the dispensary. I offered to send Evelyn the money to buy the ring herself, but she didn't think too much of the idea. I visited Muskogee but didn't care for it very much.
In July 1944, I was told to fall out with bag and equipment. We had a roll call and then after much confusion we were told to go back to our barracks. The C.O. gave us a lot of do's and don'ts for [when we would] be shipped. We still had no idea when we were going or in what direction. I wished so hard that it would be east and not west. I had no desire to fight Japs or to fight in the jungles. The heat was terrible this summer. We [did nothing] now but await orders. We were supposed to keep busy, and someone would watch out for officers. An officer did walk in on us, and we were all asleep. But he was a good fellow and didn't say anything. There is bed check every night as some men have wives in town and would rather be there.
We separated ourselves from all unnecessary personal things. On July 10, 1944, we got up early, packed our stuff and marched to an area where everything was checked. Trucks came and took us away. The band played and the general spoke to us telling us how good we were and how sorry he was to lose us. His speech went in one ear and out the other. We were heading for [Fort] Meade via the southern states. It was a dirty trip although we had sleepers and were fixed up comfortably. I even had hopes of getting home again.
On July 12, we were greeted by the band [at Fort Meade], and then they took us to our barracks. We didn't like the looks of the place. [My address was now] Co.B 18Bn. 5 Reg. AGFRD #1 Fort Meade, Maryland. They fed us well and then we had roll call and a medical checkup. Finally we had a chance to relax. At this camp there was little saluting or anything. We were a happy group. The officers were very informal and tried to be of help to us. Here it was just the opposite from the other camp. I was with new men again [though] and had to find friends again. This constant changing was hard; it isn't bad if you know someone. Now we were hoping and praying for a pass.
On Saturday July 15, I got a pass, and it only took me a few hours to get home on a train. I called Evelyn before I got home and asked her to meet me there. Dad had had an operation on his thyroid and was [still] very sick. He cried with joy to see me again. It made me feel bad to see how he looked. He had prayed to see me once more before I went overseas, and there I was. I asked him to go to Frankford Avenue with me, and there at Barrs, I bought a ring for Evelyn. I hid the ring from her. We took a long walk in the evening, and then I borrowed Dad's car to take her home. After awhile I popped the ring, and she was delighted. We were now officially engaged. Next morning I went to my church and she to hers to display the ring. Her friends were astonished as they had heard little of me. They hadn't even seen me.
After church I drove over to pick up Evelyn and her mother to bring them to our home for dinner. Then we took a long walk in the park. As the time was getting short, we took a ride to a place where we could say goodbye. We loved so deeply that it was hard to leave this time. Evelyn and her mother went as far as the station with me. It was the last pass. God had made it possible for me to see my folks and to present the engagement ring. That little ring made a big difference in time to come.
July 17 was Dad's birthday; so we celebrated it while I was home. I wrote a letter to Mike in England rebuking him for certain things that he had written to Dad that had hurt him. I felt that I must do everything in my power to help Dad; otherwise he might not last very long. Knowing that I would sail soon, and in the light of Dad's condition, my heart was heavy.
On July 19 we boarded a train and were on our way. At first we thought it might be to New York, but the train took us to Camp Patrick Henry, VA. I had never heard of this camp even though it was only about 250 miles from home. This camp was well shaded by giant trees. It looked so cool and beautiful. There was little rank shown, and we were one happy family.
I worked on K.P. one night. It reminded me of my first time in induction camp. There is a USO show, theaters, and other pleasant places to spend my time. I saw my first German POW stockade and observed [the prisoners] as they went about trying to kill time. I wondered how long it would be before they would be free men. In this camp there was a large group of French Negroes waiting to sail with us. We could not understand each other. They seemed much superior to our American Negroes.
I received a letter from Tom, and he seemed happy to hear about Evelyn and me. I had guard duty at the motor pool and then had to help serve in the mess hall. It was a long hard day but a pleasant one as the working conditions were good. The noncoms seemed to go out of their way to be nice to us.
[A]t Patrick Henry I had a very painful ingrown toenail cut out without any anesthetic, and I did sweat. The nail had grown out the front of the toe.
On July 28, we turned in our duffel bags and packed full field packs with all our necessary equipment. The packs must have weighed 60 lb. We were fortunate that we didn't have any weapons to carry. After all kinds of instructions, roll calls, and much waiting, we boarded a dinky train. After a couple of hours of moving forward and backward, we pulled into the dock at Newport News, VA. As we got off the train, M.P.'s stood guard to keep us from running away. There was a funny feeling as I saw the ship and knew that in a few minutes we would be on our way somewhere, perhaps never to return. We felt like sheep being led to slaughter. The only way we could go was forward. At this point we would have given anything to be able to stay in the U.S.A.
[A]s we stepped aboard the Marine Wolf, we were guided into different compartments. Each of us received a card with our bunk number on it. This we had to use as a meal card, and [it] had to be punched before we ate. There must have been 3500 of us aboard, about half colored. My bunk was 3B, the 3rd floor below. Going down the steep ladders was frightening. Then when I saw how packed in we were, I was really scared. We were bunked in layers of 5 and I was lucky to be 2nd from the top. There on my canvas bunk, approximately 3 x 5, I had to share this space with my duffel bag and combat bag. Then they gave us Mae West life preservers. There was no room to turn around.
I went on deck to get a last look at the shore and found that we were part of a convoy moving slowly out to sea. We had no idea how large the convoy might be, but it gave us heart to see what looked like two aircraft carriers on each side of us. We were made up in groups with an officer and noncom in charge. Then there was a loudspeaker system that kept barking orders all day. The movement plus the salt sickening air below didn't make me feel too well. The air conditioning was out of order at first and so it was dreadfully hot below. It was hard trying to sleep under these conditions.
I kept wondering what would happen if a torpedo hit us. We were packed in so tight that I doubted that many of us would get out before it sank. We had emergency drills every day at which time we were told what stairways to use, what equipment to take and where to stand. The crew took part in these drills and would get the lifeboats ready and man the guns. After a few days, we became accustomed to the routine.
We were allowed on deck most of the time from sunrise to sunset. The Red Cross distributed books, magazines, and games to keep us busy. For bathing a special soap had to be used to soften the salt water; still it was terrible. There was a limited amount of fresh water in the water coolers and this we sneaked enough to shave with occasionally. There was one large room for shaving and showers and another with a couple dozen toilets and urinals from which a terrible stench emanated. I wished that the boat wouldn't roll so that I might feel better.
Twice a day we lined up for food. We carried a mess kit, cup, spoon, and card. The card was punched on our way down to the kitchen where they served cafeteria style. There were tables by which we could stand for a few minutes. There were so many to be fed that we were rushed in and out in a hurry. After getting sick, I found that by the time I got down and up I was too sick to eat the food. After missing a couple of meals, I decided to fill my mess kit and eat it in my bunk bit by bit. After a few days the ocean became calmer and I felt a lot better. I never did have to throw up. From a scenic point, it was a beautiful trip with very good weather.
On deck we would watch for big fish and whales. As far as we could see, there was the convoy around us. Occasionally there were movies, [and] church services several times a week. There were also shots for malaria, etc. About half way across they took away our good American money and gave us Italian script. The trip was uneventful, for which we were glad. Most of the convoy broke away from us as we neared the Mediterranean and headed for some African port. Then we found that what we had supposed were aircraft carriers were only ships carrying planes. They weren't even in condition to fly. We had put our trust in them. During the night we passed Gibraltar; so we missed it going in.
We could see some towns on the coast of Spanish Morocco. We knew it wouldn't be long now before we reached our destination. We were given warnings that our ship might be strafed and that we would have to run off the boat as we touched the dock. It is a helpless feeling to be on a ship that might be target for the enemy.
© John A. Matzko
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