Read an Excerpt
On December 7, 1941, I was home on a weekend leave. My grandfather knocked on the door of the bathroom where I was, in the midst of shaving, and announced, “You’re in for it now, boy!”
I asked, “In for what?”
“The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor....It’son the radio and I just now heard it.”
I thought it was some obscure U.S. Navy base in the Pacific. Of course, not long after that, everyone in the free world knew where and what Pearl Harbor was. I collected Joe and we drove back to camp immediately. On the way north toward San Luis Obispo we saw convoy after convoy of army troops heading south. Fortunately, our outfit was still in camp, and we got back just in time. My first assignment was nothing like what I had thought war would be. Our company was loaded onto trucks and driven to the rail lines close to camp. We were placed inside a boxcar and away we went, not having a clue where. “Where,” for my machine gun squad, turned out to be just a few miles north, at Camp Roberts, a large army basic training station. So large, in fact, it consisted of two separate camps. The main camp, and the second one, North Roberts.
The train stopped midway between the two camps, just short of a bridge, and my four-man squad was ordered off, along with our tent; the machine gun, and all its paraphernalia; four folding GI cots; a small gasoline-fueled cooking stove; a shovel; four barracks bags; and several other miscellaneous bits of gear and equipment that we soldiers always seemed to accumulate above and beyond our issued stuff. Thinking back on it, we must have looked like a potential yard sale getting set up.
“Lt. Pat Phillips walked me up forward to the railroad bridge that spanned a wide but shallow river running between the two camps. “Your squad is to set up the machine gun here at the south end of the bridge and allow no one to pass across it other than railroad workers or other soldiers. No civilians. You will have the gun manned during the hours of darkness. That is from sundown to dawn. It’ll not be necessary to man it during daylight hours.”
“Do you think the Japs will attack us here, Lieutenant?”
“Corporal, just how in the hell would I know that?”
“Well, I guess somebody figures they might, otherwise we wouldn’t be set up here, would we? If someone tries to cross at night, do we shoot ’em, or what?”
“He just looked at me, turned, and started back to where the train was stopped. It was a steam locomotive, and I loved the sounds that came from it, the creaks, grunts, and groans, the hissing of steam. How I wished it would stick around for a few days so we all could just sit and listen to it. Trying to look sharp, I hurried after him and asked about food, mail, and supplies.
“Don’t worry about anything like that. I’ll have a weapons carrier up here tomorrow with everything you guys will need. Any other questions?”
I wrote down the telephone number of his CP and tried to think of questions that I knew would come up as soon as he left. Phillips and I had known each other for several years and got along very well. We first met when he was a sergeant. I liked him and I respected him. He had a great sense of humor, too.
We returned back to where the train was waiting, and I saw that a bunch of the guys had hopped off and gotten the tent up and staked down. Another twenty minutes and the four of us were standing alongside the tracks, watching the train disappear northward. I wanted to say, “Choo, choo,” but didn’t.
I got my gunner and we went for a walk up to the edge of the bridge, looking for a spot to place the gun. We found the perfect one just at the edge of the bridge, overlooking the entire “target area.” It was a wonderful place for our gun. The fact that it had no cover or concealment didn’t bother us for the simple reason we didn’t think about it...dumb, dumb.
PFC Hubert White, my gunner, was a tall, lanky Kentuckian with a rare sense of humor and a ready smile. He had blond hair that seemed to be always mussed up, blue eyes, and a nice drawl that, I guess, was what folks from his state sounded like. He was the first person I had ever met from Kentucky, so I didn’t know for sure. But it was nice to listen to.
It was early December, and the cold rains began. We rigged up cover at the gun position, using shelter halves from our individual packs, and while it wasn’t like home, it kept us fairly dry. Not completely, but somewhat. The rail line was on an embankment about ten or twelve feet above the surrounding ground. Our big tent was down at that lower level, below, out of the wind as much as possible. But, we found out later, it was low enough to flood the dirt/mud floor with three or four inches of water if the rain lasted very long.
True to his word, Phillips returned the next day in a weapons carrier and left us with some rations and, best of all, mail. He told me he didn’t know how long this routine would go on, but he’d see that we got rotated “once in awhile” back to the platoon CP for showers, new supplies, things like that.
One day, after we’d been there about a week, a Camp Roberts weapon carrier drove into our area. The passenger turned out to be a mess sergeant, an old-timer, a regular army guy, and he had gotten reports that we were guarding the bridge. He asked me, “What are you guys doing for chow?”
“Not much, Sergeant. They give us some rations, and we have a small field stove, but none of us is much of a cook.”
“Well, how would you like me and my cook here to come by in the mornings and cook breakfast for you guys?” We were all inside the tent, sitting on army cots when he said that, and I think we’d have lifted him to our shoulders and paraded him around if we’d had the room. To this day I’m not sure what prompted his good-natured offer. Perhaps he just wanted to get off the post for a bit, or maybe our situation brought about some sympathy. Whatever it was, a wonderful thing happened. Especially in light of the terrible cooking each of us had managed to turn out.
The next morning he showed up with one of his cooks, as promised. This was after his own cooks and bakers back at camp had completed the morning’s breakfast detail. We got fried eggs, bacon, and coffee. On the second or third day Hubert said he felt like eating a dozen eggs. I said I bet I could, too. And, we did. Ate a dozen each... with bacon and thick slices of buttered bread, and a cup of hot GI coffee. It was wonderful!
Our routine for guarding the bridge was two on the gun from sundown until midnight, then the second two men relieved us to guard until dawn. The gun, tripod, and ammo would then be taken down and placed inside our tent until sundown, at which time the whole schedule was repeated. This suited us very well. We all slept throughout the day. After a great breakfast, that is.
One morning, just after our mess sergeant friend had left, I heard a jeep drive into our area. We had laced the front of the tent fly so it was open at the lower end, about a foot above the water-and-mud floor.
I figured it was Lieutenant Phillips, as he was about due for his regular visit. We heard splashes as he approached, and then he tried to unlace the tent fly. That’s when I yelled out, “Get down on your hands and knees and crawl in like we do.”
During the pause in the activity outside, we heard some muttered curses. I knew Pat was a good sport, so I didn’t worry about it. We waited, and pretty soon an officer’s black-and-gold-braid overseas cap appeared. Then his shoulders. Resting on each shoulder tab was a silver eagle! It was a full colonel, a guy just one step away from being a general...on his hands and knees...in the mud, and looking for all the world like a wounded bear. He filled the only door opening, otherwise I swear I’d have taken off. I yelled, “Ah... ten...shun!” And as he got up on his feet, we were all standing, rigid as statues, eyes front...orinmy case, quivering.
He looked around, and I became aware of just how crappy our little hovel must have looked to him. We were all in GI shorts and undershirts. He yelled, “Who in the hell is in charge of this... this dump?”
“I, ah, I am, sir,” I said. I was near fainting.
“And just who the hell are you?”
“I gave him the standard GI answer. “Dick, Robert C., Corporal, sir.”
“Well, corporal, where in the hell are your guards? You’re supposed to be guarding the railroad bridge, aren’t you?”
“Ah... yes sir, but we guard it only during the hours of darkness, sir, that is.”
“I see. Well, that’s all changed now. You will post guards on it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”
“Sir, begging the colonel’s pardon, but my orders are to guard it during the hours of darkness only... sir.”
“Uh-huh. Well, Corporal, you now have new orders, or didn’t you understand what I just told you?”
“The four of us were still standing at attention, the colonel never having given us an “At ease” order.
“Yes, sir, I understand what you said, but I can only take orders from my commanding officer.”
“And, who is your commanding officer, Corporal?” responded the colonel most sarcastically.
“Well, sir...he’s Lieutenant Phillips...um...Pat Phillips... Second Lieutenant Phillips, that is. Sir.”
“Okay, and where is this commanding officer? I want very much to talk to him. Meantime, you might as well prepare to resume guard duty twenty-four hours a day. You’ll hear from meverysoon... Corporal.”
I gave him Pat’s phone number, which he proceeded to copy down into a small pocket notebook. He then got down on his hands and knees and gave us a view of his majestic butt as he squished through the mud on the way out. As soon as we heard his jeep engine start, we all relaxed, sat down on our cots, and everyone looked at me. I had just refused a full colonel’s orders. Oh, my God!