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Fighting with the Screaming EaglesWith the 101st Airborne from Normandy to Bastogne
By Robert Bowen
Greenhill BooksCopyright © 2004 Robert Bowen
All right reserved.
You're in the Army Now
My road to Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, my first Army post, was a path of illusions, my head filled with all sorts of propaganda and stories that I had been told by veterans of the Great War and read in books and magazines. Most of the men in my family had served in the Navy, so going into the military seemed the natural thing to do. That is why I had gone to Citizens' Military Training Camps each summer when I was in high school, why I joined the State Guard when the National Guard was called up in 1940, and why I applied for Officer Candidate School (OCS) shortly after Pearl Harbor. It had been a big disappointment when my application for OCS was rejected in 1942. I found that the fact that I had never graduated from high school disqualified me.
Despite my experience with Citizens' Military Training and the Guard, entering the Army, which I did on February 13th, 1943, was like going to a different planet. Everything about it seemed beyond my comprehension--the Army way of doing things seemed so strange. To begin with, I often asked myself how we ever won the last war. How could anything have been accomplished in such mass confusion with so many contradictory orders? Shots, tests, examination by disinterested doctors who did not even comment upon the two missing fingers on my left hand, marching from building to building in ragged columns for more tests, and my first taste of Army food were just a few of the things that made me want to pack my bags and head for home.
Emerging from the bureaucratic maze of processing without going crazy, I joined an equally bewildered group of fellow recruits about to be shipped to a training center where we would be turned into soldiers. Once a sufficient number of recruits had been gathered we were sent off on a train headed for somewhere in the South. We were packed on board the train like sardines, our misery compounded by the smell emanating from the freshly issued clothing. Our heads were filled with vicious rumors and, despite all the lectures, we did not have the slightest idea what was in store for us. Most had never even been away from home for an extended period of time.
The train moved at a snail's pace, shaking and rattling with each uneven joint in the tracks. The clatter of its passage and the odor of the coal smoke made sleep impossible. To top it off, there didn't seem to be a siding during the entire trip that we didn't pull into, spending long hours with the engine spouting steam and blowing ear-splitting blasts of its whistle. Nerves quickly became raw, tempers flared, fights broke out and the train soon resembled an institution for the mentally deranged. If the trip hadn't ended when it did three days later I believe an insurrection would have followed.
The men waiting for us at our destination, Camp Blanding, Florida, were evidently used to such a state of affairs. They patiently got us off the train and formed into a ragged column and then marched us away in the darkness to the main camp. Our destination was a tent city where small groups of the column were gradually peeled off until all of the recruits had been assigned to a tent. The 20-odd men in my group were led down a company street and dispersed in large canvas tents, which were already partially occupied by sleeping men. Our arrival in the middle of the night ensured that our reception was not exactly warm. The men in my tent had just completed a 24-hour guard shift and were none too happy about being disturbed. Their curiosity, however, soon got the best of them and they rolled out of their bunks to see who they would have to put up with in the future.
It was there that I learned that we were now members of Company I, 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division. The 26th was a National Guard outfit originally from Massachusetts. My new regiment had been called up in 1940, participated in the Carolina maneuvers, and was then put to work guarding the East Coast against a feared Axis landing. Thousands of troops had been sent to surround vital defense installations, government buildings, vital bridges and communications centers along both coasts. Despite the fears of many, during its time along the coast the division had seen nothing more dangerous than hermit crabs and migrating sea turtles and it was now ready to absorb a bevy of recruits even though its own efficiency left much to be desired.
The next morning we were assigned to training platoons, being excused from all guard and fatigue details until our training had been completed. This arrangement proved to be a blessing for us. Unfortunately it also pissed off the veterans because it meant that the burden of these unpleasant duties would fall on them. I couldn't blame them, but the training was being accelerated and there was little that we could do but comply.
Our world now consisted of close order drill, manual of arms, weapons familiarization, gas mask drills, compass and map reading. Gradually, through repetition and practice, the majority of us began to get a feel for our new surroundings. Although a few men in my company became sick or died because of inadequate physicals given at reception centers, before too long most of us could complete a 25-mile hike carrying a full field pack under a broiling hot sun. We could run and flop on the ground time after time without dislodging too many teeth from contact with rifle stocks and we had dug enough slit trenches and foxholes to excavate a pit the size of the Little Grand Canyon in Vermont. We spent many nights in foxholes in cold soggy uniforms and we had eaten enough tasteless corned beef hash and baked beans to ruin our stomachs forever. Perhaps most important of all we had learned how to overcome contradictory orders from officers who seemed to be as untried as we were. Finally, after three months, we no longer resembled extras in a Laurel and Hardy routine and were returned to our companies.
With the recruits back with their companies and the regiment at full strength, our illustrious leaders decided that it was time to whip the unit into fighting shape. The best way to do this, they believed, was to embark on a series of exercises known as "problems." The problems involved us charging through brush, swamps and pine forests until we were dead on our feet. We fought make-believe enemies in good weather and bad, the violent thunderstorms we encountered being nearly as bad as artillery barrages. After the problems ended, we would rush back to our barracks to shower, dress, and clean weapons in order to fall in for inspection.
Our stay in Camp Blanding ended in late March 1943. It was time for the different regiments of the division to assemble in one place. We packed, boarded trains and headed for Camp Gordon, Georgia. The engineer seemed to drive the train as if he had a premonition that a bridge over a river was out and he needed to feel every inch of the way. The heat in the cars was terrific, with cinders and other debris flying into the open windows. We finally got to our destination, and unloaded the train with all of the precision of a street riot. It was hot as hell and we were carrying enough baggage to last forever. Eventually we were allowed to stagger to our assigned area, a compound of equally spaced old wooden barracks.
To our great disappointment we soon discovered that the food was even more deplorable than in Camp Blanding. Even the chowhounds in the company hesitated before entering the mess hall. Our battalion commanding officer had a thing about waste, even going so far as stationing a non-commissioned officer (NCO) by the garbage pail to see that nothing was wasted. Those who couldn't stomach the GI cuisine couldn't forsake it and expect to fill up at the post exchange (PX). Most of the shelves were emptied of cookies, cakes and candy bars soon after our arrival. Even the beer was in short supply. To add to our misery the other amenities at the camp were not much better. The post theaters were like ovens, and passes to Augusta and neighboring cities were issued with the same reckless abandon as raises in pay.
June brought even greater discomfort with steam-bath heat day and night and an acceleration in training. We were in the field for days on end, running seemingly mindless problems that did little other than piss us off more we already were. We got a new platoon leader, a gem with a Napoleon complex who put some unfortunates on extra duty for having the gall to roll up their sleeves in the 100-degree heat during a 25-mile hike. He was a young blond giant who looked as if he had been a linebacker on a pro football team. Fresh out of OCS, he wore his gold bar as if it were five stars and made damn sure we honored it. He drove us mercilessly, bent on proving that he could put our squad on par with the Rangers. His dedication was all right with us until he began issuing silly orders. Late one afternoon we were returning from a hard day in the field, hot, tired, clothing soaked to the skin by sweat and carrying full packs. To increase the misery, as we headed for home, we ran into a thunderstorm, which quickly drenched us. We got halfway up a long hill when our junior Napoleon gave the order to don gas masks and double time. It didn't take long before half the platoon had collapsed beside the road and the other half wasn't far from it. Fortunately, our company commander, Captain O'Neill happened to come by in a jeep, saw what was happening and quickly put a stop to it.
The platoon officer, however, was not my only headache. Another was an NCO named Anderson in the 3d Platoon. He was as mean as a pit bull to most of the recruits who might challenge his authority, and I was no exception. I got on his "list" early during an overnight problem. Two pits had been dug to take care of waste after eating, one for garbage, the other for cans from C rations. After disposing of my trash properly I was walking away when Anderson spotted a can in the garbage pit. He called me over, convinced that I had thrown the can in the pit, and ordered me to climb down into the mess to pick it up. Having no alternative I did what he ordered, but he could see that I didn't like it and after that he went out of his way to see that I toed the line. For the rest of my time in the company I hoped in vain that he would step into a slit trench and break his neck.
Later, however, I had some amusement at my tormentor's expense. On another night problem I was on guard duty when I heard a yell and had the pleasure of watching Anderson's pup tent rise in the air as if it had exploded. Then it staggered along the company street, poles, pegs, ropes and all. Finally it tripped over a rope and everything collapsed in a heap. Meanwhile, Anderson's tent mate sat up with a startled look on his face, not knowing what was going on until his hand went down on the ground and came to rest on a long fat rattlesnake that had crawled into the tent for warmth. For weeks afterwards the rest of the NCOs in the company teased Anderson about his zoo.
Although the months of training had hardened our bodies, they had done little to improve our morale. Our leaders had done little to encourage us. In addition, most of us were dreadfully homesick, especially those of us who were married. If it hadn't been for letters, parcels and the occasional phone call to our families, more men would have gone absent without leave (AWOL) than did. After four months in the Army most of us recruits were in the depths of despair, hating every day of our existence and desperately seeking a way out.
The realization of what lay ahead for us as infantrymen added to our fears. From what we were told, ten percent of us would be killed during our first campaign; another 40 percent would become casualties of another sort. Few, if any of us, could expect to remain with our companies until the end of the war. The figures were enough to scare even the most lion-hearted among us. Our daily existence did not help matters. Living like animals in holes in the ground, eating C and K rations for long periods of time and being treated not much better than galley slaves turned most of us off the infantry life all together. We prayed for any way out of our dilemma.
My salvation, I thought, came about the middle of June while we were on another long problem. One morning after breakfast, Howard Hill, Walter Halsey and myself were called to the company command post. Upon arrival we found Captain O'Neill in a magnanimous mood and he greeted us warmly. I sensed something was up when he took us aside and began talking to us like a concerned father. He praised our performance while in the company and said he had been instructed to submit names of men whom he thought were more advanced than others in their training. We had been selected from the list submitted and, therefore, were being transferred to another unit which needed qualified infantrymen. When he said our new home was going to be the 101st Airborne Division, however, I nearly fainted. Paratroopers! Glider troops! This was not exactly the escape I had hoped for.
We returned to our tents, trying to make light of our transfer but secretly very apprehensive about it. We said our goodbyes to everyone and left for our barracks in a waiting jeep. We spent several days preparing for our move while others from the 26th who were being transferred to the 101st were assembled. Then it was off to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the home of the 101st.
Excerpted from Fighting with the Screaming Eagles by Robert Bowen Copyright © 2004 by Robert Bowen. Excerpted by permission.
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