The United States (Part 3)
. . . CAMP BRADFORD, VIRGINIA, a large area near the mouth of the Delaware River, where U.S. Naval personnel were daily imparting some of their nautical knowledge to their normally landlubbing brothers.
En route we crossed the famed St. James River, one of the widest in the world. As it was a misty day and the trucks rolled with their usual kidney-shaking jars, we had all the sensation of being far out at sea long before we could smell the ocean or walk a deck.
At 6.00 o'clock we rolled into the camp and were greeted by our "Advanced group", a few men who had preceded us by a week or so, to prepare our way and also to educate themselves as "key men" to our training.
They assigned everyone to his proper quonset hut, explained the location of everything in the camp, and acquainted us with the many rules and regulations familiar to that camp.
We were also taught how to converse with its inhabitants, the sailors. It seems that when a man dons the Navy blue, he adopts a special language abundant with nautical terms and peculiar slang. Once indoctrinated in this exclusive tongue, he refuses to recognize objects by the names he formerly applied to them -- so, to insure sound diplomatic relations, we too had to learn the marine forms of expression.
After "stowing our gear", the first place we were interested in visiting was the mess hall, and we found that our camp was well equipped to feed the thousands of men sharing its hospitality. There were approximately eight mess halls in all, occupying an area about a mile from our own, and each employing about 50 KP's. Due to the tremendous crowds in the mess area, every meal time, KP was worked on the "honor" system. (Those whose "honor" was never a great burden to their conscience, discovered that Camp Bradford was indeed a swell place to get KP!). The meals were excellent, prepared by Navy cooks, eaten from cafeteria trays, and well loaded with desserts and pastries. Whatever our disputes with the Navy concerned, we never criticized their cooks.
Our first day at the beach was one of the most memorable of our training. (There are many who'd be inclined to say miserable instead of memorable.) We shouldered our packs, rifles, gas masks, put on our helmets and slipped on a life preserver that we had to accustom ourselves to, and marched about four miles to the beach. It was a dark, windy day and we could see dozens of anchored ships out in the bay, being buffetted by the rough seas. We were instructed to dig ourselves a fox hole with our helmet, bayonet or anything we could pick up in the nearby vicinity, the theory being that some day we might have to "dig in" in a hurry with any sort of shovel we could improvise. In two minutes the beach resembled a giant colony of fiddler crabs frantically trying to establish new homes. At first, the sand we were raising, whipped into a stinging spray by the wind, was our chief discomfort, but a driving rain presently added itself to our tribulations. We were soon soaked, gritty with sand, unable to see ten fect ahead, and tired from laboring on a narrow hole that tried to erase itself from the beach as fast as we dug. To further incense our jangled nerves, we could hear the powerful roars of tanks and half-tracks engines which, we were told, were going to start racing around the beach any minute. "If you dig a fox hole right", the instructors stated blandly, "the tanks can run over you all day and never harm you a bit."
Nevertheless, when those armored giants did begin churning up the beach, most of us scrambled out our holes and observed from the sidelines. We watched, fascinated, while one "Sherman" made a thirty degree turn and completely obliterated all traces of three empty fox holes. "Never harm you", did he say? Maybe -- but we were glad we didn't stay in our fox holes!
After plodding back to camp, most of us, when given the order to "Fall out", stepped into the shower room and turned the water on ourselves -- clothes, packs, gas masks, life preservers, rifles and all. It was no wetter than it had been outside but it had the advantage of being all water and not half sand.
The next day was clear and slightly warmer. This time we were greeted with a beach full of LCPL's (Landing craft, personnel, large). We were taken out into the bay and, after a few minutes circling to group ourselves, in the manner of an actual invasion, we sped towards the shore and "stormed the beaches". Generally, one of these small craft can buck their way across the irregular bottom of the shallow beaches and drop their ramp on dry sand. However, many of the boats wherein the passengers had ribbed their Naval helmsmen were seen to stop at the first place they nudged a sand bar -- often some twenty feet from shore and involving an exit into water from three to eight feet deep, -- no, it didn't pay to rib the Navy.
After scrambling ashore we charged up the beach and skirmished, working our way inland as quickly as possible under simulated enemy barrages and raking machine gun fire. Our mission was accomplished when we crossed a small, inland stream and took posession of a road that ran parallel to the ocean.
Chow was delivered to us out at the beach, and, although eaten from our Army mess kits, was definitely not a typical Army meal. It was more like what you would expect in a large hotel than on a "hostile beach-head" and was topped off with a delicious slab of cherry pie.
At night we were unable to obtain passes to the neighboring city of Norfolk, but we did manage to find sufficient entertainment inside camp. The Navy had erected a rustic, outdoor beer garden and there was also a large, outdoor movie for those who did not care for "3.2". If there was someone with large quantities of energy, after a day's training", and who didn't have watersoaked or sand blasted equipment to care for, there were a few gymnasiums that boasted all sorts of athletic equipment. The majority, though, confined themselves to reading or writing. (Incidentally, this training was "Secret" and mail was supposedly censored, to keep it that way.)
Anchored out in the bay was a huge, reconditioned hull of what was once a large sailing vessel. Whatever its name had been it was now the VX YAG-1 (Yacht, Amphibious Groups) and its sides were draped with cargo nets that we used to practice boarding from and debarking into the smaller landing craft. As our assault boats drew alongside the YAG, we'd grab the net, struggle up its twenty foot expanse, and flop onto the deck. After filing down into the hold and "sweating it out" for a while, we'd return to the upper deck and clamber back down to our small boats. Again we'd go through the circling "assembly" stage and again we'd charge the beach. After a couple of days of this, we progressed into riding around the bay on the larger LCI's (Landing craft, Infantry) which were about the size of a destroyer but equiped in the bows with two gangways that shot forward and then down, when it struck shore, giving a whole Infantry company two inclined ramps leading to the beach. These too often involved a swim or dunking and always involved "storming the beach".
The final phase was the water-proofing, loading, and unloading of all our equipment on the LCT's and LST's (Landing craft, tank, Landing ship, tank). All motor pool men, gun crews, etc. were taught how to keep their equipment in perfect working order, even though it might get completely submerged during landing operations.
Running the stuff through the water proved to be even easier than maneuvering on the beach but after the first day of jockeying our heavy vehicles up and down ramps and in and out of beached landing craft, we reached the stage where we could, with a maximum of efficiency, run everything up into the great maws of the ships, securely fasten it all against the roll and pitch of turbulent seas, and then quickly pour ashore ready for action.
A couple of more days of practice proved that we had ably learned invasion tactics and we pulled up stakes and turned our trucks back toward . . .