Symphony in B-Flak
SINCE 1940 the long arm of Maj. Gen. Hershey ,in accord with the Selective Training and Service Act, had been reaching out into all the States, and Reception Centers everywhere had been alive to the cadence of inductees and the throaty commands of Pfc. Napoleons. In the Spring of 1943, however, in the process of reinforcing his highly technical Antiaircraft branch, Uncle Sam ordered a group of specially qualified men from New York, New Jersey, and the vicinity to report to Camp Davis, North Carolina, for basic training. They arrived in two contingents, one on April 4 and one on April 8, and were assigned to the 115th Antiaircraft Gun Battalion, Mobile.
When the last group arrived, one of those who had already been training 4 days was heard to remark: "You mean we have to drill with those rookies!"
Battery "B" was conceived on March 20th, the day the Battalion was activated; it was born when the two contingents arrived. Witnessing the labors of parturition were the Cadre, who had arrived before activation from Haan and other California camps, and the Officers.
"What a sad bunch of soldiers you guys make!", said one of the sergeants. The MTP was upon us (Mobilization Training Program). Artillery Drill, Infantry Drill, Interior Guard Duty, Military Courtesy and Discipline, Reveille, Retreat, FM's and TM's, K. P., Latrine Orderly, Inspections, Inspections, Inspections. When we did have a moment to ourselves and attempted to get some "bunk fatigue" the old ogre (in the Army, it is called a "First Sergeant") would pounce upon us with a hundred Army Regulations and an equal number of jobs to be done. The detail would be assigned to some sergeant or corporal -- he goldbricked, we did the work, he got the credit! The "Sad Sack" of the cartoon was by no means the original one!
When "Swamp Davis", or "Mosquito Hollow" as it was also known, became so unbearable that even the Officers could not stand it, we began to commute frequently to Topsail Inlet. The less said about this place, the better. Here we perfected emplacement and march order under the most diffcult terrain conditions, becoming especially proficient in the use of prime mover and winch. Here we coordinated the various phases of fire control and developed the teamwork that was to pay dividends overseas. Here we fired hundreds of rounds at tow-targets and at terrestrial points on the sea.
If our record was not marred by gigs and our name was not in the Topkick's Black Book, we might receive a short weekend pass. Normally you would stand in line half a day in the broiling sun waiting for a bus. In the bus you received sardine space that barely enabled you to stand during the 30-mile trip to the "little bit of Heaven" that is Wilmington. If you did not find the recreation you were seeking in Wilmington, you would hop on another bus and land in Wrightsville Beach, or perhaps on Carolina Beach. Or maybe you called the whole trip off and merely took a walk outside the gates through "Boomtown".
When basic training was finished, we were pitted in maneuvers against the Marine Commandos from Camp Lejeune. It was our first experience in moving hastily by night under total blackout conditions. We were raided frequently by whole battalions of chiggers -- those lovable little creatures that become so attached to one. The box score of the maneuvers showed no runs, no hits, no Marines. There were a few errors. One night at 2300 hours, when Marines were reported in the vicinity, someone's shout cut the stillness of the tense situation: "Hey, Radar, I'm lost; give me a bearing, please!"
Then in early August there began those wonderful seven-day furloughs, each precious little day of which had 24 precious little hours.
Before dawn on Sept. 17 we passed through the gates of Davis in a long column, never to return. There were tears in the eyes of everyone! It was a long and tedious convoy of 200 miles, and the sun was slowly setting as we passed through Blackstone and entered Camp Pickett, Virginia. Camp Pickett with its splendid barracks, its beautiful WAC's, its full stocked PX's, its cool theaters, its top rate USO shows, its convenient bus schedule, and its proximity to Richmond and especially to points north. Ah-h-h! But we were here for two entirely different purposes: to take amphibious training and to learn to use the new Radar, the SCR-584. We began immediately with lectures in the classrooms and with dry runs in the field that lasted two weeks.
On Sept. 29 we left Pickett temporarily on a 100 mile convoy to practice amphibious operations at Camp Bradford near the huge Naval Base at Norfolk. We were under the tutelage of the Navy; and the Navy quarters, the Navy food, and the Navy hospitality were all "Super". We embarked and debarked a thousand times, using all types of invasion craft -- LCT's, LCI's, LCP's, LCVP's, LST's (scrunds like the New Deal). On each trip we soaked more of Chesapeake Bay into our clothes and drank more gallons of salt water. We were among the first ack-ack units to outline loading plans for storing and securely fastening our heavy equipment on all types of invasion craft. On shore we took off our life-belts and practised digging triangular foxholes in the sand which would afford maximum anti-tank protection. We climaxed the exercise with a full-scale invasion, launched from the unforgettable "Yak".
The Yak was a sturdy old frigate, made entirely of wood, with sides from 12 to 28 inches thick, and constructed without a single nail or spike. 300 years ago she was probably a pretentious vessel, but now, lying still in the bay, she was the jump-off point for all "dry" amphibious operations. We boarded her and went below deck. When our unit code was signalled, we rushed to our appointed deck space. Then over the side, down the rope ladder, into the smaller invasion craft. Then to the ever-growing circles at the rendezvous point. With perfect timing, groups of boats would swing off and dash in waves to assault the beach. Through the splashing water to cover on the beach, then infiltration until you were over the first bunker, and through land beyond until you reached the road which was your objective. On Oct. 6 we returned to Pickett.
Meantime the new 584 radar had been set up and tuned by the technicians, and the operators had spent many hours tracking the planes in the vicinity. By Oct. 20 they were ready to do some firing, so another convoy set out for New Point Comfort. This trip was 97 miles. We passed through Yorktown where Cornwallis surrendered in 1781 and saw bunkers which date back even to that ancient war. We also crossed the famous James River Bridge which is about five miles long. Once arrived at our destination, we made preparations for our first firing that would be entirely radar-controlled. The Camp itself proved to be small. The gun pits and range shelters, however, were already constructed, so for a change we had no need of our M1 A11 shovels. The firing itself was successful beyond expectation, and our training for overseas service was now complete. On Oct. 25 we returned to Pickett and made preparations for yet another leg on our journey.
All equipment except what we could carry on our person was loaded on boxcars, and on Nov. 2 we ourselves boarded a train for Fort Dix, New Jersey. Our reservations were booked on the streamlined "Turtle Express", the Pride of the Eastern sea-board. She inched along the 305 miles of rails, and it was 0400 hours the following morning when we stepped off the platform into the air that already had some of winter's chill. After a breakfast of burnt powdered eggs we marched to our quarters, which proved to be in Tent City. But Jersey (say it reverently) was "Home" for many of us and "Next Door" for many others, so everyone was happy. Dix at that time was a Reprocessing Area. We entered with clothes that were threadbare and worn, but within a few days the fragrance and crinkle of new clothing was in the air. Here also we turned in all of our heavy equipment -- guns, machine guns, range equipment, and trucks. The minimum operating allowances were meticulously crated and stencilled. Personnel were shifted, transferred, and reduced to absolute T/O strength (Table of Organization). We were definitely "on our way".
Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, found us marching (or stumbling) down towards the Railroad Station at Dix with all we owned on our backs. Our lunch for the trip was planned to fit the solemnity of the occasion. Remember the beautiful decorations in the diner and the smile on the faces of the waiters as they served you K-rations, containing American cheese with bacon added! Our route carried us 110 miles, through Newark, on to Camp Shanks, the POE. Here the fellows who lived in New York and its environs rushed home in the evening for a "Hello-Goodbye". The old cry that "This outfit will never go overseas" took on the aspects of a joke. The rigid physical proved beyond doubt that we were going into combat. One medical examiner sat there nonchalantly drinking Coca Colas as we filed by him. He probably figured that if your skin was warmer than the iced coke in his hand, you were acceptable.
Our orders finally arrived, and on Dec. 3, to the tune of a military band, we marched with our horseshoe rolls down to the train that would take us 35 miles to the Port of New York and thence ... From the ferry we could see the majestic liner of the Cunard White Star Line, the Queen Mary, and immediately we became excited, thinking that we might even travel over "in class". At the critical moment, though, we executed a "Column Right" instead of a "Column Left" and headed for the smaller vessel that was berthed beside it, the HMS "Strathnaver". Of the 32,000 [sic] ton class, she had been a luxury liner in her day, but "she had seen her day and was glad". Now she was a troopship, shorn of all glamor, fitted for grim duty. We were under the Union Jack.
We passed that grand Old Lady, the Statue of Liberty, on Dec. 5, the second serial of three in one of the largest convoys that left the States. The North Atlantic was choppy and rough as it always is at that time of the year. The Strathnaver groaned and moaned as the tremendous waves pummelled her sides and her bow. Fortunately she was blessed with a comfortable railing, as many of us can attest, for we were there frequently during the first few days, on the leeward side.
About 4 days out the convoy ahead of us encountered a submarine pack, and three ships were sunk. We changed course, zigzagged violently, at one time were only 200 miles off the coast of Greenland. A few nights later we were steaming along as usual when the ship suddenly lurched and stopped. Almost simultaneously the loud speakers told us to remain in our staterooms, and as suddenly as she stopped, she started again. We were surrounded by ships of every description and felt comparatively safe. Alongside us was the old battleship "Nevada" as well as the famous little Canadian corvettes.
The food aboard was uniformly bad, except that the stew got thicker each day, and the eggs must have been boiled for 30 minutes. The water tasted like diesel fuel, warm fuel at that. The Indian sailors aboard found a bonanza in their apple and peach pies, each of which would net from $2 to $5 after a crap game with paratroopers. The bread stores were continually being looted, and the English bakers had their "Irish" up more than once, as they worked night and day to keep the bread situation in hand.
The trip was becoming more bearable as the days went on, but the desire to get on "terra firma" was prevalent. Seagulls (albatross to our sailors) began to appear and we knew that soon it would be "Land Ho!"