Reid P. Nelson
“A Farm Boy goes to War,”
by Reid P. Nelson, Gas Bowser Operator, provided by his daughter Maureene Nelson Plotner.
by Reid P. Nelson, Gas Bowser Operator, provided by his daughter Maureene Nelson Plotner.
Photo colorized by Rick Foss
I graduated from Madison High School June of 1939 and I spent a year working for my dad in the potato cellars in the winter time. In the fall of 1940, I enrolled at Ricks College in Rexburg. In March of ’41, Lockheed Aircraft came through the area looking for people to work in their aircraft plants in California, and gave aptitude tests to see if you were qualified. I decided I might as well take the test to see what would happen, but I continued on with school finishing my first year.
In April of that year I was offered a job on a ranch up near Yellowstone Park. While I was there, I received a card in the mail telling if I came to Burbank, California and attended three weeks of aircraft training school, I could have a job working for Lockheed Aircraft.
I showed the card to my boss and he said to go for it, because I could make a lot more money there than as a ranch hand. I went back home and talked to my dad and he, too, thought it was a good idea. My only problem was I didn’t have any money to finance the trip. So, my dad took me to the bank and co-signed for a loan of about 200 dollars. This was an exciting time for me because it was the first time I would leave home for any extended period of time. My dad really encouraged me because he felt it was time for me to be on my won and begin to make my own money and way in the world. I have always been grateful for my dad’s faith in me and as soon as I went to work I paid the loan off before it was due. My dad wasn’t much of a talker but he was a hard worker and you could sure depend on him.
My mother had a sister named May Cloward who lived in East Los Angeles on Arizona Avenue. She was a widow and the mother of two grown daughters still living at tome. My cousin Marie was a registered nurse, and Dorothy and Aunt May worked but I no longer remember where. In typical Nelson fashion, I just showed up at my aunt’s doors. My aunt suggested I stay at her house and pay her room and board. I really enjoyed my stay with them although I actually didn’t see much of them during the week because they worked days and I worked nights. My aunt and cousins were so fun to be around and we took several weekend trips, either to the beach or to the mountains. Marie had a car and we traveled on our trips in her car.
My Aunt’s house was several miles from Lockheed and since I did not own a car. I took the bus to downtown then changed to another bus out to Burbank. After I got off work, I took the bus to downtown. And, since it was after midnight, I had to wait an hour to catch the street car home. Sometimes I was really scared waiting for the street car in the middle of Los Angeles.
After a few days I was able to transfer to another Lockheed plant near downtown L.A., at 7th and Santa Fe. This was so much better because the street car ran right in front of the plant. No more changing buses.
I found I really like California, partly because of the climate and partly because of the beaches. I felt that even though I didn’t want to settle in Los Angeles, that eventually I would come back to live in California.
The reason Lockheed needed so many employees was because of the turmoil in the world. Germany led by Hitler had occupied most of Europe and was trying to conquer England. The Japanese were invading many countries in the Far East. It was apparent that America (The United States?) would soon be pulled into the fighting. Everyone twenty-one years of age was required to register for the draft. At that time, the government said that if you enlisted and served a year, you would be released back to serve in the reserves. I registered for the draft in June of 41 while living and working in Los Angeles.
At first, I thought if you were working for an aircraft plant, you would be given a deferment. But, when a review was made of the job I held, it wasn’t considered a skilled enough position to warrant a deferment. Since my job wasn’t very stimulating and I was tired of having to sleep in the daytime, I told my bosses I was quitting to go home to enlist in the military.
I bid goodbye to Aunt May and my cousins, and took the bus back to Idaho. I arrived the day after Thanksgiving, November 1941. On December 2nd, I was on the train bound for Salt Lake City after talking to a recruiter in Idaho Falls. On December 3rd, I went through the induction center at Fort Douglas, Utah. Of all the hundreds of men going through the induction center that day I was the only one who had enlisted. I enlisted in the Air Force.
On Sunday, December 7, several of my fellow inductees and I had gone to the movie in Salt Lake City. And, when we cam out, we learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. We realized that our one year enlistment was no longer valid and that we would stay in the service until the war was over.
After a few days at Fort Douglas, we were put on a train and traveled 2-. to 3 days to Biloxi, Mississippi on the Gulf of Mexico. It was there we received our three months basic training. At the later part of December, I received word my dad was very ill with leukemia and not expected to live. I showed the telegram to the company commander and he made arrangements for a ten day furlough. The Red Cross lent me money to make the trip, and then the money to pay back the loan was deducted from my pay.
I traveled three days on the train going and three days back and was only home about three days. On the way back, I couldn’t make train connections in Kansas City, so I was late getting back. I sent a telegram to the company commander telling him I would be late returning because of the train connection. When I reported in, the sergeant held up the telegram and said, “What about this?” The captain happened to be walking by then and told the sergeant to just forget it.
While I was home, my father was confined to bed, but he was feeling somewhat better than he had been. We were very glad to see each other. I helped with the chores while I was there. When it was time for me to leave, I went in his bed room and hugged him good-bye. It was the last time I would see him alive.
We finished basic training in February, and were transferred to Roosevelt field in Long Island where we attended aircraft mechanic school. While in mechanic school, we learned how to do light maintenance such as changing oil and spark plugs and learning how to pre-flight an airplane. At that time, I saw a notice on a bulletin board saying anyone interested in taking the physical exam for flight training—in other words, to be a pilot—could do so. I went to take the exam and found I couldn’t pay the eye exam because of a lack of depth perception.
In March, I received word my father had died, and I got another ten day furlough, and, again, with help from the Red Cross, went to the funeral. My Uncle Lemuel Burke, Aunt Cal’s husband, picked me up at the train station in Idaho Falls and took me to their house and from there we went to the funeral. The funeral was held at the Lyman Ward chapel and the burial was at the Sutton Cemetery in Archer, Idaho. After a few days at home, I got back on the train and returned to Roosevelt Field, although I stopped over for one night in Chicago so that I could visit my Uncle Greek and Aunt Eunice and their two daughters, Phyllis and Elna. They told me to come back whenever I had an opportunity. Aunt Eunice was my mother’s youngest sister.
Even though it was hard to have my father die, it was somewhat of a relief because he had been so ill and in so much pain.
Because I had missed so much of my training, it was necessary that I drop back into the next class. These men were all new to me. So, I had to find new buddies. It isn’t too hard, you just have to find someone as lonesome as you are and decide to be friends.
Shortly after my return, about April I think, an outbreak of hepatitis went through the company and nearly everyone got yellow jaundice. When I became sick I was sent to the hospital at Mitchell Field. Mitchell Field and Roosevelt Field were located side-by-side. My eyes were all yellow and my skin had a definite yellow hue, but I wasn’t seriously ill. More like a light case of the flu. We were put on a no fat diet and the good tasted terrible. Sometimes in the hospital mess hall, we would sneak some butter off of one of the other tables. We were in the hospital two or three weeks.
After I started feeling better, the doctor examined me to see if I was well enough to return to duty. I asked if they gave convalescent furlough and he said, “Sure,” and Okayed another ten day furlough. The clerk typist, a corporal, who was making out the papers said, “This had better be the last time!” Anyway, I went to Chicago and spent the time with Aunt Eunice and her family. It was a really fun time, we did lots of enjoyable activities, and I even got escort my cousin Phyllis to her school’s spring formal. The girls even found me a tuxedo to wear. Aunt Eunice took me to a major league baseball game at Wrigley Field and to visit the Brookfield Zoo. All good things must come to an end and I was soon back with my unit. My cousin Elna was only thirteen but promised write to me and we corresponded all through the war. She never told her friends I was her cousin only saying she was writing to a man in the service.
Because of the illness and the furlough, I was again put in a new class. Well, it appears I had exhausted all my options for fooling around and I had to settle down and finish school, whether I wanted to or not. It was obvious the war wasn’t going to wait on me and my furloughs.
The last of June, I finished school and was assigned to the 86th fighter squadron at Hallgrove, Rhode Island. I was made an assistant crew chief on a P-40 plane. Our barracks was located to one side of the airfield and the flight line where we worked was about a mile away and since it was necessary to march to and from work each day, plus trips to the mess hall and standing all day at work, I developed fallen arches. It seems during my time in the service my feet had grown and my toes were jammed up against the ends of my boots. I went on sick call and was given a larger pair of boots but the problem didn’t immediately go away. I tried to walk on my heals instead of my toes because the pain was so intense.
In September, our outfit began preparations to ship overseas and I’m sure everyone thought my feet problem was a case of gold-bricking because I didn’t want to go overseas.
In the middle of September, we were loaded onto a train and we traveled all night. The next day we were parked on a siding in the country among some green rolling hills and ordered off the train and marched carrying our duffle bags about a mile or two until we arrived at Indian town, Pennsylvania. There were a few barrack and we stayed four or five days and were given several shots in preparation to going overseas. We then re-boarded the train and traveled all night again to New Port News, Virginia. The train stopped on the docks and before us was a huge ship. It was, or had been, a British Luxury liner named the Mauritania, which had been reconditioned as a troop ship. For someone who had never seen a large ship, it was an awe inspiring sight.
It wasn’t too long before we boarded the ship and went to our assigned area. Ours happened to be in the main lounge. It was located on the second deck and had bunks one on top of the other about five high. As we were choosing bunks, there was one no one else wanted because the bunk had a big light right over it so I took it even though it was the top bunk. At least no one would be constantly climbing on my bunk. The light didn’t bother me, I just adjusted to it. The next morning the ship was loaded and pulled out of the harbor. There were seven thousand troops on our ship. As we were going out, I remember standing at the rail watching the shore line disappear and wondering if or when I would ever see it again.
We had an escort ship for the first day or so but after that we just had airplanes fly over occasionally. The ship traveled in a zigzag pattern as a protection against submarines. Occasionally, a mast of a ship could be seen on the horizon, but when this occurred our ship would turn and go the other way as fast as it could go. After several days, we arrived at Rio de Janeiro. The ship anchored out in the harbor and a Brazilian war ship kept circling around us while we were refueled and supplied making sure no one tried to jump ship. As we were going into the harbor, everyone tried to stand on the scenic side and the ship began listing (leaning) over at an angle, causing the captain to yell over the loud speakers, “Somebody get over on the other side of the ship!” I can’t remember that anyone bothered to do it.
After a couple of days, we left and continued on south where the weather was cold and the seas became quite rough. For a couple of days, we weren’t allowed on deck and some people became seasick. I was somewhat woozy but never vomited. When we were allowed on deck again, there were great big swells on the sea and when the ship was down in a trough you couldn’t see over the water. This storm was somewhat frightening to a young farm boy from Idaho. After a few days, the weather improved, the sea became calmer as we began traveling north around the cape of Good Hope, South Africa.
The ship stopped at Durbin, South Africa and we were allowed off the ship in the daytime, returning to the ship at night. We enjoyed having our feet on solid ground even for a few days.
I was fascinated to see extremely tall Zulu men pulling rickshaws. They moved perfectly to the length of the poles to balance the load. They balanced their weight to the load in the rickshaw. They would run taking great big strides, but when it was necessary to stop suddenly they would drag and slide their bare feet on the pavement.
After a few days, we loaded back on the ship and it started out of the harbor and then it stopped, waited for some time. We learned lated that a submarine had been spotted. Airplanes were sent out after it, but I don’t know if it was destroyed. Regardless, we started on our journey again in about an hour.
As we were journeying up past Madagascar, we could see gun flashed at night of the battle between the free French and the Vishie (sp?) (pro-German) French forces for the control of Madgascar.
We continued on north and entered the Red Sea and landed at Port Tewfic (sp?), which is at the south end of the Suez Canal. The men of the 79th fighter group, which was made up of the 85th, 86th, and 87th squadrons disembarked and the ship with the rest of the men continued on to India.
I want to take a few minutes to describe a little of our 34 days on board ship. We crossed the equator twice. The food was generally very good, lots of bread and jam, but the cooks were British and made lots of kidney stew, which I just could not tolerate. Prior to leaving New Port News, Virginia, the stevedores spent the whole night loading Pepsi Cola on board, but not one drop of ice. After the war, it took me a long time to even look at a Pepsi, because I had to drink so much warm Pepsi. Yuck! As you well know, I’m a Dr. Pepper man.
Most of what went on while on board ship were two main forms of recreation: card playing and strolling on deck. Because of the inactivity on the ship, my feet began to heal a little but were still painful when we disembarked. There were two varieties of card games: the fun kind and poker. At first, there were poker games all over the place, but gradually there began to be fewer, but longer intense games. Before we disembarked, there was only one game left for big stakes and one of the guys from the 86th squadron won the money, some thousands of dollars. I didn’t play, but it was fascinating to watch these games and the intensity with which the men played.
As far as I know, I was the only Mormon boy on the ship, but there were Protestant and Catholic Chaplains on board and they would hold services. One day I was out walking on dick and everyone around me started to kneel. I realized I had wondered into the middle of a Catholic mass. I had been given a small serviceman’s volume of the Book of Mormon, Bible, and a book entitled Principles of the Gospel and was able to read them. I really missed the Church and the association of other members. It was really a new experience to be without the Church having been so closely associated with it all my life. I guess I had always taken it for granted.
After disembarking, we went out in the Egyptian dessert to what was known to us as a British rest camp. There were several buildings which didn’t have furnishings of any kind. The floors were concrete and since we were to sleep there for several nights and had not been issued even blankets, we took the contents of our duffle bags and tried to make a comfortable nest to sleep on. We slept in our clothes and our nest was extremely uncomfortable.
There was a shabby mess hall that served hard tack (a sort of hard cracker) as one of the foods that had weevils in it. In order to eat it, you had to hit it hard against the table to know the weevils and bugs out. It was sort of on par with kidney bean stew and maybe they served that too. Our salvation was that nearby was the British equivalent of a P.X. called NaFF Store where we could buy canned fruit and other goodies.
It was at this location that we became acquainted with the term “Wag,” which was a British work for anyone of the Arabic race.
After about a week, we boarded a train and this was a train different from any we traveled on before. The cars were wooden with small wooden benches to sit on and the engine had a really shrill whistle which the engineer blew constantly. It was also our first experience of seeing camels up close being used as beasts of burden and for transportation.
We passed through several villages and were impressed by the different life style than any we had known. The homes looked like they were made of either adobe or stucco, maybe bith, and they all had flat roofs. Compared to our standards the people looked so dirty and seemed oblivious to the flies crawling on their bodies particularly their faces. The villages always seemed to be located near an oasis or some source of water such as a well, but never any running water in their homes. The wells would have a pulley on a rope with a bladder made of some type of skin which they would drop down into the well, fill with water, bring up and fill whatever containers they had. Sometimes a camel would help with the rope drawing the water. This was a long tedious process but it was the same method they used to water any crops they had.
Eventually, the train stopped somewhere out in the country by Alexandria, Egypt where we were unloaded. We were then loaded on some British lories (or trucks) and escorted by a South African soldier on a motor cycle to LG 174, an airstrip the British had leveled out, out in the dessert. The only thing that was there was a Quonset hut and some gasoline drums painted red to mark the runway.
We immediately started to set up camp and to dig fox holes, or as they were called, “slit trenches”, as protection in case of an air raid. Tents were issued and we began setting them up, spacing them 50 yards or more apart. There were four to six men in each tent. By the time we finished there was quite a large tent city were before there had been nothing. Bigger tents were set up to be used for mess halls. We didn’t sit down to eat but ate almost like standing at a bar.
In a day or so, pilots arrived with the airplanes and we started flight operations. Originally, I was an assistant crew chief on an airplane, but since my feet were still causing me problems, I changed to driving a gasoline truck so that I would set most of the time. It wasn’t too long after that my feet got better and I never had any more problems with them.
Soon after we arrived, we experienced a really bad dust storm that lasted at least two days or more. Visibility was reduced to just a few yards, and very dangerous to go outside and loose your bearing. If we wanted to go to the mess hall, we had to try to go from tent to tent walking as straight as we could in between each tent. During the time we were there we had several such storms. The only thing we could do during the storms was to stay on our bunks and wait out the storm. At one of the storms, we heard a man outside out tent and we asked him where he was from and he said the 85th Squadron, which was on the other side of the runway at least a half mile from where we were. We invited him in to wait out the storm. He said he had gone out to use the latrine and lost his way and after becoming fully disoriented he finally found our tent.
On one occasion during a storm, I had gone to the mess, and on my way back I missed my tent and came upon one of the red gasoline markers. I realized I had missed my tent so I turned around and pointed myself in direction that my tent was I felt in relationship to that marker. I started in that direction and luckily found my tent. Those markers must have been anchored securely to the ground because in all that wind they stayed in place although there were other empty drums that would roll and fly everywhere. We could hear them moving about and feared they would hit our tent and knock it down.
While we were stationed at LG 174, we were occasionally given overnight passes to Alexandria. A driver would be assigned to take a lorry and he would take us in and bring us back. We spent most of our time sight-seeing. I really got an education in Arabic-style modern plumbing. There would be a three-foot porcelain, square in a corner of a room without a commode just a hole you squatted to do your business in the hole and them pulled a chain hanging from a tank near the ceiling and water would flow out and down the hole. The deluxe models had raised places to put your feet while you were squatting and you would flush and not get your feet wet.
By this time, we had learned two more words of Arabic. The first was “sayceda”, meaning a greeting such as “hello” or “good-bye”. And the second was “bucksheese”, meaning “give me”. The children were always asking for candy, cigarettes, or anything you would give them, constantly saying, “Bucksheese, bucksheese.”
It was a real experience to be in Alexandria at night during a black-out. We always tried to go in a group so that we could protect one another. There were many military personnel from many different countries. They were on leave from the fighting in Libya and Tunisia and they were in town to let off steam. The city was full of bars and drinking seemed to be the main recreation.
The reining monarch of Egypt was King Tarouk and when he wasn’t in the city, it was possible to take a paid tour of his palace. To me, it just seemed big, lavish, and gaudy.
There were really only two classes of people, the extremely rich and the extremely poor. It was nice to see Alexandria mostly to have a break in the routine on the base.
We had set up our base the end of October ’42 and in January ’43 we received word that we would be moving up toward the front. Our time at LG 174 was primarily training for combat under dessert conditions.
The squadron was divided into a A-party and B-party. The A-party loaded up half the trucks with half the equipment and went toward the west into the dessert. We constantly passed signs warning us to stay on the road because of land mines. We would drive during the day and then pull over into a staging area at night to rest. After traveling several days, we set up another tent camp by yet another airstrip and in a few days B-party arrived.
As yet we weren’t in combat, because we weren’t within flying range to the front. We moved several different times, leap-frogging along the north coast of Africa. I don’t remember these places too well, because we didn’t stay too long in any of them. When we got to Libya, the country became more fertile, even quite beautiful in places, not so dry and dessert-like.
We eventually arrived at an airfield on the outskirts of Tripoli, called Castle Benito. It was built by the Italians and had been a major (?) field for them and the Germans. The Italian named it after Benito Mussolini, their dictator. It had been the scene of some hard fighting and there were wrecked airplanes scattered all around. We pitched our tents in a grassy area near the field. It was the first green spot we had seen since our arrival in Africa.
One of my friends found a large aluminum tub, large enough to sit in. The only problem was it was full of concrete. He chipped the concrete out of it and cleaned it up and we used it as a bathtub and clothes washer. It sure beat taking a bath in a steel helmet. We carried it along with us until we arrived in Italy.
One day I noticed a fuzzy looking brown ball on the ground and when I went to investigate it was a hedgehog. There was quite a lot of farming in this area and there were several concrete reservoirs for water storage and we used them for swimming.
After a few weeks, we moved again into Tunisia setting up camp near a village, called Zargis. The airstrip was located on a sand spit that extended out into the Mediterranean. We were only a few feet above sea level. It was at this camp that we were finally within flying range of the front, and we became a full-fledged flying unit. It was here also that we had our own anti-aircraft funs in close proximity and German planes trying to attack us. One night our anti-aircraft guns started firing and when it started it scared us, and we ran out and jumped in the slit trench. There were explosions near the Tunisian village and we assumed the Germans were trying to bomb us. As I came out of my tent I saw what I thought was a lone flying airplane and I didn’t waste any time getting in the trench. The planes didn’t stay very long and we were glad to have them go.
This was the only time during our stay that we were attacked, but rumors were flying that there were German paratroopers in the area. This was really scary because I was assigned to guard duty. At night we were placed in areas surrounding our camp for four hours of guard duty. One very dark night I was assigned an area between camp and the beach and instead of being relieved in four hours I was out there all night. For some reason no one came to relieve me. I was really frightened. It was so dark and I half expected to meet up with a German soldier. No explanation was ever given why I wasn’t relieved, and I’ve often wondered if someone didn’t bribe the duty sergeant so they wouldn’t have to take their tour. By the time morning came I was really tired and went to bed. My sergeant cam looking for me and made me get up and do my regular work day. No sympathy at all for the mix-up nor any explanation.
One of the nice experiences in this camp was that a natural warm spring was located between the camp and the village. A small rough pool was there, big enough to accommodate ten, or so, people. Before we came, the villagers used to use it, but we more or less took it over. It was wonderful for soaking.
It was at this camp that I first saw an airplane crash into the ground. The plane was approaching for a landing and then seemed to lose power and nosed over straight into the ground. It was my first experience to see someone killed, it was very sad. When a new pilot would come join the squadron, he would be timid. But after a few missions, they would become pretty cocky. I remember one who was really young-looking. It was doubtful he was even shaving yet. His last name was Young, and everyone called him Junior. After a few missions, Junior used to take his camera with him and take pictures while flying. The flying officers were usually very nice and fun. It was the non-flying officers we usually had trouble with.
Several of the planes and pilots were lost and many planes came back riddled with holes. One place I remember particularly. It came back with telephone wires langing from the winds. A P-40 plane would take a lot of punishment and still keep flying. Someone asked the young pilot where he got the wire. He said he wasn’t sure but he must have gotten it when he was flying around a building up at the front. It was easy to understand because the pilots liked to buzz the field. One pilot came in so low that he was churning up dust near the field with his props. After he landed, we had to change the propeller because he wore several inches off the blades. Another pilot who was flying over a shallow lake lost his reference to the horizon and belly-landed in the lake. He walked away from the crash with the only comment that it was tricky over water.
The pilots were exposed to so much danger and stress that they developed a devil-may-care attitude. It seemed that sometimes to relieve the pressure they would do a lot of goofy things. It was something I didn’t fully understand because I was never in a direct combat situation. What I do understand is that we lost a lot of nice young men.
The next place we moved to was near a town called Karouin, which is a holy city for the Muslims, but it also had a French section. Our camp and field was located in a meadow-like area with the city visible in the distance. It was quite a pretty spot but there were lots of bugs. As soon as we arrived in Egypt, we were required to take medicine for malaria. They were yellow, bitter pills called Atabin, and they tended to turn our skin yellow. We all said we had a nice Atabin tan. I took mine faithfully, but a buddy, Sammy O’Brien, wouldn’t take his, and eventually, he developed malaria, and was sent home early.
While stationed in Karourin, I had my first and only encounter with a centipede. At first I didn’t know what it was, just a long creature with many legs. I took the toe of my shoe and touched it and it whipped it’s tail around and tried to sting the side of my boot. It’s a good thing I had a heavy boot on or I would have had a nasty sting. I killed him some gasoline.
By this time, the German African Corp was in full retreat. In moving forward to our next area, we passed a whole bunch of British tanks. Soon after this some soldiers in a jeep stopped our convoy and asked where we were going. When the convoy commander told him, the soldier said, “You can’t because we haven’t taken it yet.” He warned the commander to be careful, because we might run into a German rear guard. We apparently had managed to het ahead of the front lines and a German soldier with a rifle could have captured the whole lots of us. We had rifles but they were packed somewhere in with our equipment. So much for my combat experience. We waited for a few hours until receiving word that it was safe to move to our next field. When we arrived, there were burning tanks and other wreckage and it was obvious the Germans had just recently left.
Soon after this experience, the whole of Germany’s African Corp surrendered after their attempt at evacuation failed. The Germans had sent slow flying transport planes in to try and rescue key personnel, but the Allied pilots destroyed so many of them that forever after our pilots referred to it as a turkey shoot.
After the surrender, A-party moved back to Causeway landing ground where the hot springs were and we, B-party, went on up to Cape Bonn, the northern most point in Africa. There was an island near there called Pantelleria (sp?) occupied by the Germans. The Allies wanted to try and take possession by air power alone, as it was only about fifteen minutes flying time from our base and the planes could go bomb and strafe and then come back, refuel and them go attach again. After about two weeks of this, we finally pulled back and I never knew if the Allies were able to take possession without land troops or not. I was able by reading in the history of the 79th fighter group book that the occupants of the island surrendered without invasion by land troops.
After we pulled out, we rejoined A-group back at the causeway landing strip and our outfit started preparing for the landing of Sicily. During the time of the German surrender, while we were stationed in Cape Bonn, a lot of the fellows in my outfit started going out scrounging abandoned German vehicles. They came back with jeeps, trucks, motorcycles, almost anything except tanks. When we went back to Causeway, we looked like a gypsy caravan. We had every shape and model of vehicle. One guy who was leaving with A-party had a motorcycle and I gave him 20 dollars for it.
After a few weeks, the majority of B-party left for Sicily, but a small group was left behind to return to Tripoli to repair trucks and look after the winter equipment and clothing. When we were to rejoin the troop, we were to take this equipment and trucks with us. We tried to carry out our assignment, but due to a lack of spare parts, it was decided the trucks were more valuable to dismantle and take along as spare parts. By this time all the ships were involved in the invasion of Sicily and none could come to get us for transport. We were attached to another outfit for our meals but other than that we were left to out own devises.
My twenty dollar investment really began to pay off for I spent my days exploring the country side and occasionally checking the equipment. Sometimes I would travel to Castle Benito and go to the movies and they would also show movies at the field hospitals in Tripoli. I really liked that motorcycle. It was a pleasant break from army duty. I also got to see Jack Benny perform at the Tripoli hospital. Since we weren’t busy, there were several fellows with vehicles doing the same thing.
We didn’t really have anyone in charge. When we first came, we had a young lieutenant. But, he just disappeared. No one seemed to care about us the three months we were there. Eventually, a colonel came and gave us orders to pack up and take our stuff to Bejerti (sp?) up on Cape Bonn. When I left I took my motorcycle and parked it under an olive tree. I hope the next guy enjoyed it as much as I did.
The Sicily campaign was over and weather in Italy had turned cold and the soldiers needed their winter clothing. We were loaded on some DC-3 transport airplanes and we flew over Sicily to Foggio, Italy. I was never on Sicily. I only saw it from the air. Going from dry and dusty North Africa to cold, wet, and muddy Italy was quite an adjustment. The troops were really glad to get the warm clothing we brought with us and I was glad to be rejoined with my buddies.
In the Italian home, they didn’t have central heating like we have but a large brass, shallow disk about three feet across was set in the center of the room and in it was burned charcoal. This charcoal was different than our barbecue briquette. It was made from wood chips that had been heated to destroy the some producing properties and left the charcoal.
The kitchens didn’t have cooking stoves such as ours, but instead had a tile counter top with a sink-like shape almost like a trench to burn charcoal. This is where they cooked.
We set up our tent city and found we had to devise a way to keep warm. We first tried burning the charcoal in the middle of the tent and huddling around it, but it didn’t provide much warmth. We discovered that an open gallon can of gasoline burned very well but too quickly. One of the group discovered that you could make a fairly nice stove by cutting the end out of tow five gallon cans and welding the open ends together, then making a hole in the top for a flue. By putting sand in the bottom of the can, we could feed fuel oil into the sand through copper tubing, with a valve to control the drip from a container outside the tent. This was a fairly efficient way to stay warm, but the outfit lost a few tents when the canvas came in contact with the hot flue.
One of the things I especially enjoyed at this location was the availability of almonds we could buy from the peddlers who came to the camp.
We weren’t at Foggio very long but moved north to a field called Magna. It was at Magna where we could see air combat.
One bright, clear, crisp day, we saw a streak going across the sky, and we could tell by the plane’s shape that it was a German JU 88, a twice engine bomber or reconnaissance plane flying very high. Not as high as modern-day jets, but it was high for that time. Our ninety man anti-aircraft guns started firing at the plane, but the shells were exploding well beneath him. Suddenly, two British Spitfire fighter planes came bursting out of the sun and the last we saw the bomber went diving down behind the mountains with the Spitfires on its tail.
After a few weeks, we moved again, this time to Naples on the west coast of Italy to a place that was called Campodechino, an air field. We thought we had died and gone to heaven, because we were billeted in apartment buildings instead of tents. This gave us more of an opportunity to associate with the Italian people. The buildings were built so closely together that when we went out on our balcony we could almost reach out and shake hands with out neighbors. 25
One day I was out on my balcony and talking to the children next door to us. One of them took his hand and rubbed his face and asked me what that was. I told him it was a face, which they thought was hilarious. They didn’t pronounce it face, but called it “fash”. To this day, I have wondered if I said something obscene in Italian to cause them such merriment.
Living that close, we began to see the effects of war on the general population. Although we didn’t see many physically injured, the people were very poor and hungry. They would come with all types of containers to outside the mess hall, hoping for any type of discarded food. The children would beg for chocolate, although not as much as the Arab children had done. The effects of the war on the economy made it very difficult for them to survive.
Although Naples had many areas that were bombed, it was still a beautiful city. The countryside was particularly lovely and on our time off, we found many places to visit. On the south and east was Mount Vesuvius, an active volcano which always had a plume of smoke above it and we took tours to the very top. The tour included a trolley ride to the base of the volcano and then a cag (sp?) railroad up to the top. The day I went with my buddies it was foggy and as we got off the train at the end of the line near the top we walked on a lava field. It was very eerie, like walking on the moon in the fog, but we continued on until we came to the cinder cone of the volcano. We tried to climb up the side of the cone to see down into the crater, but we couldn’t because the sulfur fumes of the volcano were too over-powering and we couldn’t breath.
A few weeks after this, there was a major eruption and the railroad trips up the mountain were no longer possible. For several days before the actual eruption the fumes and smoke increased and then waves of hot lava would spew up and then over the side of the mountain. If the wind had been coming from the opposite direction it would have been necessary to evacuate Naples. However there was a small village on the side of the mountain burned and buried by the lava flow. The people must have been evacuate because we didn’t hear that anyone was killed.
The eruptions at night were quite spectacular, like fireworks. We could see the waves of lava flowing down the mountainside. The eruptions continued for several weeks until gradually it subsided.
South of Naples were the ruins of Pompeii. Pompeii was buried by an eruption of Vesuvius in the year 67 A.D. The whole city had been buried by about 30 feet of ash and so quickly that the inhabitants were frozen in the act of whatever they were doing at the time of the eruption.
Another major attraction was the Isle of Capri out in the bay of Naples. It had been a popular Roman resort. The Air Force had established a rest camp there and a few men at a time from my outfit were allowed to go there for about a week for R&R. It was a very beautiful place although about the only thing to do was to go on a tour of the Roman villas and ruins. We stayed in a hotel and it was nice to sleep in a bed with clean linen and have someone else do the chores. We did, though, have to bring our own food. It’s amazing how much better eggs, bully (sp?) beef and spam tasted in elegant surrounding and prepared by a real chef.
It was only about a couple of miles by boat from the mainland to Capri, and the trip over must have been smooth and uneventful, but when we cam back it was stormy. The boat was quite small causing it to climb one wave and down another. Thankfully, it was a short ride because I was beginning to be quite seasick. Little did I know, it was a foreboding of things to come.
During this time, the Air Force replaced the P-40s we used in Africa with the heavier, longer-ranged, and faster P-47 thunderbolt and along with them cam a cletrac tractor to tow them around on the field. The tractor had a tread much like a tank, and because I was a farm boy familiar with driving Catapillar tractors, I was assigned as a crew chief. It was more of an honorary position and not much authority because the crew was mainly me although we I wasn’t there some of the other fellows did my duties for me. Little did I know what a role these tractors would play in my military career.
Shortly after this we moved from Campo De Quino airfield to one that was further out of town by about ten miles called Pomigliano airfield. At this location, we had a much better view of the air raids over the harbor. We really weren’t in any danger, but in one of the air raids when we were living down town, a plane dropped a string of bombs with the closed one hitting the building right across the street from us. We were really frightened for if there had been one more bomb it would have hit our building. Up to this time we usually ignore the warning signs saying go to the shelters during the air raids, but after this we didn’t waste any time getting to the shelters.
On one of our days off, some buddies and I took a short trip to visit a small village that had been involved in a great deal of fighting. The village was located in a small valley near a high cone-shaped hill with a Monastery located at the top. The Germans had occupied the Monastery and were able to resist repeated attempts to dislodge them because of their clear view on all sides. Foot soldiers tried repeatedly to take possession of the Monastery incurring many casualties, but with no success. Repeated bombings by air did little to dislodge the German forces too. It was only when the Allies made landings on the coast of Angio (sp?) that the Germans withdrew to keep from getting trapped in the middle of all this. The poor little village, Montie Casino, was almost destroyed.
I really enjoyed my stay in Naples. It was really the only time during the war that I was able to attend church regularly. During my stay, I met several people from Idaho. One yound lady was in the Woman’s Army Corp. and her grandparents ran the general store in my hometown, Thornton. Naples also had an established U.S.O. club where you could dance, eat real ice cream and it was just plain fun to socialize. During one of my visits to the U.S.O., I met an old class mate of mine from high school. His name was Byron Harris and a fellow I knew from Ricks College, Claude Burtonshaw. These were the only hometown people I met during the war.
All good things must come to an end and we were transferred to the island of Carsica. We were sent as support for the Normandy invasion by going into Southern France.
This was the worst trip I ever took in my life. We were loaded in an LST, but as soon as it left the dock I became seasick. I threw up until I had dry heaves, but luckily the ship was equipped with bunks and I crawled into one vowing if the ship sank I was going with it. This was an overnight torture trip.
One of the things I remember about Corsica was the many oaks trees whose bark was stripped to make cork. The field didn’t really have a name; it had just been constructed in a large area of brush that was about four feet high. There was one main runway with about two or three taxi strips running parallel to the runway with occasional cross strips and hard stands to park the airplanes on. I felt there was too much time wasted going around by cleared strips so I decide to take my tractor and make a road through the middle. I was doing very well knowing down the brush until I came to a little rise and found a trench on the other side. By that time, my tractor fell nose down into the trench.
The engineering officer, a captain, came over and asked me what I thought I was doing. I explained my motives and he didn’t say much just brought the other tractor to help pull my tractor out of the hole. I guess they like my idea though because after that everyone used my detour. Of course, being the Air Force, no one said, “Good idea.”
Our strip was built to provide air support to bring our planes in flying range of Southern France after the primary invasion.
Our stay on Corsica proved to be rather pleasant because of a slow moving river, which flowed nearby. In the area among the rocks on the river were pools, which made great swimming holes; but, I no longer recall the river’s name. We stayed on Corsica about two months.
When it cam time to leave Corsica, instead of loading our tractors on low-boy semi trailers, we just drove them in convoy with the other trucks to the north side of the island were they were driven on to a British LST. The channel was not very wide and we were soon in Southern France.
We were to really like France because it was more develop and seemed more like home than any other country we had been in. After landing the tractors were put on the low-boys and we began to move inland.
We were moving town a town called Valencia and came upon a convoy of German vehicles which had been strafed and destroyed. The road had been cleared by a bulldozer, which simply pushed everything (people, trucks, animals, and supplies) off to the side of the road. It was a horrible sight. It was the only time during the war that I saw dead, blacken, bloated bodies.
The destroyed German convoy had been trapped because the partisans had blown up the bridge crossing the river and there they were strafed and bombed. We were able to cross because of a temporary detour around the bridge.
After traveling farther along we came to a big grassy meadow on which we pitched our tents and it soon begin to rain. Since it was a warm, gentle rain we took our soap and stripped down and took a shower.
Part of our outfit got as far north as the city of Lyons, but I never was there. While camped at our tent city we really didn’t do much for the war effort, just a lot of lounging around. We found we could buy fresh product and eggs from nearby farmers, and cooked any of our own meals, mainly fried eggs and potatoes. The fresh food was a very nice change.
Eventually, our whole outfit was pulled back to Mar see, and put back on LSTs for a trip to Leghorn, Italy. In all we were only in France about six weeks. When we first embarked, it was a beautiful, clear day, and the sea smooth and glassy. But, when evening came, I decided to go to chow for some food and got down to the chow line and smelled the food and ended up being seasick for two days.
We stayed in a holding area waiting for transportation to move our equipment. This area is near the town of Pisa where the leaning tower is located. In about a week, transportation arrived, and we were taken to an airfield which was an emergency landing field for crippled bombers.
The home bases for these bombers was Southern Italy and their missions took then to Germany, Romania, and anywhere there was a battle. Many times they were shot up and could not make it to their home base and would land at our strip. They would land in any fashion just grateful to be on the ground.
We didn’t stay at this strip too long, and then moved to a strip further north and closer to the front. Here they had the runways and taxi strips covered with steal matting so that there would be a solid, hard surface when the weather was stormy. The problem was the mud would squish up through the holes and the surface would then become very slick.
At this field, one morning, I went out to start up the electrac (tractor) to get ready for the day, and because the starters were broken, it was necessary to have them towed to get them started. When I went to tow the second one to start it, it was too muddy and slick for me to move. I looked around for a dry spot and found one across the taxi strip. And, because I didn’t think it would take me too long to start the second once I strung out the wench cable over to the dry spot, and attached it to a hook on the front of the second tractor. When I started to pull the cable tight with the first tractor, I accidentally killed the engine. Here I was with two dead tractors connected by a cable across the taxi strip when I looked up and saw a jeep speeding toward the cable. I started waving my arms trying to the driver to stop. He slammed on the brakes, but it didn’t slow him down very much. The cable caught the jeep just below the head lights and cause enough slack so that I was able to unhook it from one of the tractors.
The driver of the jeep turned out to be a young 2nd lieutenant from one of the other squadrons, and was he ever mad. He started to bawl me out and I tried to stand at attention, but the whole thing was so ridiculous and funny to me that I simply turned around and walked away. My buddies who had witnessed the whole affair said I sure was lucky the lieutenant wasn’t in my outfit. I like to think I might have saved someone from harm from a wild jeep driver. Anyway, by then I had been in the service almost four years and overseas nearly three years, and the loss of my military career wouldn’t have pained me much. This episode was probably the high point of my career.
The next field we moved to was Chesanatico, Italy, on the east coast on the Adriatic Sea. It was a very lovely, warm place, and the swimming in the sea was wonderful. We were there about three month until the Germans surrendered and the war in Europe was over.
Soon after the surrender, our unit was reassigned to Austria as occupation duty. The point system was begun to determine who could go home or remain with the unit. Points were given for the length of service, for participation in each campaign, and for various other things. I had acquired enough points to have the choice of remaining or returning home for discharge. I chose home.