DIARY ENTRY #16

 

 

HOMEWARD BOUND

By Don R. Marsh

 

 

10 September 1945

Bad Orb , Germany .

 

Larry Hull and Doug Donahue and I had said our final goodbyes. Home addresses exchanged and promises made to keep in touch after we each get home. I’ve been with these two men well over a year through good and bad times – in a true sense, they are my brothers and I’ll miss them. But time now to hop in the back of the truck taking me along with others to the port embarkation staging area. There are two located in France . One is at Marseilles and the other at LeHavre. The anticipation and wait will soon be over as fast as the boat will take us home. As the truck crossed the French border headed south, by reading the road signs I knew Marseilles would be my destination – unfortunately as it developed.

 

Our truck pulled into a tent city on the far outskirts of the city in a wooded area in the middle of nowhere, known as the Calais Staging Area. The camp was bare-bones no frills temporary establishment out in the boondocks with the bare minimum of necessities – tents and out door latrines with a cold water tap. Cold water showers were available to those brave enough to withstand the chills. Many decided to forego the pleasure. Processing began immediately as we were assigned to the 102nd Evacuation Hospital . Fifteen years later in Korea it would be redefined as a “MASH” unit for field surgeries. Now it was just a shell, without any nurses, but still staffed by the male medical officers who would be our superiors on the ship to the USA .

 

Most of us had retained much of the German Occupational currency we carried when the US Postal and Army authorities, without notice, shut down the conduit of obtaining Post Money Orders used to ship funds home. The 102nd Finance Officer would permit us to exchange, but not to exceed, precisely the maximum payroll amount we had drawn each month since the inception of the Occupational payroll currency. Our payroll records were checked against the exchange. This did not include any Occupation currency other than that printed by the US Army. The mandatory first digit in the serial number being a numeral “1.” Any other Occupation currency was unacceptable. This sum total amount was then converted to US dollars; leaving most of us who had dealt on the black market stuck holding several hundred dollars of worthless Occupation German marks. We greeted new GIs arriving in camp from the States with a fist full of German marks and told them to spend it as they pleased when they got to Germany . It was our “going away” present.

 

The next surprise was approving weapons we were bringing home as war trophies. We were all assigned to 12 man squad tents with wooden floors containing folding canvas cots. At an unannounced early morning roll call, we were ordered to standby for an inspection. We called it the “junk-on-the-bunk” routine (harassment) by having to empty our duffel bag on the cot. Several officers went through everything laid out confiscating all US Army military weapons – mainly .45 automatic pistols. If you had a weapon other than an Army issue, you were required to declare it a “War Trophy” and register it on a US Customs form, witnessed by a 102nd officer, including the manufacturer’s name and the serial number of the weapon. I registered my Walther P-38 pistol as a legitimate captured enemy weapon. Upon later research, from the serial number I was able to determine that the Spreewerk Metallwaren , Berlin , made my pistol in 1941. To preclude the danger of having it stolen, during the day I wore it in a shoulder holster under my tank jacket 24/7. I slept with it next to my head in my GI army cot. When taking a shower I would ask a trusted friend to keep an eye on it and my wallet. GIs are known to steal things.

 

Those trying to bring home the prized German Schmeisser machine pistol (burp gun) were stopped from doing so and the weapon confiscated. We were also warned that if you were caught trying to smuggle an unauthorized weapon aboard ship you would be court-martialed and your trip home delayed. No one wanted to risk that and items were turned in with no questions asked. We also had to turn in any ammunition for the weapons we were permitted to retain. They made this check on weapons squeaky-clean. I knew of no one stupid enough to risk taking a chance and missing the boat home – not for any reason!

Passing Gas & Time

 

The 20-days remaining of September passed and when October arrived, frustration began to set in. Why the delay? Where are the boats? What’s taking so long to get us moving? Nobody had any answers as anger resulted in the pent up GIs acting stupid at night by burning the wooden tables we sat at to eat and the wooden structures designed to hold our metal helmets to use as washbasins. The Camp Commander , a bull Colonel, put the word out that if the fires continued he would lock the camp down and no one would depart for any reason. So the hot heads had to cool it.

 

 By now the weather turned bad. It was very cold at night in the tents without any source of heat. To add to the misery and frustration, we experienced a lot of rain confining us to the indoors of the small tents. To break the monotony, some would roam the perimeter of the camp fence where the local prostitutes offered their services – the going price? One pack of American cigarettes for oral sex. The fear of becoming infected with a venereal disease and being scratched from a boat shipment served to enforce the abstinence rule.

 

The full month of October passed and still no information of when we would ship out. We wondered how much longer we would have to wait. Finally, on November 4th, we were told tomorrow was the day. Everyone was up early and packed raring to go on the BIG day. Semi-cab trucks with open stake-bed trailers were loaded to capacity to haul us down to the docks. As we drove through the city of Marseilles , a young teenage punk who appeared to be one of the thousands of Moroccan immigrants living in the dock area slums finished eating his apple and flung the remains at us. It hit me flush in the face. He stood there without moving and laughed. At this point in my life, he could have thrown his feces at me without any danger other than my passive reaction – I was leaving this miserable unwanted part of his world behind, but he had to remain. Ungrateful bastards. If France needed an enema, they could insert the tube right there in Marseilles .

 

The Cruise Ship

 

We arrived down at the docks to see a single ship tied up awaiting our arrival. I could not believe my eyes – another God damn Liberty ship with the name of Charles Goodyear. My recollection of shipping out of Brooklyn in 1943 on another Liberty ship, the George Sharswood, brought back grim memories. This ship was the same as the other except it was built for WSAT (War Shipping Administration Transport) as a non-cargo troop carrying ship, USAT (US Army Transport) class EC2-S-C1. It was built in the Oregon Shipping Corporation - Kaiser Boatyards at Vancouver , Washington on hull #0587. It was designed to hold 550 troops with 5-tier rows of bunks. It was also used to carry German prisoners to the USA – only in numbers totaling 308 prisoners. Indicating the POWs had more personal room than the American soldier by comparison. It was a small sea going vessel measuring 441 feet long, a beam of 57 feet and a draft of 27 feet below the water line. The two steam boilers were rated at a top speed maximum 11 knots with a single propeller. This tub was not going to set any Atlantic speed records – far from it.

 

The medical officers from the 102nd shared the topside rooms that had been reserved for the US Naval gun crews during the war and now absent. We were in the holds in the tiered bunks as the ship pulled away from the docks headed out into the Mediterranean Sea for the Straits of Gibraltar and the open sea. The ship had to pause to take on water for ballast as it wallowed from side to side making very little forward progress. Day one was November 5, 1945. I do not believe the ship ever reached the maximum speed capable of 11 knots at any time during this long voyage. More and likely the speed was closer to 5 knots per hour.

 

Naturally, gambling was the primary method of breaking the monotony. For others, such as myself, I found a comfortable place topside to sit and reflect – reviewing my notations of where I had been and what had happened in the past two years I had spent overseas. The sights, sounds and even smells were recalled each step of the way that would never be forgotten – not to mention the faces of those who weren’t coming back.

 

I was deep in thought about going home as I switched off that memory of the recent past and began to think of what might I expect when I arrived home. I knew nothing ever remains the same and knew there would be changes. Both the world and I had changed.  At the same time, I was well aware that my personality and rationale had also undergone a change. The expression “You can’t go home” fits in here perfectly. The home you once knew no longer exists – physically or mentally.

 

 

In Limbo

 

Lingering in the back of my mind, I had a “slight problem” I would have to deal with upon arriving home. During my first furlough home in February 1943, two years prior, I foolishly acquiesced to an unplanned engagement to my attractive nineteen year old Italian girlfriend, with whom I had been intimately involved, prior to enlisting. It was one more glaring example of my folly of youth. Upon arriving home, agreeing to cut the Gordian knot after a two year absence would not prove to be too difficult for either of us, as it developed.

 

There was a lot of uncertainty I had to reconcile at the appropriate time. I set it all aside and let the world go by, counting my good fortune – I’m a survivor coming home, even though it was on a very slow boat. On deck with my thoughts to myself, the fresh salt air and sunshine served to clear my head so that I was able to take stock of where I had been; in addition to what I had done and where I might be headed Rather than be overly concerned with the unforeseeable events in the future, I really did not contemplate any long-range thoughts. Not knowing what the future would hold (Destiny held all the cards) it all could wait until I arrived home and I would sort them all out one by one. The Army had taught me what would become a life long problem-solver – “Take ‘em one at a time.”

 

 

Sixteen days after we departed France we pulled into the Boston harbor on November 21st – two days shorter than my trip going overseas. Trucks met us at the dock and transported us to Fort Devens , Massachusetts for processing. The first night on post we were treated to a steak dinner served on the line by the cooks who were German POWs. By the noticeable size of their well-fed girth, they must have been prisoners for more than a single year. Perhaps Frau Decker’s son was one of them? All were fat and seemed very happy in the land of plenty. Why not, there was very little to eat in their Fatherland and wouldn’t be for several years.

 

On the 23rd they sorted us out and loaded us on to trains headed to all parts of the country. The troop train I was on left late in the day, but I was too keyed-up and unable to sleep as my mind wandered. I sat up and remained awake all night just staring out the window at the beautiful sight of seeing towns, villages, homes, city streets illuminated with bright lights after two years of total darkness. This was one of the many small simple pleasures of life taken for granted that I had missed.

 

The End of the Road

 

We arrived in Chicago the next morning, the 24th and later at the military depot adjoining Fort Sheridan , Illinois . The same place I had enlisted at three years prior. It was cold with snow on the ground, but we didn’t feel it as we were too emotionally charged by this time. I was wound as tight as a drum. As soon as we were assigned quarters and fed, they started the paper work mill of processing. Everything had to be checked and double-checked; first by the NCOs and then signed off by the responsible officer of each section beginning with the medical department, supply, personnel and last the finance department. The morning of the 25th involved more processing, typically everything was done “by-the-numbers” and they cut the hurry-up-and-wait time to a minimum in between moving from one building to another.

 

The last day, November 26th was the final check out with the clerks typing the Enlisted Record and Report of Separation (Form DD214) with all the essential information required. Included with the person’s service time, overseas time, grade at discharge, awards and decorations and the important finance data. I received $2.95 travel pay to my home of record and $399.99 Separation Pay.

 

Other than the clothes I needed to wear going home, I declined any offer of my clothing. The one exception was that I had to surrender my tank jacket, which I had wished to retain, but would not let that single item stand in my way of receiving that piece of paper I long sought – my Honorable Discharge from the Army! The sun had gone down when they finished all of my records, paid me in full and wished me good luck. I quickly made the short walk to the train station and began my return to civilian life once more.

 

Had I been able to have foreseen the future, back then I might have reenlisted in Major General Ernest Harmon’s post war Regular Army, the Army of Occupation of Germany Constabulary; rather than having accepted the discharge and reenlisting later.

 

Adios amigos. It has been one helluva experience of life.

Mister Don R. Marsh

 

 

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The Marsh Family Trust.