DIARY ENTRY #3

 

“HELL ON WHEELS”

SECOND ARMORED DIVISION  

BY Don R. Marsh 

May 24, 1944

Tidworth Barracks 

            The First Soldier Len Mainiero called off our names one by one from his ever present clip board he habitually carried, handed our 201 Personnel folders over to a Corporal in Charge, turned and walked away without saying a word. It was over.

My two well-traveled duffel bags were tossed in the back of the GI truck. I was ready for the short ride to our next destination – the Tidworth British Barracks, home of the “Hell On Wheels” Second Armored Division. A small circle of old friends from the 143rd Signal gathered around for one last goodbye: including Harry Tuttle, Norm Steele, Ken Speers, Sergeant Murdo McCleod and even my old nemesis from our Liberty ship travels, Sergeant Herman Moeller, from Brooklyn. He couldn’t resist giving me the needle one more time and still would not admit that I had beat him at his own game. A bit of one up-man-ship on my part, as I told him he’d have to find someone new to shadow. Laughingly I gave him the finger. After handshakes all around, I hopped in the back of the truck and snapped off a smart hand salute. Adios, amigos. See you in the Bulge. 

A new day was dawning. I am escaping from the odds-on jaws of death in the 36th Infantry into the command of an officer so aggressive and reckless in combat that even his own staff feared for their safety – Brigadier General Maurice Rose, CG, Combat Command “A.”           

The trucks entered Highway 303 and wound through villages and small towns of Wincanton, Deptford and Amesbury arriving at the British peacetime regular army cavalry barracks at Tidworth on the Salisbury Plains. At the Main Gate, MPs checked the driver’s trip ticket and passed us on through. We pulled up in front of the 142nd Signal Company Orderly where the Corporal with our records went in as we jumped down from the trucks. 

A call to the Wire Section and a Staff Sergeant Harry T. Hall came by soon to escort us to the wiremen’s barracks. The two story red brick buildings – with windows -- were a welcome sight after the six months at the Spartan-life 143rd Signal Company mushroom ranch. The Wire Section’s second floor housed double deck bunks with real, albeit 3 inch GI mattresses! I hadn’t seen those since we left Camp Shanks in October.           

Sergeant Hall told us to grab a bunk and settle in until he sent for us. A Corporal eventually came by to escort us to the Supply Room to draw two blankets for the sacks. No more roughing it on hard wooden boards – these were real GI cots with springs! Unfortunately, as luck would have it, we didn’t get to make use them very long. The trip to the Battalion size Mess Hall was a far different experience from the past six months in that the cooks had use of a bona fide kitchen instead of a makeshift field cook stove setup. The food was GI just the same. However, we ate out of our mess kits, as this still was the US Army. A trip to the shower room later was a shear pleasure – endless hot water, which we hadn’t experienced since leaving the States. They had a movie theater with nightly showings. A small well-stocked PX was available. We were back in the real world once again with “all the comforts of home.” -- but for how long?           

The CO of the 142nd Armored Signal Company was Captain Henry J. Stuart, whom we never saw. Instead, we reported directly to his Wire Officer, 1st Lt. Nixon McNeil for assignments the next day. McNeil had my record jacket in front of him as I saluted and gave him my name. He sized me up as his decision had already been made. He simply said, “Marsh, I’m assigning you to Sergeant Jones’ Combat Command A wire team. You are going TDY (Temporary Duty Assignment) and will remain there until further notice (fifteen months later)! You will be a troubleshooter in the jeep with Corporal William Veno. Report to Technical Sergeant Tom McFarland, the Wire Chief, when you leave here. That’s all.”           

The full Wire Section under T/Sergeant Tom McFarland and his assistant, S/Sergeant Harry T. Hall, had served together since 1940 in the States, North Africa and Sicily and were the leaders of a close-knit group of older men. Breaking into that tight circle would be difficult if not impossible. We would remain strangers for the remainder of the war. As it turned out, except on one or two occasions after we landed in France, I never saw any of them again. My life would now be totally focused on my new wire team under Sergeant Earlie J. Jones from Andalusia, Alabama; Corporal William J. Veno from Superior, Wisconsin; Private Douglas (Cajon Joe) Elfer from New Orleans, Louisiana; Private Fred J. Newland from Harlan County, Kentucky; Private Clovis Waldroop from Salinas, Oklahoma and the man who became my close friend and fox hole buddy, Private First Class Lawrence A. Hull, from Boston, Massachusetts. Both Hull and myself were promoted to Privates First Class immediately after arriving in the 142nd Signal that week. Recognition we had failed to receive from Captain Wilson.         

Our wire team reported directly to the CCA Communications Officer, 1st Lt. Walter S. Moll from Indianapolis, Indiana. Before entering the Army, Moll had been a seminary applicant for priesthood. Upon reaching the three-year-fork-in-the-road, he was faced with making the crucial decision – in or out. He opted out of becoming a priest for a civilian life and went to college. Was drafted, applied for OCS and commissioned at Camp Crowder, Missouri as a Signal Corps Lieutenant. Joined the Second armored Division in Sicily and served under BG Rose as his Signal Officer. He would be our day-to-day OIC (Officer In Charge) for the foreseeable future without any other contact with the Signal Company personnel. He was the boss. 

 I never once heard him curse or use God’s name in vain. When truly angered, most of the time with me, he would exclaim, “Jimmy crickets (instead of Jesus Christ) Marsh, don’t argue with me!” The man couldn’t read a map to save his life – or ours, which frequently put us all in jeopardy, is why I would get into heated discussions with him. But he turned out to be “one of the good guys” who would share his liquor ration with us, unlike the other officers.           

The Second Armored Division was given the name “Hell On Wheels” by a Lt. Haynes Dugan from the Public Information Office, then under Major General George S Patton, when he commanded the division in 1940. Patton was one of several famous generals to lead the division over time, including: MG Charles L. Scott, MG Willis D. Crittenberger, MG Ernest N. Harman, MG High J. Kingman, MG Hugh J. Gaffey and MG Edward H. Brooks. Brooks was our Division Commanding General on my arrival. My favorite 2AD Division Commanding Officer was MG Ernest “Old Gravel Voice” Harmon, whom General Omar Bradley said; “The profane and hot-tempered Ernest N. Harmon brought the corps the rare combination of sound tactical judgment and boldness that together make a great commander. More than any other division commander in North Africa, he was constantly and brilliantly aggressive; in Europe he was to become our most outstanding tank commander.”  Col. John W. Mountcastle quotes that in the Armor Magazine –March-April 1988. Harmon was in command when the division landed in North Africa. Colonel Maurice Rose was his Chief of Staff – both were temporarily assigned to the 1st Armored Division when it faltered in the North African Campaign and required new leadership.           

Payday arrived on the last day in May and I witnessed something that would never have occurred in the 143rd Signal Company – open gambling at tables in the bright sunlight in the courtyard of the Company area. The Company grade officers strode among the tables watching the crapshooters and poker players exchanging monies. One, a brand new Second Lieutenant Ernest Miller had been the former Company First Sergeant and received a direct commission. Replaced by Sgt.Robert Koch. In the 143rd Signal, Captain Wilson had reduced one of his NCOs for gambling with Privates – here it was anybody’s game and open to all.           

In addition to wire, the CCA Communication Section had the Command radio half-track commanded by Staff Sergeant Thomas D. Spiers from Picayune, Mississippi; two radio operators, T/5 William Pruitt from La Porte, Indiana and Pvt. Vern Evans from Jackson, Mississippi, plus the driver, T/5 Harold Zappendorf from Chicago, Illinois. I never got acquainted with the other Signalmen in the Message Center as our paths never crossed and I didn’t know any of their names. All reported to Lt. Walter Moll.           

When we arrived at Tidworth, the whole division was already into a lock-down and no one received any passes for leave or to go into the nearby towns. It was no secret the Second Armored Division would be one of several divisions included in the initial invasion forces. We were loaded and waiting for the word from General Eisenhower.           

Now it was time to sit and wait. Sergeant Harry Hall assembled the wiremen and told us time was short – hours away, we would be on Standby from here on in. We were then told to get a GI buzz-cut white-wall haircut and write “the last letter home” which would be held for posting until we went out the gate heading for the docks of Southampton. I went off to be by myself to write the three obligatory letters. Wrote to my folks and said basically not to worry that I had the luck of the Irish looking out for me and really in no danger as I was in a “headquarters unit.” My mother wanted to believe it, but it didn’t fool my father who had fought as a Sergeant in an Infantry Company in World War One. 

Next I wrote to “the girl back home” asking her to promise to wait for me, but if I didn’t come back -- to find someone else; which she did anyway -- while I was gone.

The other letter was to my favorite of my four brothers, my older brother Bob at home. I wrote, “By the way, Bob, you have first pickins on anything of mine if I am unlucky enough to be planted on this side of the pond, not much, but you’re welcome to whatever it is. This is it – so long chum – I’ll write when ever I have time and when the spirit moves me. Best of Everything to all. Your Bro. Don”           

On the morning of 1 June 1944, BG Maurice Rose, CG of CCA and the Advance Command Post left Tidworth and joined the 9th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division in the marshalling area of Barry, Wales. The balance of the Command remained at Tidworth. The Advance CP of CCA preceded the Combat Command to Normandy, France, landing at St. Lurent-sur-Mer on 7 June 1944.           

Parts of the general orders were “do not keep envelopes containing our military postal address, unit references, no photos, and above all – no diaries.” The latter could have presented a slight problem for myself, but many of us totally ignored it. I stuffed the essential contraband in a compartment of the jeep. We were under wraps, so all shoulder patches had to be removed and the Division identification markings on vehicles had to be painted over. 

While waiting, we were subjected to one more “shakedown” inspection of our field packs. Anything unauthorized was tossed. Hiding forbidden items wasn’t too difficult – we simply put them in our vehicles! The Company Armorer, Cpl. Vince Smedley, had issued me my 30 cal. carbine rifle, with extra ammunition magazines, which required a trip to the rifle range to zero in the weapon. The live ammo distribution would wait until just before our convoy went out the gate enroute to the dock area. The word came to “Mount Up”-- our jeep and small ¾ ton weapons carrier-wire truck joined the long parade of armored vehicles headed to the sea like lemmings.           

We loaded on to our LST (Landing Ship Tank) #1009 at the Southampton dock late in the afternoon on D Plus 2, June 8th. I felt lucky to be assigned to the jeep with Cpl. Bill Veno who was already a veteran of the North Africa and Sicily Campaigns without so much as receiving a scratch, thus far. Unfortunately, his luck ran out a few months later as he hoped to beat the odds. Months later, while I was driving and he was seated next to me, a shell exploded close to us and a fragment hit him. It pierced his helmet and forehead an inch above his right eye. Life is a matter of inches, a few inches either way and everything changes. Who has the answer?           

Veno carefully backed our jeep into the LST as directed. The jeep was in combat ready condition; the engine “waterproofed.” The canvas top down and strapped to the hood covering the canvas-covered windshield on the jeep hood. We felt naked sitting among our armored plated tanks and half-tracks of our landing force. They were armed with cannons, 30 and 50 caliber machine guns compared to my 30-caliber carbine and Veno’s Thompson’s sub-machine gun. The bow ramp was raised and cranked closed as the LST backed away from the dock. We were confined below decks and ordered to remain there until ordered otherwise. I found a loose abandoned GI blanket and stretched out on a catwalk in the hold. Now it was left to the individual and his own thoughts and religious beliefs. At this moment in time, I could not resist recalling the words used by our President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in one of his fireside radio speeches to the country when he spoke “No American boy shall set foot on foreign soil.” That lying son-of-a-bitch! The trip across the Channel was bumpy in the choppy seas. 

Apparently it was dark as the ship’s Captain ran the bow on the bottom at the designated spot, St. Laurent-sur-Mer, on Omaha Red Easy Beach. We would have to sit and wait out the night for the receding tide before we would get the signal to open the bow doors and off load. Suddenly, without any warning, the deck anti-aircraft guns, comprised of quad .50s and 20mm Bofors started firing incessantly. The steady drone of heavy engines told us Kraut bombers were making bomb runs and attacking. The empty shell casings and constant plink of shell fragments hitting the deck continued off and on all night until morning. Some serious stuff was taking place topside -- which we knew for certain, heightened the tension and anxiety. 

 At the first light of dawn, things began popping.  We had orders to mount up and start engines. Slowly the bow doors began opening followed by the ramp being lowered simultaneously. Following belching fumes and squealing track bogie wheels ahead of us, we slowly moved to the head of the line at the ramp on the bow. When we did, I received an eye opening shock as I looked down the ramp and saw nothing but water and no pebble filled beach! It looked like we still had another fifty yards of water to reach the shoreline. Veno eased the jeep down into the water at the signal go. We managed to travel 5 yards, with the water reaching the engine block when the motor sputtered and died. We were blocking the route to shore. Veno ground the starter to no avail. The distributor waterproofing failed and shorted out the ignition. Within minutes a Beach Master’s stand-by huge caterpillar dozer hooked a chain to the front bumper and dragged us ashore.           

Everywhere the beach scene was a beehive of activity. Wrecked tanks, LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) boats overturned and mangled vehicles of all sorts. In addition, barbed wire obstacles with I-beam steel anti-tank barricades were scattered all over the beach. Useless tube life preserver belts by thousands with other flotsam floated in and out with the tide, touching the shoreline littering the beach. The Graves Registration teams were already busy laying out rows of neatly tagged dead GIs, waiting for disposition. Kraut prisoners of war were under guard in MP barbed wire enclosures. It was a very sobering scene to see. Crates of ammo of all types, reels of telephone wire, stacks of jerry cans of gasoline and boxes of rations were being stock piled by the beach crews. We quickly cleaned and dried the coil. We restarted the jeep engine to join our column moving up the draw through Exit Number One with our adrenalin was racing through our veins.           

The convoy drove to a wooded assembly area in the vicinity of Mosles, France.  Guides assigned us areas to “de-waterproof” our vehicles and erect camouflage nets.  A perimeter defense was established as arriving unit commanders were coordinating with the Advance Staff to await further orders from Division. Although the beachhead had been littered with the debris of war, the top side of the bank overlooking the shoreline appeared to have sustained much less carnage that I would have imagined in those circumstances from the aerial bombing and off shore naval ships’ pounding by their 16 inch shells from the battleships and the rest of the armada heavy guns. 

Gaping holes from bombing were everywhere, along with recently dug and empty foxholes. The area was littered with the debris of war of all types. A British Spitfire fighter plane had landed with wheels up and suffered only minor damage to the under carriage, probably a dead-stick landing that the pilot walked away from, apparently without injury. Ironically, nearby in a foxhole was a dead GI from the 2nd Infantry Division, still cradling his M1 Garand rifle. The Graves Registration men had been hard at work locating and tagging the dead GIs, but had not yet totally swept this area. As if I need convincing, the grim sight left no doubt this war was real. 

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