On The Way to WWII by Charles Deen
I am going to stretch my brittle memory back to autumn, 1939, when I
was an East Texas farm boy and a senior in high school. Everyone knew that
the war in Europe was tugging at the U.S. In class debates, I reasoned
that FDR should not run for a third term presidency because he
was "so old". I feared that if we tangled with Hitler's
mighty war machine and our president died, it would be
disastrous. Well, it was 1940 and FDR won the election
and I graduated with one burning ambition - to be an army fighter
pilot. Big surprise, I found out that I was not only too young
to get into the program, I was colorblind to boot. The solution to my problem, I figured, was to join the Louisiana National Guard that was being federalized January 6,1941 as a Coast Artillery [Anti-Aircraft] regiment and sent to Camp Hulen on the Texas coast. That August I spent on detached service in the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941 where logs were canons, rains were avalanches and those big black salt-marsh mosquitos were the real enemy. At any rate, it sure beat the tedium of camp life; but it was too soon over and it was back to Camp Hulen and tedium for me. We made a lot of bivouacs and we trained new draftees that were being brought into service; mostly, they were from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
Sunday, December 7th started as a dull duty in the motor pool service station; but when I went back to the office for my noon break the tedium had exploded. Everyone was gathered around the little radio hanging onto every word. The news was unbelievable. A smiling Japanese ambassador (having just returned from conferring with his emperor] was shown during the previous week assuring FDR that there was no great problem between our countries. Of course, there was no TV or other pictures; only that little radio, but everyone there realized this was going to impact our lives. It did.
I had thought that I had volunteered for one year. There were songs, popular with me, titled "I'LL BE BACK IN A YEAR, LITTLE DARLING", and "I'M LENDING YOU TO UNCLE SAMMY, 'CAUSE I KNOW YOU'LL BE BACK IN A YEAR." I had a strong suspicion, even before Dec. 7th, that wasn't going to hold true. That afternoon and far into the night was spent packing and loading gear and equipment for a speedy train departure from Camp Hulen. Personally, I was very pleased with the excitement. From newsreel and Life Magazine coverages, it seemed that a war with Japan couldn't last over three weeks. All I knew was that we were headed west on a troop train. It turned out we were to entrench in and around San Diego to protect military and naval installations with special emphasis on the large Consolidated Vultee plant that manufactured B-24 bombers. Blackout mode was strictly enforced for military and civilians, alike; even all vehicle headlight lenses had their top half painted black. One night we were issued live ammo, loaded into trucks and headed somewhere up the coast to repulse a supposed Jap landing. In reality, a Jap submarine had slipped in and shelled an oilfield near Bakersfield, I think. We returned without firing a shot, I believe to the disappointment of many of us.
A contingent from the motor pool was dispatched to a point just south of San Francisco to pick up our new vehicles. I believe the manifest listed them as truck, 1/4 ton, GP (General Purpose]. They were WyIlis jeeps that had been so dubbed by the media, which likened them to the agile creature in the current "POPEYE" comic strip. A runner, that had been assigned one, parked in front of HQ located on a steep incline in Balboa Park. It went down the hill just fine when he resumed his journey, but after coasting part way up the adjacent hill, started coasting backwards while the puzzled fellow gunned the engine furiously. After a guffawing audience from the motor pool regained their control, they showed the driver that when the shift for the front wheel drive was in neutral, it automatically put the regular transmission in neutral. The driver had been "set up".
November 1942, and by now I could see that my outfit was going nowhere. We were training new draftees and sending out cadres. I think some went to the Pacific - not very appealing; some to Africa. I made it on the next cadre - to Camp Davis, North Carolina of all places - with a field artillery unit. Now, that's fine for fellows who like field artillery; but I had lived with an uncle who was in the infantry in WW1 and had been indoctrinated by his American Legion Magazine with its "SALUTING DEMON OF THE AEF" cartoons. The mess hall kept serving up mutton and (I'll swear] horse meat which I took as a clear indication the unit was about to head for Australia. So, on a soggy, late-winter day when I was pulled off bivouac to report back to camp, I was a happy camper. I had to quickly clean up and go before a board of three officers for questioning. One put me at ease by discussing LSU football. Another followed with "How high do you raise your foot when you mark time?" Then more light palaver followed by "How many red stripes in the flag?" That is the only two questions that have stuck in my memory all these years. I passed and was informed that I was being sent to college.
After three weeks of parades and evaluations at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, I was enrolled in a basic engineering curriculum at the University in Lexington. Brother, that was definitely not like being in the army - a fact one lady, that I supposed may have already lost a son in some distant land, sternly reminded me one afternoon on a downtown street corner. That, for me, took a lot of the pleasure away from wearing that lamp of learning emblem on my uniform.
After ASTP, I was assigned to a support unit at Fort Monroe, Virginia with the duty of driving generals and other high ranking officers to various exercises, including trips to the War College in Washington, D.C. where I was afforded plenty of free time - much of it being spent in the Smithsonian, believe it or not. It was a really cush job. Walter Winchell thought so, too. One Sunday night he broadcast that "Fort Monroe is an enlisted man's paradise and an officer's hideaway". Shortly after that came "D-DAY". I felt, strangely somehow, that I had missed the boat. I wasn't alone in that feeling - I think most of the guys at Fort Monroe were likewise affected. It wasn't but a day or so until my close buddy Weeks and I went by the bulletin board while returning from a pass. Of course, we had taken on some happy water, but not so much that we missed the fresh notice calling for volunteers for the infantry. Without hesitation, we did.
I'm pretty sure that was pretty late on Saturday night when we read the call for volunteers and our train was pulling past the HQ flag pole at retreat that Sunday. Such efficient personnel work I had never before witnessed. The sergeant on duty when we reported in pointed to a huge Table of Organization on the wall. Every unit in the 89th Infantry Division appeared riddled with vacancies. Unit choices were left to Weeks and me and he seemed set on Ordinance. But I had spotted the Division Cavalry Reconnaissance Troup and persuaded him to come into it with me - and, after we got into action in Europe, Weeks occasionally reminded me that I had gotten him into this mess.
I had finally made it to WWII!