Yes, I know: it should be a 48-star flag... The 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, 1943 to 1945

England (Part 1)

SMOOTH water and lights indicated we were in the sheltered and heavily-trafficked waters of the river Mersey. By morning we would be tied up at a dock in Liverpool. We weren't naturally; when morning came we were waiting at anchor in what seemed to be the middle of the river, waiting in typical Army style for some place to go, while no one seemed to know the score. During the day, however, an officer from Western Base Section, European Theatre of Operations, came aboard to see Colonel Hopper, and gave him orders for the Battalion to proceed to Manchester, where we would draw all equipment and supplies to put us in shape to carry out an operational mission. It was something to know what we were going to do, and the waiting was easier with plenty of rumors with which to pass the time.

The night of the 17th, half the Battalion debarked at the pier. The other half, with our usual luck, drew the detail of policing the ship. This was finished by about 0300 hours of the 18th, and the debarkation was complete by noon of that day. On leaving the gangplank of the Strathnaver we were directed to a train shed where the train which was waiting for us was supposedly only a short walk down the pier. Maybe it was short for somebody but not for men with that diabolical invention of a horseshoe pack on their backs, duffle bags on one shoulder and rifles on the other. Obstacle courses have seemed bad in their time and speed marches in deep sand take something out of you, but nothing in military history to that date begins to compare with that hike with full equipment down one side of Liverpool's famously long docks and up the other to climb, finally, into an unfamiliar railroad car. The Red Cross did help, with coffee and doughnuts and unexpectedly American accents. And the relief of putting the packs on the seat was one of the better feelings this life has to offer.

The ride from Liverpool to Manchester was interesting because it was a new experience. The train was strange, and altho it traveled thru two large cities that in the bulk of their buildings should have been familiar to most of us, there were marked differences from the American scene. There were no really tall buildings for one thing; for another all buildings seemed to have at least a dozen chimneys, and each chimney was pouring out its own cloud of smoke. These little clouds of smoke united to form what could be a symbol of England's Midlands during winter months, a deep, gray, dense pall of smoke that successfully hid the sun for the few hours a day it was supposed to shine, and effectively cut off from cheering sunlight the bombed and blitzed millions in two of England's largest industrial cities, Liverpool and Manchester.

Our travel orders read to "Manchester (Bellevue Station)", and about 30 miles from the Strathnaver's pier we arrived, piled out of the train, and picking up our burdens again, marched the two blocks to our new permanent station.

It could be that along about 1800 A. D. some worthy Manchester citizen decided to build a huge stable for his animals, and in building it set up certain requirements. It was to be as long a building as could be built; it was to have as few windows as possible so that if the sun ever did shine in Manchester it wouldn't make any difference; the windows, as soon as they were put in, were to be immediately broken with stones or brickbats; there would be no heating arrangements, only primitive plumbing arrangements, cooking facilities to be designed by Rube Goldberg, and in general the inside would be cut up into little rooms, walls projecting out into the darkness, with inconvenience for everyone, and danger to some. This building, it could be, was used to display the worthy citizen's stock until they died of living in such conditions, and was then turned over to the British Army, to be held for the use of their unsuspecting ally, the 115th AAA Gun Battalion Mobile of the U. S. Army.

Anyway, that's the way it turned out. Into one of of the filthiest non-combat billets in the ETO moved the police-happy 115th. Brooms and mops flew, a large guard was posted, the plumber, carpenter, glazier, and electrician were called in, and the place began to be livable. It was the closest the five batteries had lived together since the battalion was activated, and most details were consolidated. Each battery supplied the 25 KP's for one day, the KP's, Mess Sergeants, and KP pushers. Ditto the guard, which included a post in the Bellevue dance hall, whose only special order was to keep 115th men out of trouble. A battalion PX was opened up for the first time, and we got our first taste of ration cards, and lotteries for choice items. The most unpleasant memory of Manchester, tho, was the mess. The Mess Officer got all the blame for serving nothing but Vienna Sausage and black potatoes. And there wasn't even enough of that. Boxes from home were not luxuries at that stage of the game; they actually were needed to supplement the foul fare we got at the mess hall. And the kitchen! With 25 KP's really putting out it could never be clean. One night, in particular, there was an inspection of the kitchen. Inspecting officers with flashlights and penknives made the rounds of the dimly lit kitchen and storage rooms, followed in single file by the Mess Officer, the Battery Commander whose battery was furnishing the KP's that night, the two Mess Sergeants, and all 25 KP's. Naturally the inspection was unsatisfactory. And, since this chapter is entitled the Land of Spam, we'd better mention that whenever Spam was served we thought we were lucky. Anything was better than Vienna sausage.

We were in Manchester for business, serious business, and even under poor living conditions it had to go on. Every day the BSO sent out convoys all over the Midlands, to pick up trucks, big guns, machine guns, directors, office supplies, paper, paper clips, typewriters, tents, lister bags, the thousands of items an AAA gun battalion requires to be self sufficient in the field. And daily the battery supply rooms and battalion motor pool grew. In about a month we were equipped with minimum essentials, but it wasn't easy work. It involved long and heavy convoys over narrow British roads driving thru the long hours of darkness in blackout. The most dramatic of them all was the convoy of 90's, towed by 7 1/2 ton prime movers, which broke into two serials just before reaching the Mersey Tunnel at Liverpool. The two columns entered the tunnel from different approaches and met at the complicated intersection deep under the Mersey river, tying up stolid but amazed British traffic for minutes. The S-4 section really worked during those days and nights, and so did all the men on those convoys. They saw England the hard way.

Recreation in Manchester will never be forgotten. The Special Service Officer had very little to do, as Manchester itself was well prepared to take care of us. Our first experience with this happy state of affairs came the first night after our arrival, when we found lined up in front of the gate to our area a body of Manchester civilians who offered their services freely as guides to the town. Many offers were taken advantage of, and thru these guides and others met elsewhere we soon got a good insight into wartime life in a big English city. Many families hospitably invited us to share their meagre rations, and did their best to show British appreciation for the American army. Also well remembered are the cooperation and friendliness shown us by Britishers, male and female, at spots like the Palm Court, the Bellevue dance hall, the Ritz ballroom. Hospitality was so marked that the wall surrounding the battalion area, instead of being a hated sign of restriction, soon was recognized as a friendly support to many late homecomers.

After completing calibration fire with the 90's at Whitby, the battalion was ready to earn its keep. On 4 February 1944, seven weeks after our arrival in Manchester, we pulled out of Bellevue headed north. Those seven weeks, tho, will linger long in the memory of every man in the 115th. Proof has been given by the fact that every man who has since received a furlough to England has returned to Manchester.

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... arrives in Liverpool the night of 17 Dec 1943 and travels the next day by train to Manchester (Bellevue). Quarters in Manchester were unpleasant, the chow consisted primarily of Vienna sausage and black potatoes and not enough of that. Spam was considered a luxury. But the 115th enjoyed the friendly hospitality of the people of Manchester. After 7 weeks there, collecting supplies and equipment, the unit was ready to be off to their first operational sites.
 
Updated Tuesday June 07, 2005 09:10:04 PDT
The original text of The Story of the 115th A.A.A. Gun Battalion, published by the unit in 1945, is in the public domain. So how, you may ask, can I claim that the contents of these web pages are protected by copyright?

The answer is that it is my own transcription of the text and images into electronic format, and compilation into these web pages that is copyrighted. In addition, the web design, art, and annotations, plus all material from my father's personal albums are copyrighted original works. I reserve all rights to how all these materials are used. You may not copy them or store them in any retrieval system without permission.