IN THE PIPELINE

By Don R. Marsh

 

Within hours after docking at Glasgow, Scotland, on 17 November 1943, our contingent of 88 replacements arriving on the Liberty ship the George Sharswood, was herded on to the British Railways System funny looking rail cars headed for the infamous 10th Replacement Depot, Litchfield, England, APO #7245, NY, NY …. just more numbers passing through the army’s replacement system. We were met at the Birmingham rail yards by US Army trucks and loaded on” by the numbers” – an all too frequent expression of direction. As we passed through the decades old main gate of the former British peace time garrison, Norm Steele remarked that the 15 foot red brick walls looked like we were entering a prison. Little did we know his wisecrack was closer to the truth than we would imagine. It was run like a prison by a martinet Colonel we soon came to disdain. Colonel Francis Killian was courts-martialed shortly after the end of the war for condoning extreme measures and punishment on his post and in his Post Stockade.

 

We unloaded from the trucks in front of one of several multi-storied old red brick buildings that formed a quadrangle around the hard top enormous parade grounds. We were assigned to Company C, 438th Battalion. Told to “fall in” and were marched off to our assigned barracks, led by a little Corporal. The cold heatless open type bays contained the typical double-deck bunk beds with the thin GI mattresses. Our section held 48 men.  We drew bedding and quickly made the GI beds. Ordered to fall out and fall in, we were marched to the mess hall, by the numbers, by garrison cadre NCOs for breakfast. The mess hall was a huge battalion type building capable of feeding hundreds of men at the same time, unlike anything I had seen before. The remainder of the morning we were confined to the barracks awaiting orders.

 

After lunch we were once again marched off to the post personnel building to recheck the records, once again, prior to selection by MOS to a permanent unit of assignment in need of our military specialty codes with open slots to fill. Long before computers it was now up to the (human) system relied upon to put the square peg in the square hole. Fate would play its hand for us all. In this crucial crap shoot, there are winners and there are losers at this point. After the shot records and rifle qualification records were verified, we were again marched off to the barracks and told to stand by.

 

Late in the day, just prior to the Retreat Formation, a cadre NCO entered our barracks and told us to dress in Class “A” uniform and prepare to fall outside in formation. At a signal, the order was given. Men poured from every building in the quadrangle on the double and lined up in sections of three ranks. I estimated at least a minimum one thousand men participated in the evening parade. Standing in the center of the parade ground stood a small group of people. We formed in a single file, company by company, to march past the reviewing group. As we came closer to the group, I noticed one person was a young civilian girl accompanied by two men in civilian clothing, in addition to four American officers of various rank, including one full colonel.

 

I was ten paces from the group when I noticed the girl who had been intently staring at us nudge the civilian with her elbow; he in turn said something to an officer, who in turn looked at me and said, “Step out of line soldier.” I knew then I had been chosen for something special but had no idea of the honor. A Captain stepped up to me and said, “Follow me soldier.” I was then ordered to stand next to a group of four other Army Privates, behind them stood a half dozen MPs at Parade Rest. I turned to ask the Captain, “What’s going on, sir?” when he snapped at me, “Shut up and stand at attention, you are under arrest!” I thought, “Holy shit! Now what did I get into?” Moments later all five of us “selectees” were marched off under MP guard to the Post Headquarters building and into the Post Commander’s Office for questioning -- one at a time.

 

I was the fifth and last person to be questioned. It was then that I was told the reason I was being detained as a suspect. The crime … apparently the young lady in the parade grounds review group had been robbed and raped the night before in town in the pitch darkness by an American soldier, whose facial features she was unable to identify. The five of us, all Caucasian GIs were all about the same height and build fitting the general description. Now it was a simple matter of checking all of our whereabouts the previous night. The four other soldiers who were interviewed before me were questioned, found innocent and released. All had substantiated alibis that they were not in town the previous night, as having been on duty in various post duty capacities. I was ordered into the Colonel’s office and stood at attention as I saluted and said, “Private Marsh reporting as ordered, sir.” He never bothered to return my salute as all eyes in the room focused on me as he stared at me through his steel rimmed GI glasses and asked, “Well, where were you last night, soldier?”

 

I quickly replied, “ Scotland , sir.” His head jerked back and those cold blue eyes squinted as he didn’t get the answer he was expecting and demanded, “What the hell were you doing in Scotland ?” I answered, “Sir, our ship just arrived at the dock from the States.” With that he ordered his Provost Marshall, who stood behind his desk, to check my reply with personnel as I was marched out into the corridor to remain standing at attention, with an MP on each side. I may have appeared calm, but inside was turmoil. In less than an hour the same MP Captain who had placed me under arrest, appeared and said, “You’re free to return to your company, soldier. You’re not being held. Your whereabouts last night have been verified. Welcome to England . Keep your nose clean. You may leave.”

 

As I walked back to the barracks, I realized how close I had come to being charged with something I had not done and it gave me the shakes when the full realization hit home … God damn Army! A twenty-four difference and I would have had a real serious problem. As I got back to the barracks, among the guys asking what the hell had happened were: Harry Tuttle, Norm Steele, Jim Matthews, Ken Speers, Larry Hull, Bob Rosenberg, Lowell Dillard, Frank Ruffalo, Leo Walls, John Rossi, and others. After the war, Jim Matthews wrote about this command parade formation occurrence without mentioning my name in his memoirs. The barracks jokesters were saying the Royal Princess was inviting a Yank for a slumber party and I was the chosen stud. While they laughed I shrugged it off knowing that I had dodged the bullet that time.

 

The Fickle Finger of Fate had almost nailed me! Instead, Destiny had more dangerous events planned for my future, none of which I might have chosen had I any choice in the matter. But, the Army not being a democratic organization, I had no say where I would be assigned. The luck of the draw and my name was among the 20 or more men with a wireman’s MOS on orders for the 143rd Armored Signal Company, 3rd Armored Division. Many of the others in our replacement package were sent to the 101st Airborne Division.

The grim reaper was sharpening his scythe marking time. Goodbyes were made with those remaining behind or being sent elsewhere. Time to board another 6 x 6 GI truck and move on to the next stop along this transient line… going places and meeting new friends, as the recruiting poster promised. Their reception turned out to be anything but friendly … we were “the new men!”

 

The 3rd Armored Division was spread across the countryside of the western part of England mainly in the Warminster, Somerset County . We found the Signal Company quartered on a small farm near Cucklington that had previously commercially grew mushrooms prior to the war. Its dark windowless sheds that once housed the mushroom plants were the enlisted men’s barracks. Primitive would be an apt description of the interiors; consisting of rough concrete floors, rough planks on the dividing walls of the spread-out structure connecting the rows of buildings. A ledge of rough wood ran the full length of each shed. The mushroom tray ledge was designated the bed and frame for sleeping purposes. No inner spring mattress on this baby! Supply issued us each a British body bag with which we filled with straw obtained from a covered pile inconveniently placed on the outer fringe of the farm. We were issued two Army blankets and that completed the overseas home away from home Spartan accommodations. Our assigned barracks NCO was a new man – Staff Sergeant Russell Kane. Others sharing the “barn” were Harry Tuttle, Ken Speers, Ed Robitaille, Norman Steele, Larry Hull, Paul Hake, Bill Emerson, Gerald Morey, John Kelly, Dick Prescott, George Rowe and Leo Kitts, among others -- all wiremen. A buck Sergeant from New York City, Murdo McCleod, joined us for a brief period, but was then reassigned to SHAEF Headquarters on a classified status.

 

Arriving in mid-winter, we soon learned that the barracks did not contain any heat except that from two dim light bulbs at each end of the long shed. Few dared to undress for bed under those chilly circumstances and many nights we went to sleep in “boots & saddles.” The coal stove shower room water heater was a joke with water that never quite reached the definitive stage of warm. The latrine was an even bigger joke. Strategically but inconveniently placed at the far end of the farm, down near the motor pool. The long walk in the black of night to relieve one’s bladder became a nuisance and many of us found a short cut. We would urinate against the side of the former tool sheds, then housing the privileged first three graders (NCOs), much to their disgust and complaints of repugnant odors. Threats did not deter the practice. Retribution was also a personal satisfying factor. The location of the latrine was mandated by other factors. The stench and odors from the open latrine with twenty “honey buckets” to collect the human daily waste deposits filled to near overflowing from over 300 men, plus an open 12 foot pissiore created an unpleasant odor that we hoped would waft over to the single farm house; which was the quarters for the company officers, including the Company Commander, Captain John L. Wilson, Jr., for whom no love was lost.

 

The mess hall was built to accommodate perhaps 100 men at a sitting/meal; the 143rd Signal Company had over 300 men on its roster so that “dining” was a matter of timing. The firstest got the mostest for seating room. And the rest waited in the rain. That is the SOP for military life. Becoming adjusted to this “old boy” company never did quite reach that level for me – the coolness was evident daily from the top down. We –the new men, stayed on our side of the fence and only crossed over when “invited” – which was seldom.

 

 In time the First Sergeant reviewed our personnel 201 files and discovered that I had not received the customary 7 day furlough home prior to shipping overseas. He sent for me and said I was entitled to a seven day furlough to London , if I wanted it! On 7 February 1944, I signed out of the Orderly Room and took off immediately by train. I checked in at the Red Cross Club in the West End District near Marble Arch. The days were spent on the city historic tours, the nights were another matter. The whores walked the streets soon after dark and the bars were full of GIs on the prowl. Instead I went dancing at the Covent Gardens Ballroom because I was informed that is where you could meet the British gals wanting to meet the Yanks. It all balanced out. It was on the first night there, when I noticed a very pretty petite girl who was dancing with a young Lieutenant serving with the Free French Army.

 

The British, being civil, no one objected to a person cutting in on the dance floor, so I made my move. The Lieutenant graciously gave up his dance partner and I “turned on the Marsh charm” – only at first she wasn’t buying into another Yank with a bullshit yarn about her looking “exactly like the girl back home.” Truthfully, she actually closely resembled my former high school Italian sweetheart, Phyllis. Before the night had ended I had convinced her that she did. They honestly could have passed for sisters. I believed she was also Italian, but learned differently later. As the night of dancing and conversation continued, I became captivated by her smile, laughter and English accent. When she asked if her “image” back home (Phyllis) was pretty, I assured her that she was very pretty and that opened the door to more questions about her (the other woman-curiosity). Then she next asked if we were engaged I had to tell her that sadly Phyllis had dumped me in 1940 and moved away – leaving me broken hearted and unable to love again. This intriguing “confession” resonated with her as only a sympathetic female can relate. I immediately made a new friend.

 

 When the dance ended I asked if I could escort her home, to which she agreed. We rode the subway to the last stop of the line and then walked for numerous blocks beyond that. In the pitch darkness and typical London fog, I didn’t have the slightest idea where in the hell I was. As it turned out, where I thought she was Italian, I learned she was Jewish, which made no difference with me. I spent the remainder of my leave with her -- enjoying London and each other’s company. All too soon this brief fling of war time love and civilian freedom came to an abrupt end. Once more I had to return to the English farm at Cucklington becoming an American GI “mushroom.”  Like the old proverbial tale, “They kept me in the dark and fed me bullshit.” But I didn’t buy it.

 

The daily mundane repetitive drills and training sessions wore on us as the months turned from winter, to spring with summer was fast approaching. Also drawing closer day by day was the Invasion of Normandy – the sole purpose of our presence. The month of May and the training became intense in all fazes. Drills of climbing down the cargo nets representing the side of ships brought home the danger we would soon face in the next month of June. The passes to town were discontinued as we neared the lock-down and all mail was even more closely censored, yet it was no secret that in June the weather and tides would determine the date for the attack on the French coast. The count down at SHAEF Headquarters had begun.

 

The third week into May the Orderly Room posted a surprise roster on the Company Bulletin Board listing the names of men being immediately transferred to the 2nd Armored Division. My name was among those listed. My previous verbal orders given by Captain Wilson of my being sent to TDY (Temporary Duty) with the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment were canceled and I packed my bags for the next move in the pipe line. Once more it was time to say “adios” to old friends and the inevitable meeting of new friends at the next stop. Pipe line time was running out. A foot soldier’s Weltanschauung was soon to confront us all. Hell On Wheels … here I come.

 

 

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permission from the author, Don R. Marsh.

All rights remain the sole property of The Marsh Family Trust.