Chapter 21

Off to World War II

On July 7th, 1942, I left for the Army. I was surprised that my brother had taken a train from Utica, along with his girlfriend whom he later married, to see me off.

I took the Toonerville, a motorized coach named after a comic strip of the day. A group of us draftees proceeded to Dekalb Junction where we met a train on the main line.  From there we went to Fort Niagara. The Fort was an ancient group of brick buildings. We had stopped for a while before Niagara Falls, and I was naturally awed by it. It was the last natural wonder I was to see. The fort was a staging area, or "repple depple" as it was called by some. We did little there but receive our issue of uniforms and send our civilian clothing home.

Our next stop was Camp Lee, Virginia, for our basic training and determination of what branch of the Army we would be in. The Army then had little interest in what one did in civilian life - they arbitrarily decided that they needed so many truck drivers, so many infantry, etc. In my case they decided I should be a cook, and so that was what I was trained for.  Camp Lee was quite the worst place I had ever seen.  The heat was bad enough, but coupled with the humidity, it was almost unbearable.  I wrote Betty every day I was in the Army. At Camp Lee I had to wrap a towel around my arm while writing to keep my paper dry.  Everyone perspired copiously. When we had a march, especially with gas masks on, nearly half the men would pass out. The Army used a very effective psychology to keep the men in line. 

 A Demonstration in Discipline

We had the Articles of War read to us every week or so, and these articles mentioned various infringements against the military code and the corresponding punishment. Of course, the punishment was always a thousand times worse than the crime. It scared the hell out of us.

On one march we had stopped for a short break when a middle aged recruit hollered to the Colonel leading us "Let's get this show on the road. A lieutenant grabbed him and took him over to the officers where they conversed in low tones. The next morning when we were awakened, we found his bunk empty and his mattress rolled up. As he disappeared during the night, we were all apprehensive. For all we knew, he might have been taken out and shot. The non-coms knew nothing about it, and no one talked about it. When I think of it now, I suspect that the whole incident was staged. If so, it was very effective.

We trained on the rifle range with the Springfield m-1903 rifles. This rifle has been said to be the most reliable and accurate rifle the Army ever had, but it had a terrific kick. We wadded towels between our shoulders and the butt while firing, but still each time we fired we thought our shoulders were broken. I had forgotten to bring my glasses, but I had friends in the pits who gave me a passing score.

The water in Camp Lee was absolutely undrinkable.  Many of us suspected that they used the same mains for sewage and water. It tasted like it came from a swamp and was loaded with chemicals. I never drank any water in this camp, but loaded up with black tea in the mess hall, or else with soda from the PX. I worked at cooking school with a man from Philadelphia whose father owned a bakery. I became very popular in our barracks since each night when I was through I would bring a sack of raised doughnuts or berlins back with me for the boys.

 Transferred to Florida

After Basic Training and Cook School, I was shipped to Augusta, Georgia, to a small army air field where our group was told that our orders had been lost, and they did not know what to do with us. I worked in the kitchen there. We had a lot of time and the job was very easy. After about a month we were moved again, this time to Drew Field, outside Tampa, Florida.

Of the original group from Ogdensburg, only two of us were left: Willard Davison and myself. We were attached to the 903rd Quartermasters of the 3rd Air Force. My schooling had been in vain since we worked in a large warehouse and cold storage plant in town, where we unloaded produce and quarters of meat from railroad cars and made up orders for the various kitchens at Drew and McDill Field, also near Tampa. In a surprisingly short time, two large cold storage plants were built on the base, and we no longer used the one in town.

When we first came to Drew, it was a very small field. We were near the main gate, but sometimes we would take a back road to Sulpher Springs, a suburb of Tampa, and this road went through miles of swamp. A year later I traveled this same road and there were miles and miles of barracks and other buildings with no sign of the swamp. The new construction was a complete surprise to me. From a few thousand at first, the Field grew to more than thirty thousand men with a runway twenty miles long.  Many of the men at Drew were from the Signal Corps, and some of their installations had high fences with guards patrolling outside the perimeter.  Their work was very top secret, but rumors around the base mentioned RADAR, which meant absolutely nothing to us. In fact, it was not until the war was over that it was finally explained.

 Not Even a Whisper

The secrecy in the armed forces then would be unbelievable today. Soldiers would not talk about what they did unless it was to men in their own outfit.  For instance the hangers of the airfield were directly across the street from us, but you were not allowed to cross the street. Armed guards patrolled it. About half a block down the street, between some hangers there was a large pile of wrecked planes about thirty feet high. From the condition of some of them, many boys must have been killed, yet not a whisper ever circulated. If you formed any opinions about what went on around you, you kept them to yourself. Even outgoing mail would be examined. This, of course, made it difficult to write home, since there was so little you could discuss.

At first, the field was used by pursuit planes. But as the runways lengthened, heavy bombers were brought in. Anti-aircraft drill was engaged in quite often, but I doubt that there were many hits. They used p-38's, which had a speed of about 450 miles an hour. They came over in at treetop level, and by the time the gunners knew where they were, they had disappeared over the horizon in back of them.

To show the discipline in the Army at that time, the following incident is perhaps worth telling. A lot of new recruits came into the Army at Drew, and as guard duty was part of their training, their commanding officers would try to find objectives for them to guard. We came to work one morning, and there were five railroad cars of beef drawn up to the platform which had to be unloaded immediately. To our consternation, a young recruit on guard duty had been ordered to allow no one to approach these cars unless he had orders to the contrary. All of us had had guard duty and realized his dilemma. So our Sergeant contacted the Major in charge of the Quartermaster Department. The Major ordered the recruit to allow the cars to be unloaded, but the guard refused. In a short time the platform was loaded with Captains and Lieutenants. Although the young man was obviously terrified at the sight of all this brass, he refused to yield. It was necessary to send for his commanding officer to come down and personally relieve him before we could proceed. Although the incident caused a serious delay, even the officers were amused, and we all admired him for his pluck.

 Meeting Distant Relatives

I was fortunate in that I had some relatives in Tampa. A daughter of my Grandfather Como's brother had married a man named Everett Todd, and he owned a small factory in Tampa where he manufactured venetian blinds and battery separators. My aunt in Utica had given me her address, and one Sunday I went to their home and made myself known.

They were very glad to see me, and I had a standing invitation to drop in at any time.  They had a beautifully landscaped place. The factory was at the back end of their lot, while between the house and the factory they had placed several pools which contained goldfish and other tropical fish which were quite large. They had every conceivable type of palm tree. There was also a plant which I believe was called Spanish Bayonet. I greatly feared this plant and wondered why anyone would want it in their yard. It was perhaps six feet high and had very hard leaves which ended in needle points. Had anyone blundered into this plant in the dark he would have been skewered like a shish-ka-bob.

I spent every Sunday, which was my day off, at their place, and met some of the best families of Tampa. Luckily, since we were not permitted to appear in any clothes but our uniforms, they had little idea of my humble beginnings, and I felt at home with all of them. Their son, also named Everett, belonged to the police pistol team, which at that time was the best in the United States. I would go with him to the police pistol range for practice. Since larger ammunition was hard to come by then, most of the members would modify their pistols to take smaller ammunition, usually a .22 barrel in a .32 or .38 frame.

The guns were superbly balanced and cost a great deal. All had been reworked by local gunsmiths to suit the owners. At first, I did very poorly on the range. Everyone used the typical police stance then, which consisted of putting your left hand on your hip and your right hand far out in line with the target while your body was also in line with the target. I finally placed the pistol barrel on my left wrist to steady it and did quite well in spite of my cousin's dislike of my unorthodox position.