DIARY ENTRY # 18

 

CROSSING THE RUBICON

By Don R. Marsh

 

 

The “war to end all wars” was over, the welcome home parades and merriment of the returning servicemen had long come to close; finally it was time to get back to “normalcy.” A whole new era was commencing. The country had returned to civilian employment and thousands of ex-service persons sought education in the higher institutions under the GI Bill of Rights. Lacking further personal interest in academic achievements, I declined the use of this gratuitous extraordinary veteran’s benefit and my pursuits soon turned to other interests.

 

 The weeks passed by rapidly and soon turned to months. I knew that I was drifting aimlessly without a goal or motivation. Something was missing. For some, myself included, the return to civilian life had become very dull and boring. After having seen New York City , London , Paris , Berlin and other European places that I had only read about, Racine was a dismal place to think of spending the remainder of my life working in industry with a two week vacation every year. I yearned to see the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii , Los Angeles , San Francisco , the Rocky Mountains , the Great Northwest and other parts of the world. The wanderlust in me wanted to escape, but I needed to find the resources.

 

My meeting with the local Army Recruiting Sergeant at our VFW Club was more than just circumstance – it had to be fate. This was to be my means to depart from this rust belt industrial small hick town. The nomadic military life and camaraderie once again beckoned. I heard the “Lorelei’s call” and I made what many thought was a questionable decision to re-enlist in the Army to become a Military Escort on special assignment.

 

 The Sarge had informed me of a new Army program about to be set into motion. The 80th congress in May 1946 and passed into Public Law No. 599 in a repatriation program for soldiers who had been temporarily buried overseas during the war.  The families and next of kin were given these options:

 

1.      Internment of the remains in a permanent American Military Cemetery overseas.

2.      Returning the remains to the United States for internment in a private cemetery.

3.      Return of the remains to the United States for interment in a National Cemetery .

4.      Interment of the remains in a private cemetery overseas.

 

Among the notables buried in overseas cemeteries are: General Patton is buried in Luxembourg among his troops. General Maurice Rose is buried in Margraten, The Netherlands. Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Mart Bailey, Jr. is buried at St. Laurent , Omaha Beach , Normandy , France . Today the Military Cemeteries overseas hold thousands of the fallen soldiers lost in WWII in which the families declined to have their remains returned home: Brittany, France 4,410; Cambridge, England 3,812; St. Laurent-sur-Mer, Omaha Beach, Normandy, France 9,386; Netherlands 8,302; Henri-Chapelle, France 7,989; Ardennes, Belgium 5,328; Luxembourg 5,076; Lorraine, Moselle, France 10,489; Epinal, Vosges, France 5,255; Sicily-Rome, Nettuno, Italy 7,862; North Africa, Carthage, Tunisia 2,841; Rhone, Var, France 861; Florence, Italy 4,402 and in the Pacific the Manila Cemetery 17,206. In addition to the World War One cemeteries in Belgium and France.

 

Once you cross the Rubicon, there is no return.

 

 A new session of my life was about to begin; but soon after reporting for duty at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, in reality it almost seemed as though I had never left the Army. The post war Regular Army had now been drastically reduced in numbers evolved from the millions of men called to duty via the Selective Service call up. The draftees had all been discharged and those who remained in uniform were now all volunteers. It was a radical experience to compare the two time periods. All military branches were ordered to become integrated. Gone were the 90 day wonders and misfit officers. This “new army” would thankfully never take on the appearance of the pre-WWII “old army”; also the hectic days of WWII were also a part of history. However, this new peacetime Army was very much the same as the old Army SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) that I knew during the war, in one respect – “hurry up and wait.” The more things are said to change, the more they appear to be the same. Only the pace, at times, was much slower and unhurried. These people were marking time – until the next call to arms; it would come sooner than anyone expected, June 25, 1950 on the Pusan Peninsula of South Korea.

 

Processing in was a repeat performance of filling out forms and drawing all new uniforms once again. No more living in the temporary war time wooden barracks, but assignment to the permanent Parade Ground brick buildings built at the turn of the century for the Artillery Brigade. These were the very same buildings in which my father was quartered in during World War One, only now upgraded with modern conveniences. In the beginning, while the Escort Company Table of Organization was being nationally recruited many vacancies remained unfilled. As the nucleus of the first troops with the Cadre, we were only required to report for morning roll call and then the remainder of the day was spent on sports activities and personal free time.

 

The word had been sent out to all commands across the USA for qualified applicants to apply for this selective and honored duty, the need of military escorts to return the bodies of the fallen soldiers from their overseas temporary burial military cemeteries to their home of record or a National Cemetery . In time the Company rapidly filled the T/O vacancies with Regular Army decorated combat vets. Prior service in a combat unit was a basic requirement needed to apply. The T/O was not bound by rank restriction, only numbers. At one period we had thirty-seven (37) NCOs wearing First Sergeants chevrons on the double over-sized company roster; with numerous Masters, Sergeants First Class in addition to Staffs and Bucks. Many had formerly served as Company Grade officers during the war and accepted grade reduction to Master, Sergeant First Class or Staff Sergeant to enlist upon reentry. Former commissioned fighter pilots returned as Staff Sergeants.

 

My section of the barracks was the domain of First Sergeant Lyle W. Stevens, a grizzled Old Soldier in the Old Army who was captured on Corregidor ; where he was awarded two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star and the Purple Heart all within two weeks before the island capitulated to the Japanese on May 6, 1942. He spent the remainder of the war in a prison of war camp at Hokkaido , Japan . Our Chief of Operations, Master Sergeant Forrest H. Kelly, had served in the Air Corps with the rank of Lt. Colonel during WWII. With the post war Reduction In Force in effect, he accepted the rank of Master Sergeant to complete his 30 year career, for pension purposes.

 

Another decorated combat soldier was Sergeant First Class John R. Rice; “K” Company of the 126th Infantry Regiment of the famous 32nd Infantry Division, one of few men entitled to wear 4 stars on the Asiatic Pacific Ribbon. He was a Winnebago Indian, assigned to escort the remains of the Native American Indian soldiers as needed. The Army’s policy was to assign an Escort by rank, race and religion whenever possible.

 

Our Commander, Colonel John L. Turner, Artillery, who had risen from the ranks after enlisting as a Private in World War One, conducted the final interview of applicants, which required his personal approval for acceptance. I’ll never forget his final question after inquiring what combat unit I had served in during the war. I was standing at attention in front of his desk when he asked, “Soldier, can you go three or four days without taking a drink (meaning hard liquor)?” In a firm voice, I answered, “Yes, Sir!” Drinking, while on assignment escorting the remains, was a Cardinal sin and would be dealt with severe disciplinary action we were told.

 

Having met the basic qualifications and after having passed the screening process, I was sent to attend a special  Fifth Army school with daily training sessions at the American Graves Registration Service, Distribution Center No. 8 , Chicago Quartermaster Depot at 1749 West Pershing Road, Chicago, Illinois. Classes were conducted in all phases ranging from examining the casket for odors emanating from the hermetically sealed bronze casket, folding the flag into a triangle with only the stars on the blue background visible, maintaining constant exemplary personal conduct, meeting with the grieving family, obtaining a signature of release on the government forms and documents, performing functions at the military funerals and what to expect in train travel. Although the casket was shipped in the baggage car in a flag draped shipping case; we were issued tickets for either a sleeping car or coach, depending on the distance traveled.  It was drilled into us that it was our responsibility to arrive at the destination together. That meant close coordination with the conductor on every train to prevent being separated from the baggage car. Wherever that baggage car went – you went, regardless of the time of day or night. Lose that casket and you were gone!

 

Just prior to the end of the classroom work we were offered one last chance to drop out of the course, without prejudice, due to the potential psychological effect the duty would entail with the highly emotional circumstances of the assignment. I successfully passed all school requirements to become a military escort assigned to the Fifth Army Headquarters in Chicago .

 

Money was never a motivational factor to me, so by serving in this capacity I was giving back to my friends Bob Rosenberg, Norm Steele and Lowell Dillard who were Killed In Action and didn’t return. Some of my assignments were to escort the remains of men from my hometown, Racine , Wisconsin and in doing so, I knew members of the soldiers’ families, which made the duty all the more challenging. I was on the road with another assignment when my nephew, PFC Gilbert Lindgren, was returned for burial in Racine , or I would have been assigned that daunting task.

 

God and the Soldier, all men adore in the time of danger and not before,

When danger is past and all things righted God is forgotten and the Soldier slighted. Anon.

 

At every burial ceremony I witnessed the reopening of the emotional heart-wrenching pain of the widows, Gold Star Mothers and family members of the men lost. If requested by the family, I would attend the burial ceremony if a military funeral were to be conducted. After the firing squads had fired their volleys, the bugler would blow Taps; then with the assistance of one pallbearer I would fold the flag in the blue triangle with only the white stars visible and present it to the next of kin. The family – grief stricken, sat there sobbing and numb as I placed the flag in the outstretched hands of the recipient. I had to steel myself so as not to lose my composure. I always made eye contact as I said to them by rote, “I present this flag as a token of appreciation from a grateful nation.” Adding my personal regrets, I would render a sharp hand salute, do an about face and exit to find the hearse for a ride back to the city – and another assignment. Often new escorts made only the initial trip and asked to be relieved, unable to handle the emotional and psychological stress of their first experience.

 

I would have on average one trip a week, depending on the distance involved. Local trips in Chicago and suburban areas were made by an Army ambulance to deliver the casket to a local funeral home. My assignment trips by rail ranged from winter bitter cold of the flatlands of North Dakota and Minnesota to sweltering summer humid heat of south Mississippi and Texas , plus all the mid-western states in between. Our per diem was five dollars per day for our meals – all three of them! Dining car stewards would cringe when I handed them the military meal ticket for a paltry $1.25 per meal, which they were obliged by law to accept.

 

During the frequent lulls between receiving boat load/rail shipments from the overseas military cemeteries to the AGRS Depot, we were given generous time off as “verbal passes” for R & R. I was also active on the Post’s seasonal basketball and baseball teams in season to stay in shape. Early morning physical training workouts running up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline banks gave us vigorous workouts. That was until the wife of the Fifth Army Commanding General, Lt. General Walton H. Walker complained that we shouted cadence too loudly while passing their lake front residence on Post. Apparently, the lady was not an early morning riser as we were accustomed to doing. We rerouted the lake bank drill to accommodate her wishes.

 

General Walker and the ranking Admiral from the Great Lakes Naval Station made an inspection of the Graves Registration and Quartermaster Depot facilities and the hand picked group of military escorts, including our 5012 ASU Military Escort Company, plus a large contingent of Marine Corps senior non-coms and another large group of Navy Chief Petty Officers—all former combat veterans. When the Admiral and General Walker “trooped the line,” General Walker, having served as a former armored force commander of the XX Corps in the 3rd Army under General Patton, stopped when he noticed my Belgian Fourragere decoration and 2nd Armored Division shoulder patch. He asked, “Sergeant, what unit were you with in the 2nd?” I replied that I served in Headquarters Combat Command “A” under Brigadier Generals Rose and Collier. He said, “Two good men.” and moved on down the line of inspection.

 

After a few months of this solemn duty under my belt, I wrote to several of my former ex-Army buddies from the 2nd Armored Division that I had re-upped, with the intention of becoming a “lifer.” They could not believe it! To a man, they asked, “What the hell were you thinking?” I could only answer, “To each his own.”

 

“This is the life we chose.” Don Corelone, The Godfather

 

 

Publication or reproduction, in part or whole, is prohibited without written

permission from the author, Don R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property of

The Marsh Family Trust.  

 

 

CROSSING THE RUBICON, PART II, 1947-1948-1949

By Don R. Marsh

 

RENDERING A FINAL SALUTE

 

            Out of respect and due to the sensitivity of this article, the names, dates, and hometowns of the soldiers’ remains whom I escorted in the years 1947, 1948 and 1949 shall remain anonymous. During this lengthy tour of duty, I kept a record of each of my assignments with the soldier’s name, rank, serial number, unit, date and place of death; in addition to the Graves Registration Control number of the soldier’s remains.

                                                                                                                                   

 During my three years as a Military Escort at military funerals, I witnessed every conceivable emotion possible, from heart wrenching pathos to disgust with human behavior; with  majority falling somewhere in between. More often as not, many of the families were honestly grief stricken when the casket arrived home for burial and did not attempt to suppress the emotional drain. Parents hold back the sorrow until the sight of their loved one being carried from the hearse to the chapel or funeral parlor. Then the full realization hits home again that this is their lost loved one in that bronze flag covered casket.

 

At the grave site, a few weep uncontrollably and grasp the casket to lay their head on the blue field of the flag to cling one more time as a final goodbye to their lost son, father or brother. Others may be stoic without much, if any, show of emotion. How they manage to accomplish that facade always mystified me. But there are always exceptions to the rule. The men, whose remains that I escorted for their final journey, could not possibly have ever imagined the unbecoming personal conduct of their next of kin and relatives in their supposed time of sorrow and grief.

 

The soldiers’ remains to whom I was assigned to escort home were Killed In Action or Died of Wounds or Injuries in places all over the world; ranging from Australia, Austria, Bataan, Burma, Brazil, China, England, France, Germany, Hawaii, Italy, Leyte, Philippine Islands, New Guinea, North Africa, Okinawa, and Sicily.

 

            My trips for their reinterment here in the USA were to Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin. The men ranged from Air Corps flying personnel, infantrymen, artillerymen and tankers. Some were airborne troopers and some were ordinary GIs. Many were from units who fought alongside my division (2nd Armored Division) in the invasion of the Normandy Beachhead, at St. Lo, in the forests of Belgium , in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes and in the cities of Germany in the closing days of the war. The largest numbers of remains being returned were from the European Theatre. The Air Corps GIs met death over the skies of Austria , Belgium , England , France , India , Italy , and Germany . Others died of Wounds in American Army Hospitals. All made the supreme sacrifice.

 

            The program back then received a great deal of publicity as compared to today’s (2006) unannounced casket laden C-54 flights into Dover AFB where photographers are not permitted to show the multiple rows of flag covered caskets arriving without fanfare or mention in the media. Back in 1947 when the bodies first returned the nation paid open tribute to the funerals held across the country, war had touched all communities including small hamlets.

 

My first trip was to a small northern Illinois village. The young soldier had married just before shipping overseas and left a young widow and a grieving family. The funeral director met me at the rail station when our train arrived in town with the casket. The flag draped shipping case was taken to the funeral home where a service was held the next day as they had been sent advance notice of our arrival date and time. The whole village turned out for the graveside service. The local veterans groups had provided the seven man firing squad, pall bearers and a bugler as the local news photographer snapped pictures.

 

            After the chaplain said his piece, the firing squad  shocked those standing near the three volleys from the rifles, the bugler sounded Taps and I stepped up to fold the flag with the assistance of one pall bearer who held the blue star field of the flag. Folded neatly, the flag in the blue triangle with just the white stars visible lay flat in my white gloved hands as I bent down to hand the flag to the young widow’s outstretched hands. I addressed her by name and made eye contact, then said, “I present this flag as an appreciation from a grateful nation.” Then added, “My personal regrets for your loss.”  With that, I stood at attention, rendered her a hand salute, did an about face and stepped off to the side.

 

            Technically, my job was done, except to secure a ride back to the funeral home. The widow had asked that I ride in her car behind the hearse going to the cemetery, so I had planned on riding back with the hearse driver, only to learn that he was the first to drive off without waiting for me. When the small crowd had finished offering their condolences to her, she saw me standing there and beckoned for me to join her in the car provided by the funeral home. She reached out to take my arm with the flag under her other arm. Reaching the car, I opened the rear door for her and she slid in and mentioned for me to sit next to her, which I accepted. She nonchalantly tossed the flag in the other corner and set back as she started a conversation with a smile by asking, “Do you have a girl friend and where are you from?” To say I was surprised was putting it mildly.

 

Was this small talk or was this “lonely widow” hitting on me? I assumed the former and played it straight, arriving moments later at the funeral home where I exited the car and excused myself to speak with the funeral home director standing on the steps to the office. The last thing I needed was a formal complaint from a widow on my very first assignment! The perils of being in the cross hairs of a young widow! This was a wake up call for future trips to come. The eye-opening lesson learned was that not all widows were distraught over the death of her soldier husband; perhaps the marriage was the result of a brief war time romance where love also became a casualty in the passage of time.

 

Shortly after, the Commanding Officer of Fort Sheridan, Illinois received a letter from the village leader complimenting me on my military bearing and conduct as a representative of his post and the US Army under solemn conditions. This was the first of many such compliments I received after facing unusual circumstances and conditions I found in performing my duty.

 

The winter months made our experiences far from what one would expect conducting travel and funeral dispositions in inclement weather. On my wife’s birthday, December 7th, I arrived at a rail train-head in North Dakota after dark. Jersey Joe Walcott was fighting Joe Louis that night, on TV, only I missed it. The only person there to meet me was an old man who was the sole caretaker of that train station. The funeral home’s hearse had not arrived as yet, so the two of us unloaded the shipping case carrying the casket onto a baggage cart. The old man noticed I was shivering asked what was wrong and expressed amazement when I told him it was too damn cold. He admonished me by saying, “Why, hell soldier, it ain’t even started to get cold around here. It is only fourteen (14) below zero!” I could hardly wait to leave the frozen north on that trip.

 

Two weeks later, the week before Christmas, found me in Green Bay , Wisconsin , escorting the remains of a soldier from the 83rd Infantry Division killed in the Battle of the Bulge, a division on our flank at the time. I was staying in the Hotel Northland, one of the better hotels in the city and went down to dinner in the Dining Room, was seated and started reading the menu. Those were in the days of our $5 a day total for all three meals. I winced as I looked at the prices facing me. When the waitress came to take my order, I must have looked uncomfortable in uniform where the prices were too steep for my pay grade, I said, “Just give me a hamburger and coffee.” All escorts wear a black arm ban covering the left arm chevrons, so one would know I was a stranger in town returning the war dead. It wasn’t long before she returned with a huge plate containing the largest T-bone steak I’ve ever seen. I told her she made a mistake as that was someone else’s order. “No mistake, soldier, one of the Packers football team is here in the room and is paying your bill. Enjoy your meal.” I have been a Packers fan ever since!

 

Facing the family of men from your hometown is daunting. I escorted a former high school classmate who was killed at Percy , France during the St. Lo Break Out on 30 July 1944. He was an Infantryman in the 29th Infantry Division who along with our division that broke through the German defenses. The losses on both sides were horrific in that battle that lasted for days until the Germans were forced to retreat. The family looked at me and the thought must surely cross their minds with the humane rationale, “Why him and not you?” The uncomfortable self-imposed guilt is crushing. Another, was the brother of a close high school classmate, Loggie, I’ll call him. His brother was shot down in a bomber crew over the Brenner Pass, Italy weeks before the war in Germany ended. Bad enough watching a grown man cry over the loss of a family member, but gut wrenching when the man is a close friend. Words simply fail you at a time like that, and I was at a total loss of words in an attempt to comfort him.

 

The ultimate in sadness is when I escorted a soldier who was the only child of an elderly widow, without any other next of kin. This woman was totally alone in the world without a living blood relative. Can you imagine the pain and despair of her loss? Yet, she showed me compassion as a soldier and tried to make my job less difficult as humanly possible. She remarked I was also a mother’s son serving his country, as her only son did. Her softness contrasted that of the Chicago tough guy I ran into.

 

 I escorted the remains of a young Italian-American soldier to a Chicago West Side funeral home in the heart of Little Italy. He was killed in Germany in 1945 while serving with the 83rd Infantry Division. When the Army ambulance drove us to the funeral home, on arrival the director called the next of kin. He walked in and I introduced myself as the escort, saying, “I am the escort for your brother.” That was as far as I got, as he cut me off and said, “Dat ain’t my brother—dat’s a fucking box.” This character with the bent nose was a local version of Tony Soprano. Next he said, “Let’s open up da fucking box and see what’s in dere.” Part of our training was to attempt to discourage the family from opening the hermetically sealed casket, for obvious traumatic reasons. Nothing I said changed his mind and he adamantly made it clear that it was his decision to do as he damned well pleased “wid da fucking box.”” Even the Italian funeral director’s words fell on deaf ears.

 

 Tough Tony had heard a rumor that during World War One that the Army faked the bodies sent home by substituting filled sand bags for a corpse and he wanted to see for himself what the “box” contained. I knew from training what to expect, but he didn’t. One thing I did know was that I hoped to hell the Army didn’t screw it up or my ass was dead meat! They removed the numerous Philip head screws from the lid and found the remains wrapped and strapped inside. The tough guy was satisfied and I was on my way with my signed documents. Thankfully, I never encountered another person like him in my assignments.

 

Every escort had unusual experiences that we exchanged during our breaks. Only one escort temporarily “lost the body” – a Sergeant First Class from the 82nd Airborne lost the casket when the baggage cars were switched in St. Louis . They eventually located the missing remains and the two arrived late at their destination. We never saw the Sergeant again as he was immediately transferred out.

 

Stranger things than that occur while escorting the remains. One of my trips had taken me to Fort Snelling , Minnesota to a National Cemetery burial that was sparsely attended. As a matter of fact, except for myself, the Chaplain, the firing squad, the bugler and the widow and her mother-in-law, no one else was present. The Fort’s burial detail went through their paces; I folded the flag and turned to present it to the widow. Then all hell broke loose. The mother-in-law, seeing the widow receive the flag, shouted at her, “You whore!” The widow countered with, “You bitch!” and then she dropped the flag and they got into a fist fight with pulling each other’s hair and cursing. The soldier’s flagless casket remained on the vault lowering device over the open grave as everybody started to scatter. I left them there battling each other as I headed for the hearse that brought me out to the Cemetery. I was the designated escort, not a referee.

 

My final escort assignment was a first and last -- a group burial of three “unknowns.” Three airmen died in an airplane crash at Barrackpore , India . Aboard were one 2nd Lieutenant, one Flight Officer and one Private First Class. The remains recovered from the wreckage were unidentified individually, but were certified as the crew members from flight records. The Army Air Corps decided to place a set of remain in a separate casket for each member and proposed a group burial to their families. Two officers represented the Lieutenant and the FO. I was the Escort for the Private. The next of kin of the three soldiers chose Grand Rapids, Michigan as a central part of the country as their final resting place with a grave marker bearing all three names. Fitting they served together, crashed and died together and were buried together for eternity.

 

One thing that sticks in my mind was the way in which the patriotism waned in the three short years. In 1947 when the program first started everybody volunteered to assist with the burial details. The city mayors would show up with other dignitaries to have their photos taken for the newspapers. The seven man firing squads always had back-ups available on short notice. Buglers were easy to find. But in, 1949, the third and final year it was difficult to round up enough men, to the point where I would go to the VFW and American Legion club houses to ask for support.

 

In the three years of this honored and solemn duty, many men served in our Escort Company. Some stayed and many moved on after but a few trips. Our over-sized Company swelled to 603 assigned on 31 January 1949 at the peak of the program. At the deactivation of the 5012th ASU, Escort Company, Fort Sheridan , Illinois on 20 October 1949, we had escorted the remains of 22,326 soldiers through the Chicago Depot.

 

Ironically, a large percent of the Regular army men who served as Escorts would be in combat in less than nine months in Korea fighting for their lives. Many lost their lives in this “Police Action” conflict and in time, their remains were escorted to their homes for burial. I am proud to have served with each one of them. They were soldiers all.

 

 

 

Publication or reproduction, in part or whole, is prohibited without written

Permission from the author, Don R. Marsh. All rights remain the sole property of

The Marsh Family Trust.