DIARY ENTRY #2

 

THE 143RD SIGNAL NEW MEN

By Don R. Marsh

December 1943

Cucklington , England

 

            The 143rd Armored Signal Company was under the command of Captain John L. Wilson, Jr., a stern disciplinarian of the first order. I will not attempt to render a biased opinion here, but I was not alone in the evaluation of the man, with the power of life and death, that he was unfit for command. Captain Wilson had been with the Signal Company since its inception beginning as a Second Lieutenant with a ROTC commission. Even his fellow officers in the Company disliked him. The rest of the officers, decent men, were Captain Edward P. Woolcock; 1st Lt. Hugh B. Parker; 1st Lt. Charles A. Webb, Jr.; 1st Lt. George C. McCain; 1st Lt. Robert L. Milnes; 1st Lt. Donald B. Sanborn; 1st Lt. Roy C. Pedersen; 1st Lt. Robert Riensche; 1st Lt. Donald C. Willis; 1st Lt. James Reddeck; 1st Lt. Charles F. Young and WOJG Joseph H. Demico.

           

Shortly after our arrival, at the first full Company formation, Captain Wilson addressed the assembled Company. At the conclusion of his remarks, he uttered the words all replacements resent-- “As for you new men ….”  Thereafter all the other officers and NCOs, picked up on this phrase, repeatedly using these thoughtless words, with the implication that we were not up to their measure. The new men tired of hearing about the Company’s experiences back in the States at Camp Polk , the California Desert Training Center and the Indiantown Gap staging center. This open distinction contributed nothing to a cohesiveness of the units within the Company. If anything, it created undue friction between the old men and the new men causing resentment by both parties. It lingered long after. For whatever reason, the Wire Section under Technical Sergeant John R. Myers put aside their differences quicker than the other sections. I believe it was because the men in the Wire Section, out in the field, were the” blue-collar workers” with far more testosterone than the radio operators, message center clerks and radio repair technicians.  Small wire crews assigned to combat units must work as a team.  If you are not compatible, you’re quickly replaced. When the Company went into combat, it was the new men who stood tall and earned Silver and Bronze Stars and the Purple Hearts. Death held no distinction for some of the new men replacements; it resulted in their bodies being sent home for burial.

           

Captain Wilson may have commanded the Signal Company, but the Company was actually run by First Sergeant Leonard Mainiero – no one questioned his authority and all respected him. He was tough as nails and nasty as barbed wire when need be, but always fair and firm with his troops. His rules were simple – keep your nose clean, do your job and stay out of trouble. Cross the line and you had to deal with him – one on one.

            Christmas 1943 was not a very cheerful time as it was our first Christmas with more to come overseas. It also brought more new arrivals. These new men held rank – some were Staff Sergeants and others were three stripers. Now these men really drew the wrath of resentment from the Company old timers who felt it added insult to injury to bring in new men who out ranked them! They had nothing to fear from us Privates. As dreary and lonely as it was, it was nothing to compare with the Christmas next year in the Ardennes Forest of the Eiffel Mountains of Belgium .

           

Early in February 1944, Sergeant Mainiero sent for me and I could not imagine why, having toed the line, followed orders and having been an exemplary soldier. I reported to the Orderly Room on the double. It was the first time that he had personally spoken to me since my arrival in the Company. As all First Soldiers converse at times like these, he began by telling me that he had “good news and bad news.” Dispensing with the bad news first, he said he had received, through channels, my acceptance for aviation cadet training which I had tested and applied for in the States the previous summer. He told me that regulations prohibit sending applicants back to the USA for pilot training and offered to punch my TS (Tough Shit) ticket as a condolence in mock sympathy. Any dreams and aspirations that I once had when I enlisted in the Army as a volunteer for the Air Corps went down the drain. That confirmed that I would remain a ground-pounder for the duration.

 

That communication out of the way, he told me the good news. It was that in reviewing my records the Company Clerk, doing his diligent work, discovered that I had not received the mandatory “shipping out” seven-day furlough home; as most men did under Army policy before shipping overseas. Sergeant Mainiero asked if I wanted to take seven days to visit London and I answered, “Affirmative!” What a question! Seven days of freedom alone to do as I pleased? In London of all places – unbelievable. Tell me I’m not dreaming. The clerk started making out the orders as I went back to the barracks to start packing.

           

The barracks – they were not exactly as one might imagine. I’ll try to describe the quarters like this. The property had belonged to a British farmer prior to the war that grew mushrooms in his sixteen windowless long wooden sheds that were roofed with sheets of corrugated steel. Unfinished common rough wooden plank walls connected the sheds. On each wall there was a waist-high wooden plank shelf 40 inches wide that ran the full length of the structure. The shelves were designed to hold trays of mushrooms grown from seed in the semi-darkness. Each shed had a door at each end and contained three light bulbs equally spaced dangling on a wire. The shed contained two full length common walls, connected to similar sheds on each side. We had two divided rows of eight connected sheds. The space of each shed provided sleeping “quarters” for 20 men (10 men per side) sleeping head to foot. The floors were rough concrete. This was bare bones no frills accommodations. If you had enough rank, it wasn’t all that bad. The top NCOs slept in the few small former tool-sheds that had privacy, windows and cots.

 

When we arrived at the “Mushroom Farm” we were issued a British army cotton body bag and told to fill it with straw from a field adjoining the property to serve as our “organic” mattress. The straw compressed very quickly requiring a second filling. Bedding consisted of two army blankets – nothing else. Many of us donned wool knit caps to sleep at night as well as using our overcoats on top of the blankets to render additional warmth.  None of the buildings were heated. Nor was the single shower room, located in a small building nearby. The latrine was a conversation piece all by itself.

 

The latrine, for enlisted men, was 100 yards away from the barn like structures called barracks. The toilet consisted of a single giant outhouse. Our pissoire was a12 foot metal trough lining the single wall; adjacent to our community toilet seats comprised of 20 holes in one row made of the same unfinished rough wooden planks covering galvanized buckets located underneath – termed “honey buckets.”-- they were anything but. The back and roof of the open structure was covered with corrugated sheet metal, but the front was open facing an empty field. British civilians collected the buckets once a week to use as “night soil” on their farms as fertilizer. Once I discovered that and I never again ate their Brussels sprouts! Rather than make the long walk in the pitch darkness to the latrine some distance away, in the dead of night, many of us would walk out the door of our shed and urinate against the top NCOs sleeping quarters – providing relief and at the same time providing self-serving revenge. They knew the next morning they had visitors from the telltale odor of piss and although they threatened, they never caught any of us in the act.

 

The nearby Mess Hall was also constructed with the sheet steel with a bare concrete floor. It contained several dozen wooden picnic-type tables holding six men each. Prior to our arrival it was already considered inadequate to service the Company seating requirements. With our arrival, we compounded the situation even more. It was common to stand out in the rain waiting for a seat to open, so the early birds were the wisest – or else wait until the rush was over. Timing was very important for the new men to learn.

 

The officers commandeered the single brick farmhouse on the property – reminding us that “rank hath its privilege,” which we knew all too well. They enjoyed the comfort of sharing two to a single room, private toilet and dining with their own cooks and table waiters. Despite the majority of the officers being married, the officers’ quarters often entertained overnight female guests when they held weekend parties, much to our envy and did not go unnoticed. It was the old story – “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.” Signal Company jeep drivers served as chauffeurs for the officers’ dates. Those of us who pulled Guard Duty on the Main Gate on those weekend nights would make note of the time the guests would leave the next morning, at daylight, often driven home in a jeep by an officer. Yes, indeed, rank does have privileges!

           

February 7, 1944 arrived and I left for seven days in London . I caught a ride to the train station and took off for civilization, planning to see as much as I could in that short period. This was a chance of a lifetime few soldiers ever receive. I intended to make the most of it and I did. The Red Cross Club for enlisted men in London was located in the West End District near Marble Arch across the street from Hyde Park . It was easy walking distance of the famous tourist spots I intended to visit. Every day I spent taking in the different sights of London – Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Windsor Castle, Trafalgar Square, Number 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, Cleopatra’s Needle, The Horse Guards at Whitehall, St. James Park, Petticoat Lane on Middlesex Street, Grosvenor Square (SHAEF HQS), London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, The Tower of London with the Beef Eaters Guards, Piccadilly Circus, Covent Gardens Ballroom and Soho. This was the opportunity that comes along but once in a lifetime and I didn’t want to overlook the many historic places. The Red Cross offered tours to visit interesting places including Stratford on the Avon , the home of The Bard, William Shakespeare that was a must on my list. Getting around on public transportation -- bus, subway and rail system was easy and very economical.

 

Each night shortly after sun down, thousands of Londoners would bed down deep in the lower sections of the subways for fear of the German bombers nightly runs overhead. At the sound of sirens and warnings of approaching planes, the patrons in bars would head for the nearest bomb shelter or subway. Instead of running for cover, foolishly one night I went across the street to Hyde Park and watched the anti-aircraft batteries open up with searchlights and gunfire. The search light crews would criss-cross the skies until they locked in on the silver speck making his bomb run overhead. The rapid fire from the guns would send spent shell fragments falling to the cobblestone streets like falling light rain.

           

All too soon my freedom to roam came to an end and I had to return to the dismal mushroom farm and military life. I was not eager to do either after seven days in London , but all good things must come to an end eventually. Upon return my friends queried me on my sojourn and listened with envy as I described the great melting pot of Europe and the historic places I had seen. There were those who thought I had wasted my time, when their interests were in other areas – booze and women. I explained that there were plenty of both as soon as darkness fell. The streetwalkers came out in droves. Any GI was fair game and openly approached by the ladies of the night. They consummated their contractual agreement in any available doorway or on the grass of the Hyde Park grounds. The old joke was don’t step on those sand bags, they groan. Also out in droves were the MPs wearing the conspicuous white painted helmet liners looking for the rowdies.

           

Back to the routine of the Signal Company and the restricted life style once again found me back at my old habits. Immediately after the evening meal I would head for the single building with electric lights we used as a day room. It had tables where I could write home with my daily letters to family and “the girl back home”. Although I knew the letters were read and censored by our Company officers, it didn’t stop me from criticizing some of them; in particular, Captain Wilson for some of his chicken-shit policies and bible thumping righteousness. During an inspection of our barracks, he gave me a tongue-lashing lecture for having a pinup photo on the wall of a nude female. I never wrote anything compromising military security, so in reality they had nothing to censor or remove from my letters. But I had hit a nerve -- personal criticism! Captain Wilson soon sent for me.

            It was mid-May 1944; I stood at attention in his office as he read me the riot act. It was for my remarks that I had written about suspected marital indiscretions by his fellow officers and himself with their overnight female guests. The man was livid with rage. Spittle spewed from his mouth as he ranted at me. Finally, he demanded to know if I wanted out of his Company and I immediately answered “Yes, sir!” His smug look of contempt on his face told me he had already made a predetermined solution; then he said, “Marsh, you are going to the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment as soon as I can arrange your transfer. Get out of my office.” The son of a bitch had mousetrapped me! I had walked –no, jumped with both feet into that box. In a few days I learned that I would be assigned to the 3rd Battalion Headquarters of the 36th Infantry with Corporal Francisco Bola from Peabody , Massachusetts as a two man jeep wire team.

 

At the same time, the Second Armored Division had been selected as the first armored division to land with the Invasion Forces of France next month in June. With the expected casualties estimated at a minimum of 10%, which meant the Second Armored would need 1,450 immediate replacements to cover their losses. The 143rd Signal, now almost battalion size in strength, was near double the number 256 authorized in the Table of Organization, so they were hit with the levy. I believe my name was at the top of the list personally hand picked by Captain Wilson. The fortunes of war were smiling down at me as I barely escaped Wilson ’s intended punishment, a possible death sentence with the Infantry.

           

May 27, 1944 arrived and none too soon; my PCS (Permanent Change of Station) was happening. The orders for those of us departing were posted on the Bulletin Board outside the Orderly Room as a formality. All of us had been notified, in person, that we were leaving the 143rd and going to the “Hell On Wheels” Second Armored Division’s 142nd Armored Signal Company – joining the veterans of the North Africa and Sicily Campaigns.

           

The early morning rain had stopped and the welcome warm sunshine appeared as our small group of selected transfer designates began to assemble in front of the Orderly Room for our last roll call there. First Soldier Mainiero appeared carrying his ever present clipboard and proceeded to call our names one by one. A Corporal in charge of the truck transportation was given a large sealed envelope containing our 201 Service Records, as the First Soldier, keeping with his expected demeanor, turned and walked away without saying a word to any of us. Business as usual.

           

Several of our close friends were standing by to shake hands and say goodbye. Among them were Harry Tuttle, Ken Speers, Ed Robitaille, Sergeant Murdo McLeod, Norm Steele and my old nemesis …Sergeant Herman Moeller. In his never to be forgotten Brooklynese-German accent, he couldn’t refrain from giving me his parting friendly needle, as he sarcastically said, “Well, there goes our soldier boy who likes to write letters home about officers. We’re going to miss you, Marsh.” I replied, “Sure you will. I can see you’re broken hearted. You had better watch your ass as you are next to go.” With that, I gave him the one finger salute, which he quickly returned to me with a laugh, saying, “Good luck, I’ll see ya.” Little did either of us dream that we would meet a year later in Berlin in the Tiergarten.

 

 

            Among the two truckloads of men transferring, accompanying me were wiremen Lawrence A. Hull (a new man), Clovis Waldroop and Glenn E. Springer, both old cadre men in the 143rd. One chapter of my military life was closing and another about to open. Destiny was now set in motion – in less than two weeks I would be landing in France .

 

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