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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 andstories that I had been told by veterans of the Great War and read inbooks and magazines. Most of the men in my family had served in theNavy, so going into the military seemed the natural thing to do. Thatis why I had gone to Citizens' Military Training Camps each summerwhen I was in high school, why I joined the State Guard when theNational Guard was called up in 1940, and why I applied for OfficerCandidate School (OCS) shortly after Pearl Harbor. It had been a bigdisappointment when my application for OCS was rejected in 1942. Ifound that the fact that I had never graduated from high schooldisqualified me.
Despite my experience with Citizens' Military Training and theGuard, entering the Army, which I did on February 13th, 1943, waslike going to a different planet. Everything about it seemed beyond mycomprehension—the Army way of doing things seemed so strange. Tobegin with, I often asked myself how we ever won the last war. Howcould anything have been accomplished in such mass confusion withso many contradictory orders? Shots, tests, examination bydisinterested doctors who did not even comment upon the two missingfingers on my left hand, marching from building to building in raggedcolumns for more tests, and my first taste of Army food were just afew of the things that made me want to pack my bags and head forhome.
Emerging from the bureaucratic maze of processing without goingcrazy, I joined an equally bewilderedgroup of fellow recruits about tobe shipped to a training center where we would be turned intosoldiers. Once a sufficient number of recruits had been gathered wewere sent off on a train headed for somewhere in the South. We werepacked on board the train like sardines, our misery compounded bythe smell emanating from the freshly issued clothing. Our heads werefilled with vicious rumors and, despite all the lectures, we did not havethe slightest idea what was in store for us. Most had never even beenaway from home for an extended period of time.
The train moved at a snail's pace, shaking and rattling with eachuneven joint in the tracks. The clatter of its passage and the odor ofthe coal smoke made sleep impossible. To top it off, there didn't seemto be a siding during the entire trip that we didn't pull into, spendinglong hours with the engine spouting steam and blowing ear-splittingblasts of its whistle. Nerves quickly became raw, tempers flared, fightsbroke out and the train soon resembled an institution for the mentallyderanged. If the trip hadn't ended when it did three days later Ibelieve 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 patientlygot us off the train and formed into a ragged column and thenmarched us away in the darkness to the main camp. Our destinationwas a tent city where small groups of the column were graduallypeeled off until all of the recruits had been assigned to a tent. The20-odd men in my group were led down a company street anddispersed in large canvas tents, which were already partially occupiedby sleeping men. Our arrival in the middle of the night ensured thatour reception was not exactly warm. The men in my tent had justcompleted a 24-hour guard shift and were none too happy about beingdisturbed. Their curiosity, however, soon got the best of them andthey rolled out of their bunks to see who they would have to put upwith in the future.
It was there that I learned that we were now members ofCompany I, 104th Infantry Regiment, 26th Infantry Division. The26th was a National Guard outfit originally from Massachusetts. Mynew regiment had been called up in 1940, participated in the Carolinamaneuvers, and was then put to work guarding the East Coast againsta feared Axis landing. Thousands of troops had been sent to surroundvital defense installations, government buildings, vital bridges andcommunications centers along both coasts. Despite the fears of many,during its time along the coast the division had seen nothing moredangerous than hermit crabs and migrating sea turtles and it was nowready to absorb a bevy of recruits even though its own efficiency leftmuch to be desired.
The next morning we were assigned to training platoons, beingexcused from all guard and fatigue details until our training had beencompleted. This arrangement proved to be a blessing for us.Unfortunately it also pissed off the veterans because it meant that theburden of these unpleasant duties would fall on them. I couldn't blamethem, but the training was being accelerated and there was little thatwe 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 beganto get a feel for our new surroundings. Although a few men in mycompany became sick or died because of inadequate physicals givenat reception centers, before too long most of us could complete a25-mile hike carrying a full field pack under a broiling hot sun. Wecould run and flop on the ground time after time without dislodgingtoo many teeth from contact with rifle stocks and we had dug enoughslit trenches and foxholes to excavate a pit the size of the Little GrandCanyon in Vermont. We spent many nights in foxholes in cold soggyuniforms and we had eaten enough tasteless corned beef hash andbaked beans to ruin our stomachs forever. Perhaps most important ofall we had learned how to overcome contradictory orders from officerswho seemed to be as untried as we were. Finally, after three months,we no longer resembled extras in a Laurel and Hardy routine andwere returned to our companies.
With the recruits back with their companies and the regiment atfull strength, our illustrious leaders decided that it was time to whipthe unit into fighting shape. The best way to do this, they believed,was to embark on a series of exercises known as "problems." Theproblems involved us charging through brush, swamps and pine forestsuntil we were dead on our feet. We fought make-believe enemies ingood weather and bad, the violent thunderstorms we encounteredbeing nearly as bad as artillery barrages. After the problems ended, wewould rush back to our barracks to shower, dress, and clean weaponsin order to fall in for inspection.
Our stay in Camp Blanding ended in late March 1943. It was timefor the different regiments of the division to assemble in one place. Wepacked, boarded trains and headed for Camp Gordon, Georgia. Theengineer seemed to drive the train as if he had a premonition that abridge over a river was out and he needed to feel every inch of theway. The heat in the cars was terrific, with cinders and other debrisflying into the open windows. We finally got to our destination, andunloaded the train with all of the precision of a street riot. It was hotas hell and we were carrying enough baggage to last forever.Eventually we were allowed to stagger to our assigned area, acompound of equally spaced old wooden barracks.
To our great disappointment we soon discovered that the food waseven more deplorable than in Camp Blanding. Even the chowhoundsin the company hesitated before entering the mess hall. Our battalioncommanding officer had a thing about waste, even going so far asstationing a non-commissioned officer (NCO) by the garbage pail tosee that nothing was wasted. Those who couldn't stomach the GIcuisine couldn't forsake it and expect to fill up at the post exchange(PX). Most of the shelves were emptied of cookies, cakes and candybars soon after our arrival. Even the beer was in short supply. To addto our misery the other amenities at the camp were not much better.The post theaters were like ovens, and passes to Augusta andneighboring cities were issued with the same reckless abandon as raisesin pay.
June brought even greater discomfort with steam-bath heat dayand night and an acceleration in training. We were in the field fordays on end, running seemingly mindless problems that did little otherthan piss us off more we already were. We got a new platoon leader,a gem with a Napoleon complex who put some unfortunates on extraduty for having the gall to roll up their sleeves in the 100-degree heatduring a 25-mile hike. He was a young blond giant who looked as ifhe 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 wehonored it. He drove us mercilessly, bent on proving that he could putour squad on par with the Rangers. His dedication was all right withus until he began issuing silly orders. Late one afternoon we werereturning from a hard day in the field, hot, tired, clothing soaked tothe skin by sweat and carrying full packs. To increase the misery, aswe headed for home, we ran into a thunderstorm, which quicklydrenched us. We got halfway up a long hill when our junior Napoleongave the order to don gas masks and double time. It didn't take longbefore half the platoon had collapsed beside the road and the otherhalf wasn't far from it. Fortunately, our company commander,Captain O'Neill happened to come by in a jeep, saw what washappening and quickly put a stop to it.
The platoon officer, however, was not my only headache. Anotherwas an NCO named Anderson in the 3d Platoon. He was as mean asa 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 overnightproblem. Two pits had been dug to take care of waste after eating,one for garbage, the other for cans from C rations. After disposing ofmy trash properly I was walking away when Anderson spotted a canin the garbage pit. He called me over, convinced that I had thrownthe can in the pit, and ordered me to climb down into the mess topick it up. Having no alternative I did what he ordered, but he couldsee that I didn't like it and after that he went out of his way to seethat I toed the line. For the rest of my time in the company I hopedin vain that he would step into a slit trench and break his neck.
Later, however, I had some amusement at my tormentor'sexpense. On another night problem I was on guard duty when I hearda yell and had the pleasure of watching Anderson's pup tent rise inthe air as if it had exploded. Then it staggered along the companystreet, poles, pegs, ropes and all. Finally it tripped over a rope andeverything collapsed in a heap. Meanwhile, Anderson's tent mate satup with a startled look on his face, not knowing what was going onuntil his hand went down on the ground and came to rest on a longfat rattlesnake that had crawled into the tent for warmth. For weeksafterwards the rest of the NCOs in the company teased Andersonabout his zoo.
Although the months of training had hardened our bodies, theyhad done little to improve our morale. Our leaders had done little toencourage 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 wouldhave gone absent without leave (AWOL) than did. After four monthsin the Army most of us recruits were in the depths of despair, hatingevery day of our existence and desperately seeking a way out.
The realization of what lay ahead for us as infantrymen added toour fears. From what we were told, ten percent of us would be killedduring our first campaign; another 40 percent would become casualtiesof another sort. Few, if any of us, could expect to remain with ourcompanies until the end of the war. The figures were enough to scareeven the most lion-hearted among us. Our daily existence did not helpmatters. Living like animals in holes in the ground, eating C and Krations for long periods of time and being treated not much betterthan 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 wewere on another long problem. One morning after breakfast, HowardHill, Walter Halsey and myself were called to the company commandpost. Upon arrival we found Captain O'Neill in a magnanimous moodand he greeted us warmly. I sensed something was up when he tookus aside and began talking to us like a concerned father. He praisedour performance while in the company and said he had beeninstructed to submit names of men whom he thought were moreadvanced than others in their training. We had been selected from thelist submitted and, therefore, were being transferred to another unitwhich needed qualified infantrymen. When he said our new home wasgoing to be the 101st Airborne Division, however, I nearly fainted.Paratroopers! Glider troops! This was not exactly the escape I hadhoped for.
We returned to our tents, trying to make light of our transfer butsecretly very apprehensive about it. We said our goodbyes to everyoneand left for our barracks in a waiting jeep. We spent several dayspreparing for our move while others from the 26th who were beingtransferred 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 M. Bowen. Copyright © 2001 by Robert M. Bowen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1997 Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.All rights reserved.
|List of Illustrations||6|
|List of Maps||7|
|Chapter 1||You're in the Army Now||13|
|Chapter 2||Marking Time||19|
|Chapter 3||The Reluctant Transport||27|
|Chapter 4||Atlantic Convoy||33|
|Chapter 5||No Milk or Honey||36|
|Chapter 6||The Calm Before the Storm||44|
|Chapter 7||D-Day: Operation Overlord||51|
|Chapter 8||Evacuated as a Casualty||68|
|Chapter 9||Windmills and Wooden Shoes||78|
|Chapter 10||The Fight for Veghel||113|
|Chapter 11||The Island||123|
|Chapter 13||Bitter December||156|
|Chapter 14||Into the Frying Pan||198|
|Chapter 15||Siegburg to Hoffenstahl||215|
|Chapter 16||The Bottom of the Pit||223|
|Chapter 17||Hell Train||229|
|Chapter 18||Bremervorde: Stalag 10B||234|
|Afterword: And Yet So Far||248|
|Roll of Honor||254|
Finally, they discovered a massive pulmonary infarction in my lung, the result of a leg wound that hadn't been treated properly in a German prison camp hospital. Lying in bed all day with nothing to do but think of all the terrible things that can happen to someone who was as ill as I was, I instead decided to think as positively as I could, to do something that might bring me out of the doldrums I found myself in. Writing a memoir of what I had been through seemed like the answer.
While my intentions were good, I lacked the expertise. I was an engraver by training, not a writer. I had, however, experienced three monumental events during the war: D-Day, the greatest amphibious invasion in history; Operation Market-Garden, the war's greatest blunder; and the Battle of the Bulge, America's largest battle of the war. So, for my own edification as much as anything else, I decided to write about my experiences while they were still fresh in my mind. I had no idea whatsoever that they would ever be published.
Although I started the memoir in the hospital, when I was eventually released nine months later, I found that the demands of daily life often got in the way of my completing the project. Although I was listed as 100 percent disabled, I went back to work at my old job. I worked eight hours every day five or six days a week and also went to night school. I finished high school and then took art, writing, and science courses at a local college in Baltimore.
Meanwhile, there was a plethora of books coming on the market about the war. Over the years a number of authors and historians have contacted me about my experiences. I would, from time to time, send them bits of my narrative and thought nothing more about it. Finally, Chris Anderson, who was working on a book of his own about my old regiment, the 401st Glider Infantry, contacted me. As I had done in the past, I sent him a chapter of the memoir. Chris was impressed with what he read and thought that the entire memoir deserved to be published. Where it not for Chris's efforts, the manuscript would still be on a shelf in my cupboard.
So, why did I write the book? Looking back, I think that I wrote it to help myself come to terms with some of the horrible experiences I had been through and also to pass on to posterity what is was like to fight the war as a gliderman. (Robert Bowen)
Posted April 6, 2011
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