The 143rd Armored Signal Company was under the command of
Captain John L. Wilson, Jr., a stern disciplinarian of the first
order. I will not attempt to render a biased opinion here, but
I was not alone in the evaluation of the man, with the power
of life and death, that he was unfit for command. Captain Wilson
had been with the Signal Company since its inception beginning
as a Second Lieutenant with a ROTC commission. Even his fellow
officers in the Company disliked him. The rest of the officers,
decent men, were Captain Edward P. Woolcock; 1st Lt. Hugh B.
Parker; 1st Lt. Charles A. Webb, Jr.; 1st Lt. George C. McCain;
1st Lt. Robert L. Milnes; 1st Lt. Donald B. Sanborn; 1st Lt.
Roy C. Pedersen; 1st Lt. Robert Riensche; 1st Lt. Donald C. Willis;
1st Lt. James Reddeck; 1st Lt. Charles F. Young and WOJG Joseph
Shortly after our arrival, at the first full Company formation,
Captain Wilson addressed the assembled Company. At the conclusion
of his remarks, he uttered the words all replacements resent
-- "As for you new men ." Thereafter all the other
officers and NCOs picked up on this phrase, repeatedly using
these thoughtless words, with the implication that we were not
up to their measure. The new men were tired of hearing about
the Company's experiences back in the States at Camp Polk, the
California Desert Training Center and the Indiantown Gap staging
center. This open distinction contributed nothing to a cohesiveness
of the units within the Company. If anything, it created undue
friction between the old men and the new men, causing resentment
by both parties. It lingered long after. For whatever reason,
the Wire Section under Technical Sergeant John R. Myers put aside
their differences quicker than the other sections. I believe
it was because the men in the Wire Section, out in the field,
were the "blue-collar workers" with far more testosterone
than the radio operators, message center clerks and radio repair
technicians. Small wire crews assigned to combat units must work
as a team. If you are not compatible, you're quickly replaced.
When the Company went into combat, it was the new men who stood
tall and earned Silver and Bronze Stars and the Purple Hearts.
Death held no distinction for some of the new men replacements;
it resulted in their bodies being sent home for burial.
Captain Wilson may have commanded the Signal Company, but
the Company was actually run by First Sergeant Leonard Mainiero
- no one questioned his authority and all respected him. He was
tough as nails and nasty as barbed wire when need be, but always
fair and firm with his troops. His rules were simple - keep your
nose clean, do your job and stay out of trouble. Cross the line
and you had to deal with him - one on one.
Christmas 1943 was not a very cheerful time, as it was our
first Christmas with more to come overseas. It also brought more
new arrivals. These new men held rank - some were Staff Sergeants
and others were three-stripers. Now these men really drew the
wrath of resentment from the Company old-timers who felt it added
insult to injury to bring in new men who out ranked them! They
had nothing to fear from us Privates. As dreary and lonely as
it was, it was nothing to compare with the Christmas next year
in the Ardennes Forest of the Eiffel Mountains of Belgium.
Early in February 1944, Sergeant Mainiero sent for me, and
I could not imagine why, having toed the line, followed orders
and having been an exemplary soldier. I reported to the Orderly
Room on the double. It was the first time that he had personally
spoken to me since my arrival in the Company. As all First Soldiers
converse at times like these, he began by telling me that he
had "good news and bad news." Dispensing with the bad
news first, he said he had received, through channels, my acceptance
for aviation cadet training which I had tested and applied for
in the States the previous summer. He told me that regulations
prohibit sending applicants back to the USA for pilot training
and offered to punch my TS (Tough Shit) ticket as a condolence
in mock sympathy. Any dreams and aspirations that I once had
when I enlisted in the Army as a volunteer for the Air Corps
went down the drain. That confirmed that I would remain a ground-pounder
for the duration.
That communication out of the way, he told me the good news.
It was that in reviewing my records, the Company Clerk, doing
his diligent work, discovered that I had not received the mandatory
"shipping out" seven-day furlough home; as most men
did under Army policy before shipping overseas. Sergeant Mainiero
asked if I wanted to take seven days to visit London and I answered,
"Affirmative!" What a question! Seven days of freedom
alone to do as I pleased? In London of all places - unbelievable.
Tell me I'm not dreaming. The clerk started making out the orders
as I went back to the barracks to start packing.
The barracks - they were not exactly as one might imagine.
I'll try to describe the quarters like this. The property had
belonged to a British farmer prior to the war that grew mushrooms
in his sixteen windowless long wooden sheds that were roofed
with sheets of corrugated steel. Unfinished, common, rough, wooden
plank walls connected the sheds. On each wall there was a waist-high
wooden plank shelf 40 inches wide that ran the full length of
the structure. The shelves were designed to hold trays of mushrooms
grown from seed in the semi-darkness. Each shed had a door at
each end and contained three light bulbs equally spaced dangling
on a wire. The shed contained two full-length common walls, connected
to similar sheds on each side. We had two divided rows of eight
connected sheds. The space of each shed provided sleeping "quarters"
for 20 men (10 men per side) sleeping head to foot. The floors
were rough concrete. This was bare bones no frills accommodations.
If you had enough rank, it wasn't all that bad. The top NCOs
slept in the few small former tool-sheds that had privacy, windows
When we arrived at the "Mushroom Farm" we were issued
a British army cotton body-bag and told to fill it with straw
from a field adjoining the property to serve as our "organic"
mattress. The straw compressed very quickly requiring a second
filling. Bedding consisted of two army blankets - nothing else.
Many of us donned wool knit caps to sleep at night as well as
using our overcoats on top of the blankets to render additional
warmth. None of the buildings were heated. Nor was the single
shower room, located in a small building nearby. The latrine
was a conversation piece all by itself.
The latrine, for enlisted men, was 100 yards away from the
barn-like structures called barracks. The toilet consisted of
a single giant outhouse. Our pissoire was a 12-foot metal trough
lining the single wall, adjacent to our community toilet seats
comprised of 20 holes in one row made of the same unfinished,
rough, wooden planks covering galvanized buckets located underneath
- termed "honey buckets." -- they were anything but.
The back and roof of the open structure was covered with corrugated
sheet metal, but the front was open facing an empty field. British
civilians collected the buckets once a week to use as "night
soil" on their farms as fertilizer. Once I discovered that
and I never again ate their Brussels sprouts! Rather than make
the long walk in the pitch darkness to the latrine some distance
away, in the dead of night, many of us would walk out the door
of our shed and urinate against the top NCOs sleeping quarters
- providing relief and at the same time providing self-serving
revenge. They knew the next morning they had visitors from the
telltale odor of piss, and although they threatened, they never
caught any of us in the act.
The nearby Mess Hall was also constructed with the sheet steel
with a bare concrete floor. It contained several dozen wooden
picnic-type tables holding six men each. Prior to our arrival,
it was already considered inadequate to service the Company seating
requirements. With our arrival, we compounded the situation even
more. It was common to stand out in the rain waiting for a seat
to open, so the early birds were the wisest - or else wait until
the rush was over. Timing was very important for the new men
The officers commandeered the single brick farmhouse on the
property - reminding us that "rank hath its privilege,"
which we knew all too well. They enjoyed the comfort of sharing
two to a single room, private toilet and dining with their own
cooks and table waiters. Despite the majority of the officers
being married, the officers' quarters often entertained overnight
female guests when they held weekend parties, much to our envy
and did not go unnoticed. It was the old story - "Don't
do as I do, do as I say." Signal Company jeep drivers served
as chauffeurs for the officers' dates. Those of us who pulled
Guard Duty on the Main Gate on those weekend nights would make
note of the time the guests would leave the next morning, at
daylight, often driven home in a jeep by an officer. Yes, indeed,
rank does have privileges!
February 7, 1944 arrived and I left for seven days in London.
I caught a ride to the train station and took off for civilization,
planning to see as much as I could in that short period. This
was a chance of a lifetime few soldiers ever receive. I intended
to make the most of it and I did. The Red Cross Club for enlisted
men in London was located in the West End District near Marble
Arch across the street from Hyde Park. It was easy walking distance
of the famous tourist spots I intended to visit. Every day I
spent taking in the different sights of London - Big Ben, Houses
of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's Cathedral, Windsor
Castle, Trafalgar Square, Number 10 Downing Street, Buckingham
Palace, Cleopatra's Needle, The Horse Guards at Whitehall, St.
James Park, Petticoat Lane on Middlesex Street, Grosvenor Square
(SHAEF HQS), London Bridge, Tower Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, The
Tower of London with the Beef Eaters Guards, Piccadilly Circus,
Covent Gardens Ballroom and Soho. This was the opportunity that
comes along but once in a lifetime and I didn't want to overlook
the many historic places. The Red Cross offered tours to visit
interesting places including Stratford on the Avon, the home
of The Bard, William Shakespeare that was a must on my list.
Getting around on public transportation -- bus, subway and rail
system was easy and very economical.
Each night shortly after sundown, thousands of Londoners would
bed down deep in the lower sections of the subways for fear of
the German bombers nightly runs overhead. At the sound of sirens
and warnings of approaching planes, the patrons in bars would
head for the nearest bomb shelter or subway. Instead of running
for cover, foolishly one night I went across the street to Hyde
Park and watched the anti-aircraft batteries open up with searchlights
and gunfire. The search light crews would criss-cross the skies
until they locked in on the silver speck making his bomb run
overhead. The rapid fire from the guns would send spent shell
fragments falling to the cobblestone streets like falling light
All too soon my freedom to roam came to an end, and I had
to return to the dismal mushroom farm and military life. I was
not eager to do either after seven days in London, but all good
things must come to an end eventually. Upon return my friends
queried me on my sojourn and listened with envy as I described
the great melting pot of Europe and the historic places I had
seen. There were those who thought I had wasted my time, when
their interests were in other areas - booze and women. I explained
that there were plenty of both as soon as darkness fell. The
streetwalkers came out in droves. Any GI was fair game and openly
approached by the ladies of the night. They consummated their
contractual agreement in any available doorway or on the grass
of the Hyde Park grounds. The old joke was don't step on those
sand bags, they groan. Also out in droves were the MPs wearing
the conspicuous white painted helmet liners looking for the rowdies.
Back to the routine of the Signal Company and the restricted
lifestyle once again found me back at my old habits. Immediately
after the evening meal I would head for the single building with
electric lights we used as a day room. It had tables where I
could write home with my daily letters to family and "the
girl back home." Although I knew the letters were read and
censored by our Company officers, it didn't stop me from criticizing
some of them; in particular, Captain Wilson for some of his chicken-shit
policies and bible-thumping righteousness. During an inspection
of our barracks, he gave me a tongue-lashing lecture for having
a pinup photo on the wall of a nude female. I never wrote anything
compromising military security, so in reality they had nothing
to censor or remove from my letters. But I had hit a nerve --
personal criticism! Captain Wilson soon sent for me.
It was mid-May 1944; I stood at attention in his office as
he read me the riot act. It was for my remarks that I had written
about suspected marital indiscretions by his fellow officers
and himself with their overnight female guests. The man was livid
with rage. Spittle spewed from his mouth as he ranted at me.
Finally, he demanded to know if I wanted out of his Company and
I immediately answered "Yes, sir!" His smug look of
contempt on his face told me he had already made a predetermined
solution; then he said, "Marsh, you are going to the 36th
Armored Infantry Regiment as soon as I can arrange your transfer.
Get out of my office." The son of a bitch had mousetrapped
me! I had walked - no, jumped with both feet into that box. In
a few days I learned that I would be assigned to the 3rd Battalion
Headquarters of the 36th Infantry with Corporal Francisco Bola
from Peabody, Massachusetts, as a two-man jeep wire team.
At the same time, the Second Armored Division had been selected
as the first armored division to land with the Invasion Forces
of France next month in June. With the expected casualties estimated
at a minimum of 10%, which meant the Second Armored would need
1,450 immediate replacements to cover their losses. The 143rd
Signal, now almost battalion-size in strength, was near double
the number 256 authorized in the Table of Organization, so they
were hit with the levy. I believe my name was at the top of the
list, personally hand-picked by Captain Wilson. The fortunes
of war were smiling down at me as I barely escaped Wilson's intended
punishment, a possible death sentence with the Infantry.
May 27, 1944 arrived and none too soon; my PCS (Permanent
Change of Station) was happening. The orders for those of us
departing were posted on the Bulletin Board outside the Orderly
Room as a formality. All of us had been notified, in person,
that we were leaving the 143rd and going to the "Hell On
Wheels" Second Armored Division's 142nd Armored Signal Company
- joining the veterans of the North Africa and Sicily Campaigns.
The early morning rain had stopped and the welcome warm sunshine
appeared as our small group of selected transfer designates began
to assemble in front of the Orderly Room for our last roll call
there. First Soldier Mainiero appeared carrying his ever present
clipboard and proceeded to call our names one by one. A Corporal
in charge of the truck transportation was given a large sealed
envelope containing our 201 Service Records, as the First Soldier,
keeping with his expected demeanor, turned and walked away without
saying a word to any of us. Business as usual.
Several of our close friends were standing by to shake hands
and say goodbye. Among them were Harry Tuttle, Ken Speers, Ed
Robitaille, Sergeant Murdo McLeod, Norm Steele and my old nemesis
Sergeant Herman Moeller. In his never to be forgotten Brooklynese-German
accent, he couldn't refrain from giving me his parting friendly
needle, as he sarcastically said, "Well, there goes our
soldier boy who likes to write letters home about officers. We're
going to miss you, Marsh." I replied, "Sure you will.
I can see you're broken hearted. You had better watch your ass
as you are next to go." With that, I gave him the one finger
salute, which he quickly returned to me with a laugh, saying,
"Good luck, I'll see ya." Little did either of us dream
that we would meet a year later in Berlin in the Tiergarten.
Among the two truckloads of men transferring, accompanying
me were wiremen Lawrence A. Hull (a new man), Clovis Waldroop
and Glenn E. Springer, both old cadre men in the 143rd. One chapter
of my military life was closing and another about to open. Destiny
was now set in motion - in less than two weeks I would be landing
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