Memoirs – Chapter 7


After arriving at the army reception center in Yaphank we were subjected, for several days, to a series of physical and mental tests, a photo ID was taken, and then I was put together with a whole train load of recruits for a slow ride to Camp Croft, South Carolina. This was an Infantry basic training camp, and I was with a thousand men who were to go (after basic training) to ASTP, the Army Specialized Training Program in a college.

Basic training in the Infantry is grueling, with long hours of marching, drill, obstacle courses, exercise, and long hikes. We would march for hours carrying our rifles and with heavy packs on our backs, containing clothes, food, blankets, and half of a pup tent. Then we would sleep on the hard, rocky, ground overnight. I hated it but had no choice.

On one of the long marches, in the hot South Carolina summer of 1943 I got sick from heat exhaustion. The sergeant handed me a canteen filled with salt water and I still remember it as the best drink I have ever had.

The basic training was supposed to last thirteen weeks, and after a few weeks we started to get 24 hour or 48 hour passes. A buddy and I would then go to Spartanburg, the nearest town, and since he was a church going kind of guy we would go to town on Sunday and go to one of the Protestant churches. We tried them all, in search for the one that might have the best after-church recreation for the Camp Croft GIs (and the most girls.) Although some of the soldiers in our battalion went to more distant towns that had fewer GIs, we stuck with Spartanburg.

As much as I hated the physical aspects of infantry life there were some things I liked. I liked all sorts of weapons, from hand grenades to rifles, mortars, anti-tank rockets, and howitzers. At one time or another I trained on, or fired the following weapons:

M1Standard infantry semi-automatic rifle
CarbineStandard signal corps semi-automatic rifle
SpringfieldWorld War I bolt action rifle (“03”)
EnfieldWorld War I British bolt action rifle
BARBrowning Automatic Rifle (WWI)
Colt 45U.S. Officers 45 cal. semi-automatic pistol
P38Captured German 38 cal. semi-automatic pistol
LugerCaptured German 9mm semi-automatic pistol
Thompson SubStandard 45 cal. sub-machine gun “Tommy Gun”
30 cal. MG30 cal. machine gun
50 cal. MG50 cal. machine gun
BazookaShoulder-held anti-tank rocket
60mm60mm mortar
ExplosivesDynamite, primer cord, etc.

Furthermore we had to learn how to care for weapons and my engineering talents made it interesting to take apart rifles, mortar shells, and hand grenades. I knew my M1 rifle well enough that I was able to disassemble and reassemble it blindfolded.

We learned to work with explosives, and experienced the thrill of crawling on the ground with bullets firing safely over our heads and explosives going off nearby. Somehow I never seemed to have fear of the danger, but rather enjoyed that experience.

One day I had a problem on the obstacle course. We had a high wooden wall that had to be scaled. The only way to get over the wall was to run straight at it and then at the last moment extend a leg, which would act something like a pole enabling me to vault high enough to grab the top and throw myself over head first, turning in mid-air to land on my feet. Although I had done it before, for some reason I was not able to make it that day, and I kept at it for ten or twenty tries until I was exhausted. We continued on for a 30 mile hike, and the next day my foot was in horrible pain.

In the army you are either ready for duty or you are sick enough to be in the hospital. I reported for sick call, and after they took xrays they found nothing, so I was sent back to the barracks. The next day we had another hike, which I was barely able to make, so again I went on sick call, and then they saw a crack in one of the metatarsal (arch) bones in my foot, and I went to the hospital.

With one foot in a cast I hobbled around the hospital for six or eight weeks, becoming an expert doing the 100 yard dash on crutches. Coming out of the hospital I went back to regular duty, back on a long hike with the full infantry pack on my back, and was promptly back in the hospital to get my other foot in a cast. I guess I had weakened it too much walking with the crutches.

By the time I returned to duty, after my first hospital stay, my ASTP battalion had shipped out and I was now assigned to a second group of men who, instead of being scheduled for college training, had just finished literacy school. I got a lot of ribbing about the unusual first name of “Jurgen” and decided during my second stay in the hospital I needed a nickname to make it easier. Bob had always tried to think of a nickname for me but none had materialized, but now the idea of “Jerry” came to me and I started using it in my third group.

During all the time I was in Camp Croft I was continually trying to get into the Signal Corps, but it always seemed that the Infantry had a higher priority. A time finally came, in April 1944, when the Signal Corps priorities surpassed the Infantry’s and I received orders to go to Camp Crowder, a Signal Corps training camp in southwest Missouri. With great anticipation of forever traveling by jeep instead of on foot, another fellow and I were given tickets to share an upper bunk on a train going to Neosho, Missouri.

Although The southwest corner of Missouri’s summers are just as hot as South Carolina’s some things were definitely better. The hikes were 15 miles instead of 30, the packs were lighter, and we carried the lighter carbine rifles instead of the heavy infantry M1. The basic training was also shorter, 8 weeks instead of 13.

Again we had the fun of new weapons. In addition to the carbine we fired Colt 45 pistols, 30 caliber and 45 caliber machine guns, Browning automatic rifles, and Thompson sub-machine guns. While all the rifles I had been training with were semi-automatic, the most fun was the 1903 Springfield rifle which had been used in World War I. It required pulling a lever after each shot to discharge the used casing and replace it with a new shell. After learning to use the “03” we had target practice and I received an “expert” rating which was the best you can get, and the same as I had received on all the other weapons. Then we were tested for rapid fire and I shot a “possible” which is to fire 10 shots in 10 seconds and get them all in the bullseye. I have no idea why it is called a “possible” when it would seem to me it should be called an “impossible.” I sent all my medals home to Mom when I was going overseas, but I am not sure she appreciated having these symbols of danger that they represented.

After basic training, staying-on at Camp Crowder, I went to radio repair school, which started first with basic physics and electricity. I was impatient, not wanting to sit around and listen to all sorts of stuff I already knew, so they let me take the final exam, without the class work, and I passed everything. Next it was a term in radio school, but again I was able to go right to the finals. Then it to radio repair school where they insisted I had to learn all about the special radios the army had. It was so easy that I learned it all in a fraction of the time allowed and I spent the rest of my time there in a back room lab putting “bugs” in the radios, hidden troubles for the students to find. That was fun, and I finished out the six months in Camp Crowder that way.

On the weekends after basic training we were generally given 48 hour passes and we hitchhiked out of town. The nearby towns of Neosho and Joplin were always so filled with GIs that they were no fun, so we often hitch-hiked to Pittsburg, Kansas a college town about 50 miles away. With most guys off in the service there were lots of girls and a nice community swimming pool. There was a dance hall with a band and since Kansas was a dry state we brought our own liquor from Missouri.

Because Pittsburg was not overloaded with GIs they were nice to us, especially the Salvation Army that had a dormitory over their meeting hall where we could stay for 50 cents a night, and they had a free Sunday dinner with a tolerable amount of prayers and hymns.

It was awfully hot in Missouri that summer of 1944. One time when we wanted to go for a swim we hitched south to a little town of Noel near the Arkansas border and found a pretty stream where we went skinny-dipping. I had gotten to Crowder in April and fortunately basic training was over before the end of June when intense summer heat set in. The radio school was in hot barracks-type buildings, and of course air conditioning was unknown in those times in the army.

In the summer of 1944 I took the train across Missouri to visit Frank Merklein, who was at that time in training with the Air Corps at Scott Field, Illinois, just across the Mississippi river from St. Louis. It was good to see him again, and we had a fine time bringing each other up to date, and going to the USO in St. Louis.

During the six months I was stationed at Camp Crowder I twice received leaves that were longer than a weekend. I then took the long (24 hour) train ride home to Merrick, to visit my parents who were worried about my being in the army. One time, during that summer my leave coincided with Frank Schneider’s and I had a chance to see him and his mother.

Of course I would spend most of the leave time with friends like Frank Merklein’s sister Fran, or Frank Schneider’s girl friend Joan Miller.

After radio school some of the group was sent overseas but the best students were sent on to advanced training. I was fortunate to go with that group to Plant Engineering Agency, part of Army Communications Service, a big name for a fairly small group of guys. We went to Philadelphia for training, first staying in tar paper barracks on Hog Island, and then to the Brookline Country Club, which had the main ballroom filled with double bunks for us.

This school trained us to work with large radio transmitters, radio teletype machines, and aircraft navigation transmitters. The organization had the responsibility of maintaining long distance communications between far continents and the U.S., as well as airport guidance systems. It was all exciting work, except when we had to learn to climb the telephone poles and towers that filled the country club’s golf course.

While I was in Missouri and had learned I was going to Philadelphia one of my buddies told me that he had a former girl friend who had joined the Navy and was an ensign stationed in Philadelphia. He wrote to her to introduce me and I called her when I got in town. I dated Dorothy Dockstader for the 3 months I was in Philadelphia, from October through December 1944. It was quite a problem, an enlisted man and an officer, because we couldn’t go to the USO or the officers club. The only serviceman’s place that would accept us both was the Stage Door Canteen, so we went there quite often. When I got overseas I thought our relationship was too serious and broke it off, perhaps too abruptly, and years later I tried to call her but could not locate her.

The war was at its most active time that December 1944. A large number of the fellows who I had been with in Camp Croft received their additional college training and were then sent to the war in Europe. Many were trapped and died in the Battle of the Bulge. I guess my weak feet were good to me, perhaps saving my life.

Training was over and I was shipped to a port of embarkation near West Point, New York, and waited a couple weeks for the ship that would take us to Europe. Meanwhile I was able to get 24 hour passes which I used to take the train down to Philadelphia or home to Merrick. Then one day the passes were canceled and we got on buses to New York harbor.

We boarded the RMS Aquatania, a ship that had been the biggest and fastest ship in the 1920s. By the time WWII rolled around, the Aquatania remained the sole four-funnel ship in the world. Since the British were running the ship we lived on chipped beef all the way across the Atlantic. The GIs slept in hammocks four layers high from floor to ceiling, in the lowest decks of the ship, and in my case I was right over the screws and that was a problem. Since the ship was so fast, much faster than submarines, we went across the Atlantic without a destroyer escort. Instead, every seven minutes the ship changed course following a zigzag path so that any submarine that might spot us could not get an accurate sight to launch a torpedo. Unfortunately that meant that, at each sharp turn the ship took, one of the screws would rise out of the water, and the vibration would almost shake us out of bed. We didn’t get much sleep on that trip. Next stop Liverpool.

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