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
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
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.
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